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Why the new 'superphones' really are super

Mike Elgan | July 15, 2013
The word 'superphone' is an old marketing and headline gimmick, but this year's lineup of extreme phones has earned that moniker.

Super cameras
A new category of superphone has cameras capable of using more pixels than even high-end prosumer digital cameras.

Nokia this week announced its Lumia 1020 superphone, which is super because it has a 41-megapixel digital camera inside. (My high-end prosumer Canon EOS 7D camera has an 18-megapixel CCD.)

While the best use of all those megapixels will be for digital zoom and "oversampling," which means removing digital noise by giving a 5-megapixel image multiple choices for each pixel, the phone will also be capable of taking 38-megapixel photos — far more than prosumer digital cameras can.

Other superphones in this category are Nokia's older Symbian-powered PureView 808 (also 41 pixels) and the upcoming Sony Honami i1 (expected to have a 20-megapixel camera).

Super smarts
Describing Siri and Google Now as "artificial intelligence" is controversial, but I've heard leading AI experts do it.

The ability to understand what you say in everyday language and then talk back — plus the ability to learn, do things for you and make decisions about whether to interrupt you — are AI-like features that consumers can get only from a small number of phones.

For example, iOS phones like the Apple iPhone have hardware inside designed to optimize the use of Siri. This experience is not available on laptops or desktops or anywhere beyond the hardware-optimized iOS devices it runs on. That exclusivity makes the iPhone a superphone.

Likewise, the small number of phones specifically optimized at the hardware level for Google Now are also superphones, according to my definition. The Nexus 4, co-designed by Google and made by LG, probably fits into this category, and the upcoming Nexus 5 (rumored to become available in October) almost certainly will.

Google has teased but not announced the specifics of its upcoming Moto X phone. Some pundits have suggested that this phone may have hardware optimizations for Google Now as well, since Motorola is owned by Google.

By my definition, any phone hardware-optimized for artificial intelligence capability that's unavailable on desktop computers is a real superphone.

Other super capabilities
The coming age of wearable computer products, like Google Glass devices and smartwatches, means smartphones will increasingly serve as the hubs of wireless personal area networks.

When smartphones are specifically hardware-optimized to boost the capabilities of wearable devices, they will become super, as long as those hub functions are unavailable on other devices.

These are just examples. I think we're going to see a rise in the availability of superphones that will be not only better than other phones, but also better than any other device at fundamental tasks important to users.


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