Of Features and Desperation

December 17th, 2013

Except for the iPhone, the argument in favor of other smartphones is heavily spec-based. You almost think that companies sit in a meeting room, bring up their PowerPoint presentations, and add as many things to the spec lists as possible to validate a product’s superiority. The more bullet points, the better.

What happens next? Well, I suppose the design and engineering people are given the bill of materials and told to make it happen, somehow. No doubt they have already given input on the edict to deliver as many possible features as they can, and worry about whether they actually work later on.

Understand that this is a theory. I do not pretend to know the ins and outs of the hardware design process of any company, although enough is known about Apple’s creative process to get a fair picture of the process; anything about upcoming products remain matters of speculation.

But consider the spec sheet for Samsung’s hottest selling smartphone, the Galaxy S4. When it was first introduced early this year in an overdone media presentation, it was about all those great features Samsung packed in. In passing, Android was hardly mentioned, which may continue to pose a dilemma for Google.

Now some of the improvements over the Galaxy S3 seemed to border on absurdity. Increasing the display size from 4.8 to five inches hardly made sense, since you had to put the two units side by side to really see much of a difference. The same was true when you evaluated the pixel density, which increased from 331 ppi to 441 ppi. The former is in the so-called “retina display” league, so why would you need more? In fact, I didn’t notice any difference in image or text sharpness when I compared the two, and I looked real close. But specs are specs, and there had to be a reason to justify upgrading from an S3 to S4.

But the larger problem is that there was so much junk on the S4 that nearly half the storage space of the 16GB version was taken up with junkware. Worse, a lot of it simply replaced existing apps from Google that were probably just as good or better, at least in my experience.

Worse, adding stuff that hardly works or doesn’t work hardly vindicates Samsung’s argument for installing those apps. Take the Auto-Scroll feature, where looking up or down will supposedly cause text to move accordingly. As an alternative, you could just tilt the unit up or down to deliver a similar result. But theories don’t always work in practice, and you wonder whether Samsung tested Auto-Scroll before it debuted on the Galaxy S4.

For me, I was able to configure either option in the Settings app. What I did notice right away was that, even at its fastest setting, scroll speed was very slow. Once configured, neither feature ever worked for me, and I gather it’s been hit or miss for others.

I concede that initial releases of new apps can be buggy for any company. Apple has certainly suffered from some well-known product deficiencies. But we’re talking about an app that is basically supposed to do one thing, which is to scroll via a tilt or eye movement, and barely works.

While I was using the Galaxy S4, there was only one over-the-air software update that didn’t seem to fix much of anything except to reduce the possibility of crashing. Nothing worked better, though I didn’t check each and every app to make sure. In the end, few of the frills did anything for me, so I just relied on the basic features and survived.

It’s also true that the Galaxy S4 wasn’t quite as hot a product as Samsung hoped. Although the initial subsidized price, $199, was the same as the iPhone 5 (and now the 5s), there was a whole lot more discounting. As I write this article, the S4 is now $99.99 at AT&T with a two-year contract, and $50 more for the 32GB version, which is an almost essential upgrade since there’s so little free storage space on the standard configuration. Best Buy had some S4 configurations available for $49.99 with an AT&T contract. This approach almost speaks fire sale.

Yes, there have been some discounts of iPhones since the new models came out in September, but not as extreme and not as a general rule. Demand appears to remain high, and Apple only recently got control of supplies of the iPhone 5s.

In one of my commentaries this past weekend, I remarked how some tech writers create what some call listicles to attempt to justify the choice of one gadget over another based on specs alone. It doesn’t mean you should ignore specs, as some will indicate real performance potential. So I assume that one car with a quicker zero to 60 miles per hour rating is faster than one that takes more time to reach that speed. But it’s only a rough indication of the potential of a motor vehicle. Some cars that accelerate more rapidly from a dead stop may not deliver superior passing power on the freeway, and ride, handling and overall comfort still count for a lot.

Specs alone in a tech gadget are hardly sufficient to quantify the overall user experience either. Too bad some tech pundits haven’t gotten the memo.

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3 Responses to “Of Features and Desperation”

  1. dfs says:

    Gene, I imagine that a lot of these “features” you write about are really the result of pressure put on hardware designers by the company’s ad agency. The pressure is not “make something that’s better,” or necessarily even “make something that works,” but simply “make something that gives our copywriters a talking-point.” Sometimes that boils down to “give us something that generates a higher number than what Apple has,” with no particular concern about what that number actually represents. And when design engineers are put a position where they have to take their marching orders from Madison Avenue flaks, you just know that company is going to be putting out crap products.

  2. dfs says:

    Fear makes you stupid. I have eight warehouses full of the damn things and I see they’re not moving. So I panic and my brains go out the window. If the oncologist can’t cure my cancer, in my desperation I’ll bring in the witch doctor and see what he can accomplish with his dance and his rattles.

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