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Does Hardware in Smartphones Matter?

But how much attention do you have to pay to the hardware in smartphones that are on carrier shelves today?

I consider myself a moderate geek and always enjoyed comparing hardware specs and being at the bleeding edge of computer hardware, at least as far as my budget reasoning permitted. That has changed somewhat over the past years, perhaps as a result of the general commoditization of hardware (and growing age.) However, I noticed that I was paying much more attention lately to smartphone hardware, especially as the first dual-core phones arrived.

That was an enlightening moment by any measure. Faster hardware is not necessarily better hardware and it may not matter at all in the grand scheme of smartphone usage.

Several months ago, I purchased an HTC-built G2 phone with an 800 MHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. The phone had issues, especially on the battery side, which barely lasted 4 hours under heavy use, but it was a decent phone otherwise. The only performance issue I ever noticed was a boot time of more than 1 minute. Now a phone geek, I could not wait to get my hands on a dual-core phone to see how app performance would improve. So I got a LG-built G2x phone, which uses Nvidia's 1 GHz dual-core Tegra processor. The effect: Boot time is down to less than 20 seconds and Firefox is blazingly fast in JavaScript benchmarks (about 3 times faster than the G2 in Sunspider), but I would still call it the worst phone I ever owned (just behind the RIM Blackberry Pearl).

The touchscreen is less sensitive and a nightmare in games that require accuracy. Application stability is even worse as the default Android browser takes leisurely pauses now and then, the core phone app crashes frequently during dialing and I have gotten used to the fact that my G2X reboots itself three or four times a day. I would love to get by G2 from my girlfriend back, but since she has seen the G2X, my chances aren't that good. I am not going to bash the G2X, even if my criticism is admittedly harsh. This may be a lemon and I am waiting for a replacement device.

The important observation is that the hardware may be, in the current competitive smartphone landscape, a nice-to-have feature, even if you are shelling a lot of money for your gadget and expect the very best from it. The true value of your phone, however, may not be so much single-core or dual-core at this time. It is platform integration. Apple is, conceivably, leading this discipline since it has only one two devices (excluding tablets) that are fine-tuned to work with its software platform. Just like its desktops and notebooks, Apple is recreating an overall experience - and experience that is tough to match by an Android or Windows Phone manufacturer. HTC or LG will never understand Android as well as Apple understands iOS.

A few weeks ago, I was called by a friend who had trouble with his new entry-level Android phone. He was tired of his iPhone, thought it was overkill and did not want to pay AT&T's high carrier fees anymore. However, that opinion changed quickly - he got an Android phone with a 3" screen and learned that Android on a 3 inch screen is a pain in the you-know-what to use. It had a horrible graphics engine and a build quality that suggested Yugo may have returned as a phone. Yes, he should have looked closer before he bought the phone, but it reminded of my LG and the overall lack of dedication to build a device that just makes sense from a usability view.

You can look a fragmentation from different angles - you can defend the Android model and you can attack it in various ways. But you can't lose your attention to detail and it seems that Google has given phone developers too much freedom in creating new devices. Perhaps it is time to pull back a bit and make sure that tougher standards have been met and better phones are being rolled out to market. Inferior hardware can quickly kill a product image, especially the perception of quality. Microsoft has made its fair share of experience here.

Hardware that works in sync with the overall platform makes it clear that faster and newer chips do not necessarily enhance the user experience.

  • _Cubase_
    the only thing that frustrated me about the phone tech getting better is the fact that unlike with PCs (which you can pretty much upgrade how you want, when you want to) you are often at the mercy of the phone companies and their ridiculous contracts! Which means most of the time, finding out some new tech has been released is simply a way to get frustrated with your current offering
  • rpmrush
    That was a very scatter brained article. I felt a better point could have been made. Droid phones can have an unpolished feel at times, but if the point was a more polished software package is better than bleeding edge hardware than it was poorly made.
  • wifiwolf
    I just hope some companies start investing for real on that market. So much variety and little quality. That applies to Apple too (on quality). Jobs is far from making the perfect smartphone but he's quite ahead. The only reason why he doesn't get my money is because i'm still a geek and like to explore and own whatever I buy.
    That said, it's the first time ever someone written something good about Apple without being partial. No marketing just the truth.
  • Un-optimized hardware/software/firmware/drivers/kernel combinations play a bigger role in the speed of a phone than just the hardware spec. There are plenty of 1ghz ARM phones that aren't any more responsive than something like the LG Optimus S with a 600mhz previous-gen CPU.
  • Dandalf
    I have no idea what point this article is trying to make. It is all over the place.

    Sure iOS is nice to use, but equally so is WP7. One of those has a huge chunk of the market, the other does not. So ask yourself mr smart ass, does phone software really matter?

    Answer: They both matter as little and as much as each other. Only user experience matters, and that comes from a phone maker who pays attention to tuning the software and hardware to work well with each other.

    There, I just wrote the conclusion this article should have had.
  • milktea
    Hardware in smartphones on the shelves today probably doesn't matter much. But give it a couple more years for the smartphones to mature, by then, the quality of it would saturate to a point where people would begin looking for high performance hardware. :)
  • topcms
    Mr, Wolfgang Gruener i so agree with you and i've written a few comments on different web sites including Tom's about this issue. People keep blaming the OS when the problem is actually on the other end. I mentioned that microsoft has failed in gaining market and becoming the good guy compared to apple just because of the freedom given to the manufacturers. I've personally had three different HP laptops in which all three had AMD CPUs.... None of the three lap tops still exists due to failure reasons . Guess who i've blamed..... AMD. If the laptops stopped from working it's because AMD cpus suck right?? NO, Hp laptops suck so much in their cooling design that it's impossible to any component to survive that much heat. I don't even know if the problem was the cpu but the Note just stopped working. If AMD didn't allow what meters to their CPU to work well to be built we wouldn't have to face such problems. All that made me buy a Lenovo which has access to the fan and avery time it starts to heat up too much i can just clean the damn thing. WHat a simple thing to do!!! Android OS is so letting their OS be smashed by bad comments about how it stutters and how the user experience is not so good compared to apple's. And that is a shame. Thank you again for this post and i hope that you have the voice so that people at MCS and GOOGLE listen to you.!!
  • Is this really a surprise? I mean, look at the horrid computer issues of the '90s when desktops were first getting popular, or the early '00s when things were beginning to move towards laptops. Each time there is a major device change it takes a while for the hardware and the software to settle down, or at least move in a predictable enough direction, to work with each other nicely. It took nearly 10 years to go from the crap of 3.1 to the glory days of win2K and XP, and even then we had a hickup with vista before getting a mature OS. But now things work very well, even without bleeding edge hardware. Same with laptops; Remember old Pentium 3 laptops? The days when wifi was an option lol. And battery life was a joke until just 4-5 years ago. And it took a while to get an OS that worked nicely with wifi, and could scale to save battery life. XP sp2 helped that a lot, and win7 does a great job at it.

    So it is with the cell phone market. 2009 was the first year that smartphones began to be popular, and I am impressed that they have come so far in just 3 years to go from the crock of the first mass market phones, to what we have today. But we are in the midst of growing pains. That ugly transition from phones, to a personal computing device. The first OS (win8?) that lets me use my phone as a boot device that has all of my apps and user data, and then lets me take advantage of whatever PC I hook into for screen, processor, graphics, etc, and the manufacturer that has the hardware to do it best, will win the day. Once we move more in that direction, the sooner the growing pains will end and we can be productive again.
  • eddieroolz
    I think that the hardware has reached great levels to be honest. Apple is still doing fine with their iOS with less hardware than that of many leading Android models.

    The difference is the OS optimization. Android is so bloated and its primary advantage of being workable across many configurations is its biggest downfall. I've tried out the Xoom tablet and its laggy even after a fresh reboot - the same goes for the Iconia tablet.

    What Android needs to start doing is to optimize their OS better.
  • 11796pcs
    Does one life really matter in the grand scheme of life... no not really but I still care about mine.