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Overhyped, underthought, and totally useless: The plague of new phone ‘features’

OVERBLOWN OVERHYPED AND TOTALLY USELESS THE PLAGUE OF NEW PHONE FEATURESHave you ever wanted to watch a postage stamp-sized video at the top of your phone while you take notes on another screen? Do you ever feel the intense need to doodle all over your homescreen, and wish there was an entire button on your phone to let you accomplish this vital task? How about a sharing feature that only works if all of your friends own the same exact phone as you?

If you answered “no” to all of these questions, congratulations, you’re a rational consumer. But thanks to features like Samsung’s Pop-Up Play, HTC’s BlinkFeed, and Huawei’s Me Widget, all these features exist. Along with Panorama Note, QSlide, MirrorLink and any number of asinine, overmarketed “features.”

Crazy new software features are rapidly becoming the most popular way for companies like Samsung, LG, and Huawei to differentiate and promote Android smartphones, but almost all of them seem to exist only to fill spec lists and give executives something to talk about at press events. Our phones are part of a pointless, but persistently ridiculous game of oneupmanship between major handset makers. And it’s a massive waste.

Everyone’s doing it

This is particularly relevant on the eve of the Samsung Galaxy S4’s announcement, as it looks like Samsung will be repeating the tactics used during the Galaxy S3’s launch event in 2012. During that event, the specification of the phone was quickly swept aside, leaving Samsung to spend well over half the 75 minute presentation talking about branded features like the Nature UX, S Voice, Smart Stay, Direct Call, Smart Alert, and a ton more. Real things, like, the processor, weren’t even mentioned.

HTC One - BlinkFeedSamsung’s not the only culprit either. HTC concentrated on it’s new software features during the HTC One’s announcement as well. If you can actually explain what HTC Zoe does without looking it up on HTC’s site, we’d be surprised. At Mobile World Congress, an LG representative demonstrating the Optimus G Pro to us reeled off a list of software features, almost all of which began with the letter Q, and almost none of them were in any way memorable. Oh, except Dual Recording, which is a perfect example of an “added value” feature aimed at absolutely nobody, but ideal for demoing at a trade show.

In this flood of junk features, the few that are slightly interesting are often hidden away, hopelessly restricted, or ludicrously complicated. Did you know Samsung recently added MultiView to the Galaxy S3? Probably not, because it’s accessed by holding down the Back key until a little tab appears at the side of the screen. At first it looks like a quick launch menu, but you can drag the icons onto the main screen to use two at once, just like the Galaxy Note tablets.

Other features are too restricted to be useful. Want to use Pop-up Play with YouTube videos? Nope, it only works with videos you’ve added to your Galaxy phone. As for HTC’s BlinkFeed, it’s front and center on your homescreen and after spending considerable time setting it up, it fills the screen with nonsense you’d normally try to avoid. It’s like an automated, less useful Flipboard app that you can’t turn off.

Stealth features work best

It’s not all junk though. To Samsung’s credit, it has come up with one of the most useful added features we’ve seen: Smart Stay, which stops the screen from going to sleep while you’re looking at it. If the rumors are correct, it’s about to be enhanced by Eye Scroll on the Galaxy S4, which will scroll onscreen text down as you finish reading a page. Why is this better than the others? It’s because it doesn’t require any set up or learning, operates in the background, and is genuinely helpful. Sadly, it’s the exception to the rule and it’s not even enabled by default, so there are few of users who will ever get the opportunity to try it.

A good feature is something most of us use on a regular basis.

These features have replaced the endless Android UI tinkering that used to be the big way manufacturers try to make each of their phones stand out from the sea of competition. The trouble is, they’re equally as unwanted, rarely unique (Samsung’s Pop-up Play and LG’s QSlide are almost identical), and once they’ve been demonstrated by a sales person when you buy the phone, probably never used again.

While we understand the need for unique features, if they’re going to be held up as reasons to buy a phone, we’d prefer them to quickly and clearly fit into our lives. A good feature is something most of us use on a regular basis. You know, like Apple’s Panorama mode on the iPhone 5. That’s fun, simple, not hidden, and useful. If a new feature is nothing more than a ridiculous name coupled with an overly complicated feature that you need to Google the instructions to use, please just don’t include them at all. Really. We’re serious. It’s a waste. Give us a few good features, not a ton of useless ones.