Calling BS: Five common phone gimmicks you should see through

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Calling BS: Five common phone gimmicks you should see through

What are gimmick features in phones?

The term "gimmick" is often used in a wide variety of contexts. In the realm of smartphones, a gimmick typically refers to features that are relevant only in very specific scenarios, cater to a narrow group of users, or fail to provide genuine value—sometimes a combination of these aspects.

Gimmicks are often criticized for being flashy or superficial, for instance, a smartphone might include a feature like a 3D display or gesture controls that seem innovative, but end up being impractical or underutilized.

Understanding the term "gimmick" also involves recognizing its roots in the marketing and entertainment industries, where it originally referred to a trick or device intended to attract attention or increase appeal.

Top 5 phone gimmicks throughout the last decade

1. Air Gesture/Motion Sense

Samsung is known for being one of the more experimental tech giants on the market. One of the earliest examples of this was Air Gesture, which allowed users to control the phone by making gestures with their hands in front of the phone. Needless to say, the whole process was clunky and the feature was barely used.

Google also tried to promote a similar feature when the Pixel 4 was released, calling it “Motion Sense,” but even the company behind Android couldn’t stick the landing on this. The truth is that the best way to operate something with a screen is to either physically touch it or direct it via voice.

2. Heart Rate/Temperature Sensors

There have been multiple phones throughout the last 10 years that have included some sort of sensor for measuring a specific metric. A more recent example is the Pixel 8 series, which comes with a thermometer. This was a bit of a bizarre thing for Google to include with its flagship phone, especially in 2023. Nowadays, major phone manufacturers generally refrain from adding such niche features as they have proven time and time again to not be used by many.

What makes it even worse is that it is not FDA-approved, so it cannot be used reliably to take your own temperature. Another inconvenience is that you have to get really close (1.9 inches) to an object for a proper reading.

Another great example is the heart rate monitor (HRM) that was featured on all flagship Galaxy phones, starting with the Galaxy S5. This one was useful for some people, especially when smartwatches were still not that popular, but even then the situations when such a feature would come in handy were pretty slim. Maybe that is why Samsung opted to drop the HRM with the Galaxy S20 and Note 10, and with every other model going forward.

3. The Glyph

It is hard to be a new player in the smartphone market at this point, which is why the Nothing company had to figure out a way to sell their first phone ever, the Nothing Phone (1). Following the design language of its first product, the Nothing Ear (1), the company opted for a transparent back, but that wasn’t enough. The cherry on top was lights!

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More specifically, it was LED light strips that had several software features tied in to make them more than just pretty adornments. Well, the truth is that most of the features, such as tracking a set-up timer, had a much better alternative: the screen. In fact, most of the ways these light strips could be used required you to have the phone placed on a surface with the display facing down, which is counterintuitive if you don’t want any scratches on it.

4. Curved Displays

Listen, there is a reason why Samsung, the company that made curved displays a thing, has stepped away from this design choice with its latest phones: it is not as good as it sounds! Yes, at first glance, a curved display makes the phone look futuristic, creating the illusion that the screen wraps around the whole body.

In reality, there are a few major flaws with this approach. The first one is that the “extra” screen on the sides becomes irrelevant the moment you introduce ambient light, which results in distracting reflections. Another downside is the increased risk of accidental touches while holding the phone in your palm, which could lead to some annoying situations.

The worst downside to curved displays, however, is that they are much easier to damage. Even with a screen protector installed, there is a much higher risk of breaking your display as it is simply more exposed to hits. Not to mention that screen protectors for curved displays are typically more expensive and difficult to put on.

5. Under Display Cameras (UDCs)

Some gimmicky phone features have the potential to become truly useful, but the technology is obviously not there yet. The best example of this right now is under-display cameras, also known as UDCs, which are most commonly used on foldable phones.

For now, UDCs have two main problems. First, the camera is still somewhat visible, which kind of defeats the purpose of it being under the display. Second, more often than not the UDC has poor image quality, which demotivates you from using it.

The good news is that some companies like Xiaomi and ZTE have already made significant progress with this technology, enough to almost completely address the two problems I mentioned. Sadly, it appears next-gen UDCs are still too expensive to become the new trend just yet.

Are phone gimmick features bad?

It depends. If it is a feature that has the potential to become useful and something that changes the user experience in a positive way, then why not try it out and see the public’s response? It is no secret that phone manufacturers have begun to be more conservative with experimental features when it comes to their flagships, which has made the high-end phone market rather dull.

Thankfully, AI is now here, and it opens up a ton of possibilities for creative ways to improve the way we utilize our phones. The first AI features that phone companies came up with were indeed a bit gimmicky, but now they are starting to transform into useful tools that elevate the smartphone experience.

The way I see it is that if a gimmick comes from a perspective of curiosity and not simply a marketing selling point, then I am all for trying it out! No breakthrough has ever happened by simply sticking to the safe option!

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