Saturday, 24 August 2013

How far will the spec wars go?

Image: Howard Forums
A few days ago, LG blew past current display technology standards and introduced the world's first QHD (Quad HD) smartphone display; a 5.5", 2560 x 1440 display, which comes in at a mind-blowing 538ppi. Current flagships boast only 1080p displays with ppi around the 400+ mark. Saying only 1080p seems a bit weird to me. I mean, 1080p displays on a pocket-sized device is an amazing feat of technology. Just last year, the standard was 720p, which on a smartphone display, is already beautiful. Then 1080p displays became the norm, and the consensus was that you will only notice the difference between a 1080p display and a 720p display if you put them side-by-side and look really closely for differences. Most people will be quite happy with a 720p display, including me. Up to a certain threshold, more pixels just don't make a difference. This is the concept behind Apple's Retina Display. A display that has enough pixels that the human eye can't discern individual pixels anymore. Apple have kept their 326ppi Retina Display on the iPhone because they don't need to go any further. Unfortunately in the Android camp, OEMs seem to be in a race to cram as many pixels in a display as possible, even if it makes no real difference to the end user. The same can be said of other specs as well, like the number of cores in a processor or the amount of RAM a device has. How far will the spec wars go in each category?

Display resolution
Picking up from where we left off, the easiest example to show how we are approaching the limit in the spec wars is display resolution. Like I said earlier, with regards to pixel density, once we past the threshold more pixels become unnecessary overkill, and can in fact be detrimental to the overall experience. More pixels mean the display will be pulling even more juice from the battery, and we all know how bad battery life is in smartphones (more on this later). Not only that, more pixels mean the processor needs to work even harder to control the display, and if the software isn't optimised to handle that many pixels, lag and random stutters will be evident throughout the system. That seems like a lot of sacrifice to the overall user experience, all in the name of more pixels which we won't even notice anyway. 720p is good enough, with 1080p being the highest I think I will go when it comes to smartphones.

Display size
Sticking to the display, the size is another aspect of it that seems to be growing to no end. The initial increase in screen size was justified by what users were doing with their smartphones - watching videos, reading articles, viewing photos, editing documents - all things which are easier done on larger devices. The initial jump from the 3.5" iPhones to 4.3", 4.5" and 4.7" Androids may have seemed absurd at the time, but in retrospect the acceptance of larger displays is probably the best thing to happen to the mobile industry. Anyone who has experienced using a larger device (4.7"-5.5" on average) will almost definitely never go back to using a smaller device (3.5"-4.3"). But thanks to Samsung and their Galaxy Note series, other OEMs seem to think larger is better, and there seems to be no stopping this trend. What they fail to realise is Samsung actually make use of their large Note displays with the S-Pen (a stylus with added functionality). Other OEMs merely make their displays larger. We have seen more and more 5.5" phones, some have even journeyed beyond the 6" mark. The Xperia Ultra Z is the biggest culprit thus far, boasting a 6.4" display, yet claiming to still be a smartphone. When is a phone too big to be considered a phone? I would probably never use a phone larger than 5". Samsung did well with the S4, increasing the size from the SIII's 4.7" display to a 5" display, yet keeping the phone roughly the same size. 
The Xperia Z Ultra is a tablet that thinks it's a phone. Image: Google+

Processors and RAM
Quite possibly the most important components of the device which affects performance. The jump from single-core processors to multi-core was a quick one. The first dual-core smartphones came in 2011, quad-core phones quickly followed in 2012, and Samsung pushed the limit with the octa-core S4 this year, 2013. RAM is a bit different, with many phones still on 1GB of RAM and only the newer phones with 2GB, there's not much of a race. Was the jump from single-core to multi-core necessary? Yes. Similar to the jump in screen size, multi-core processors are justified by what users are now capable of doing with their smartphones. Apps are more complex, games are more demanding, and more pixels need more power. But if Samsung thought it was necessary for their S4 to house an octa-core processor to power all of their features - or gimmicks as some might say - why have Motorola done the opposite with the Moto X and used a dual-core processor? It's not that the Moto X doesn't have any powerful features. Always-on voice control is a feature that only the Moto X can boast. And being aware of its surroundings, turning on the display automatically when you pull the phone out of your pocket certainly needs some degree of power from the processor. Motorola are showing that it's not the number of cores a processor has, but how you optimise the processor to handle what you want the phone to do. That is what Motorola did with their X8 Mobile Computing System. So where does that leave us? Well Motorola basically spat in the face of their competitors who are racing to have faster processors by increasing clockspeeds and in some cases, increasing the number of cores. Unless other OEMs follow in Motorola's footsteps and optimise their processors (which I doubt will happen), quad-core processors with 2GB of RAM should be the standard for a while yet.

Camera
The 41-megapixel Lumia 1020 is backed up by powerful
software to provide great pictures. Image: CNET
I'm not going to pretend that I know much about digital photography, because I don't. But what I do know, is that megapixels are not the only thing that determine picture quality. There are other factors too like the size of the pixels and sensor of the camera. But the one thing that is marketed the most about a camera when a new smartphone is launched is how many megapixels it has. Most people will assume that more is better, which is true to a certain extent. Megapixels in a nutshell, affect the zoom-ability and crop-ability of an image. The more megapixels a camera has, the more you can zoom in and still have a clear image, instead of a highly pixelated image. The same applies with cropping - the more the pixels, the clearer the image after cropping. This is what Microsoft aim to highlight with the Lumia 1020, which has a spec-sheet busting 41-megapixel camera. But remember, megapixels are only half the story. The fact that the camera of the Moto X is quite poor even though it has 2-megapixels more than many 8-megapixel phones like the iPhone 5 just proves how megapixels alone don't make a camera great. The megapixel race is probably one of the most misleading when it comes to smartphones, so don't fall victim to the numbers. Any 8-megapixel camera would be good enough for what most consumers do, posting pictures of cats and food on Instagram and Facebook. If you really want to tell if a smartphone camera is good or not, look at sample images and read reviews, not the specs sheet. 

Storage
This is actually one area of the spec sheet I believe many people actually want there to be a war on. With SD cards slowly being phased out, internal storage must be adequate for a user's needs. As apps and in particular, games get larger and require more data, the storage on our devices seems to be getting less and less adequate. 8GB phones should no longer be an option in today's market. 16GB should be the bare minimum, with 32GB being the average, and 64GB for power users who cram music and videos into their phones. Samsung have recently challenged this spec even further, having created flash storage capable of a maximum of 384GB. Now don't expect to see 384GB smartphones anytime soon, but at least we know it's possible. As flash storage gets better (and cheaper), we could very well start seeing 16GB options phased out as well, with 32GB phones becoming the new minimum, 64GB storage become the average, with 128GB becoming the option for power users. When this day comes, we might finally see an end to the SD card war.

Battery
That's a big battery. Image: AnandTech
Last but definitely not least, the battery. No matter how cool a phone is, how incredible the screen is, and how crisp the pictures taken with the camera are, the phone is practically useless if the battery can't last a day. A single day of battery life is now considered normal, and it's about time OEMs and battery manufacturers change that. At the moment, the only way to get more battery life from your phone is for it to have a large battery. Large both in capacity and unfortunately size as well. Larger batteries take up more space in the phone, which is why we are still seeing phones with capacities around 2000 mAh. Larger devices, like the Note II, LG Optimus G Pro and HTC Butterfly S manage to get 3000+ mAh batteries into their shell since they have screens at least 5" diagonally. But again, Motorola prove everyone else wrong by managing to squeeze a 3300 mAh battery into the 4.3" DROID RAZR MAXX. If Moto can do it, why can't anyone else? The Moto X addresses battery consumption in a different way, by optimising the hardware. The X8 Mobile Computing System is again the saviour here. Despite having the phone always "on" and listening to your voice, it lasts just as long as any other flagship. If other phones were to have this "always on" feature, they would be dead in hours. So it is possible to have large batteries in small phones, and for smaller batteries to last longer than they currently do. This is one war I want the OEMs to continue.

The spec wars are more like a civil war if you look at the big picture. Android OEMs going at it to be the best. While outsiders like Apple and Nokia watch on. What's even more demeaning to the Android OEMs, is that iPhones and Lumias match (and in some cases, even beat) Android phones in many areas like performance, camera quality and battery life despite having "poorer specs". They may lack in some areas like software flexibility and app ecosystem, but as far as a spec war goes, Android OEMs are fighting hard, not smart. Motorola seem to be the only manufacturer capable of putting an end to the war, and that is even more likely under Google's wing. Google do after all, make it a point to show that a modest phone (spec wise) like their Nexus 4 can still provide a great user experience. 
Can Google-led Motorola end the war?