If you’re not one to tote your smartphone around in a slick-looking holster, do me a favor: go ahead and pull your phone out of your pocket. Or if it’s on your desk, flip it over. What’s it do?

Unless you own one of a small percentage of modern smartphones (or you’re a big fat phony) your answer is probably “nothing.” As powerful as today’s mobile devices are under the hood, most are still lacking in a crucial area: intelligence. Or, if you want to get all Motorola about it, “contextual awareness.”

Yes, it’s Google’s new Moto X that’s motivated this post – a device that’s either the most-overhyped midranger or the least-appreciated flagship ever conceived, depending on your point of view. The Pocketnow team’s opinion is split on this one, but our official stance favors the more generous perspective: as detailed in our full review, we find the Moto X’s feature set quite compelling. And while it’s not the only recent device to demonstrate “useful” intelligence -see below- it’s definitely the most visible example of what we might charitably call “phone features of the future.”

"OK Google Now: tell us who the best is."
“OK Google Now: you can stop patting yourself on the back anytime.”

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not the more whiz-bang features of the X that most captivate me. Sure, I love Touchless Control just as much as any other Star Trek fan, and Motorola Assist’s ability to read texts aloud when I’m driving is pretty awesome, too. But in all honesty, it’s the phone’s Active Display that I miss most when giving up the X for another handset.

Every time I pull my Moto X out of my pocket, the Active Display is there, already illuminated, to tell me what I’ve missed. I don’t need to fumble for a lock button – the notifications are already up on the screen, just a swipe away from action or dismissal. And a pocket isn’t even necessarily required: any movement, like flipping the phone over or even gently jostling the table on which it sits, will trigger the standby screen to breathe calmly to life.


But though Motorola’s implementation is new, it’s not the first company to have included such a feature. Samsung’s Galaxy S 4 offers a condensed situation report as part of its Air Gesture options, requiring only a wave of a hand above the display to trigger it. And Microsoft has included something similar in Windows Phone since 2010. Whenever I receive a text message on my Lumia 1020, I know I don’t need to press its unlock button when I withdraw it from my pocket: the screen automatically turns on once it clears the cloth, a Toast notification already displayed at the top of the lock screen, just a swipe away from my eyeballs.

We’re not just talking text alerts, either: one of the wonderful bonuses of the Lumia 1020’s GDR2/Amber update is a call-silencing feature the Galaxy S 4 also boasts: the ability to silence the phone’s ringtone (and reject the corresponding call) just by flipping the phone face-down on a table. The same update also introduces a Samsung-esque hand gesture to the Lumia, triggering the lock screen’s Glance clock with a simple wave.

Don't overdo it, though.
Don’t overdo it, though.

But BlackBerry beat both of those companies to the punch in the context-sensitive arena, starting almost a decade ago. Back then, the company known as Research In Motion was churning out devices by the truckload – and this being the golden age of out-of-box-accessories, almost all BlackBerrys came with a holster or carrying case right in the box.

The cases themselves weren’t the exciting part, though. The real innovation came in the form of the BlackBerry’s awareness of whether it was holstered or not. The trick was simple -magnets in the case triggered a sensor in the handheld- but the effect was incredibly convenient. The BlackBerry would behave differently depending on whether it was or wasn’t holstered, vibrating when in the case and beeping when out (or vice-versa, if you preferred). The screen would turn off when the device was holstered to save power, then automatically turn back on when the phone came back out. In retrospect, this stuff is pretty elementary, but at the time the usability boost it gave the BlackBerry was revolutionary. And it was so memorable that we specifically called it out in our review of BlackBerry’s comeback device.

z10 case
A little bit of microfiber goes a long way.

The common thread between all these features, besides their near-total simplicity? With the exception of the Galaxy S 4, all of the phones cited in this article have totally unremarkable specs. Leaving off its doubled RAM, the Lumia 1020 has the same guts as last year’s 920. The BlackBerry Z10 runs on the same dual-core Snapdragon S4 powerplant as those phones, while its decade-old forebears took their power from the technological equivalent of a lazy hamster and a well-oiled exercise wheel. Finally, the Moto X, as mentioned above, forgoes raw power for a unique distributed architecture Motorola cooked up right in-house.

The lesson from all this is one that we continue to repeat, in venues ranging from editorials like these to the Pocketnow Live hangouts and the Pocketnow Weekly podcast. We’re not saying that “specs don’t matter” – because they do. To gamers, to productivity junkies, to those who value a smooth UI, to anyone who wants a good user experience, specs matter a lot. But saying “specs matter” is not the same as saying “only top-shelf specs need apply.” A loaded specification sheet does not guarantee a flawless device. More important, and more impressive: delivering a fluid and reliable software experience on limited hardware, as Windows Phones consistently manage. Or providing a compelling set of features based on hardware specifically designed for the purpose, as Motorola and BlackBerry have done.

In the end, it’s optimization and forethought that go into producing a great mobile experience – not throwing a bunch of high-end specs into a shell and calling it a day. We’d be well-served to remember that as we enter the next phase of mobile development, one which I predict will continue to emphasize a solid experience over raw horsepower, and one which will continue to bear out the truth that benchmarks are usually BS.

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