Future phones: packed with new features but 'hopelessly dorky'

By John D. Sutter, CNN

(CNN) --- If you've been following Mobile World Congress, the tech show happening this week in Barcelona, Spain, you've heard a lot about the technical specifications of the new class of smartphones.

They're faster, bigger -- and one has a 41-megapixel camera.

Lost in all of the talk of photo resolution and processing power, however, is a glaring trend: Phones also are getting super nerdy.

Some are so big they'll no longer fit in a pocket. Average-sized people would have trouble holding them up to an ear to make a call.

    "You have to be either an NBA star or the Jolly Green Giant to place a call on that," Mike Gikas, a senior tech editor at Consumer Reports, said of one of the newer phones from Samsung. Of another, he said, "It's pocket-sized for a kangaroo."

    On top of the whole size thing, there are a few other nerdy trends that have come to light this week. Among them: the comeback of stylus pens, which phone makers want us to use to scratch notes onto smartphone screens that can also be controlled with the touch of a finger; cell phones that work as office projectors; LED lights that illuminate on the outside of the phone based on what you're looking at on the screen (if you see a photo of a sunrise, Wired writes, the phone will shine red); and 3-D smartphone screens.

    A reviewer from the blog VentureBeat recently wrote that the Samsung Galaxy Note, a "phablet" that has a 5.3-inch screen (compare that to the iPhone, which measures 3.5 inches diagonally), is "hopelessly dorky" -- but also interesting:

    "While an oversized phone with an archaic input mechanism doesn’t exactly sound like an iPhone killer, the Galaxy Note has enough going for it that it deserves a second look. That is, as long as you don’t mind looking like a huge dork while using it."

    Perhaps that's the case for many of the new phones. Maybe there's something below the "hopelessly dorky" exterior that makes them worth a look. Gikas, from Consumer Reports, said "it's like the Wild West right now" in terms of mobile phone development and functionality. Phone makers are just throwing a bunch of ideas at the wall and hoping one will stick.

    And some people seem to feed off of whatever's new. Of a new LG phone that includes a stylus pen, Wired writes:

    For folks who insist stylus-based data entry is still relevant in 2012, it’s all an intriguing package. Indeed, the Vu promotes doodle scribbling and free-hand note-taking at will.

    As Gikas sees it, however, there's something lost in this race for phones to be bigger-faster-brighter. Phone makers may end up ignoring the things consumers actually care about most, he said: battery life and usability.

    If it's difficult to use a phone, it probably doesn't matter how many megapixels it has.