New smartphone ideas are in demand - but what do we want?
The new generation of smartphones is absolutely stunning, no doubt about it. iPhone X is beautiful, cool and prestigious. It is also expensive, while the Samsung Galaxy S9 has already shaped up to follow the same path. We have finally reached the platonic ideal of what an ideal smartphone is all about - a big, slick slab of screen that looks pretty, costs a fortune, has a good camera, and runs all the apps they we can get our hands on.
Much advertised Apple’s flashy new “Face ID” is out there almost entirely to replace perfectly good Touch ID. Animoji karaoke is legitimately wonderful, but is it really a breakthrough, or just another cool feature?
Google's Pixel 2's most interesting feature was that you can squeeze it. The Galaxy S8 experimented with little more than a dedicated button for its awful version of Siri. The much anticipated GS9 that was unveiled at the show, appears to have no real surprises up its sleeve at all, and is just another upgraded version of the GS8 model.
But not everything is boring - thank goodness for this year’s crop of weirdos coming out of the woodwork. Strange new phones from brands like Energizer and Caterpillar, neither of which actually build their own phones, but rather slap their names on white-label hardware from other manufacturers, are trying to push the boundaries of a saturated market with decidedly weird phones. Chances are, they probably won't be that great, but at least they are interesting, they are experimenting and offering something new.
In addition to its quite cumbersome name, Energizer's Power Max P16K Pr is rumoured to have a comically large 16,000 mAh battery. That is more than eight times the capacity of the battery you will find in an iPhone 8. It is more than four times the capacity of phones that use giant batteries as a selling feature, like Razer's "gaming phone," which is a weirdo in its own right.
Assuming the info is correct, the P16K is a chunky powerhouse with multiple days of battery, despite otherwise standard specs. Probably it won't unseat a $1,000 flagship, sure, but at least it takes on the issue of crappy phone battery life.
Caterpillar's new S61 goes even farther with its uncommon features. The company better known for its giant construction equipment followed up last year's S60 with a new phone that not only contains a FLIR thermal camera that can stream Predator vision live to the internet, but also has an air-quality sensor, a laser measurement system, and a military-grade durability rating. Again, chances are it won't challenge an iPhone X or Galaxy S9 in terms of fit and finish. Some of its specs, like the meagre 1080p screen, are downright bad. And it'll still cost you about $1,000. Unless you have some very specific heavy-duty needs, this probably is not the phone you will buy. But it is staking out some strange new ground.
Neither of these weirdos are destined to be commercial wonders. Each will be bad in its own way. Good smartphones that can outdo the existing flagships are definitely hard to make - there is a reason that the most polished and expensive ones are largely the same. Still, strange experiments that push the boundaries stand a chance of making everything better in the long run.
People might not need a battery as enormous as Energizer's, but maybe the market for that phone will show that batteries could stand to be bigger than they are right now. Live-streaming thermal camera footage is overkill for anyone who is not a professional handyman, but maybe laser measurement is something every phone should have.
As consumer tech veers towards beautiful, very expensive and also boring products, it is good to see there are still some experiments happening out there. We can only hope that eventually they will become the milestones for something bigger, better, cheaper and more innovative.