What Really Counts
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If you peel off the layer of hype and get down to using a phone, you'll find there's some feature or characteristic you're just not comfortable with. Sometimes that may be because a phone is designed so, and sometimes it will be because you are designed so.The famous QWERTY keyboard of BlackBerry phones is a case in point. A phone may be brilliantly designed, fast, spec-filled, etc, but if you're likely to spend much of your time two-thumb texting, you'll find a touch phone a bit of a shock because typing on glass isn't the same thing. On the other hand, if you find the little keys on a phone annoying and often hit neighbouring keys instead of the ones intended, you might find you're comfortable with a virtual keyboard.
Input methods are one of the most important aspects of a smartphone. There's the old style keys, newer softer keys, virtual keypads, handwriting, voice input, super-predictive typing, and unusual methods like the Swype you find on Android phones. Cameras, in addition, bring in a new form of input. Think of what you really can't do without and what you have no use for. A frantically busy person accustomed to dictating to-do lists to his secretary would do well with a phone that easily lets him use apps to send off recordings or instant voice messages. Someone who networks a lot might need a phone with a good camera so business cards can be scanned quickly. Or, a user may need a good camera to support the heavy use of an app like Evernote, where photos are frequently pulled in and used for different purposes.
There's a recent buzz around quad core phones which are impressive with their speed. But very often, it's only advanced users who are able to push the limits of performance on such phones. Gaming or other processor-intensive activities may call for a massive amount of speed as will high-end video and movies — but many users are relatively undemanding in the quality they want for such activities. They just aren't involved enough and are casual users, not caring whether they can see the droplets of water on a car's hood or not. Spend on a fast phone — read expensive — if you want to genuinely boost your experience and are willing to pay for it. To buy a high-end phone and only use it to make phone calls and play an occasional round of Angry Birds is a waste. Also look at the other devices you own. If you have a tablet, specially a smaller one like the Galaxy Note or one of the 7 inch tabs around, rethink the size of the phone you plan to buy. A 4.8 inch smartphone and a 5.3 inch tablet make for a bizarre pair, unless you really separate their use in some way.
Phones have also tended to get larger to accommodate screens to make for an impressive experience with gaming, visual apps and consuming media, including better reading. But everyone hasn't got used to holding large screens. Some think nothing of it and adapt happily while others can't seem to figure out just how to hold them. Consider this before you pick up a device that becomes your daily companion. If you've been using another phone, also see how much trouble you might have using buttons and other access methods on a new device. It takes very little time to learn new placements, but for some people it's a put-off to even try.
A relatively new trend is for phones to have irreplaceable batteries, sealing the phone's body up into one single unit. The beautiful HTC One X is like that. And so is the iPhone, of course. Some from Sony's Xperia range are unibody devices. With Android phones in particular, battery drains out quickly and you may be the type of user who'd like to just carry another battery and exchange it — though this can be avoided if you're willing to carry portable chargers.
Each of us is willing to make certain compromises or adjust to new ways of using a device, but only up to a point. Each of us would rather a gadget fit into our own style rather than the other way around, keeping in mind of course that there are also people who like to experiment and are bored with an "old" way of doing something within minutes. Rather than let someone else tell you what's the best for you and go by specs alone, it's best to touch and feel and try a device if you can. After everyone's finished admiring it, you're the one who has to become comfortable with it.
mala(at)pobox(dot)com, (at)malabhargava on Twitter
(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 04-06-2012)