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Opinion: The smartphone needs to go back to basics

In the rush to make our smartphones faster, thinner, and lighter, I can’t help but feel that manufacturers are overlooking the finer details. Our phones have moved beyond their basic functions and have essentially become mini computers in our pockets. While it’s truly amazing to see how far things have progressed in such a small amount of time, it seems to be coming at the expense of basic form and function.

Let’s start with the most obvious: build and design. Phones of the past were never particularly striking (well, maybe the original RAZR), but they were comfortable to hold and were easy to hang on to. You didn’t have to slather them in protective covering, nor fear they would shatter into a million tiny pieces should they fall off a table.

The most egregious example is the iPhone 4 (and by extension, the 4S). Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautifully designed phone – but it’s not particularly comfortable to hold. The glass front and back aren’t flush with the metal band encompassing the phone, so the resulting gap causes the edges to dig in depending on your grip or finger placement. And again, while the metal and glass industrial design still looks great today, if you happen to drop the phone at all then chances are you’ll be sheepishly going to the Genius bar for a repair.

The Samsung Galaxy S II sits on the opposite end of the scale. If you drop it, not much is going to happen. Gorilla Glass is tough, and the plastic construction means you’re probably not going to see much damage in the event of an accident. The problem then is it doesn’t feel like a premium phone at all. All that plastic amounts to a very flimsy and cheap looking device. I personally couldn’t live with one for a week, let alone a one or two year contract.

Devices like the Nokia Lumia 800 and the HTC Sensation are what companies should be aiming for. The Lumia 800’s unibody polycarbonate construction feels fantastic, and the HTC Sensation sensibly blends metal and plastic for a great look and feel. Neither are the thinnest smartphones out there (12.1mm and 11.3mm respectively), but they combine good aesthetics with solid build quality.

Remember when we used to use our phones to actually make calls? Some of us still do! And when we do decide to place a call, we’re saddled with horrible call quality. It’s true that we’ve been spoiled by services like Skype, providing almost crystal clear audio on a range of devices, but going back to a call even on a 3G network is painful. Why can’t we get that awesome quality all the time?

It’s not entirely out of reach. Orange launched its HD Voice service last year to little fanfare, but if you actually hear the results, you’ll be wondering why it hasn’t pushed the service harder. Take a listen to the BBC testing it out.

How does it work? Traditional phone calls use a narrow band of 300-3400Hz, while HD Voice uses the wider spectrum of 50-7000Hz, plus the AMR-WB (Adaptive Multi-Rate Wideband) codec. The service only works over 3G, but nowadays with good coverage from the networks, that’s not so much of a problem.

To use HD Voice both callers need enabled handsets, and both have to be on Orange. When the service launched, the handset problem was the most glaring, but if you take a look at Orange’s current list, we’re not exactly talking about obscure phones: the HTC Desire HD and Samsung Omnia 7 are both capable. Phone manufacturers do need a license to include the AMR-WB codec, but the cost would be minuscule in the long run. Then it would be up to the networks to support it. Whether that would require a simple software update of the hardware or a complete overhaul is anyone’s guess, but Orange managed to deploy it relatively quickly.

Improved call quality would also make all those included minutes actually useful again. True, texts and data are increasingly becoming the de facto standard for getting in touch with someone, but higher quality calls could be the hook that the networks need to stop (or at least slow down) the march towards becoming dumb pipes.

It’s entirely possible though that the other networks have looked at HD Voice and decided to wait until LTE can be deployed in the UK. LTE, in case you’re not familiar, is the next generation of wireless connectivity. Verizon currently use LTE for their 4G network in the US, and hopefully we’ll be seeing it on our shores in the next few years. LTE won’t just bring increased data speeds, but higher quality calls using Voice over LTE as well.

Some higher quality earpieces on phones couldn’t hurt either. Sound output right now from some handsets (I’m looking at you again, iPhone 4) I find far too quiet. I don’t particularly like pressing the phone right into my ear, nor should I require a headset just to be able to make out the person on the other end of the line.

Finally, if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s short battery life. Battery tech seems to have plateaued as of late, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see massive drain on phones with large screens and constant cellular activity. Can’t we at least mitigate the problem while we’re waiting for the next big leap?

The Palm Pre, flawed as it was, did have some neat ideas, one of which was the built-in inductive charging. Simply pop the phone down on the Touchstone, and your phone receives a steady stream of refreshing power. Powermat also offer charging mats and case/receivers that you pop on your phone to get in on the wireless charging action, but it’s a less elegant solution and significantly adds to the bulk of the phone.

  

So let’s take it a step further: just build the technology right into the phones and watch as it gains traction. Starbucks is already very friendly towards smartphone and laptop users, providing lots of power points and free wireless internet. Imagine if you could walk into Starbucks, simply place your phone on the table in front of you, and watch as it starts to charge. Far more elegant than carrying around wires and chargers, and you have quicker access to your phone unlike a dock.

It’s not an entirely practical solution, sure. Blanketing stores with wireless charging points might not be financially justifiable (then again “free wireless internet” sounded pretty crazy not too long ago), and building the tech into phones will add a little bit of bulk. But why does that matter? Why does my phone need to be only 7 or 8mm thick? I have plenty of room in my pockets, adding a few extra millimetres isn’t going to be some massive burden. If anything the Lumia 800 proves it makes a device more ergonomically sound.

Even the less exciting smartphones of our time are undoubtedly better in every respect than the dumbphones of old, but I think manufacturers need to stop waving specs around and start thinking about the overall user experience. That doesn’t just mean the digital OS and ecosystem either – it’s about the physical experience too.

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