An Exercise in Redundancy: Are OEM Features “Smart”?
Today we saw the release of promotional videos and announcements from LG, a couple of weeks before an unveiling event that will most likely result in lots of buzz surrounding an upcoming LG G4. Last year’s LG G3 went on to win plenty of awards all over the blogosphere, as well as many Android fans’ hearts. But while it was a great phone with seemingly impeccable specifications, many were quick to notice that the software was, once more, not as smooth as the zippier phones that packed the same internals (albeit with beneficial lower resolution screens) at the time.
The LG G2 had similar issues: it was at the front line of processors with the Snapdragon 800, but LG’s heavy and weary UI didn’t give it quite the performance it deserved. Now the Snapdragon 800 is probably one of the best chipsets to come out just because of how much longevity it still promises – Nexus 5 owners all over XDA will know this sentiment. The Note 3 also packed a Snapdragon 800 with 3GB of RAM, yet performance did suffer from some stutters here and there too. And we all know why.
OEMs love to put new features into their phones, yet it is known that a big chunk of these do not prove very useful, and thus remain forgotten while also impacting the performance of the phones. I would say that there are two types of redundant features: those that are functionally impaired, which off a neat concept that is unrealizable due to technological constraints, and those that are inherently redundant for providing something an app or service can do better, or a feature that is too situational to be useful. Sometimes, the problem is both, and then you know that the company had no business doing such a thing.
Features of this type plagued Samsung devices. The early iterations of the “Smart” repertoire of features, for example, were sometimes useless due to their unreliability. “Smart Stay” was, in concept, great. The execution, however, proved awful for older devices as it is clear the technology was not quite there. The concept is simple: the phone takes a front-facing picture every x amount of time, and then scans your face to figure out if you are looking directly at the screen. If you are, the screen remains on indefinitely – if you are not, the time-out timer remains untouched. It was easy to conceptualize, but harder to pull off because at the time, as selfie cams were less advanced than they are now and they didn’t fare particularly well in low-light. The algorithms to detect facial metrics can also be complex, and without a very efficient one the feature could suffer even more.
I did use Smart Stay at times, but I did eventually notice that it simply did not work good enough. The ones that certainly didn’t work as well – much less in dim light – were Smart Rotate and Smart Pause. Smart Rotate would prevent your screen from rotating if you are laying down, which (would have) made it perfect for bed sessions. Smart Pause would pause your videos if you stopped looking at them. Again, in concept, these sound great. But it suffers from the same constraints Smart Stay suffered from, and in certain context or for certain use cases it simply would not work. You also had Smart Scroll, which allowed you to scroll webpages by tilting the device; this one was an even bigger mess for me.
Then there were air gestures which worked half the time, and they usually lagged behind the motion too much. Samsung’s leaps with the S4’s floating finger detection promised so much, and they truly could have changed the way we interact with smartphones. The implementations in this regard were buggy and half-baked, and as useful as the Quick Glance (which Motorola improved with a better solution) was, waving your hands on top of your phone 6 times in a college classroom raised too much attention to make it worth it.
These features often work to acceptable extents, but either their use-cases are so limited or the conscious execution so poor that there’s really no point in using them, especially if there are better alternatives (which is most of the time). Let’s take the case of the new LG UX video. They emphasize smart features, and some of them that they highlight (and obnoxiously underline) are simply redundant. For reference, you can find the video below.
Samsung has an S-Voice feature that most people would never use, given that Google Now is a much better alternative. S-Voice did come pretty early into the voice-recognition game, though, so at least it has merit for that. With last years’ G3, LG had a card widget that tried to emulate Google Now’s suggestions and tips minus the actual brains behind Google Services. Now LG seems to be back into the personal assistant game with a vengeance, albeit one that is not looking too promising. “Smart Board” takes your calendar, music, and health information to unify them in a widget. Then Smart Alert supposedly has the device learn from you, to then give you notifications based on your schedule. The example to the side suggests to the user that he or she should take a bike ride, because it is a nice day out (they heard from Apple that looking out the window is too hard). The suggestion reads more like an order, however. Google’s approach to suggested activities is not only much more comprehensive, but also not intrusive nor patronizing.
Shipping a phone with features that third-party offerings surpass is a smart move for OEMs, but not when their alternatives compete with superior offerings that are built-in. LG phones come with Google Services, and the Google app only requires a few presses to set up. It is also worlds more advanced that whatever LG could have baked in the past year, given that the tight integration with all the Google data that is collected makes it uniquely efficient. Samsung seems to have realized this with the latest flagships, and my Note 4’s default home-button long-press fires Google Now instead of a Samsung alternative (although S-voice remains in the phone).
Not Everyone is Getting Smarter
The trend that I am seeing lately is that while Samsung is dialing back on the redundant features, companies like LG and HTC are increasingly promoting them. Take HTC’s dynamic homescreen widget, for example: it organizes apps based on where you are or what time it is. Many reviewers claim that it is simply frustrating and that, at the least, it could just take a while to get smart. Even then, an old homescreen setup can serve a similar purpose, as you can just swipe to a side and access a homescreen with apps for this or that occasion or time. This feature was also experimented with on Samsung phones, as well, and nobody seemed to care then either. Then you have LG’s approach to software becoming more like Old Samsung’s with every iteration, with heavier UIs with themes increasingly detached from Google’s vision, and with features that nobody really asked for and many might never care for.
Samsung, on the other hand, is changing the approach completely. Some of the new features in the S6, like People Edge, make good use of the new hardware and are actually original, even if not extremely useful. The voice-call light notification from the Edge is also interesting, but it does greatly suffer from the fact that not many would want to put this expensive phone face-down on a table for fear of scratches. The one feature that seems functionally impaired is the swipe gesture to summon the Edge portion of the screen for info, as reviewers claim it takes multiple attempts. But regardless, Samsung’s emphasis on performance, consistent design and no more things such as a notification from the UV sensor telling you it’s too bright outside all greatly benefit the S6’s user experience, and the raving reviews that it is getting (almost unanimously at that) are living proof of that. They have removed many many redundant features from previous phones, and nobody seems to miss them (except for some voice controls). They finally began trimming their experience and it benefit them greatly.
So, aren’t there benefits to having these features? The Sunday Debate we recently hosted on user experience shows that users do care about lightness, and the more redundant a feature is the more it trivializes the added heft. Hopefully OEMs leave “smart” features to those that will do a good job with them.
What is your opinion with “redundant” features? We’d love to hear it below!