Smartphone Specifications Have Become Meaningless

Smartphone Specifications Have Become Meaningless
  • Smartphones are often compared by their specifications
  • Android manufacturers for years have one-upped the other with more specs
  • Specs can be a rough indicator, but certainly no actual measure of output

They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but perhaps unfortunately that is how electronic products such as smartphones are often compared. It is these comparisons that lead people into believing that more megapixels in a camera equals better image quality, or that more cores in a processor means better performance. The truth is that not all hardware improvements can actually be observed in real world usage of devices.

It would be fair to say that the biggest milestone for smartphone was the launch of the iPhone in 2007. This is not to say smartphones didn’t exist or were irrelevant prior to Apple’s cash cow, but the transformation in the smartphone market is quite evident after that event.

And ever since 2007, Android phone makers have been in a constant race to one-up the iPhone and other Android phones, by pushing specifications down the consumer's throat, thereby ‘proving' (on paper) that they had the better product.

Hardware and software often play a game of catch-up with each other. Sometimes, hardware is put on the market with hope that people will create software to make the most of it. On occasions, it’s the other way around, with heavy-duty software demanding more powerful hardware. In the world of Android, more often than not, it’s the former. That's why, though octa-core processors and 64-bit CPUs arrived years ago, there's little visible indication that they've made life better for any consumer.

Apple doesn’t participate in the chest-beating as much; it still doesn’t officially mention the CPU clock speed or how much RAM is built into any of its iOS devices. Since iOS exclusively runs on Apple-made devices and the hardware and software is built by the same company, comparing their specifications to Android phones is unfair — because dual-core processors on an iPhone are able to beat Android phones with more cores and higher clock speeds, and the 1960mAh battery on an iPhone 7 can last as long as other 5-inch Android phones with much bigger batteries.

One could say that comparing two Android phones' specifications is fairer. That’s because manufacturers use the same off-the-shelf parts — be it the Qualcomm Snapdragon processors, or the latest LP-DDR4 RAM or Sony’s IMX series camera sensors. But even that is flawed, as the real differences emerge from the work manufacturers put in optimising these components, as is evidenced by different picture outputs on two phones that use the same image sensor, or different benchmark scores for two phones with the same chipset.

This is why comparing specs is increasingly becoming moot. For example, a low-end Snapdragon 400 series chip paired with a modest 2GB RAM manages to run a bloat-free version of Android smoothly. Flagship Android phones that boast of top-tier multi-core processors and contain the amount of RAM found in computers, stutter after a year, thanks to unoptimised software. Reading specifications today serves as a rough guidance at best, but is not the only indicator to what the device is capable of.

This is something that the manufacturers themselves seem to be realising, as they shift the focus from features to their benefits. So instead of blabbering about the aperture or the kind of image stabilisation, the actual output of the camera is put on display (popularised by Apple’s ‘Shot on iPhone’ ad campaign).

We've reached a point where screens are as crisp as they can be, the internals are fast enough to respond to the fastest fingers, and cameras come with more than sufficient image resolution. Tomorrow, if a manufacturer has put a 4K display or 8GB RAM or a 50-megapixel camera in its next smartphone, instead of feverishly fantasising about the specifications, take a look instead at what that will really mean for you, as a user.


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