Monday, November 29, 2021
Smartphone news

Are portless phones the future?


This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.

I was about to start this one with a very strong rant. About evil companies taking away features and conspiring behind our backs to become even bigger and shamelessly rich. Let’s not do this. Sure, I miss the 3.5mm headphone jack, and maybe I’ll miss the microSD card slot once it’s gone. It’s easy to get emotional and start pointing fingers but emotions often get in the way of facts. So let’s try to keep this factual. Right. Portless phones!

How did we end up here?

The idea of a phone without ports, slots, and physical buttons is not new. There’s a “Portless electronic devices” patent application filed way back in 2013 and it’s classified as a “Telephone set modified for use in ships, mines, or other places exposed to adverse environment.” It’s a special scenario that makes perfect sense and we’ll get to this later on. Thing is, somehow this portless phone idea has exploded, and now it’s touted to be the next big thing in tech.Back in 2019, Meizu showed a portless phone concept called Zero. It was clearly a PR stunt and although some colleagues got their hands on a review unit, the phone was never meant to be mass-produced. However, it seems that this exercise in PR has ruffled some feathers, and now patent applications for portless phones are flying left and right.

 

Things got serious when a similar patent filed by Apple was discovered because it’s one thing when a skunkworks Chinese manufacturer tries something crazy, but a completely different matter when one of the biggest and most popular smartphone brands is even considering the idea.

Then analysts and tech experts picked up the news and made it big. Ming-Chi Kuo stated that Apple was planning to remove all ports from the premium iPhone 13 Pro Max in 2021, while Jon Prosser said that there is a 70% chance that the iPhone 13 Pro models will be portless.

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Why go portless in the first place?

I’m sure this question keeps lingering in your mind while you’re reading all this. It’s a perfectly valid one. There are phones without a 3.5mm headphone jack (most of the flagships, to be precise), and many models now support eSIM, getting ready to completely ditch the SIM card slot.

iPhones never bothered with a microSD card slot and Samsung got rid of it in the S21 lineup. There’s one port left, however, standing in the way of our portless future and it’s an important one – the USB/Lightning charging/data transfer port.

Back to the patent application from 2013 – a portless design could offer better durability and dust/water protection. That’s about it. From a design perspective, there could be a little more freedom and playroom for sleeker designs but it won’t make a night and day difference. Phones are thin enough (maybe even too thin sometimes) as they are, and removing the USB/Lightning port won’t help them get slimmer.

So, in theory – a phone with no ports, no physical buttons (the Meizu Zero had capacitive touch-sensitive side zones), no SIM or microSD ports, no microphones or loudspeakers (using piezoelectric mics and speakers) could offer great dust/water resistance.

Hell, I bet it would be able to withstand something like 5ATM. But who really needs such a phone? Divers? Miners? Dakar Rally competitors?

You can argue that a portless phone is inherently more durable, as there are no structural weaknesses in the frame. Furthermore, you won’t be plugging and unplugging the USB/Lightning cable hundreds of times and there’s no risk of the port failing.

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But the frame is not the weakest part of a modern smartphone – it’s the front/back glass panel. And regarding the port failing – chances are you’ll be buying a new model long before it happens anyway.

The herd of elephants in the room

Okay, let’s assume Apple and the big boys decide to go forward with this, and the iPhone 14 or whatever is completely portless. There are two main issues with such a design, with a third lurking in the shadows. The first one is charging, of course.

With a portless phone, you would have to rely solely on wireless charging and although fast wireless charging is becoming a thing, it’s way less efficient and generally slower than wired charging. I want to be completely objective – this is not a rant. Maybe wireless charging will catch up and we’ll get to a point where there won’t be any difference in charging speeds.

Maybe we’ll get integrated wireless charging in our laptops, Apple has another patent describing such technology. The goal is to get rid of unnecessary chargers and wires, especially when you travel. It’s a cool idea and I’m all up for it. But then there’s the second big elephant – data transfer.

I still use a cable when I want to unload a big pile of photos or videos onto my PC. It’s just faster and more convenient. Wi-Fi transfer is a possibility but it is still slower and less reliable than USB. Bluetooth is just out of the question when it comes to big files and this won’t change anytime soon – it’s so painfully slow.

Cloud storage then! Yes, cloud storage is a thing and I’ve touched it in my ambiguously titled article “The microSD card is dead!” but as it turns out lots of people don’t want to pay for premium cloud storage and there are scenarios where LTE/5G connectivity is not an option, making the good old cable the only solution.

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What about data recovery?

I guess that’s the third problem that’s much less obvious. People sometimes brick their phones or there’s an issue that prevents the phone from booting up/operating correctly. You can then simply plug in the cable and connect the phone to your computer, restoring and recovering your data. With a portless design, this is just not possible.

 

According to the latest rumors, Apple is working hard to overcome this problem and engineers are throwing around ideas such as “Internet recovery mode”, Bluetooth recovery, and creating a wireless access point in the device in case of emergency. The tech is supposedly in the early stages of development and things like speed, security, ease of use and other factors will need to be considered.

What’s the verdict?

So, “yey” or “nay” to portless phones? You’ll probably hate me for saying this, but it’s really difficult to tell. If you ask me, I wouldn’t bother to try and push a portless design to the market. Not in the next five years at least. There are still lots of constraints and the benefits are questionable. We need faster/more efficient wireless charging as well as faster and more reliable ways to transfer our data for a portless design to work.

What do you think? Would you buy a portless phone?



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