Diminishing Returns: The Cold, Hard Truth for CES Smartphones

This is the bitter reality for Android phone makers right now. The improvements in the latest, most premium phones aren't really that big of a deal.

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Sony Xperia Z

Sony has a new flagship phone at CES called the Xperia Z, and it is pretty decent. The company has another one, called the Xperia ZL, that’s also fairly nice. They’re both roughly as okay as the flagship Ascend D2 phone that Huawei was showing off in another part of the room.

If my descriptors seem lacking, that’s intentional. The truth is that none of these phones seem markedly better than last year’s holiday handsets. They’ve got a few perks that some older phones don’t, like 1080p displays and quad-core processors, but in real world use it’s hard to see the added benefit.


When I sampled another new phone this morning, Pantech’s Discover, the experience seemed practically as solid as Sony’s and Huawei’s flagship devices, despite a mere 720p display and a dual-core chip. The biggest difference is that Pantech’s phone will sell for $50 on AT&T, starting this Friday. Huawei’s and Sony’s phones will likely be more expensive if they ever reach the United States.

This is the bitter reality for Android phone makers right now. The improvements in the latest, most premium phones aren’t really that big of a deal. A 1080p display doesn’t look much different from a 720p display at normal viewing distances. A quad-core processor doesn’t provide much of a real-world benefit over a dual-core one. Photos from a 13-megapixel camera don’t look significantly better than photos from an 8-megapixel one, and shutter lag on most good smartphone cameras dropped to near zero a year ago.

As a result my brain feels a bit mushy as I look at the latest phones from CES. In the context of quick hands-on demos, there aren’t a lot of remarkable things to relay about the cream of the crop. At a glance, they’re all just pretty good phones. (Okay, let’s give the Xperia Z credit for one cool trick: It can survive up to 30 minutes dunked in water.)


Jared Newman / TIME.com

Google is partly to thank–or to blame–for this situation. Ever since Android 4.0, known as Ice Cream Sandwich, Android phones have become a lot smoother and more polished. It’s now hard to tell the difference between a phone with a top-of-the-line processor and one with the next-best thing. Software, for that matter, tends to be the source of most innovation in smartphones nowadays, and while Android phone makers tend to add some of their own software bells and whistles to their phones, I’ve yet to see any innovations from them on par with, say, Google Now.

This isn’t only the case with Android. As I wrote last March, diminishing returns seems to have hit Apple’s latest products as well. In general, spec boosts in mobile devices just don’t have the same wow factor as they did a couple years ago, when an increase in display resolution or processing power produced noticeable differences to the average user.

There’s a chance that some real innovation will happen at Mobile World Congress next month, where big shots like Samsung, LG and HTC may announce new phones. But I’m willing to wager the story will be a lot like it is here: A bunch of incremental improvements in tech specs that don’t make much of a difference. That’s not so tragic–there are worse things, after all, than a really solid smartphone with no defining traits. It’s just kind of boring.

MORE:Check out TIME Tech’s complete coverage of the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show


So Emperor1717, what's the difference to the average user.. not much. It's just specs which you use to justify the load of money you just dropped to have bragging rights. unless you have microscopic vision and can tap your feet to a microsecond beat.


I completely disagree with this article. A quick look at a lower end smartphone like the Pantech Discover and a high end smartphone from Sony is in no way a proper comparison. Seriously that's like driving a Chevrolet Cruze a mere two miles to the grocery store  and then driving a Chevrolet Camaro SS the same two miles and claiming you couldn't sense a difference. In all honesty I think we just expect way too much and way too fast from our smartphones and their makers. Seriously the author of this article seems to me to be complaining that new high end smartphones are not really offering anything new, WHAT?????

1) The standard 2013 high end smartphone will have pixel density of  at least 440ppi, wasn't one of the Iphone's highest selling points it's industry leading high pixel density of 326ppi, new smartphones not only surpass this, they destroy this! 

2) 1080p hd screens are the new standard, compared to 720p screen resolution. "But I can't really tell the difference", SO WHAT! First off there is a difference and while it might not be evident at first, it will be with greater use and once more material can be utilized that takes advantage of the screens 1080p capabilities. 

3) 12mp+ cameras with full burst modes and increase sensitivities 

4) Double processing speed (quad core is the new standard)

5) Bigger and longer lasting batteries while the smartphones are getting lighter and thinner.

6) High end smartphones are also being made more durable, for example the water proof Xperia Z.

I mean the list goes on and on, my question is what exactly are you freaking expecting. Star Trek technology "Beam me up Scotty". Oh you want smartphones to have the ability to time travel? 

MediaCritiquerDotCom like.author.displayName 1 Like

Hoping smartphones and our addiction thereto has peaked.  Really...


Maybe they can now start working on the affordability part of cell phones...

deperez000 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

everything is amazing and nobody is happy


you know i wonder why cellphone batteries can't borrow from timepiece batteries, in that motion is used to "wind" the timepieces. Since people tend to move their phones in their hand alot--inadvertently or on purpose--can't the motion "wind" the batteries and help keep the battery power from depleting as much as batteries of today do?


The ONLY thing that would really shake the industry would be an AMAZING, unbelievable, Super iNNOVATIVE, fully and duly patented, bellissimo... 

PINK iPhone.



How about they opt for better call quality? Better signal? More durable frame? More scratch resistant? Better battery life... Those are the things I want in a PHONE...

Windows_Female like.author.displayName 1 Like

That's how you can tell that companies have totally run out of *USEFUL* ideas... and are now desperately
trying just to add ANY new feature... just for the purpose of adding SOMETHING... anything.

How about a 100% bug-free OS instead?

How about coming out with a new phone that doesn't use a very old version of Gingerbread from 2010?

How about 2x or 3x battery life, instead?

How about a single phone that can be instantly switched from Verizon to Sprint to AT&T with a software setting?

How about true "unlimited-everything, no caps, no throttling" plans that cost $30 instead of $100?

How about an "absolute 0 glare screen" in all lighting conditions, indoors and out?

How about devices that do NOT cost $700 each?

How about a device that isn't destroyed just from 1 drop on the floor, from even 1 foot in the air?

How about a solar charging panel on the back?

How about a true, full 4.7" screen... instead of totally wasting the extra screen space with on-screen buttons?

How about if the user can decide if he wants your custom GUI... or the stock Android GUI?

How about something as simple as a smudge-proof back... and a fingerprint-proof glass front?

How about a screen that is 100% visible in totally darkness or sunlight.  (Gee, "sunlight", we didn't think of that one.)

How about something as simple as a case that is NOT slippery as wet ice, and slips right out of your hand?

How about a screen that is recessed 1mm in, so that even if you lay your phone facedown... the screen never touches the dirty/scratchy surface?

A charging cable that can be plugged in, in any direction, and it still works fine.

Gee, even a basic, average user can come up with a long list of ideas far better than any manufacturer can think of.

bjamieson like.author.displayName 1 Like


How about a 100% bug-free OS instead?

- Virtually impossible, with oppressively cost prohibitive development time. How long has Windows XP been around, and how long has it had bugs? How about Windows 7? Even Mac OS has had bugs that were never fixed. If it was as simple as you're making it out to be, do you really think any OS developer wouldn't leap at the chance to advertise, "Our OS is 100% bug free and will NEVER need an update!"

- How about coming out with a new phone that doesn't use a very old version of Gingerbread from 2010?

There are tons of phones running Ice Cream Sandwich.

How about 2x or 3x battery life, instead?

- Battery capacity is tricky and can be dangerous to get wrong. Again, if it were that easy to create a 24hr battery life do you really not think the manufacturers wouldn't be jumping over each other to add this? You know what? A smartphone battery can probably approach 24hrs of life if you turn off GPS, turn down the backlight, disable 3G/4G and wireless and just use it as a *phone.*

How about a single phone that can be instantly switched from Verizon to Sprint to AT&T with a software setting?

- No. Just, no. That's not how business works and no carrier in their right mind would allow something like that on a phone. The logistics between carriers (ie: handling and offloading billing) of something like that are just crazy.

How about true "unlimited-everything, no caps, no throttling" plans that cost $30 instead of $100?

- This I can agree on, though $50-65 is a more reasonable rate for that kind of data plan. $30 4G is way too cheap for that kind of access.

How about an "absolute 0 glare screen" in all lighting conditions, indoors and out?

Again, I'm sure someone is working on a screen with minimal glare. However, we have decades of screen production and all of them have had glare for the simple reason that glare-less screens are easier said than done. Also, the market pretty much spoke when everyone opted for terrible glare filled glossy laptop screens and matte displays became a premium option. People want shiny. It's stupid, but that's what sells.

How about devices that do NOT cost $700 each?

- Premium devices have premium costs. There are smartphones that do not cost $700.

I'm going to stop here. The point is that most of these suggestions are either impractical or near impossible, or are clearly harder to accomplish than just idly typing them down in a comments section. Everyone is so, "Gimme! More! Better! Gimme!" and seems to ignore the fact that just 10 years ago you didn't have a freaking mini tablet in your pocket you could access the internet from almost anywhere, play games, check your kids nannycam and download thousands of applications. Cut these designers, developers and manufacturers some freaking slack.


all in all that's good news for budget conscious people. stash away your nickels and apply it toward something else