Where Do Successful Manufacturers Still Go Wrong?
If there’s an area you think an OEM consistently does badly in, now’s the time to share…
Even our favorite phones have issues; little bugbears that grow in annoyance as time goes by, problems that we hope will be fixed via a software update or hardware refresh in the next edition. But what happens when the manufacturer fails to notice these details, or simply doesn’t acknowledge that they’re important?
These things persist through new releases, and without significant work become tied inexorably to the brand itself, ruining the image and potentially damaging sales and reputation in the minds of those that pay attention. As a sort of companion-article to the piece we wrote earlier this week, here’s what we consider a major failing for some of the biggest names in Android, the areas we feel that need the most work moving forward.
Coming from a website that has grown entirely from an obsession with modifying the software on our smartphones to allow it to run more efficiently, this may not come as a surprise: we’re not massive fans of TouchWiz. Samsung’s custom implementation of Android has become somewhat synonymous with Google’s operating system itself in the minds of a significant subset of consumers, and that has lent hugely to the idea that you need a lot of processing power to make the OS run smoothly. As we know of course, this isn’t the case, even if the design of the software layers means that typical resource usage is higher than some competitors. Those that run Nexus devices, or who have installed vanilla ROMs on to previously sluggish phones will know the difference that a ‘skin’ like TouchWiz can make.
In short, TouchWiz is bloated, and introduces jank where there shouldn’t be any. Samsung seem happy to try to cram their phones with as many applications and software features as possible, leaving the user with what can be a very inefficient mess if not handled properly. This trend does seem to be improving, with the Korean company making vague claims about slimming down their ROMs in recent years, but the issue is still evident on the Galaxy S6 and Note 5 models that use the beastly new Exynos SOCs. Its worst component seems to be its handling of RAM as made evident in reviews, with apps popping out of memory and having to be reloaded if not used recently. The situation isn’t all bad of course; the phones aren’t slow per se, but instead just don’t do their specifications justice, with performance tending to degrade over time.
To stay on top, Samsung would do well to attempt to streamline the TouchWiz experience further, whilst thinking hard about what really is and isn’t necessary when it comes to gimmicky functionality.
HTC make some excellent smartphones, with award-winning designs, great hardware and decent software, and in many cases don’t really get the recognition they deserve. Their recent offerings have done well with reviewers but less well with consumers, leading to a decline in sales and profit. There are many factors to this of course, which we’ve discussed before, but the area we’ll be focussing on now is one that has received a lot of negative attention.
Recent flagships from the Taiwanese manufacturer have had a consistent weakness in the camera department. This is not for want of trying however; HTC has been known to introduce a good few innovative ideas in the name of better picture quality, with partial success. The One M7’s 4MP ‘Ultrapixel’ camera was completely new for the time, ducking out of the megapixel rat-race in favour of attempting to get closer to pocket-camera pixel sizes and gain more light. It worked too, along with the OIS that was included, performing far better than competitors in low light situations. Unfortunately that’s where it ended, with day time shots losing definition and clarity, and fans hoping for more the following year. Unfortunately the M8 was arguably worse, adding a gimmicky ‘duo camera’ setup that allowed for refocusing after a shot is taken, but at the same time removing the OIS and crippling the phone’s shutter speed. This year, HTC dropped the ‘Ultrapixel’ plan altogether, introducing a 20MP unit that seemed to represent the opposite or what the company had previously stood for. Unfortunately, again, the M9 disappointed, producing fairly pleasing shots in daylight, but noisy washed-out snaps once the lighting conditions weren’t optimal. There have been other attempts, like the Desire Eye range, and this year’s M8S, but none have impressed or put any pressure on the competition.
HTC desperately needs a winner for their next flagship model, and the camera they design must be the pinnacle of that experience. The m10 will need some good hardware to make this happen; HTC can’t afford to rely on software trickery this time, they’ll need a large sensor, OIS, a megapixel count that doesn’t introduce too much noise and a fairly wide aperture. Without these, it could easily face another year of poor sales and low returns.
Commenters on the last article pointed out quite rightly that the omission of Sony was a noticeable oversight, and as a previous owner of a Z1 and someone that was pleased with the phone’s features and the company’s developer support, I can only agree. Ignoring the geocentric nature of much of the biggest tech news sites, Sony are a major force across the world when it comes to Android phones, and in England where this writer lives they’re extremely prevalent. Unfortunately, it’s not the same story everywhere, and crucially, the Japanese company still isn’t particularly popular in some of the world’s largest markets, making a noticeable dent in its overall performance.
Of all the useful elements Sony implements when it comes to its phones, aesthetics seem to be left on a lower tier of importance. The main mantra of ‘Omnibalance’, the word it uses to describe the design style it continually employs, seems to be purely that of function over form. The Z series in particular, has refined this over several revisions, but still features a dull, monolithic shape, with large bezels and somewhat uncomfortable edges. The pronounced rectangular shape makes the handsets feel larger than they should, look plain, and stand out when put into pockets. This is one of the main reasons why the smartphones Sony creates don’t always come across as immediately attractive, despite their otherwise positive reputation for good hardware, and combined with the lack of marketing in the US and India, leaves many consumers unwilling to make the effort to get hold of one of the units. There are some honourable mentions here of course; there have been some issues with display quality, largely resolved (especially in the pixel department), and with camera performance, which still needs work, despite the company supplying almost everyone else with their sensors to better effect. The Z5 seems to have solved that last issue, though. Still, if Sony wants more of a stronghold in new and larger markets, appealing design choices will go a long way to convincing new customers to make a purchase on first sight.
LG’s G-series of flagships have recently been at the cutting edge of tech, and the company has managed to build them up to a level where their release is one of the most anticipated every year. Last time we pointed out that an important reason for this success was the fact that the phones were good all-rounders, with no show-stopping flaws, and some clever additions. There is a fairly consistent negative quality to LG’s handsets however, and one that could improve their place in market to a high degree, namely build quality.
Now, straight off the bat, it’s important to differentiate this from the physical design of the handsets. LG have started a design language that generally discourages bezel size, whilst making intelligent choices that are actually useful, like rear mounted buttons placed where the user’s hand actually falls, whereas this complaint is more one of build materials. The three-axis curves of the G4 for example, look and feel great, but the surfaces that surround them are all plastic, and make the device appear cheaper than the competition. The rear buttons look aluminium at first glance, but aren’t of course, and they move slightly within their housing, creating the impression that they’re liable to come loose. The leather on the rear is actually surprisingly nice in the hand, and the soft finishes look better in reality, but they’re just not up to the quality of Motorola’s similar finishes.
I can’t help thinking that if LG was to up its game in the build materials department it would be left with some very compelling results. Hopefully it can continue with the design language it has begun but introduce some more premium touches on the hardware, like metal edges surrounding the display (again, like Motorola’s designs). Their main competitor Samsung pulled it out of the bag this year, and perhaps LG weren’t prepared for such a dramatic paradigm shift, but it’s served the purpose of making their handsets look a little toy-like in comparison. Regardless of the reasons for it, the Korean company needs to put some time and effort in making their next efforts more competitive, and if they can do that whilst maintaining power user features like removable batteries and SD card slots, they have the potential to do very well indeed.
We congratulated Motorola last time for their excellent use of minimal software disruption to create a simpler, quicker experience for the user, and for not falling into the same trap as other OEMs and stuffing their handsets with features of questionable value. Really, the other half of the smartphone experience lies in the hardware, and in recent years the company has performed well in that area too. Similarly to HTC, Motorola has gained a reputation for poor cameras, but the newly released Moto X Style/Pure and Play models have received some rather positive impressions so far, so it looks eminently possible that this trend has been broken.
Really there aren’t any major reasons why Motorola hasn’t done as well as it arguably should have done, so instead, there are a few more minor points to examine. Firstly, battery life on recent flagships has been far from exemplary, although admittedly not deal-breaking either. It’s a weak point, but as the public have almost become accustomed to charging twice a day now, this is far from individual. The Style/Pure seems to have average battery life from initial reports and therefore could definitely be improved, but it’s equally not something the American company should be lambasted for. Another historical annoyance comes in the form of its inability to release kernel sources in as timely a manner as others that use the same chipsets, which for us at XDA becomes particularly frustrating, especially when it becomes a habit (and which probably won’t be improved after its purchase by Lenovo). This is in addition to their continued relationship with Verizon, notorious in their own way, and similarly unpopular with our development user-base.
The only other honourable mention is that of Motorola’s lack of marketing clout, even in its home country, but especially abroad. Despite the Moto G being the company’s best selling smartphone ever, flagships still haven’t begun to appear in many carrier stores in Europe, although Motorola do seem aware of this and have begun to avoid carrier sales altogether and sell straight to the consumer. Ultimately, Motorola is an excellent opportunity for Lenovo to break into the West, but of course money will need to be spent in order for money to be made.
NB: Observant readers will notice that we’ve ignored Apple this time around, but this isn’t because there was nothing negative to say – in fact it’s because there’s too much. The way Apple manage their products and business is almost diametrically opposed to what XDA stands for, and due to this, the company’s perceived missteps could easily create dedicated article of their own.
Obviously it’s not possible for one manufacturer to build the ‘perfect’ phone, there are too many different opinions about what that would be defined as, for a start. Everyone has their own priorities, and hardware constraints generally mean that forcing every available feature into a device can turn it into a bulky mess. However, the more that these major flaws are brought into the limelight, the more pressure OEMs will be under to have them fixed (or limited), and by doing so we can improve the potential user experience of upcoming phones by an order of magnitude. This is important; companies should be listening to feedback, and watching how well competitor’s smartphones are selling due to their strong points, and we as consumers, should be as encouraging and vocal about this subject as possible.