In defense of the Goldilocks phone

Boring phone specs? Don't be so quick to sneer.

Kent German/CNET

HTC recently teased the launch of its next marquee phone, promising on Twitter, "A phone that is more than the sum of its specs."

The meaning of that statement has turned into a whole other kettle of fish, with HTC explaining that the parts in question "represent the jumble of parts (specs) that our competitors inelegantly cram into their phones, while the space in the middle outlining HTC's next phone represents 'a phone that is more than the sum of its specs.'" 

Even though that device has now launched, the HTC U12 Plus, which lacks pressable hardware buttons and relies on you to squeeze it, the very literal message remains. 

That message is: A phone with moderate specs can still be a worth buying, and maybe worth buying over a fancier model. 

Two examples leap to mind. The first is Motorola's Moto X from 2013, a midrange handset with a dimple on the rubberized back cover. Amongst ourselves, we called it the Goldilocks phone.

For $200 on a subsidized contract in the US (£300 in the UK and AU$549 in Australia), the Moto X's specs fell below the superphones of its day like the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One. Yet CNET editors agreed it was one of those rare devices that was simply a pleasure to use, duller screen and smaller storage capacity or no. We could brush those peccadilloes aside because this was the phone we kept reaching for.


The original Motorola Moto X wasn't stylish, but it was comfy as hell.

Josh Miller/CNET

The second example is recent, and personal. My parents, deciding to upgrade from an old budget Lumia Windows Phone on its last legs, opted for a refurbished Galaxy S7. This isn't my first choice phone for them, but it's a good choice that fits their very specific requirements, and a huge leap in speed, camera capability and quality over their previous device. The context around how they'll use their new Galaxy S7 matters, even if this model is already two generations behind the objectively far superior Galaxy S9.

Oftentimes specs do line up to performance and "better" phones are in fact better to use. And generally, high-performing phones with the most tricks do earn higher scores. Still, during my near-decade as a phone reviewer, plenty of contrary examples crop up. There are the handsets that look great on paper, but are undone by a design flaw, like sharp edges or poorly placed buttons. 


Huawei's Honor View 10 is reliable and saves you some cash.

James Martin/CNET

There are those phones with cameras that take great photos, but whose native apps are too confusing to effectively use. And on the flipside, those budget devices whose performance-for-price value makes them likable, no-brainer buys. These unexpected results are the reason that CNET and others test phones so thoroughly; because you don't know which way the hammer will fall until you do.

Today, the closest analog to that original Moto X would be the Moto Z2 Play or Moto X4. The OnePlus series and Huawei Honor View 10 also fall into this category of phones that are more satisfying to use than their pure specs list would suggest.

In the race for the most impressive specs and cutting-edge innovations -- Face unlocking! Squeezable sides! A heart-rate monitor! -- it's easy to assume that slightly more humble specs will add up to poorer performance, that a lack of software embellishments and hardware filigree make for a boring handset.

But sometimes, a more straightforward phone is just right. 

Article originally posted May 6, 2018 and updated May 24 at 7:11am PT.

Read: The absolutely best phones you can buy right now

Read: LG says it might fix the LG G7's Samsung-like mistake