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On Call: Too many phones?

Is there ever a point where the cell phone selection just becomes too much? With so many average devices on the market, CNET's cell phone editor thinks so.

Any cell phone reviewer can tell you that the period between Labor Day and the second week of December brings a ton of new handsets. Indeed, after the relatively slow days of summer, the industry shifts into high gear and does its best to take advantage of the holiday shopping season. Whether you want a high-end smartphone or just a simple model for making calls, rest assured that there will be something for you.

Though the flood of news is exciting for the first few weeks, by the time Thanksgiving approaches I wonder if it's all become just too much. Instead of thinking, "Wow, what will they think of next!?" I move to, "Seriously, do we really need another quick messaging phone for AT&T?" The carrier already offers 16 similar models, for crying out loud, so is another one really that necessary? I say no.

Too many or just right? Screenshot by Kent German/CNET

A numbers game
Here's a bit of perspective. So far this year, CNET has reviewed 159 cell phones sold in North America. What's more, in the last two weeks alone, manufacturers released 13 new models for the U.S. market. Though a couple are noteworthy, the majority are forgettable. They're not bad, they're just, well, fine. And that's the problem.

Fewer and far between
If you ever visit Samsung Mobile's U.S headquarters outside of Dallas, you'll notice several banners hanging above the lobby. One banner encourages employees to make Samsung the No. 1 manufacturer in the U.S. market (in terms of handsets shipped), whereas the others mark periods where the company has achieved that status. By all accounts, Samsung is the most prolific company that CNET follows. Out of the 12 new handsets released since the start of November, for example, Sammy can claim more than half, including the Zeal, the Continuum, the Contour, the M360, the Solstice II, the Messager III, and the Evergreen. And that's just the tip of a very large iceberg.

There's nothing wrong with being No. 1, but making consistently good phones, rather than just a lot of them, should be the ultimate goal. Though the Continuum and the Zeal are noteworthy--the former has a unique "ticker" display, and the latter has a innovative keyboard--most devices don't have a real story to tell. They make calls, they send messages, they take a photo, but that's about it. After while, they start to blend in with each other.

All around the industry
I don't expect every cell phone to blow me away with fancy features and a flashy design. As I said last week, I'm a big fan of basic phones, but we don't need a dozen such models on the market at one time. Rather, a handful of simple devices that do their job well is more than adequate. Even with smartphones, manufacturers run the risk of doing too much. With so many Android phones on the market, manufacturers and carriers are struggling to really differentiate their handsets. That's the main reason we're seeing so many custom Android skins and half-baked features like Sprint ID.

I know that manufacturers exist to make money by selling the latest and greatest. And I won't pretend for a second that my job, and much of what CNET Reviews does, doesn't depend on a steady flow of new gadgets. We have to remember, though, that in conditioning us to upgrade as soon as possible, there's an awful amount of waste being thrown around. Old phones end up in landfills, consumers shell out cash, and manufacturers spend a lot of time, money, and energy on producing too many unremarkable phones that won't be around for long. Quantity, quality, innovation, and selection are important factors in creating a product line, but they need to be balanced in a way that highlights solid, functional, and satisfying devices of all stripes. Numbers are fine, but sometimes, less can be more.