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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.