Modern day smartphones have a lot going for them. These days they feature big screens, good connectivity, cameras that deliver professional-quality photos, and a whole lot more as standard.
A lot of these features started out as little more than competitive gimmicks. Points of difference meant to drive handset sales. Once they proved popular, they spread across the market and these days are considered staple features of a known product.
But what happened to those features that didn’t make the cut?
Here we take a look at some of the features that received huge hype, but proved to be flops and were dropped from later models.
The “ultra-pixel” camera
Ask any photography buff and they’ll tell you that more pixels does not always mean better better photos - a truism that many manufacturers failed to heed.
The first jump came when smartphone cameras moved from 1 megapixel to 2 megapixels. The theory being that the more pixels available, the better the photo.
But this isn’t the case. For clear shots, it’s a combination of pixels and sensor size. Ask any budding photographer and they’ll tell you - the most important part of a digital photography system is the sensor, because that's the bit that captures the light.
The bigger the sensor, the more light you capture, the clearer the image. When smartphone manufacturers increased the pixel count, they usually did so by making the pixels smaller and sticking them on a sensor of the same size. Because these pixels were smaller, they struggled to capture the same amount of light in a photo. The result is photos that lack the same sense of depth and lighting range, with patches of noise and grain in places where the light levels are off.
Since these first few forays into larger pixel counts, most manufacturers have listened to their customers and now produce smartphone cameras that offer a good mix of pixel counts and sensor size.
You get a new smartphone and it comes with a free set of headphones! They’re all sleek, and the manufacturer says they also operate as a hands-free headset. How cool is that? Well, the shine comes off the apple pretty quickly when you look at the plug and realise that they will only ever work with your phone.
For years, smartphone manufacturers tried to make it so that all the peripherals they made available could only be used by a specific make and model of handset. If the headphones or the charger broke, tough - you had to buy another from the manufacturer.
Thankfully this tactic has long since been retired. These days, most smartphones come with connection options that have become industry standard - a micro-usb port for charging and connectivity, and a 3.5mm jack for headphones and headsets. Plus the cables and peripherals that ship with the box can be used across a huge range of makes and models.
The only exception to this rule seems to be Apple - their products series still use proprietary jacks and cables for charging and connecting.
This is a trend that keeps coming and going, and there is a lot of debate about its place in smartphone technology.
The gimmick here involves attaching a physical keyboard to a smartphone chassis. Blackberry has been doing this for decades. And for some users, this has value - some people just really like being able to press physical keys.
But it comes at a cost. Physical keyboards take up space that could be used on a bigger screen, a better battery, or a slimmer phone. Plus, with a touch screen, you can have a far wider range of keys than you could ever possibly hope to fit on a handheld device.
Add that to the fact that moving parts are always more likely to break, and you have a recipe for a feature that - while popular with some - just can’t grab the mass market appeal it needs to enjoy widespread adoption.
Games on mobile phones are nothing new. Going back to the 90s, simple favourites like Snake would keep owners entertained for hours. Fast forward to today, and the smartphone games market is a booming, multi-million dollar industry.
But just like with keyboards, no one wants gaming buttons. For a classic example, just look at the Nokia N-Gage. Released in the early 2000s, this phone featured a combination of buttons that were so confusing it was funny - as long as you didn’t own one.
The simple fact is that touch screens offer a larger range of control options than can ever be replicated by physical interfaces. Which means that gaming controls join the sad list of gimmicks that have not joined the mainstream.
You read that right! There was once a time when some smartphone manufacturers thought it would be a good idea to add a dedicated projector unit to the back of their handsets.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see why this might be a bad idea. Smartphones are meant to be portable, sliding in and out of pockets and handbags with ease. Adding a lumpy projection unit damages this experience. This isn’t to mention the drain on the phone’s small power source - pushing all that light out the back of a smartphone sure would eat through battery.
Plus, how often are you going to be in a position to use this feature? It needs to be dark and quiet, and you need a white wall to project onto. No wonder this feature has been consigned to the gimmick-bin.
This is a little controversial, as it is a feature that remains in play to this day. All modern smartphones feature a screen-lock feature that prevents others from accessing our phones without our knowledge or permission. This is a valuable tool to have, as our smartphones can contain sensitive information. The lock itself is not in question - it’s the ways of unlocking it.
Fingerprint readers. Facial recognition systems. Biometric eye-scans. Voice recognition. All of these are quite cool in their own way, and can make you feel very hi-tech when logging in to check messages or place a call.
But the simple fact is that these features all cost a mint to produce, take up space and processing power on our phones - and can be circumvented easily with recordings, pictures and other simple hacks.
A simple 4-digit code is enough to keep our private information out of the hands of all but the most determined and hi-tech of identity fraudsters. In fact, this is the backup option in case the other unlock features fail to work correctly.
So why do we have so many other options?
This is less of a gimmick and more of a change in the way that we use smartphones altogether, but it still deserves a place on this list. The idea is that you can make smartphone parts modular, so if you need to upgrade something, you can just snap it out and pop in a better part.
Need to take great pictures? Get a better camera. Going on a long trip? Pop in an extra battery pack. What about turning your smartphone into a mini soundsystem? Simply snap on some bigger speakers!
The simple fact is that it doesn’t work because of how we use our smartphones. We want them to be simple, all-in-one devices that just do what we want them to do. No fiddling with parts and pieces, no saving up to buy the latest upgrades. That’s why this idea ends up in the gimmick list.