Last week, in the midst of a Microsoft news explosion, I posted a piece on why you might consider the HTC Windows Phone 8S over its bigger, more-advanced counterpart, the 8X. My principal argument was centered around the fact that though the 8X offers more headline-worthy features and a much more robust spec sheet, the 8S features attributes some might find even more compelling.

That’s not a condition limited to HTC’s new “signature Windows Phone 8 devices,” though. There’s evidence of this trend all across the smartphone landscape, with manufacturers delivering more and more predictability on the high end of their lineups -bigger displays, faster CPUs, better cameras- while adding less-bombastic but more interesting, sometimes more useful, features to their lower-end phones. And it’s not just a case of waxing nostalgic about smaller devices; some of the stuff going into mid-tier devices these days is well and truly awesome.

Here’s three examples of the “feature trickle” that’s making modern midrange smartphones more appealing than their more-celebrated bigger siblings.

Courageous Design Choices

Examples: HTC Windows Phone 8S, Sony Xperia Play, HTC Desire X

Look at that. That’s not an aftermarket case, or a third-party skin or paint job. It’s one of HTC’s color offerings for the 8S, and it looks like a tennis ball.

I find that awesome. You may agree, or you may find it repulsive. But whether or not you dream of a smartphone that moonlights as an elementary-school crossing guard, you have to admit it’s a bold design move. From those courageous color choices (there are four) to the chin-like stripe along the bottom, to the molded color offsets on the earpiece and camera, the whole device exudes an air of risk, the product of a “let’s do something different” mentality. Something not present on the high end, with the still-appealing but more-conservative 8X.

Sony takes it a bit further with the older example cited above, that of the Xperia Play. Grafting a full-size gamepad onto an Android smartphone might not be everyone’s idea of the bee’s knees, but it’s definitely one of the braver moves I’ve seen in smartphone design in recent memory. It’s specialized, but compared to the one-size-fits-all mentality infecting the high-end jumbo-phone space, specialization can be a great thing. You just need to be the right kind of customer.

Removable Memory

Examples: Nokia Lumia 820, HTC Windows Phone 8S

I haven’t written a full-length editorial on the merits of removable vs. built-in storage yet, maybe because that’s a matter as contentious as the built-in-vs-removable-batteries debate. Proponents of built-in storage hail its simplicity, arguing that the fewer removable components, the better. On the flip side, many power users are of the opinion that the versatility of swappable memory cards overcomes whatever complications it introduces.

It’s tough to argue against the utility of removable memory. A transferrable microSD card allows you to keep your data portable by switching it to another microSD-capable device at will. It also allows expansion of a device’s on-board memory, in case the 4, 8, or 16GB it shipped with it’s enough to cover your needs.

By contrast, devices without such capability are stuck with whatever memory capacity the OEM decided to include out of the box. If you buy a 16GB HTC Windows Phone 8X, that 16GB is what you’re stuck with for as long as you own the phone. Nokia includes double that storage figure on its equivalent Windows Phone, the Lumia 920, but it’s just as un-expandable. Of course both the manufacturers and Microsoft focus on their various cloud offerings to overcome this deficiency, but there’s no getting around it: a swappable memory card is a good thing to have. And only the midrange offerings from these companies – the Lumia 820 and the Windows Phone 8S – have it.

Resistance To The Elements

Examples: Sony Xperia V, almost every Casio phone ever

This is something I already touched on several months back, in a heartfelt tear-jerker of a piece entitled “Durable Phones Shouldn’t Have To Be Crappy Phones.” There, I said:

I’m not saying every phone needs to be ruggedized; that would senselessly increase the cost, weight, and bulk of all devices everywhere. What I’m saying is that those who need durable smartphones should have better options than mid-range devices running obsolete operating systems on outdated hardware. Because going to the beach on occasion shouldn’t pigeonhole me as an “outdoor person,” who’ll take what specs he can get because he doesn’t know any better.

I didn’t write that entry very long ago, and not much has changed. Motorola has of course made some novel efforts toward increased water resistance in its RAZR line, a trend I hope will continue, but it hasn’t caught on in a broad sense yet. The new iPhone 5 might be a little more resilient than its all-glass predecessors, but it’s still not what anyone would call a durable phone, nor are its contemporaries on other platforms, like the Galaxy S III.

The Sony Xperia V we caught sight of at IFA this year probably gets closest to marrying durability and high-end specs: it’s IP57 certified, splash- and dust-proof, and it packs a 720p display with 342ppi pixel density. It’s also running a Snapdragon S4 at 1.5GHz, and it features LTE support. While the dual-core specs and the 4.3-inch display size will keep it off the wish lists of the “true” power user, it’s a more-than-worthy offering in this embryonic category. While we haven’t yet had the chance for a full review, I can safely say on the spec sheet alone, “more like this, please.”

Another in the bold-design category: The HTC Desire X

Am I saying my next phone will definitely be a midrange device? No. As I’ve recently hinted at, the Nokia Lumia 920 is currently the leading contender for my next personal daily-driver. That’s because, while the mid-range space is definitely getting fleshed out, some of today’s more attention-grabbing innovations remain confined to the high end. In particular, the more-powerful guts and camera capabilities of the 920 appeal to me more than removable memory.

So it’s not an open-and-shut case, of course. In some ways the midrange feature-creep is a good thing, as traditionally “deluxe” features trickle down to more affordable price points. In others it’s a sign of smartphone stagnancy, as OEMs move their risky design moves to the low-end and shovel mediocrity into their premium lines. But whichever way you look at it, it’s yet another sign of how little stays the same in this industry from year to year. And maybe it’s an indication that in a few years’ time, even the low-end smartphones of the day will feature expanded appeal. Even if that just means a fresh coat of paint in a unique shade.

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