Friday, 24 December 2010

Smartphone, n.: A device with not quite the lot

Picture this: you're shopping for a new luxury car, and the salesman is explaining that the seat can be adjusted in seven different ways via the one control and it can save settings for seven different people, and the steering wheel can control the radio, gears, cruise control and climate control, and it can steer itself between the lines and control distance to the car in front via radar, and...

Then you notice that it doesn't have an interior rear-view mirror and the wing mirrors are adjusted manually. The salesman looks baffled and says "It's got mirrors, doesn't it?"

That's how I feel we're being treated by smartphone manufacturers.

Item: HTC still hasn't worked out how to build a decent loudspeaker or camera.

Item: Nexus S, built by Samsung to be Google's next developer phone, doesn't have a memory card slot.

Item: my current shiny, with which I am still mostly very happy, the Nokia N900, doesn't have a now-and-even-when-it-was-new standard magnetometer to go with its not having MMS inbuilt and the version of Ovi Maps installed not having any facility for storing bookmarks.

Seriously, what are the thought processes going on in their heads?

With the iPhone, you knew you weren't going to get a feature until Apple was good and ready to give it to you, and that's a perfectly fair and reasonable decision.

With Windows Phone 7, they appear to have deliberately decided to cripple it by denying it memory cards or cut and paste and, well, at least they're being consistent.

But nobody else has that explanation. Even when you get the hardware it may not be activated - the N900 has FM transmitters and receivers, but there was no radio software in early firmwares to use the receiver.

Then there's Samsung, who produced one of the best mobile phone cameras in the i8910 but haven't put anything remotely as worthy in any Android phone.

Then you have screens. Motorola came out with the XT720, which had all the potential to be a great tablet phone, with good speaker and even good camera. And a screen so mirror-finish you can't use it outdoors in sunlight.

Even Nokia have been guilty of this, perversely removing the sunlight-friendly transflective layer from the N97 mini.

There appears to be a "95 per cent" attitude in the technology world at the moment. Apple gives you 95 per cent of the features you want, but does them really well. Everyone else tries to give you all the features, but only gets it 95 per cent correct.

Only one company seems to have the commitment and meticulous dedication to engineering perfection that even justifies a label like "flagship" and they're such control freaks I couldn't justify giving them money even if I could justify their prices.

And yes, I'm aware of the irony.

It's been a truism for a while now that Nokia doesn't release new phones when they're finished - you need to wait for a couple of firmware releases for that.

At the same time, the hardware set of top Android phones is the reason I've bought two more Nokias in a row. Samsung and Motorola are getting very close to convincing me, but Motorola have done stupid, unfriendly things with locked bootloaders - preventing custom firmwares while not committing to prompt and guaranteed updates themselves - and Samsung goes and does something like the Nexus S with no card slot and an average camera.

What I want is an N900, next generation, all updated and upgraded hardware, maybe the N8 camera (we can dream), still the keyboard, and Maemo 6, not MeeGo. And now that's doomed forever. Do I think the first MeeGo device will be worthy, and complete?

Don't make me laugh bitterly.

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