Top 10 worst smartphone gimmicks we’ve ever seen

Callum Tennent
May 23, 2014

The old idiom proclaims that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. There is seemingly no stronger testament to the staying power of this truism than the smartphone.

Ever since mobile phones first exploded in popularity in the late 1990’s, manufacturers having been cramming trash down our throats and proclaiming it to be treasure. And who could blame them? Mobile communications is one of the most competitive markets in the world, and they must to continue to innovate to stand out from the crowd, or perish.

But when that one-hour-before-deadline, half-baked, eye-catching ‘feature’ that we’ve been force fed falls flat? That’s when we get to poke fun.

Here are ten of the worst gimmicks in smartphone history:

1) LG G Flex – Curved screen

LG - G Flex

The Concept:

As TV’s in our living rooms get bigger and bigger, so does their resolution. 4K will soon be the norm, our eyes popping in excitement over the cinematic levels of clarity and colour.

Just like in the cinema, larger home television screens are beginning to curve too. LG’s curved OLED TV is the latest to hit the market, and can really enhance the viewing experience when position just right. The screen curves slightly inwards in the middle, granting the viewer a sense of immersion and preventing the picture from becoming distorted at the edges due to the extremity of the viewing angle.

Through some remarkably reverse-engineered logic, LG have since decided it would be appropriate to do the same with your smartphone. The LG G Flex is also curved in the middle, only in this case the curvature runs from top to bottom.

The Reality:

What exactly is the point? What purpose did they hope this would serve? With their curved television LG have actually enhanced the viewing experience, albeit minutely. With a curved smartphone there is no such visual enhancement. LG claim that it is more ergonomic when held up against your face. It isn’t. In fact the curvature is so incredibly slight that it is barely noticeable, even when placed on a flat surface next to a regular phone.

The LG G Flex simply looks like it’s been put through the wash in the back pocket of your jeans, emerging just slightly warped enough to be visibly unsettling but completely functionless.

2) Samsung Galaxy series – Samsung Air View

Samsung - Air View

The Concept:

Your Samsung Galaxy phone or tablet with Air View enabled is able to detect when you hover your device’s S Pen Stylus (or even your finger on some devices) just above the screen.

As a result you can, for example, scroll up and down a page or preview the contents of an email simply by hovering.

The Reality:

Have we been taking crazy pills? This is complete madness! Who thought this was a feature that people wanted? You’re hovering your finger one centimetre above the device – just touch it. The device is already being held in on hand, with your weapon of choice (be it your finger or your stylus) in the other, so there are no mobility advantages to be gained.

Similarly, it’s not as if you’re interacting with your phone in a fundamentally new way. You aren’t navigating your brand new Galaxy Note 2 with hard buttons. You’re performing the exact same actions as always – only one centimetre away from the screen.

3) Sony Ericsson Xperia Play – Everything

Sony Ericsson - Xperia Play

The Concept:

It’s a smartphone but, get this, it turns into a portable games console. A portable games console made by Sony! Carrying the PlayStation name! Never seen that before, right?

The Reality:

Hold on. Yes we have. Twice. The PlayStation Portable and its sequel the PlayStation Vita have sold just shy of 90 million units worldwide between them. And here is a phone with a ridiculous PlayStation-branded slide-out gamepad which can only play Android games available to every Android phone ever. Great selling point, guys.

Not to mention its meagre four-inch, 854 x 480 pixel display which was outdated, even by early 2011 standards. There was also the small matter of the £500 price point – enough to buy you both a brand new, top of the line portable games console as well as a new smartphone, if you have any common sense.

4) HTC Salsa, HTC ChaCha – ‘Facebook Phones’

HTC - Salsa & ChaCha

The Concept:

People love Facebook. Heck, even people who hate it still find themselves glued to it for multiple hours a day. Facebook has been one of the greatest innovations in the way we communicate with one another since the mobile phone itself. By combining the two, you have the ultimate social tool.

The Reality:

Who decided to name two phone handsets ‘Salsa’ and ‘ChaCha’? That’s just terrible. And so was their unique selling point.

What the greatly anticipated ‘Facebook Phone’ ended up manifesting itself as was a regular smartphone with a button dedicated to Facebook. Press the button, go to Facebook. That’s it. Again, these were phones released in 2011. Apps were ubiquitous at this point, none more so than Facebook’s own. You can already open Facebook at the press of a virtual button, so why hardwire one into the case of the phone? The Salsa and ChaCha were low points, even by HTC’s ever-slipping standards.

5) Samsung Galaxy S4 – Samsung Smart Scroll

Samsung - Smart Scroll

The Concept:

Just about every other action performed on your smartphone is scrolling. It’s nigh on impossible to do almost anything without putting thumb to screen. It is an inherent, core aspect of the way we operate our smartphones. A smartphone that does away with scrolling would be like a car that banishes the steering wheel.

Great Korean innovators Samsung believed they had found away to change phone interfacing forever, with Smart Scroll. The Galaxy S4’s front-facing camera utilised retina-tracking technology to follow the user’s gaze. When the user’s eyes reach the bottom (or top) of the page, it begins to scroll automatically. Manual scrolling is a thing of the past.

The Reality:

Here is a list of issues which may cause Smart Scroll not to perform correctly, courtesy of Samsung’s official support website: When the front camera fails to detect face and eyes, when the source of the light is behind you or when using the device in the dark, when the front camera is being used in an application, when you are using other gestures, such as Air View, when there are popup messages or screens being displayed, or when you have multiple windows open.

You can probably guess how well ‘Smart’ Scroll worked most of the time. We should also point out to Samsung, once again, that when you already have your thumb resting against the device in question, making said device ‘thumbs free’ is completely redundant.

6) Motorola Atrix – Webtop Lapdock

Motorola - Atrix Webtop Lapdock

The Concept:

Two years before the rise of the tablet/PC hybrid, Motorola conceived the Atrix. The idea was to turn a mobile phone into a mobile computer.

Through the use of the Atrix Webtop Lapdock, the Atrix can become a laptop. Simply dock the phone and it displays its content on a full-sized laptop screen, complete with functioning keyboard and trackpad mouse.

The Reality:

To be fair to Motorola, there is nothing inherently wrong with this feature. ‘Second screens’ are a major trend in mobile tech right now – pick any tablet off of the shelf at your local electronics store (if you can find one) and the chances are it can connect to your home television, either wirelessly or via HDMI cable.

What was unacceptable, though, was the absurd price. If you wanted to purchase the Lapdock along with your new Atrix smartphone you would have been facing upwards of £300 – and that’s the price when purchased on an expensive contract.

For £300, plus a hefty £45 per month contract, why on earth would you not just buy a tablet? Or a netbook? Or anything at all other than this ridiculous machine? The Atrix simply aimed to fill a niche that never existed.

7) HTC Evo 4G – Kickstand

HTC - Evo 4G

The Concept:

It’s a kickstand. Need to stand your phone up? Fold it out, and there you have it.

The Reality:

Think about where you are when you use your smartphone to watch video. On the bus perhaps, or the train. Maybe you’re walking down the street or waiting in line at a shop or cafe. Maybe you’re sat with a friend on the sofa and want to show them a quick video you saw earlier.

In any of the scenarios that come to mind wherein you watch video on your smartphone, is there a stationary, flat surface place immediately in front of you?

It would seem that the HTC Evo 4G falls that the first (and only, really) hurdle. It’s practically useless. Even if you were to find somewhere out-and-about to place your phone to watch a bit of film, what if your headphones then don’t reach your head from the device? Or the speakers are too quiet? Or the screen isn’t sitting at quite the right angle?

For those determined to have a kickstand attached to their phone, there is a case offering that feature available for just about every handset under the sun. For HTC though, they might do well to bear in mind that some selling points are ‘unique’ for a reason.

8) Samsung Galaxy Beam – Built-in projector

Samsung - Galaxy Beam

The Concept:

Wouldn’t it be fantastic to share all of the fun and exciting media on your phone with your friends, without them all having to huddle around your device’s tiny screen? Or perhaps you want to watch a movie or video clip on your phone, but with all immersion of watching it on a television screen?

The ever-brilliant brain trust over at Samsung have been slaving away in the lab yet again. This time, they’ve found a way to put a projector inside your phone. A full-on projector, just like you’d deliver a presentation on at work, or watch a movie on at the cinema – but integrated into your smartphone. The future is truly here.

The Reality:

Like a chocolate teapot, the Samsung Galaxy Beam may sound tasty, but its real life applications are few and far between. For a start, unless you plan on amassing your pals inside a dark room with a big, clear, white wall, just how are you supposed to show them anything on a beam projector? Just like any projector, this one works best in the dark.

In fact this one works only in the dark, thanks to its output of 15 lumens. Lumens are the unit by which visible brightness is measured and, for comparison, a standalone low-end budget projector will usually output at around 2000 lumens. So you don’t need to be Thomas Edison to work out how the Galaxy Beam performs.

Combine this with the fact that the Galaxy Beam’s projector has a maximum range of two metres and a battery life shorter than the running time of Lawrence of Arabia and you have one pretty terrible gimmick.

9) Motorola Moto X – Quick Capture

The Concept:

Being unable to reach your device quick enough to take the perfect photo in the perfect moment is a problem that just about everyone has probably experience at some point, and it long pre-dates smartphones.

With the Motorola Moto X’s Quick Capture feature smartphone photographers need never miss that once-in-a-lifetime snap ever again. With two quick flicks of the wrist your previously locked smartphone awakens itself and jumps straight to the camera app – all you have to do is shoot.

The Reality:

If the concept of shaking the device versus, say, the iPhone’s lock-screen camera button seems redundant, just wait until you see what a ‘flick of the wrist’ entails.

It’s a small miracle that each Moto X handset didn’t come with a warning from the surgeon general about excessive use and carpal tunnel. The promotional trailer for the handset shows a woman twisting her wrist back and forth as if the Moto X were the lid on a particularly tough mayonnaise jar.

Of course the motion works first time in the advert, but anyone with any experience of this sort of feature will know full well that they never perform first time of asking. All it takes is for the Quick Capture’s motion recognition to fail once and it’s already cost you time versus simply unlocking the phone.

10) Samsung Galaxy S4 – Samsung Smart Stay

Samsung - Smart Stay

The Concept:

Of we couldn’t finish this list without another one of Samsung’s Bond-esque innovations. Their track record has been stellar so far, what could possibly go wrong?

With Samsung Smart Stay, your Galaxy S4 has yet another use for retina tracking – this time it knows when you’re paying attention to your device and when you’re looking away. The result is that if you’re writing a text message or email and stop midway to have a chat with someone or pay attention to the world around you, it will put the screen to sleep to preserve battery.

Similarly, if you’re watching a video and get distracted it will automatically pause it for you.

The Reality:

The reality is that it is completely ridiculous and unnecessary. The reality is that it does not work as intended. The reality is that Samsung are so plainly out of ideas with regards to real technological innovation that they continue to roll out bizarre features that attempt to fix problems which never existed using hardware which was never designed to do so. The reality is that all of these gimmicks make both the user and the trillion-dollar multinational corporation behind them look utterly stupid.

When companies throw in cheap parlour tricks to sell unremarkable technology, it cheapens their brand, cheapens their product, cheapens the medium which they have worked so hard to legitimise, and cheapens the fragile relationship they have built with the consumer.

If mobile companies could just focus on plainly bettering their product rather than trying to seduce users with digital snake-oil, they might just find that the profits and accolades they have been so desperately seeking will come easier than they first thought.

About the Author

Callum Tennent

International playboy/tech journalist.

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