When buying a smartphone, there are dozens of different factors to consider, especially if you're trying to decide between a few popular phones that seem like essentially the same thing, just with different packaging. Looked at a list of specs lately? Quad-core, 2GB RAM, 13 megapixels, 4.7/4.8/5.0/5.5 inches, LTE, NFC, and other three letter words.
What sets one phone apart from another? If recent launches are any indication, smartphones are due to have longer and longer lists of features to differentiate themselves from the competition.
Good features can make or break a smartphone, but not all features are worth your time and they definitely should not influence your buying decision. Here are the most egregious offenders.
1. More megapixels
Two years ago the fanciest smartphones boasted 5 megapixel cameras. Last year's number? 8MP. Now the 13MP phones are coming and aren't you impressed? You shouldn't be. We went through this same scenario over in the camera world and the problem is the same here.
More megapixels does not equal a better camera or better pictures. The iPhone 4 [
iPhone 4S] had a 5MP camera that put many 8MP Android phones to shame. The Galaxy S III and the HTC One X both had 8MP cameras, but HTC took superior pictures. Specs alone aren't going to tell the whole story. What makes a good smartphone camera is a combination of a quality sensor and a good camera app that tweaks things behind the scenes to give you the best shot possible.
[Correction: the iPhone 4S has an 8MP camera]
2. Camera features that don't improve picture (or video) quality
A wealth of settings in the camera app is a definite plus, but some smartphone makers are going overboard with image and video features that aren't necessary and don't make images look any better. Recent examples include HTC's Zoe (introduced with the new HTC One) which takes multiple pictures plus a few second video every time you press the shutter button andthe dual camera recording feature found on the LG Optimus G Pro and the Galaxy S4. Even the highly touted 1080p video recording isn't impressive if you're not going to watch it on a 1080p screen or, if you do, the quality is so bad you wish you'd left it on your phone.
Don't shop by these features. Look for camera enhancements that will improve how images look in the end. High-end smartphones that have fast lenses (f/2.0 or lower) will deliver better shots, but also look for camera apps with settings that allow you to change the exposure and white balance, include HDR (High Dynamic Range), and have scene modes.
3. Audio enhancements that are more trendy than transcendental
With a wealth of apps available that allow you to stream and download your favorite music, more people are using phones as their MP3 players. With that comes a desire for better audio quality. Thus, some manufacturers tout their audio prowess, like HTC including Beats Audio in their flagship phones. The secret is that Beats Audio is little more than a set of equalizer settings, and therefore all you need is a good third-party EQ app like Equalizer EQ (free in Google Play or iTunes) to improve the output on music, video, and even games.
4. Extra buttons you don't need
Ever since Android 3.x Honeycomb Google has tried to convince phone and tablet manufacturers to give up on buttons. Android devices no longer need physical Home, Back, or Menu buttons, since these functions are now on the screen. Does that stop the likes of Samsung, HTC or LG from including them in their designs? Nope. This isn't a bad thing in itself–some would argue it's a good thing–but when phone makers start adding even more buttons, they move into the territory of unnecessary.
Camera shutter buttons aren't too bad, but buttons like LG's QButton on the Optimus G Pro just get in the way. The QButton launches QMemo by default, even though you don't really need such quick access to that app. Users can change which app it does launch, but that doesn't eliminate the real problem: there's no need for an extra, in the way button that launches apps.
5. Features that only work if you and everyone you know has the same phone
Gone are the days when almost everyone with a smartphone had the same smartphone. Be it the halcyon years of BlackBerry dominance or the early days of the iPhone. Even popular Android phones can only achieve a certain amount of market saturation on their own. So picking a device based on the cool things it can do, if those cool things only apply to one other device, means you'll hardly ever get to do that cool thing.
Samsung touted the Galaxy S4's Group Play feature as a way for a group of friends to enjoy music together and improve the sound quality. Problem is, that feature only works on the S4. It may work with the next-generation Galaxy Note and a few other premium phones from the company, but not the Galaxy S 3 or the Galaxy Note 2, even though both are quite popular.
6. Futuristic gestures and motions that aren't intuitive that you'll never use
For years futurists have predicted a world where technology requires little more than a hand-wave or voice input to get amazing results. The road to that amazing future is apparently a long one, and along the way we're due to be bombarded with stuff that looks like it came from "Minority Report" when actually it's more like "Amazon Women on the Moon."
Waving your hand above the screen to swipe left and right is cool, but it's not better than just swiping left or right with your finger. Talking to your phone to make calls, schedule appointments, and search the web feels like science fiction until the text-to-voice engine doesn't understand you, can't translate without a connection or can't interact with the app you need. And, finally, the jury is still out on the recently-introduced eye tracking feature. It didn't work well for us in bright light situations, but when it did work, it was really useful.
Overall, when shopping for smartphones, be on the lookout for hype. Flashy features rarely add up to anything, so keep in mind what's important in a phone: comfortable design, good display, long battery life and software features that match what you want to do with your phone.