Features I’d like to see become more-standard on smartphones


After reading Paul’s Pixel 4a articles it made me think what I’d like to see become standard on mid-range smartphone handsets. Some thoughts:

OPTICAL-ZOOM: digital-zoom algorithms are certainly a lot better than they used to be, but nothing will beat optical for quality. On premium/high-end handsets I’d expect the optical lens to be motorised, but I can’t see why on mid-range a non-motorised, manually-adjusted optical-lens (such as by rotating the lens, or using a physical slider-button) could become a thing.

BIGGER BATTERIES: 3000mAh is the norm now for most mid-rangers, though 3500-4000 is becoming more-standard, with 5000 only seen in some handsets (like the Moto G8 Power), and while greater chip-efficiency will certainly help, battery-life is still a main thing I look for. No-one expects 1990’s Nokia-era levels of battery-life, but 15-20 hours would be great to see.

SD CARD SUPPORT: I really see no reason why some vendors (like Google) choose not to support it. Yes, it can make some apps more-difficult to use, and confuse some users where their content is saved, but I’d prefer the option overall.

TEMPERATURE SENSOR: GPS, accelerometer, gyroscope, compass and proximity are all fairly-standard at mid-range, but rarely do you see a phone with a built-in temperature sensor — not sure why, given even cheap cycle-computers or digital wall-thermometers for the home (around $10 or less) can do this, so why not phones? (Also add to this a reliable odometer, so you can use your phone as a pedometer without relying on the gyroscope, which is often inaccurate for this purpose, or apps which rely on battery-draining GPS to be constantly on).

STEREO, FRONT-FACING SPEAKERS: for mid-range it feels inexcusable to have a single, mono, rear-facing speaker.

USB-C and FAST-CHARGE: I’d not expect wireless-charging for a mid-ranger, but USB-C and some standard of Fast-Charge should be standard.

FRONT-FACING FLASH: given the tiny cost for an LED bulb, makes me wonder why this hasn’t become a thing. Sure, some camera apps have an “illuminate” mode, where the screen will go white around the preview-area to provide a light-source, but it’s not the same.

HEADPHONE-SOCKET: all mid-range handsets should retain this.

OLED: given the battery-savings that can be made by using a dark-mode theme (especially for “always on” mode), OLED should be standard for the mid-range.

SMALLER SIZES: given the demise of the Sony Xperia XZ range, it would be good to see more mid-rangers available in smaller-sizes. Most Android phones now that are small-sized are mostly low-end specs. Not everyone wants a massive phone, or to have to choose Apple and iOS if they do!

Comments (26)

26 responses to “Features I’d like to see become more-standard on smartphones”

  1. dftf

    Add to this list: ANDROID ONE ENROLMENT. No-one should be buying a mid-range phone and getting no Android OS updates or no security-patches after just a year of release. (Obviously this really should be mandatory for ALL Android phones, but for mid-range and above it really should be compulsory). 3 years of security updates, and 2 years of OS updates, from the date the handset was first released onto the market is not as-good as iOS, but it's better than the current situation -- some phones, especially from vendors like Lenovo (Motorola), LG and Alcatel, get virtually no-updates after release.

  2. Daekar

    Optical Zoom: Yes please. It doesn't have to be crazy, but even a 2X zoom is super useful. Likewise the wide-angle lens.

    Bigger Battery: Yes. And pair it with a high-efficiency chipset. The degrading battery or the end of security updates are the only reason I have had to switch phones in the last several generations, and if you start with more battery life than you need, it will still be acceptable as it gets weaker.

    SD Card Support: Meh. Give me enough internal storage at a reasonable price and I don't care if there is an SD slot or not.

    Temperature Sensor: Why? I'm willing to entertain the idea that this might be useful somehow, but I'm struggling to figure out how you could build a practical one not thrown off by the heat of the phone itself or body heat.

    Stereo Front-Facing Speakers: Yes. Don't care if they're front or side, but no more rear speakers please.

    USB-C and Fast Charge: Don't care, I never plug in my phone, even my car charger is wireless. As far as I'm concerned they can get rid of the charge port altogether.

    Front-facing Flash: Don't care. Never take selfies unless my wife requests them. They could sell a phone without a selfie camera and I wouldn't bat an eye.

    Headphone Jack: Don't care, I'm over it. Haven't used wired headphones for anything except my Nintendo Switch in ages, and that's because it doesn't have bluetooth.

    OLED: Yes please. I use dark mode and I like good quality screens. Sign me right up.

    Smaller Sizes: I have a Galaxy Note 10+ for personal and an iPhone 8 for work. The iPhone is smaller but that's all it has going for it. The screen is the primary way you interact with the phone, and like on desktop monitors you should get the largest one which is practical for you to afford and use. Long live phablets! If I needed something tiny I would get a cellular-enabled smartwatch.

    My own additions:

    Waterproofing. I'm not buying your phone if it's not waterproof, we live on a world where water literally falls from the sky and covers 65% of the surface.

    Fast wireless charging. I haven't routinely plugged in a phone for 5 years, I'm not going back now. Make my life more convenient.

    Flat screens. Samsung, this curved-screen BS has got to stop. My Note 10+ is great except for the curved edges, stoppit. Now.

    I want face recognition AND fingerprint sensors. Fingerprint sensors are not-negotiable. If it's dark or I'm wearing a mask or a hat or sunglasses or haven't shaved in three days because my wife is out of town, I need a fingerprint sensor and I need it to work reliably.

    Make phones out of plastic. I don't know who thought that making them out of glass was a good idea, but they need to be horsewhipped once for every time a glass-backed phone has shattered. And every smartphone reviewer who has ever written that a glass phone "feels premium" should be whipped right alongside them.

    • dftf

      In reply to Daekar:

      2X optical would be a fine start: at-least from that, a Digital-Zoom on-top would still come-out better as you've more pixel-data to expand from.

      A more-efficient chipset would likely help a lot more, sure: the new Pixel 4a has a 3140mAh battery, for example, and the new iPhone SE 2020 has a 1820mAh battery! That's the sort of capacity you saw Android phones have until around 2015, but Apple can clearly still get-away with it.

      If you used a laser for temperature-sensing it would not be affected by the phone: and a laser is already used in many to aid the autofocus of the camera. Maybe it could do both?

      WaterPROOFing makes phones more-expensive so for the mid-range might come at the cost of some other features, but I'd expect decent water-RESISTANCE at that level, sure. I don't expect to go swimming with a mid-ranger, but it should survive a brief drop into a bath or some heavy rain.

      I agree with you on the curved-edges: I've never seen the point, and never seen any good use for them, such as an app using the side edges to present additional controls (in an Apple Touchbar style).

      Each to their own, but I still prefer not to use either face-recognition or fingerprint due to security: makes it too-easy for someone to unlock your device without consent.

  3. wright_is

    OPTICAL-ZOOM - Sony tried that way back with an early Android phone, but nobody bought them, because, why would you want a phone with a camera lens that pops out the back and extends for several centimeters? Also with so many moving parts outside the camera to extend the lens, that is more to go wrong, especially as they are generally not treated as well as a real camera.

    TEMPERATURE SENSOR: I don't think a temperature sensor will bring much. The phone often spends lots of time in pockets or in the hand, which means you'll never get a good reading - I have a watch with temperature sensor, I thought it would be fun, but it just doesn't work, even in winter, it still reads with temperatures of 28°C, when in fact it is often below 0°C.

    FRONT-FACING FLASH: I'd like to see the front facing camera disappear, it is something I never use and takes up valuable space and costs more money... :-S

    • anoldamigauser

      In reply to wright_is:

      Huawei put a periscope in the P20 Pro and could then move the lens in that length to provide optical zoom rather than having it extend from the body of the phone. A clever bit of engineering.

    • dftf

      In reply to wright_is:

      Did you mean "several millimetres" there? Centimetres would be like a phone having a telescope! The lens would likely only need to extend something like half-a-CM at-most for a 2X optical-focus. And you could potentially move the camera back into the phone instead, perhaps?

      Why not use the same laser used to assist with focus to do a temperature-reading? Must be possible...

      Might not be something you use, but for the Facebook / Snapchat / Instagram / Twitter generation, a front-facing camera is pretty-essential! An alternative might be to have a pop-up module with both a camera and flash which could be used for both rear and selfie photos, by rotating it. I have seen some cameras to-date with a pop-up camera you can rotate for both, but the flash is still rear-only

  4. garethb

    So you want smaller phones, with bigger batteries, dual speakers, headphone sockets and optical zoom. Sounds like you need a tardis phone - much bigger on the inside than on the outside.

    I have to disagree with SD cards - it does sound like a good feature, especially making the device 'upgradeable', but everytime I've used them (not lately admittedly) you could literally tell when the phone was accessing the SD card, as it slowed to a crawl.

    It sounds like you want a high-end phone with a slightly slower SoC for mid-range prices. You're not alone, I suspect many of us would, but doesn't seem realistic in 2020.

    • dftf

      In reply to GarethB:

      I'd be fine with a lower-capacity battery in a truly smaller handset: I was tempted by a Sony Xperia XZ2 Compact, which has a 2870mAh battery (compared to say 3140mAh in the new Pixel 4a). Or happy to consider a phone that chunkier (say Pixel 4a size, but with a bigger back) if it could mean a bigger battery. Depth is not a problem being bigger for a pocket: height and width are.

      Yeah, microSD cards are slow, but at-least it gives you an option to offload less-regularly accessed files onto it, and it can mean you could sell a version of a phone with less on-board storage to reduce the price.

    • wright_is

      In reply to GarethB:

      The Tardis phone, comes with complimentary Sonic Screwdriver!

  5. rob_segal

    Lots of features are great till it means a midrange phone isn't a midrange phone anymore.

  6. dftf

    And something for premium-phones: how about a dual e-ink and OLED display -- so you could switch to the e-ink screen when you really want to save a lot of battery?

  7. lvthunder

    Everyone cries about the size of the bezels and you want front facing flash, headphone sockets, and front facing speakers. Then you want smaller sizes and bigger batteries and headphone ports. Physics applies here. You can't have all that.

    • dftf

      In reply to lvthunder:

      I've no issue with the top and bottom chins on my Pixel 3a.

      Ars Technica reviewers are obsessed with the size of the bezel, however...

      • Paul Thurrott

        A lot of reviewers are, and reasonably so. The issue is that that's space that could be used for display without making the device itself any bigger. That's the problem with the iPhone SE: They COULD fit a 6-inch display in there.
        • dftf

          In reply to paul-thurrott:

          The argument for reducing the chin and foreheads to make the screen bigger, so the phone itself can be smaller, is perfectly valid; but many reviewers never argue on that point, only that having a chin and forehead makes the phone aesthetically dated. And that's not something that personally bothers me.

          I do like the size of the new iPhone SE 2020 (H13.8 x W6.7 cm) as I always prefer pocket-friendly phones, but the new Pixel 4a is only marginally-bigger (H14.4 x W6.9 cm -- same size as the Samsung Galaxy 40) which is nice to see.

          As much as I love my Pixel 3a, I do find it a little too-tall for the pocket...

          • Paul Thurrott

            I think the phrase "modern design" is just a shortcut to getting to the same place. Yes, the iPhone SE looks old; it's a 6-year-old design, of course it does. But the real issue is that the screen they could fit in that space would be amazing.
    • illuminated

      In reply to lvthunder:

      Nobody is complaining about the phone thickness though.

  8. anoldamigauser

    A dedicated camera button. This was incredibly useful on Windows Phones, enabling one-hand use as a camera.

    SP/DIF headphone jack. Sure, everything is going wireless, but this is a connector that just works, and everyone has spare headphones for when they lose the expensive wireless ones.

    Optical Zoom would be great. Of course, the best optical zoom solution was the internal periscope used by Huawei.

    Removable batteries and plastic bodies. It would be great to be able to replace the battery simply and extend the useful life of the phone. It is nice to have a phone that does not have to be put in a case. I always liked that about the Nokia phones. I never used a case until I had an iPhone.

    Waterproof, and mil-spec toughness. If ThinkPads can pass these tests, a phone should. It is much more likely to be out in the world being treated badly.

    • dftf

      In reply to AnOldAmigaUser:

      While most phones now don't feature a dedicated camera button many camera apps do let you repurpose the volume or power buttons for this. Open Camera, for example.

      Removable batteries and waterproof won't usually be available in the same handset, as to make it waterproof it must be securely sealed, not often possible when you have a user-removable cover

      • anoldamigauser

        In reply to dftf:

        Yes, but a dedicated camera button means that you can pull the thing out of your pocket, press the button without looking and bring it to bear on the subject...all with one hand, and then take the picture.

        Gaskets can be used to seal out water, while still allowing the battery to be removed.

  9. illuminated

    Some of these things would be used only by a very few people like optical zoom and SD card.

    Temperature sensor does not make sense because the phone itself can get pretty warm and in the pocket it would show you pocket temperature. Nobody cares about their pocket temperature.

    Headphone socket. 100% for it. I probably spent and lost close to $100 on USB to audio dongles already.

    Not sure about bigger batteries. No battery is big enough when phone runs bunch of apps in the background. Optimizing OS would be a better strategy.

    USB-C and Fast charge also 100% agree. Most phones that I have seen have USB-C.

    Stereo speakers? Two crappy speakers instead of one make no difference to me. Not a fan.

    OLED power savings are overrated. I never felt any great battery life improvements when I switched to OLED.

    Smaller size - agree 100%.

    • dftf

      In reply to illuminated:

      Temperature sensor: many sensors you can buy now are laser ones, where you just aim them at the object you want to measure. Given many higher-end phones feature "laser autofocus", maybe that same laser could also do a temperature reading?

      I agree I'd rather have one decent speaker than two crappy ones... but I'd also prefer two decent speakers to one also!

      I'm sure if you use a dark-theme in every app then OLED will make *some* difference. But it's the "always on" mode that sells it as there it will use very-little.

    • dftf

      In reply to Minke:

      Water-resistant for mid-range, yes: drop it in a bath for say 30 seconds and it should survive.

      At this price-point though I'd not expect waterproof to the point where you could swim with it...

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