People complain about the lack of innovation in smartphones today, with manufacturers tending to rely on bumped specs to sell their product instead of truly useful features. The fact is that over the years there have been a lot of interesting experiments in smartphones, but many of these – even the useful ones – don’t always catch on. Sometimes the features we loved have disappeared because they were useful only to some, not many, users. At other times, design or cost constraints forced these features out. Here are some of our favourite features that have either disappeared, or are on their way out.
1) IR blaster on flagship Android phones
You know what’s common between the Xiaomi Mi5s, the Galaxy S7, Galaxy Note 5 and the HTC 10? They’re all flagships that don’t have an IR blaster, although the previous generation phones all did.
Infrared on mobile phones isn’t new; many phones in the early 2000s had Infrared ports to transfer contacts and other data from one phone to another. But that was before faster, easier-to-use mediums like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi were brought on board. Infrared on phones made a re-entry in the form of an IR blaster, which when paired with supporting software, converted a phone into a universal remote.
Any electronic device that is controlled using a typical IR remote – televisions, set top boxes, music systems, air conditioners, etc – could be potentially controlled using a phone. Infrared blasters on some phones could also read and emulate codes of any IR remote, so after a little effort, you could practically configure any button of any remote on the planet.
It was a feature that most flagship smartphones picked up, but today we’re seeing less and less of this feature, especially in the high-end spectrum of smartphones. A fair share of mid-range smartphones still have an IR blaster though. Maybe some parallels can be drawn between this and the lack of FM radio on high-end phones, while still being present in the low-end.
2) FM Transmitter
Speaking of FM, Nokia fans may remember this feature on many an N-series phone, such as the Nokia N86: an FM Transmitter lets you wirelessly beam audio playing on the phone to any FM receiver. It was simple to use too – just set a frequency that doesn’t overlap with the radio stations, and keep the phone close to the receiver or the antenna. This feature was very useful if your car audio system didn’t have Bluetooth, or an AUX port.
There were however a few concerns with the setup – for one, it wasn’t secure, as anyone could tune into your frequency. Second, the output clarity largely depended on how far the phone was from the receiver. Finally, there apparently were also some government restrictions on the usage of FM transmitters in some countries, including India. With other technologies such as Bluetooth picking up, this feature got shelved soon enough.
The Nokia 5210 was a rugged phone released in 2002, and it had an interesting feature – a thermometer – using which the phone could show the temperature around you. After being MIA for decades, thermometers in smartphones again got some attention in 2013 with the Samsung Galaxy S4 featuring one, which showed ambient temperature in the built-in S-Health app. But this feature is going through another lull; perhaps never to be seen again.
There are an endless number of weather apps, but none of them can tell you the ambient temperature around you. Although knowing the weather conditions outside is useful, it is also nice to what the actual temperature around you is. There is a theory suggesting why a thermometer isn’t the commonly-seen sensor on smartphones – it is difficult to get an accurate reading of your surroundings thanks to heat smartphones themselves generate.
Nonetheless, it would’ve been nice-to-have feature in any smartphone today. For what it’s worth, a hardware startup called Thermodo sells a subtly-designed thermometer that plugs into your phone’s 3.5mm headphone jack.
4) Xenon Flash
This is a popular feature seen on ‘camera phones’ from a decade before – such as the Sony Ericsson K800 or the Nokia N82. This trend continued in the past few years with more camera-focused phones such as the Lumia 1020. But off late, it appears that Xenon flash isn’t really on the top priority of phones.
What’s so good about a xenon flash, you ask? The high-intensity flash can illuminate dark environments far more than a typical LED flash would, especially when the subject isn’t very close to the sensor. It sounds great, but there were a couple of drawbacks. For one, xenon flashes can’t fire in quick succession, proving not as useful in burst shots. LED Flashes are cheaper to implement, and consume less battery. Next, low-light photography in today’s smartphones that have a big aperture, and features like optical image stabilisation help capture images more accurately in dark situations, that many find preferable to the blinding strobe of a Xenon flash.
5) 3.5mm headphone jack
A heated topic since the launch of the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, people tend to forget that it was the LeEco Le 2 and the Moto Z that dropped support for the revered standard before the iPhone did this year. Some might suggest that the move was pre-emptive decision following strong rumours of Apple doing so later in the year. There’s seems to be no stopping the no-3.5mm-jack train now, as new phones such as the HTC Bolt don’t have it either, and there are rumours that the Samsung Galaxy S8 will also not have one. By the looks of it, it’s very probable that the days of this universal audio standard are numbered.
Apple claims that the jack had to be removed to make more space in the phone, for improved optics and battery capacity. Still, the 3.5mm jack removal is a bitter pill to swallow, and another problem is that it makes moving from one eco-system to another more difficult. Earphones that connect to the Apple’s Lightning port will be rendered useless if you move to Android, and vice versa, without a series of connectors.
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