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Standard mobile handsets at evolutionary dead end

Samsung’s Galaxy S21 FE 5G press release leads with the phone’s case design.

That’s right. Samsung’s public relations professionals think the single standout fact that will get journalists and others writing about the new phone is the case.

This tells you everything about the state of the phone market in 2021: it’s no longer exciting. We appear to have reached an evolutionary dead end.

Galaxy S21 FE 5G looks like a fine phone

There is nothing to suggest the Galaxy S21 FE 5G is anything but a fine phone. On paper it appears to tick all the important boxes.

Yet, we have come to the stage 1950s US motor manufacturers reached when they put giant tail fins on cars. They made non-essential design changes purely to signal to consumers “This is a new product”.

The days when you could whip a recently purchased phone out of your pocket and have people admiringly ask: “is that the X phone?” are long in the past.

Few people care about new phones any more.

A replacement market

These days you buy a new phone when the old one wears out or has been dropped one time too many. With one major exception people are not rushing to grab new phone features.

While cameras get better with each product cycle, the upgrade is meaningless. Fewer and fewer users push their phone cameras to the limit.

The majority of users don’t get much beyond point and click auto-settings1.

5G support

There is one feature upgrade in the Galaxy S21 FE 5G that we need to talk about. As the name suggests, it supports 5G mobile networks.

That may sound important. For a handful of users it may even be important. Yet for the vast majority, it will barely register.

Having 5G support doesn’t add anything significant to your mobile phone experience.

On the other hand, it is a box every new phone needs to tick. Soon it will be hard to sell phones that don't support 5G.

Nice, but nothing special

There’s nothing a 5G phone can do that a decent 4G phone doesn’t handle. It’s not as if we can’t sit on a bus watching high resolution streaming video on 4G.2

Virtual reality might change that one day. But not yet.

You may hear salespeople tell you that including 5G support will future proof your phone purchase.

This doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The 4G phone networks will be around for longer than the likely life expectancy of a phone purchased in early 2022.

Years to go

Phone companies start thinking about shutting down previous generation networks about ten years after the new one arrives. All the three mobile operators in New Zealand have either upgraded the bulk of their 4G towers or are in the process of upgrading.

Chances are, the mobile towers you use often are 4.5G or 4.9G or somewhere between the two.

5G mobile is important. But everyday mobile phone users won’t notice the difference.

If anything, Samsung’s press release is further evidence that everyday mobile handsets have reached an evolutionary dead end. There’s scope for innovation. Samsung’s folding screen phones show that. Yet for now, there’s not a lot of excitement in new phone launches.

  1. You might. But we’re not talking about you here. This is about the broader market, not individuals.

  2. Lower latency could change the mobile game experience. If you’re a keen mobile gamer you may want to keep an eye on developments there.

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