The Slow Death of Hype: Flagships Past the Age of Compromises
It has come to my attention that while this 2016 will certainly bring – as it already has – some very interesting phones, the lingering hype after each release, and even the enthusiasm on the eve of launch, feels different than in both 2015 and 2014.
There is good and bad to this; let’s not forget that hype is defined as promotion first, and enthusiasm second. When one willingly and consciously proclaims personal hype, the corporation involved has already won some. In part, I think that the “hype” – or rather, “#hype” – that we saw in 2015 was in fact very artificial, with companies like OnePlus among others furiously promoting their products through internet campaigns of promotions, viral marketing and new-media advertising. Indeed, OnePlus is a perfect example for this, as the company prides itself on alternative marketing to minimize costs. In that sense, the OnePlus One was a success that blazed through controversies, making OnePlus the little OEM that could.
Going back to the effects for a moment, I’d like to point out some specific examples in which I’ve noticed these differences. In particular, I ask you to remember the 2015 Mobile World Congress releases and the launch of Nexus devices. I remember the former as the first huge event I covered with XDA; there was plenty of enthusiasm behind every OEM, particularly HTC and Samsung and their greatest and latest phones competing head-to-head. So it was, and the Galaxy S6 was released and met praise from the media, but also mass disappointment from power users used to expandable storage and removable battery.
The Snapdragon 810, too, brought a negative that would be discussed for months, perhaps one of the hottest topics of 2015 — as you see, it keeps generating puns to this day.
This was the first clear sign of what would then be dubbed The Year of Compromises, a nasty trend of which very few OEMs were safe. This isn’t to say that 2015 was a bad year for phones, or that the compromised phones were awful and unusable. Interestingly enough, I am actually using a OnePlus 2 as a daily driver now, even after I thoroughly documented every compromise in a comprehensive review. And funnily enough, it actually performs better in the User Interface than many other “flawed” phones, virtue of its stock-ish approach to software. But one thing was certain, 2015 phones had, in general, regressed in key aspects over their 2014 predecessors, including battery, stability, and sometimes even resulting performance. The true-and-tested Snapdragon 801 and the easily-forgotten 805 were pearls of an older time — but Lollipop software, miscellaneous hardware compromises and a relentless focus on design produced, in my opinion, a jarring contrast to 2014 phones, the pinnacle of which I think was the Note 4.
A device I think exemplifies this is the Galaxy Note5. Once known as the “king of phablets”, the Note5 trailed away from the productivity-oriented hardware features that Samsung once proudly marketed. Overall, the Note5 was a solid package, and it became a daily driver of mine for a good few months. In my review, however, I noted (heh) that the Note 4 actually felt like a better value at the time, especially with the price drops it’d inevitable go through with this new release. This could have been said for other phones in 2015, like the Xperia Z4 and Z5, given the Z3 was oh-so-similar inside and outside, yet it packed the lovely 801 and had some nice development under its sleeve, including the official Marshmallow concept builds that so many grew to love.
Let’s timemachine back to 2016; we just saw the release of the Galaxy S7 (for lucky T-mobile users) and the launch of the LG G5, and we are promptly waiting for reviews. Me and XDA Editor and Podcast Member Corey Feiock woke up at 6:00AM on a Sunday to watch MWC 2016 live, a kind of “Android Superbowl” event that we thought would bring all the fun an Android nerd needs. We prepared our snacks and got ready for the live events, but once again it dawned on me that I already knew pretty much everything about these devices. Leaks were prominent on the months leading up to the release, with full live images and official renders making their way to the twitter timelines of prominent leakers. I had described this same sentiment with the release of 2015 Nexus phones, and I also said back then that hype roller-coasters ahead of a phone’s release would end up with less lingering hype and subsequent (genuine) enthusiasm and discussion.
This is my fear for 2016, and the effects of both compromises and hype roller-coasters. I watched all of MWC with phone-lust through my veins, and I am sure that I will do the same for every future event. But the aftermath, and the communal excitement for upcoming releases that I enjoy following and participating in, also suffer with every disappointment. Not just that, but expectations grow higher and trust understandably grows weaker, especially in online communities. A perfect example would be HTC, which has a lot to prove yet plenty are writing them off before seeing the actual product.
Phones are becoming more and more future-proof, giving users less of a reason to upgrade, in a time where mid-rangers are also not just affordable, but in various ways comparable to flagship devices. Flagship devices, on the other hand, are offering fewer compromises in hardware from what we can see. The S7 Edge, for example, packs the Edge screen without affecting handling nearly as much, restored the microSD card tradition, and brought water resistance back — all without jeopardizing the beautiful design language it once sacrificed so much to achieve. The LG G5 is bringing top of the line specifications and also introducing the “modular” friends system, one of the more interesting things we’ve see on a flagship in a while. There are reasons to be excited about these devices, yet they also feel similar, and our early testing indicates that the new hardware is not perfect either, and neither is the experience on the S7 Edge.
Both OEMs and Google have plenty to do to make sure their phones can stand the test of hype and ever-increasing consumer expectations. Android as an operating system went through some really rough patches with Lollipop due to bugs and slow updates, and Marshmallow still sees very slow rollouts. Security patches, at the very least, are rolled out somewhat frequently by some OEMs, but then there is the question of OEM skins that hinder the user experience. Some manufacturers like Motorola opted for a more stock-based approach, while giants like Samsung, LG, Huawei and Xiaomi opt to burden their hardware with unjustified modifications. Despite Samsung promising outstanding performance on-stage at MWC 2015, we didn’t see the Exynos-wielding flagships overcome TouchWiz’s stuttering woes. And now in 2016, we see the S7 Edge sport some of the same annoyances despite bringing the latest in processing power.
The smartphone landscape has indeed changed and the focus has shifted in many ways, with mid-rangers entering the spotlight. Flagships still remain the go-to option for enthusiasts who can afford them and want to experience the latest and greatest, but even among those who frantically buy phones, like XDA Editor Eric Hulse, it’s not the newest, shiniest phone that always takes the pocket. And with leaks slicing every detail and delivering it periodically in the months leading up to the release, much of the “explosion” of enthusiasm was lost. As an example, I give you the aforementioned 2015 Nexus releases, with its launch event rendered almost useless due to the prevalence of leaks — by the time the devices were shown on-stage, we already knew every detail.
Perhaps it is true that flagships are becoming more uninteresting, and that companies are struggling to justify their premium price-tags even among a subset of the bleeding-edge enthusiasts. But I think there is more to this, and I see the results in the discussions in the Android community. Either way, Android still gives us plenty to look forward to, and I sincerely believe part of this offset is due to the upcoming technologies that Android and OEMs will play a major part in — virtual reality, smarter appliances through the internet of things, and even better wearables and home-entertainment technology. Android has matured, its evolution might have slowed down, and I no longer get the same reaction to system updates as I did before KitKat. But that’s a sign that Android is in a more-polished spot right now as well, and in great part, the advancements that Android brought with KitKat, Lollipop and Marshmallow allowed for the proliferation of cheaper devices and a healthier expansion of the platform throughout the world. And I also do not forget that my point of view is just that — I know that many communities new to Android are receiving the platform with just the same enthusiasm I did so many years ago, and their intense hype for newer and better phones will likely linger for as long as ours did. Such is the
bootloop cycle of tech!