Welcome to the 'So what?' era of Android phones

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Attention, residents: We're in the midst of a seismic shift in the Android universe.

The tremors have been a-rumblin' for a while now, but it wasn't until I started using the new LG G2 that it really hit me: We've officially entered a new era in the evolution of Android devices. An era that changes the way we look at mobile technology. An era from which we can never return.

It's something I like to call the "So what?" era of Android phones.

Allow me to explain: Over the past several months, the leaps and bounds we'd been seeing in mobile tech have started to slow down. Not long ago, a faster processor meant a world of difference in what a smartphone was like to use. Upgrading to a higher resolution display was an eye-opening experience.

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That race to the top happened fast -- and these days, a boost in numbers doesn't mean nearly as much. Your new phone has 423 pixels per inch compared to that other phone's 316, you say? Great. Your device has a 2.26GHz Snapdragon 800 processor instead of that other phone's 1.7GHz Snapdragon 600? Okay.

Let's face it: That stuff's all great for geeking out over benchmarks, but when it comes to real-world use, it's far less significant. A well-made phone these days is fast, regardless of how many cores or gigahertz it's packing. A good HD screen looks good, whether it's got 468 pixels per inch or 423. At this point, the advances in technology mean more for marketing and lab tests than they do for the daily lives of real users.

That's where the "So what?" era comes into play. Solid components and snappy performance have pretty much become the baseline standard: It's expected that a new phone's going to be fast. It's a given that a high-end device's screen should satisfy. So some new flagship phone's got good specs -- so what? A phone nowadays needs something else -- a great form factor, a killer camera, a feature no one else has and everyone's gonna want -- to stand out from the pack.

That's where I've been struggling to get excited about the G2 -- and gauging by the numerous interactions I've had over social media lately, I don't seem to be alone. Sure, the phone has impressive technical specs. Sure, it has great performance. But so what?

Step back for a moment and look at the big picture: The HTC One has a stunning premium design. The Moto X has an unmatched overall user experience. The Galaxy S4 has the option for expandable storage and swappable batteries.

The G2 is by no means a bad phone, but it's missing that "wow" factor -- that meaningful thing that makes it stand out in a sea of also-impressive devices. It's actually a really good phone; it just lacks the answer to the question: "So what?" With so many other really good phones out there, what makes this one matter?

Here's the good news: The start of the "So what?" era is a wonderful thing for us as consumers. With basic specs and performance no longer serving as the sole driving factor, phone makers are being forced to come up with creative and compelling reasons for us to care about their devices. And that's resulting in some of the most interesting and well-designed smartphones we've ever seen.

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The "So what?" era of Android phones is here, my friends -- and I for one couldn't be more excited to see what it's gonna bring us next.

[Addendum: In discussion of this story on Google+, some people have asked whether the "So what?" concept is a justification for the types of ill-advised UI changes and gimmicky features we see in certain manufacturers' devices. It is not. There's a big difference between meaningful enhancements that improve the user experience and arbitrary changes and/or gimmicks implemented for the mere sake of "differentiation." See my earlier story "What makes the Moto X so special" for a more detailed analysis of that topic.]

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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