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Gigahertz, megapixels, and millimeters - do specs matter at all?

There are three major elements to the smartphone experience. The hardware, the software, and the services. Software comprises the virtual; it is the operating system and the apps. Services is a bit broader, but it includes cloud connections like backup and app stores as well as the cellular connection provided by the carrier.

Hardware is a different beast. Software and services are ephemeral. You cannot pick up and hold a strong LTE signal. It's energy, it's bits and bytes. Hardware is the physical. It's the device itself. It's the case, the display, the touchscreen, the buttons, the speakers, the microphones, the radios, the processor, the memory, the storage, the sensors, the cameras, the ports, the battery, and everything else that goes into physically building the device.

Hardware is what enables the software and services. Without the hardware, the software couldn't happen. Conversely, without the software and services, the hardware would merely be a fancy paperweight. So just how important is hardware? Do the specs matter, or is it what you can do with the specs that's important? Should we compromise quality for price? And when is it time to put old tech out to pasture?

Daniel Rubino Kevin Michaluk PhilNickinson Rene Ritchie

  1. PhilNickinson PhilSpecs are overrated
  2. KevinMichaluk KevinPushing boundaries, satisfying early adopters
  3. DanielRubino DanielWhen you use it every day, build quality matters
  4. ReneRitchie ReneThey don't build 'em like they used to


Phil NickinsonPhil Nickinson Android Central

Specs are overrated

Specs are sexy. Let’s just come right out and say it. Specifications for any product give you an instant, quantifiable way of comparing it against something else.

And they’re overrated.

That’s not to say they’re not important. Anything and everything has specs. Just as a baseball manager needs to know what he’s working with, we, too, should have a basic understanding of what’s in our phones and tablets. You don’t need to be able to identify every nut and bolt -- and companies like Apple don’t readily identify the guts of a product. But we have a basic understanding of what’s inside, and so we have a basic understanding of what a phone or tablet is capable of.

Some people can look at a baseball stat sheet and box score and tell you everything about a team, how likely the third-baseman is to get a hit against a left-hander with runners in scoring position on a cloudless Friday. So, too, are there folks who like to know the difference between this year’s and last year’s generation of processors. (And even more who like to think they know.) That doesn’t make them any more or any less of a smartphone fan as anyone else.

Stats can matter more from depending on the platform, perhaps, but they have plateaued a bit in the last year or so. Of more importance is not breaking compatibility after a software change. Of keeping the experience consistent, or at least moving in a linear direction. Bigger and better and more and faster can make steering the ship an easier process, but it’s still up to the captain to tell it where to go, and how to get there.

In the end, it really is the overall experience that matters.

We opened this Talk Mobile endeavor with the words “It’s less about the tech specs, and more about how we use these phones and tablets in our daily lives.” In the end, it really is the overall experience that matters. Stats play a part in that. A big part, of course. An important part. But for most normal smartphone users, stats are invisible. Do you want to know how the sausage is made? Or do you just want to eat breakfast? There’s nothing wrong with either.

Watch Sascha Segan talk about screen sizes.

I want to see a world where mainstream screen sizes are bordered by the iPhone 5 at the bottom and the HTC One at the top, and there are some awesome things in between.

- Sascha Segan Lead Analyst, PCMag Mobile

Kevin MichalukKevin Michaluk CrackBerry

Pushing boundaries, satisfying early adopters

It might be popular to say focus more, or innovate more, but the truth is that over the years we’ve seen companies succeed following radically different hardware strategies, both aggressive and conservative. It all depends on their position in the market, the product they're offering, and the general state of the market.

Aggressive specs appeal to geeks, to people who want the latest and the greatest. It's the biggest screen, fastest radio, and most modern features now, now, now. Even if the screen technology isn’t perfect yet, battery life suffers, and the features are piled on rather than thought out, some people just want the future in the palm of their hand as soon and possible.

Aggressive specs appeal to geeks, to people who want the latest and the greatest.

Certain manufacturers know that, and they’re willing to beef up processors, amp up cameras, and even lower profit margins if it means getting the ultimate geek phone out first. There's a slew of manufacturers involved in this, and we're seeing brutal one-upsmanship even between manufacturers on the same platform - in particular, Android.

When the operating system is the same, specs are one of the most obvious ways to differentiate. Who could get to LTE first? Who could get to 1080p displays first? Stereo speakers? Espresso maker?!

This strategy appeals to the early adopters, but that can pose a problem. There's constantly new technology, so the latest and greatest won't be so for long. With such a short shelf life, this model can become unsustainable. They can never achieve economies of scale on their production runs, and economies of scale are what lead to profits.

That’s why we’re seeing even high-end Android handset manufacturers push the specs envelope a little less and aim for a longer lifecycle for the phone, so they can get better component pricing over the run of the device given the higher volume.

This approach has been core to both Apple and BlackBerry over the years. They focus on experience, and use specs as a way to make that experience perform well. They don’t need to be cutting edge, they just need to be good enough to make the experience cutting edge.

Yet by the same token, because of the longer shelf life, even current phones can feel old or outdated, especially when other platforms feel like they’re launching new models every week or two.

It all comes down to striking the right balance between specs and experience, performance and price. That lets manufacturers stay profitable, and consumers stay happy.

Watch Derek Kessler talk about balancing specs.

Is it better to be aggressive or conservative with specifications? Really, the answer comes down to yes... and no...

- Derek Kessler, Managing Editor, Mobile Nations

Daniel RubinoDaniel Rubino Windows Phone Central

When you use it every day, build quality matters

When you buy a smartphone, carrier subsidized or not, you're making an investment. It's typically hundreds of dollars you're paying out, and you have to hope the product will be worth the cost, that it will be durable and last for years. This build quality isn't at the forefront of every customer's minds, but it's there, and it's important.

Back in the pre-iPhone days of the smartphone, the Palm Treo line set the bar for quality craftsmanship. Sure, there were some issues here and there with devices (as there still are today), but there was something gratifying in a device like a Treo that had some heft to it.

Older Nokia smartphones are also synonymous with build quality, so much so that they’ve become a meme about how indestructible they are when put up against a sidewalk. These smartphones may have been bulky and heavy in comparison to today's smartphones, but they were tanks.

Old smartphones may have been bulky and heavy, but they were tanks.

Apple in many ways turned this industry on its head. In a good way, mind you. Back in 2007, the original iPhone really did raise the bar in terms of build quality and what customers should expect in a device. That’s not to say Apple is perfect - they've been plagued by hardware issues as much as any other manufacturer (though thanks to their prominence get an overwhelming share of media attention).

But Apple has probably put the most thought into design and the excellence in the parts in their devices, which has had a cascading effect on the rest of the industry, resulting in all around better-quality smartphones for all consumers.

Smartphones are like cars. There will always be the Ferraris and Lamborghinis on one end, and the Chevys and Kias at the other. That’s not to say the low-end smartphones (or cars) cannot be improved. In the auto industry, Kia went from a “cheap brand” to challenging Honda for cost-efficiency and reliability. Nokia is making both high-end smartphones like the new 41-megapixel Lumia 1020, while also producing the $130 off-contract Lumia 521. Sure the, Lumia 521 is cut down in features and specs, but it's not a bad phone.

Hardware will continue to advance, even if not at quite the breakneck speeds we're seeing today. Phones will get faster, last longer, have higher resolution screens, and be thinner and lighter at the same time. But it's still up to us, the customers, to demand high quality hardware over the cheap stuff. As they say, vote with your wallet.

Watch Christina Warren talk build quality.

It's great to have really high build quality on a phone but I think what's more useful is whether or not there are a lot of accessories available for it.

- Christina Warren Senior Tech Analyst, Mashable

Rene  RitchieRene Ritchie iMore

They don’t build ‘em like they used to

As smartphones have evolved, we’ve seen many technologies come and go. My Palm Treo 600 had a huge, honking external antenna. So did the Treo 650. Then came the Treo 680 in 2006 and the outie became an innie, and the age of the external smartphone antenna ended. Palm had the ability to internalize the antenna for years, but consumers expected phones to have them, so Palm kept tacking them on.

Those Treos also had infrared ports. No Wi-Fi, and some had Bluetooth (mainly for headsets), but if you held one next to another, you could beam a contact, or a tiny app, or otherwise share content wirelessly, almost magically. But then came ubiquitous Bluetooth and now Wi-Fi direct and NFC, and infrared sharing has gone the way of the dodo.

For a long time touchscreens were resistive. You had to push hard enough to squish two layers together to register a touch. In hindsight, it was horrible. It was barely responsive, imprecise, and awkward. We used it because, compared to non-touch screens, it seemed like magic. And then came capacitive touchscreens with multitouch, as popularized by the iPhone. Suddenly interacting with glass was effortless.

Thanks to capacitive multitouch, the stylus gave way to the finger, and fixed hardware keyboards could give way to adaptive virtual ones. Why push and prod with a tiny sliver of plastic when you could swipe and pinch and flick with all your fingers, all at once? Why have a movie only take up a quarter of a device’s front surface because a permanent keyboard adorned the rest, when those little keys could fade away and let the video go full screen?

When technologies have grown obsolete, they fade away.

When technologies have grown obsolete, they fade from the mainstream. They may persist in niche products for very specific use cases, but they’re no longer found in the vast majority of devices intended for the vast majority of people.

External antennas are now the domain of satellite phones, not Nokia Lumia 920s. Styluses are now relegated to Galaxy Notes, not HTC Ones. Hardware keyboards are now pretty much found only on BlackBerry Q10s, not iPhones.

Those technologies are now only found by those people who really, truly want or need them, and for whom every other device concern is secondary. For everyone else, they’ve long since been killed off.

Watch Dieter Bohn talk about how hardware changes.

We got rid of the stylus but now all of a sudden it's back on the Note!

- Dieter Bohn Senior Mobile Editor, The Verge

Conclusion

Hardware matters. We interact with all facets of the device when using it, from the software displayed on the screen to the services providing the data for that software to the hardware that actually is the screen. But the hardware is the only one we can hold in our hands. It's the physical embodiment of the smartphone.

It matters that the processor and RAM and storage and battery be sufficiently powerful to meet our needs, but it doesn't necessarily matter that the processor is the fastest available or that you have more storage space than you could possibly ever fill. What matters is that everything works together to enable you to use your smartphone how you want to use it.

Sometimes that means leaving things behind. New technologies replace old ones and make things slimmer, faster, and more efficient. But that cutting edge can sometimes be the bleeding one, where that new technology isn't necessarily ready for primetime.

All of these pieces of metal, plastic, silicon, and glass have to be packaged into a container that's built to last. These phones go into our pockets and purses and holsters dozens of times a day. They get hot and cold, they're dropped on concrete and in the pool, and they just have to keep ticking.

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