Did you see Samsung’s theater of the absurd yesterday? No? Good for you. It unleashed a pale imitation of a Broadway show to roll out its amazing new flagship, the Galaxy S4. There’s a reason Samsung felt the need to put on one hell of a show for one hell of a phone — because, much like the Apple iPhone5, the S4 is in just about every way delightful but ultimately not that intriguing.
The Galaxy S IV may well be the greatest phone in the world right now. It has top-notch hardware, shipping with a zippy new Samsung Exynos 5 or Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor, and a stunning, never-before-seen 1080p Super AMOLED five-inch display. Its operating system, Android 4.2.2, is slicker than slugs on ice. It also packs new features like automatic translation, a pedometer (and other health functions) and a crazy set of wave-your-hands-in-the-air gestures. It’s all packed into an incredibly slim body just 0.31 inch thick, which is a triumph of industrial design if you stop and think about it. It’s aces.
And yet so completely boring.
Does that sound familiar? It should. We said it about the iPhone, too. And it is pretty much true of all high-end phones — at those least running Android or iOS. The wow factor of a few years ago is gone. And counterintuitively, that’s great.
Think about it. These are the requirements for entry for any high-end handset now: a great interface, a gorgeous pixel-dense display, great cameras front and back, a super-fast processor, 4G LTE, multi-carrier availability, a robust app store and superb industrial design. We’ve got the form factors pretty well dialed in, even if we’re still experimenting with sizes. Externally, the materials will change, and continue getting better and better. Software will continue to improve. And there will always be surprising new features, like Siri or S-Translate.
All of which means the bottom line is almost any flagship phone you buy today is going to be great, because it’s going to be an iterative device built on the shoulders of giants. No, it’s not going to blow anyone’s mind, or even raise a lot of questions from strangers. But that’s OK. In fact, you may not even want a super-interesting phone. If you have the kind of phone people stop you on the street to ask about, odds are that’s because nobody else is buying it for one reason or another.
The most purely interesting phone to come out so far this year is, by a long shot, the Blackberry Z10. It’s got an all new interface, and pretty great hardware too. It’s intriguing, because you haven’t seen it before. (And because it’s a Hail Mary for Blackberry.) And yet given the lack of options for applications and Blackberry’s uncertain future, I think you could also make the case that it’s not, well, amazing. Yes it’s cool to look at, but I don’t think you’d want one. Likewise, the Lumia 920 and HTC 8X are both really, really interesting. People ask about them. But neither of these Windows 8 phones has a decent app ecosystem, a chicken and egg problem that has prevented them from going mainstream.
As we said in September, “revolution becomes evolution. And that phone in your pocket–or more to the point, in the store window–becomes just a part of your life. It’s something you use, something you rely on. And then completely forget about. And in its own way, that’s actually kind of mind-blowing.”
Smartphones have matured, admirably. The really exciting new gadgets now are things we’ve never before seen and tend to be something you wear on your body, like Google Glass, the rumored Apple iWatch, or the Oculus Rift.
The S4 looks like an amazing device. If you are in the market for a new phone, you definitely should give it a look. But don’t expect it to blow your mind. Until (or, maybe, unless) Samsung or Apple or HTC or someone else manages to take smartphones to some other unforeseen level, the days when a new phone could boggle the mind are over.