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What Features Do You Want in a Smartphone?

One unfortunate way to compare tech gear is the spec list. The longer, the better. This is what appears to drive Consumer Reports magazine in giving one product a higher rating than another. But that doesn’t mean the feature works as advertised or, for that matter, serves a legitimate need.

Now Samsung’s Galaxy S4 was launched in March touting loads of new features, all designed to gain a leg up on the competition. It’s important to note that these features weren’t Android features. They were Samsung features, and Android was barely mentioned during the rollout of the S4. But it’s not that Google will necessarily complain, since Samsung sells more Android gear than any other company on the planet.

Some of the S4’s features sound intriguing, such as the ability to remove someone when you take a video. This is meant to repair the damage caused when an outsider interrupts what would be the perfect take for a family movie. It has to happen when the video is being made, though, which means you cannot just exorcise the family member who is no longer a family member due to divorce, or a significant other who has moved on. But I suppose this gimmicky feature may have some value.

There’s another, where you tilt your head to scroll a screen of text up or down. I gather this has proven to be fairly impractical in real use, but will withhold my final judgment until I have a chance to fully test this feature.

The point is that Samsung’s goal was to trump Apple and other companies with a product that simply does more, even if it doesn’t do everything well. It has a larger screen, possibly speedier performance than the iPhone 5, which came out last September, and oh so many new features that nobody can possibly compete.

The reviews have been mixed. While the S4 gets high ratings, some felt the hardware changes were just a natural evolution rather than anything significant. The surfeit of features was also afforded a mixed reaction, as is the unfortunate fact that the storage capacity of the 16GB version is almost halved by adding all that stuff. This brings to mind the criticism leveled at Microsoft for the software bloat that severely reduces free space on the Surface tablets.

Now one of the arguments Apple executives make when asked about this or that feature is that good design involves knowing what to add and what to remove. Some suggest Apple is perhaps a little too enthusiastic about removing features, such as ditching the optical drives on the 2012 iMac, recent Mac minis, and on two lines of Mac note-books. But Apple did the same thing with floppy drives starting with the original iMac in 1998, and emerged unscathed. They also created a nice market for external floppy drives for a while, until technology passed it by.

This time however, Apple is selling their own external DVD drive, so the market has been blocked at the starting gate, unless you want a Blu-ray drive, which is something Apple has never supported.

But none of this means that Apple shouldn’t flesh out the feature set of the next iPhone, presumably an iPhone 5s, nor iOS 7. Some suggest NFC, a near field networking system that is said to be useful for financial transactions. Others point to improving the iOS Notification Center and perhaps adding the ability to run apps side by side. There are plenty of wish lists for both, but I’ll only suggest again that adding too much stuff can confuse customers rather than enhance usability. This may be a problem that Samsung will confront as more and more people acquire the Galaxy S4.

Indeed, Apple may be looking to simplify the iOS even further, if reports of a slimmed down interface are correct. If app functions are more closely aligned, and that’s not always the case with iOS, it’ll be easier for customers to accept new apps and get them up and running in short order.

In addition to the complexities of Notification Center, some suggest that Apple needs to spruce up some of the core features, such as cut, copy and paste, which is an awkward process and doesn’t always work the first time. That is not in keeping with the Apple tradition that things just work. There are also complaints that basic functions, such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, ought to be easier to switch on or off, rather than forcing you to go through several layers of settings. That’s a double-edge sword. Making it too easy may result in the problem I’ve encountered with Android gear, that you can accidentally turn one or the other off with a wayward tap. Apple always needs to account for the consequences of user error.

Regardless, there are millions and millions of customers who buy smartphones on the basis of bullet points. But the fact that the iPhone traditionally gets higher praise from customers makes it clear that having the most features is not always the best way to go.