The Spec Race

Header - The Spec RaceWhen it comes to our wonderful gadgets, there are two components that work together, and also compete with one another. Software and Hardware. Now, they of course exist in something of a symbiotic relationship. Hardware without software is little more than a fancy paperweight. Likewise, software without hardware is… well… a bunch of lines of code and a whole lot of imagination. The two work together to give us the amazing user experience we all want from our smartphones and tablets.

One of the key attributes in mobile, especially coming from the Android side, is the notion of bigger and better specs with each generation of device. Whether it be a more powerful processor, more RAM, or higher and higher resolution displays, the specs and hardware capabilities of these devices are growing at an incredible rate. By giving us bigger, better, more at such an accelerated rate, manufacturers are providing the notion that we as consumers need these advances in order to gain the most from our hardware. The question is, do we?

 The prevailing wisdom these days seems to imply that the answer is a resounding: “Yes…  kind of.” Part of this has to do with expectations. In order for us to *want* a new phone, manufacturers are giving us quantifiable numbers to look at. True, most people don’t quite understand what these numbers mean, but the prevailing wisdom implied is of course that bigger numbers are better. Surely if having 2GB of RAM is good, then having 3GB is better, right? Naturally if having a Snapdragon 600 processor is sweet, then having a Snapdragon 800 processor is all the sweeter, right? If having a PPI of 319 is beautiful, then a PPI of 441 is most definitely drool worthy, right?

It’s hard to argue against these points. The tech makes sense, and every one of these devices gets benchmarking tests performed to demonstrates that yeah, these things improve theoretical performance. The question does get raised though: Do these theoretical performance improvements translate to real world improvements in overall user experience?

I honestly don’t think there’s a good answer here. Certainly, phones with better specs feel snappier and more responsive, in general, over those with substantially lower specs. But is it a universal truth? This summer, Motorola released several new flagship level smartphones, with the Moto X being something of the frontrunner (given its higher level of availability). They took a very different approach than other Android manufacturers. Instead of pushing out bigger and bolder specs, they released something that, on the surface, seemed positively mid-range. Low res screen, what is effectively a dual core processor, in a package that doesn’t seem to be competitive with high end devices.

That being said, the consensus has been that this is an incredibly smooth handset. No lag, stutter free, and simply performs like a charm. Motorola has tried something different here. Instead of participating in the spec race, they have tried to give a more moderate spec offering, coupled with some new ideas. Voice activation, always on screen notifications, tap to wake… Not all are 100% original, but they are designed to improve overall user experience in a meaningful way. It’s an interesting approach: innovation instead of raw power.

But this is just one example. Outside of the Android world, we have Nokia that has been spending a lot of time and effort in things like a better camera experience and improving their mapping and direction service. The inherent nature of Windows Phone at the moment (though this is changing in a future update) imposes hardware limitations into what Nokia can do. Without the ability to build a 1080p screen or add a quad core processor, they have gone other routes to try and prove the value of their devices. Of course, they also tend to offer very smooth performance and a nice user experience, despite the apparent hardware shortfalls.

What is or isn’t a high end device is becoming murkier with these rapid fire spec increases. Today’s top of the line handsets are seen as obsolete as quickly as 4 months later. The question then becomes: Has software caught up? And if so, which software? For a lot of smartphone and tablet users, their typical usage is to browse the web, check email, look up Facebook updates, post to Twitter, and submit some photos to Instagram. Then, once in a blue moon they might play a game of Angry Birds or Candy Crush Saga. Does this mean that we need specs that are constantly increasing? Is there a legitimate performance increase that is actually noticeable between loading Facebook on a Nexus 4 and loading Facebook on a Note 3? Or is the difference limited to playing 3D games?

I don’t think there is an easy or obvious answer. Manufacturers are giving us a bevy of options, which is great, but sometimes stumble when it comes to true innovation. I like the fact that the Moto X took a novel approach to a flagship product, giving us some pure usability. But will it suffer down the road? As Android evolves and it and its applications start to actually take advantage of quad core processors and more than 2GB of RAM, will the Moto X still be as spry and lag free? Or are we paying for specs that just aren’t being used?

We as mobile enthusiasts and consumers have multiple choices, which is great. But we also are seeing a lot of trends which aren’t necessarily as beneficial as they may appear on paper. We are conditioned to think that bigger is better. But sometimes, better is harder to measure. Better doesn’t have to be bigger, faster, more. Better can be smarter. Better can be more innovative. Better can be… well… Just plain better.

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