In a year that confined nearly all Americans to their homes, consumers’ reliance on technology to work, learn and communicate reached an all-time high. Unable to visit family members in-person or head into the office, devices like smartphones became the only means by which people could connect, with video calling applications like Zoom and FaceTime proving to be nothing short of a lifeline in the pandemic.
But with this crisis also prohibiting consumers from sourcing entertainment outside the home, it’s fair to say that smartphones have been a survival tool for those battling increased levels of boredom. Social media sites like TikTok and Instagram have taught consumers that anyone can be a content creator. Online multiplayer games like the widely-popular Among Us have enabled players to interact with friends and others in real-time.
With this in mind, what consumers have come to expect of their smartphone’s features and specs has been drastically altered by the pandemic, as their usage crosses multiple categories, including photography, videography, streaming, and gaming.
To find out what consumers want in their smartphone of the future, BlinkAI commissioned a survey of 1,000+ American smartphone owners in February 2021 weighted for the U.S. population. The following 2021 Smartphone Consumer Report from BlinkAI explores the findings from that survey on which features and functionalities consumers are prioritizing as their smartphones move far beyond being merely a tool for communication.
The sample was nearly evenly split between iPhone (55%) and Android users (45%).
Those who identified as being Android users primarily held Samsung devices (27%), followed by Google Pixel (6%) and LG (6%). The sample also included a small number of OnePlus, Lenovo, Xiaomi, and Huawei smartphone users.
U.S. Smartphone owners rank longer battery life (73%), more storage (49%), a faster processor (43%), and better photo/video quality (41%) as more compelling reasons to upgrade to a new device than 5G (34%).
Android users (36%) said they were slightly more compelled by 5G to upgrade from their current smartphone versus iPhone users (32%), and were also more interested (47%) in the idea of upgrading to a better processor than their iPhone (43%) counterparts.
Consumer desire for upgrading to a smartphone device based on higher quality photos and videos saw the most significant difference in opinions based on gender. 47% of women said the ability to take higher quality videos and pictures would be a compelling reason to upgrade from their current device, versus just 35% of men.
The smartphone replacement cycle has increased over the last few years as annual improvements on mobile devices have plateaued, with more than one-in-three (35%) American smartphone users planning to keep their device for more than three years.
The replacement cycle period also varies by gender and age demographics. Nearly four-in-ten women (39%) report that they plan to keep their current device for longer than three years versus 31% of men.
When it comes to new photo and video enhancements that would warrant upgrading their device, enhancing image quality for night photo and night video mode (44%) was the top choice, followed by optical zoom (22%), front and rear-facing cameras (18%), 8K video (9%), and triple-rear camera (7%).
Nighttime video production was reported to be a significant pain point for many smartphone users, with more than a quarter (26%) of Android users and 23% of iPhone users admitting that they’re not satisfied with the quality of their nighttime videos. Comparatively, just 4% of Android users and 3% of iPhone users reported not being satisfied with the quality of the daytime videos they capture.
Battery, Storage, Processors, & Better Photos/Videos Beat Out 5G as Reasons to Upgrade
The manufactured hype for 5G is real. With the likes of T-Mobile and Verizon dominating our TV screens with commercials that tout nationwide availability and world-class speeds, it’s fair to say that the race to mainstream 5G is one that every carrier is promoting.
In fact, the three major carriers (T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon) recently paid the U.S. government a whopping $80 billion to build out their 5G networks, a record figure that promises to have a profound impact on telecommunications for years to come. Yet, even though leading brands are investing monumental sums of money to make wireless speeds faster, it’s what consumers care about least when it comes to their next smartphone’s desired capabilities.
BlinkAI’s 2021 Smartphone Consumer Report found that consumers rank 5G features as only the 5th most compelling reason for them to upgrade to a new device. In fact, just over a third of consumers (34%) say that a new 5G equipped smartphone would entice them to upgrade from their current device, falling well behind other enhancements like more storage (49%), and the ability to take higher-quality videos and photos (41%).
Of course, this isn’t to say consumers are not intrigued. A recent PwC report found that 62% find 5G “very appealing”. But when it comes to the features that consumers prioritize when it comes to making a purchasing decision today, they seem overwhelmingly practical. The enhancement, which would be most compelling for them to upgrade from their current device, is extended battery life (73%).
And when you consider how much smartphone usage has increased in the past year, it’s an unsurprising answer. After all, in 2020, the average consumer spent more than 3 hours per day scrolling through their mobile devices, a 14% increase from the previous year. In addition, the lockdown has caused them to spend more time using applications that typically drain the battery quickly, like Netflix and YouTube, and social media sites. Interestingly, iPhone (72%) and Android users (75%) rank an extended battery life fairly evenly in its importance to upgrade.
In line with the theme of practicality, 43% of consumers say that a faster processor is the most compelling reason for them to upgrade their smartphone. Android users (47%) were slightly more compelled with the idea of upgrading to a better processor than their iPhone (43%) counterparts. These Android users may have their eye on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888, which will power 2021 Android flagships from manufacturers like Samsung, OnePlus, Xiaomi, LG, Sony, and more.
Overall, 76% say that the chip their phone is running on is moderately important when buying a new device. This is interesting given the evolving nature of consumers’ smartphone usage. Fast processors play a huge role in gaming performance as the GPU is also integrated into the chip itself. According to comScore, games account for 43% of all smartphone usage today. Analysts believe the Snapdragon 888 will put Android GPU performance close to the iPhone 12 Pro's 102.24, which will be a major leap from 2020 Android devices.
Interestingly, consumers' desire for upgrading to a smartphone device based on higher quality photos and videos saw the biggest difference in opinions based on gender. 47% of women said the ability to take higher quality videos and photos would be a compelling reason to upgrade from their current device, versus just 35% of men.
OEMs Need Innovation as Smartphone Replacement Stretches Beyond 3 Years
Developing and bringing to market the features that consumers want continues to be a growing need for smartphone OEMs as the replacement cycle continues to extend. In late 2019, Strategy Analytics reported that the U.S. smartphone replacement cycle had extended to 33 months as prices moved above $1,000 and the release of new innovations plateaued. For some, this was hard to believe, as in the early 2000’s the majority of consumers were in the practice of following glitzy annual launch events and quickly lining up for their new phone every twelve months. However, by 2015 the replacement cycle had already shifted to two years.
BlinkAI’s findings indicate that the replacement cycle has even increased since 2019, with more than one-in-three (35%) American smartphone users planning to keep their device for more than 3 years. When comparing Android and iPhone users, the former indicated they would be keeping their device longer. 37% of Android users indicated they are planning to keep their smartphone longer than 36 months compared with 34% of iPhone users. In addition, another 20% of Android users believe they’ll keep their device for just over 2 years. Comparatively only 15% of iPhone users said they would be looking to keep their device for the same time period.
Interestingly, the replacement cycle period also varies by gender and age demographics. Nearly four-in-ten women (39%) report that they plan to keep their current device for longer than three years versus 31% of men. Therefore, it’s not a surprise that you see smartphone manufacturers hungry to continue rolling out new innovations with photo and video enhancements that women are interested in with the hope of enticing them to upgrade.
Meanwhile, exactly half (50%) of those over the age of 60 said they plan to keep their device for more than three years. Comparatively, only 26% of millennials and Gen Z under the age of 30 said they plan to keep their mobile devices for 36 months-plus.
In the Age of AI, Consumers Call for More Intelligent Smartphones
Artificial Intelligence has driven many groundbreaking innovations in the industrial, automotive, and video gaming industries. But with smartphone technology taking center stage at most consumer tech shows like CES these past few years, it’s safe to say that AI will move far beyond applications like digital assistants — especially with the emergence of Edge-AI technology that’s moving the needle for AI across many sectors.
According to Gartner, AI features will become a critical product differentiator for smartphone manufacturers that will help them to acquire new customers while retaining current users. The aforementioned Snapdragon 888 is being touted as carrying many next-generation AI features. As the smartphone market shifts from selling technology products to delivering compelling and personalized experiences, they say AI will become an integral part of vendors’ roadmaps.
And we already see some of these features becoming mainstream. For example, Apple, Samsung, and Huawei have all introduced devices with powerful AI chips that can perform up to 5 trillion operations per second and use significantly less power to accomplish tasks. Meanwhile, features like Face ID and voice assistants have become staples on almost every device.
But which AI-enabled feature do consumers consider to be the most important? Once again, enhancements that reduce battery consumption dominate consumers' needs. According to our findings, 70% of consumers say this is the most exciting area in leveraging AI. That was followed by AI that enables faster processing needs (46%), AI that offers better security protection (44%), and AI that helps them take better photos and videos (40%).
AI has been revolutionizing photo and video quality in recent years. With photo and video-sharing apps like Instagram surging in popularity, the barriers between amateur-level and professional-quality images have been shrinking. AI programs and computational photography that enable users to turn their photos into DSLR-quality images have tightened the gap even further. Mainstream AI-enabled photo editing tools allow smartphone users to edit blur and sharpness easily.
Indeed, the ability to take higher-quality photos and shoot crisper videos is growing in importance. Researchers at Suite 48 Analytics even found that 1-in-10 professional photographers across North America and Europe use their smartphone cameras for approximately half their photos. Moreover, that same study found 31% say they are using their smartphone more now for professional images than they did a year ago, hinting at the progress made when it comes to AI technology and smartphone sensors boosting performance.
Consumers Rank Better Quality Night Photos & Videos as Top-Priority Camera Enhancement for Smartphone
With the above said, there are still areas for improvement before consumers and professionals can consistently capture top-quality shots. The quality of nighttime photos and videos proves to be a significant pain point — yet also a substantial opportunity for smartphone OEMs to differentiate themselves from the competition and boost ROI.
In fact, when BlinkAI asked consumers, "which camera enhancement on a new smartphone would be the most compelling for them to upgrade from their current device," 44% said better image quality for night photo and video mode. Meanwhile, 5x optical zoom (22%) was the second most popular answer when consumers were asked which camera enhancement would compel them to switch devices, followed by front and rear-facing cameras (18%), 8K video (9%), and triple-rear camera (7%).
BlinkAI announced in December that it was teaming up with Xiaomi to bring the world’s first ‘Night Video’ to the Mi 11, a next-generation smartphone on the company’s flagship Mi line. The partnership saw Xiaomi become the first to use BlinkAI’s AI-powered imaging solutions to enable camera phones to see better in low-light scenarios, bringing unprecedented detail and vibrancy to its smartphone’s nighttime videos.
And while pitting Android against iPhone when it comes to features and specs has become a popular pastime, it turns out that neither set of users have been thrilled with their smartphone camera’s nighttime performance to date.
iPhone vs. Android: How Nighttime & Daytime Photo/Video Taking Fares Today
According to BlinkAI’s findings, nearly a quarter of Android users (23%) and iPhone users (22%) say they are “not satisfied” with the quality of the nighttime photos they can currently capture on their smartphone. To compare, just 2% of Android users and 3% of iPhone users say they’re not satisfied with the quality of the daytime photos their mobile device can take.
While nighttime photo-taking functionality has become a somewhat regular feature on phones over the last few years, the capability to record quality live video at night on a mobile device has proven a difficult challenge to address. Taking photos at night relies on capturing light over a long period and merging many frames to produce an enhanced image. A different approach is needed for video's real-time streaming. For video, each rapidly captured frame needs to be improved, and on top of that, the enhancement has to happen nearly instantly.
Interestingly, when it comes to their smartphone’s nighttime video-taking capabilities, Android users are notably less satisfied with their devices than iPhone users, with more than a quarter (26%) admitting that they’re not satisfied and can only take low-quality nighttime videos, compared to one-in-five (19%) iPhone users who reported the same. This differs drastically from their satisfaction with their device’s daytime video capabilities, with just 4% of Android users and 3% of iPhone users reporting dissatisfaction.
Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has increased consumers’ reliance on their mobile devices, challenging economic conditions have caused smartphone sales to drop significantly. Samsung’s sales, for instance, experienced a 27% YOY drop in 2020, while the overall global market saw a 20% decline last year, according to Gartner. This will increase the pressure on smartphone OEMs in the coming years to capture new consumer demand. This will be done not only with innovative new features, but also the sensible features that consumers see as necessary for them to upgrade from their current device.
With the rollout of the vaccine igniting optimism across the nation, consumer spending habits are already returning to some semblance of normalcy. Smartphone sales, in particular, are expected to rebound quickly. Yet, it’s becoming increasingly clear that what consumers have come to expect of any product they buy, has undergone an extreme transformation. Something smartphone brands like Apple, Samsung, Google, and Xiaomi will need to keep in mind as they get ready to launch highly-anticipated additions to their widely popular smartphone ranges in 2021 and beyond.