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