Get ready for the next silly smartphone superlative

From megapixels to pixel density and millimeters to bezels, phone makers have a history of focusing on superficial metrics to get your attention. Here comes the next one.

Smartphone Superlatives

Smartphone marketing tends to revolve around superlatives — you know, words or phrases that suggest being the most something in all of the land.

The specific quality in question shifts pretty regularly (hey, you've gotta keep it fresh, right?). For a while, way back when, the boasting was all about having the phone with the most processing power. Since then, in no particular order, we've seen phone-makers focus on having the biggest, the smallest, the thinnest, the brightest, the most pixel-packing, and the least-bezel-showing devices. Oh, and don't forget megapixels. For the longest time, having the phone with the most megapixels was about as good as you could get in terms of ad-ready bragging rights.

The one thing every single one of those metrics has in common? At a certain point, they're all utterly meaningless — beyond, of course, their apparent power to make the associated devices look shiny, new, and advanced beyond anything else (and, like, totally worth your buying dollars, dude, even though the previous-gen phone you have now is only marginally different).

Well, gang, guess what? The "smallest bezel" trend may still be going strong, but manufacturers are already gearing up for The Next Big Thing™ in meaningless marketing.

Do a dramatic drumroll on the nearest desk and/or femur, please: The new silly smartphone superlative is all about cameras — again. This time, though, it isn't megapixels or even pixel sizes that are the metrics of choice; it's the number of cameras packed into a device's body. Yes, oh yessie: We're about to see every phone-maker scramble to cram as many cameras as possible into its gadgets so it can brag about having more, more, moooore than anyone else.

The silliness, in fact, has already started: Both LG and Samsung are rumored to be working on future flagships with a whopping five cameras per phone. And the trend will almost certainly only pick up pace from there.

Already, the hype train has left the station, and there's no shortage of trend-embracing excitables just champing at the bit to tell you about how this is The Innovation That'll Change Everything™. Of course, the same folks issue similarly lofty assessments about practically every shiny new thing that comes along — but once that initial excitement fades, most of those items fizzle quickly and fail to make any meaningful impact on the average person's life. When every new thing represents a "revolution" to someone, your internal skepticism alarm should be clanging like nobody's business.

Here's the grounded, hyperbole-free truth: First, sure, having five cameras in a phone may well prove to provide an advantage the likes of which humanity has never before seen. According to reports, the multitude of cameras in these upcoming devices could enable functions such as wide-angle shooting, ultra-wide-angle shooting, telephoto zooming, and then either a "bokeh" effect (wherein the subject of an image remains in focus while the background gets blurred) or some sort of 3-D sensing system on the phone's front.

At least some of those areas may prove to be advantageous. But the presence of numerous cameras alone won't add up to much, no many how many lenses are involved.

For illustration, we need look no further than 2017's Pixel 2 device. Despite having "just one" rear-facing camera at a time when the trend has been shifting upward, the Pixel 2 is widely hailed as being one of the best (if not the best) all-around photo-taking phones, still today. That's in part because of the hardware involved, but the hardware itself really isn't all that unusual. The quality is more directly connected to Google's focus on software — and in this specific instance, software-oriented photo processing — as a differentiator.

Compare that to a phone like the LG V30, which makes an awful lot of noise about its "never before seen" camera capabilities. LG's marketing page for the device is oozing with technical info about the V30's dual-rear-camera setup for wide-angle shooting and all the wild bits involved.

And yet, the V30's camera is generally described as — well, at best, a mixed bag. Depending on whom you ask, it's "good ... but never exceptional," "OK," or just plain "bad." So, sure: The phone can take wide-angle pictures. But how much does that matter when its photos are mediocre?

Now, before you break out the pitchforks (you know who you are...), hang on: My mission here isn't to preemptively declare that LG's or Samsung's next effort will be equally lackluster. Obviously, we won't know anything about those products' effectiveness until we see them in action. And that, ultimately, is my point: that impressive-sounding numbers and physical pieces in and of themselves mean very little when it comes to the big picture of modern technology.

Mark my words: What we're seeing here is the start of yet another "mine's bigger than yours!" race to nowhere. To some degree, at least, the developments ahead will be about creating measurable marketing points as much as (if not more than) providing meaningful value to users. It's an inevitable cycle in the smartphone world — with a shockingly predictable pattern of progression — and it doesn't take a prophet to spot the seeds of it in action.

The important thing to remember is that, just like in the kitchen, the proof is in the pudding. (Mmm...pudding.) Whether we're talking fancy cakes or expensive phones, the ingredients mean less than the recipe used to unite them.

The take-home message, then? Don't let yourself be swayed by the coming onslaught of superlative-laden marketing. Wait til we see results and can put them in perspective to call something a revolution. Ignore the hype and put your faith in real-world performance and day-to-day impact over anything, and you'll rarely go wrong in your mobile tech assessments.

Now, for the love of all things holy, would someone get me some pudding?

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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