Will any flagship smartphones surprise us in 2014?
What was the last flagship smartphone announcement that really surprised you? Maybe last year's HTC One, or the Nokia Lumia 1020? The LG G Flex and its self-healing back was somewhat surprising, but it's hard to call that a flagship device. Similarly, the HTC J Butterfly in 2011 was the first device with a 1080p display, but that was definitely not a flagship. Maybe it would be the Nexus 4 in 2012, because of its extremely low price tag, but if you're just considering hardware, would you have to go all the way back to the iPhone 4 in 2010?
It's a much more difficult question than you'd expect once you stop to think about it. Obviously, those of us who pay attention to the daily rumors and speculation are not the most easily surprised group. If you pay enough attention, you can essentially guess what to expect for every device that is coming out. We knew basically what to expect from the HTC One (M8) yesterday. Maybe the most surprising part of the announcement was that HTC would cover the cost of any damage to your display for the first 6 months, but that doesn't have anything to do with the hardware or software inherent in the device itself. The Duo camera could have been surprising, had the Internet not existed.
The same thing happened with the Samsung Galaxy S5 announcement last month. There was essentially nothing surprising about the Samsung Galaxy S5 itself, or of the Samsung Gear 2 or Gear 2 Neo. The most surprising part of the entire event was the existence of the Samsung Gear Fit, which we somehow had not heard anything about before that day. Even if we were to go back to Samsung's fall flagship announcement of the Galaxy Note 3, nothing surprising comes to mind.
The Nexus 5 was basically the incremental upgrade that was expected, as was the iPhone 5s. All of this to say that we are in a relatively long string of flagship device announcements that were... less than impressive. Don't get me wrong, the devices that have been announced and released have been exceptional devices, and have been some of the best mobile devices that have ever been released. But, each is better than its predecessor because of incremental updates, and nothing truly major. There is always the trouble with each announcement that there is something disappointing, something that doesn't quite live up to expectations, and really nothing that can be said to be surprising.
Of course, a lot of this problem stems from the 24-hour news and Internet culture in which we live, and a lot of the following discussion will hearken back to the conversation about the endless disappointment of the rumor mill. In that discussion, I talked more about how you all, the readers, don't tend to have much interest in the actual news like device announcements. For the most part, you are all in the game of consuming news about potential and speculation. If there were to be an article with wild rumors about the Nexus 6 having a 4K display and tactile haptic feedback in the screen that could mimic the texture of sand or cotton, it would be an article that would get a huge number of views. But, an article comparing the factual spec sheets of the Galaxy S5 with the HTC One (M8) and the Sony Xperia Z2 would be lucky to pull in a fraction of that number.
However, a corollary to that idea would say that the reason readers tend to be disappointed with actual release news is because they are more interested in fantastical rumors, and put more hope into those being true than in setting expectations properly. If you combine that theory with the fact that the simple bombardment of news that we all encounter prepares us for the inevitable, and you have a situation where nothing really surprises us when it comes to mobile device announcements.
For example, imagine that there were no mass Internet community, and no 24-hour news cycle. In this world (which actually existed circa 1998), the only real news that most of you would get would be from dedicated magazines that were released once a month. In that world, if a device were released that allowed you to customize the color of the front, the back, the button colors, and the pre-installed wallpaper, and that device could be shipped in about 4 days? People would have been floored by the possibility of such a device. But, last August, when that device was announced, the comment section population declared it a bust because the spec numbers weren't big enough, and the rumors about being able to customize processor speed and RAM turned out to be untrue. There was something more, which despite being quite unrealistic, was preferable to the reality that was delivered.
Sure, the press and tech reviewers generally thought that the Moto X was a phenomenal device (and many of us still swear by the handset), but it's impossible to say that we were surprised by what was announced. Before the August unveiling, I can remember writing multiple articles trying to set expectations for the device, because it was known well in advance exactly what the device would feature as far as specs. Still, just because you pay attention to rumors and have high expectations of what is to come shouldn't necessarily preclude the possibility of being surprised.
Sometimes, though not often, we know what to expect, but can still be surprised. In terms of hardware, this could be a matter of execution. I would point to the HTC One announcement from last year. We knew that it would feature an aluminum unibody and stereo speakers, but even so, getting to see and use the device was wonderful. No Android phone had build quality like that before, and no smartphone at all had the front-facing stereo speakers (which really should become standard on all smartphones and tablets). It was a truly exceptional device from HTC, but somehow that magic was diminished because it didn't have the absolute best camera available (and history seems to be repeating this year on that front).
And, it should be noted that being surprised doesn't necessarily mean that something good caused the reaction. I would say that iOS 7 was a surprising change for Apple. There had been rumors of a flatter and simpler design, but no one quite expected the garish color scheme (which seems to have been toned down a bit with iOS 7.1. iOS 7 was a huge change for a platform that had seen very little as far as UI changes over the course of 6 years. But, the combination of the mixed reaction to the changes, and the fact that we got a look at the software well before the majority of us could actually use it, tempered the surprise. Similarly, the iPad Air was a significant change, and an impressive one, but again the Internet took the wind out of that surprise.
In terms of a unified package, though, it's hard to think of the last time a device was surprising both in terms of hardware and software. The Apple iPhone 4 would certainly be a contender in this race, because it was a big departure from the hardware design of the iPhone 3Gs, bringing the metal and glass housing to the iPhone. It was also the first iPhone to be released on Verizon's CDMA network. And, while the additions sound mundane now, at the time the updates for multitasking, folders, and custom wallpapers were pretty big for iOS 4. There was the whole Antennagate issue, but the news of that filtered out slowly enough to allow the device to still surprise us and let us relish that feeling a bit.
Of course, that was almost four years ago. In the recent past, nothing in terms of smartphones or tablets comes to mind as being specifically surprising, but the tag could be placed on the Motorola Moto 360 smartwatch. There had been rumors that Google Now would be the main interface for Android's wearable products, but no one could have guessed quite how good Android Wear would look, especially since we were all expecting the hardware to follow along the lines set out by the Pebble, the Samsung Gear, and the Sony SmartWatch, which is what we saw from the LG G Watch. Instead, Motorola aimed more for the realm of Rolex, which was certainly surprising. Unfortunately, it's hard to fully count that for the same reason as Google Now, because the device hasn't had its proper announcement yet, just what amounts to a teaser, and there are still so many unknowns around it.
It has become a common theme in the mobile space recently, but the high end of devices is hitting something of a plateau. Smartphones and tablets have been iterating so fast for so long that we've come to expect it, and it is nearly impossible for hardware makers to push beyond what we expect. The Oppo Find 7 tried to do that with its quad-HD display, but at this point, every attempt to excel in one area causes an equal and opposite reaction in another. While we haven't seen the actual device yet, the quad-HD display has already been shown to not have the same color reproduction as the 1080p display on the Find 7a, and the higher-resolution display requires so much power that the 7a's lesser processor is able to beat out the Find 7 on benchmarks. We don't yet know about the effect on the battery life, but there is no doubt that we will see one.
Similarly, there are devices that have begun to offer 4K video recording like the Galaxy Note 3, Galaxy S5, Sony Xperia Z2, and LG G Pro 2, which is an impressive feature, but a somewhat useless one right now. Almost no one has a display that can playback 4K video in its native resolution, even on a TV or computer monitor, so being able to capture that video doesn't really amount to much right now. Ultimately, many of these features seem to be building for the future rather than offering something useful right now.
At this point, most manufacturers have realized that the best option is for steady incremental iteration. The first three flagships of the year - the Samsung Galaxy S5, Sony Xperia Z2, and HTC One (M8) - have stuck with 1080p displays, brought in the same top-of-the-line processors, and kept the overall design of the devices relatively similar to what we've seen in the past. While it leads to less than exciting reveals for those of us paying attention, it makes the most sense for hardware providers and their design teams.
Incremental iteration is far easier to accomplish than something massive, and it is impossible to surprise the world every year, no matter what the rumor mill may promise. Even looking ahead in 2014, we fully expect to see a 4.7-inch iPhone 6 at some point, along with iOS 8 and its focus on health, and maybe even an iWatch and an iPhablet. None of that would be too surprising based on the endless rumors concerning each. As of right now, the overall design of the iPhone 6 could surprise us, because we haven't seen any leaks yet, but we will undoubtedly see leaks before the actual announcement comes.
We also know that the Motorola Moto X2 will be coming out this summer, the Google Nexus 6 in the fall, and the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 in the fall as well. But, even saying the names of each device right now will likely conjure up guesses as to what to expect from each that may not be too far off the mark. When you hear "Moto X2", you likely imagine a device with solid ergonomics, a multitude of customization options, and maybe not the most high-end specs, but definitely high-end performance. The Nexus 6 is imagined as high-specs at a low price, with the hope that the camera will be much improved. And, the Note 4 brings higher expectations with around a 6-inch quad-HD display, and maybe a 64-bit processor. Of course, even that would constitute an incremental update compared to what we've already seen.
That brings us right back around to the beginning. We know essentially what to expect (or at least we think we do), which means we're unlikely to be surprised. So, that begs a new question: what would actually surprise you? Would a newly-built $200 unlocked iPhone be enough to surprise you? How about a smartphone that somehow finds a way to offer optical zoom with a built-in camera that doesn't add the bulk of a Samsung Galaxy Zoom?
And, let's try to keep it in the realm of possibility. We would all be surprised by a smartphone with a 4K display, 10GB of RAM, and 500GB of storage, because such a device is impossible with today's technology. So, what would surprise you? And, what 2014 flagship do you think has the best chance of surprising you with its hardware or software?