How important are the specs under your smartphone’s hood, really? That may seem like a silly question, but honestly: are specs what define phone’s worth?
Hardware specs—like CPU speed, amount of RAM, camera megapixels, and so on—certainly make some difference, they’re an overrated metric for judging which phone you should buy. We’ve long since passed the days when specs ruled the smartphone game—it’s all about experience now.
Once Upon a Time, Specs Mattered…More
Since Apple only produces a couple of phones per year, this is really more about Android than anything else—there are tons of Android phones out there, and specs were originally how one manufacturer differentiated their handset from the others.
Let’s go back in time—back to when Android first started gaining popularity. I pretty much equate this time to when the original Motorola Droid was released on Verizon. The iPhone was still exclusive to AT&T, so the Droid (and the lower-powered Droid Eris) were Verizon’s all-in bets on Android.
This is really where the “specs wars” started: Android was so poorly optimized in its infancy that the only way to make it not suck was to throw more hardware at it. Each new phone after the Droid had a slightly higher clock speed, or slightly more RAM, than the last. The 1GHz processors in phones like the HTC Droid Incredible and Google’s Nexus One smoothed over the hiccups and lag from the sub-1GHz processors that preceded them. These CPU and RAM specs started to become advertised features of Android handsets, and they became important to the point where even “average” consumers were starting to take notice of them.
At the same time, in order to get more out of their phones, the geekiest crowd took matters into their own hands: things like custom ROMs and overclocking were born not out of desire, but out of necessity (or maybe a healthy mix of both). This wasn’t a fix—nor was it something “normal” users wanted to mess with—it was a band-aid that helped with the bigger issue: Android was slow and buggy.
At the time, better hardware seemed like a viable fix to the issue. Bigger numbers means faster processing, which means better performance. It makes sense on paper, at least. So for a few years, this type of constant hardware spec bumps were the crutch that every manufacturer out there leaned on. And it didn’t take long for screens and cameras to also become a focus.
Fast-forward to today, and we’re kind of stuck in that same rut: manufacturers tout nerdy hardware specs every time they bring out a new phone, as if it’s what makes the phone better than its competition. But we don’t live in that world anymore.
Clock Speed Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number
Do you know what processor your current phone has? If so, do you know what the clock speed is? How important are these numbers to you?
We have, in fact, reached a point of diminishing return on most specs. Can you really tell a difference between 270 PPI and 440 PPI on your phone? What about a 13 MP camera versus a 22 MP camera? There are so many variables here that go past the numbers: with screens, display tech is arguably more important than pixel count. When it comes to cameras, the sensor used matters more than how many megapixels it can capture. With processors, how many cores are we talking about? What about CPU architecture? The list goes on and on.
Here’s the thing: modern versions of Android are designed to run superbly on modern hardware. Period. A smooth, usable experience is what you’ll get, regardless of specs. And I’m not just talking about flagship hardware here, either—modern budget phones have come a long way, too.
As it stands, that little supercomputer in your pocket is a state-of-the-art machine. It’s designed to be fast, power through tasks from playing games to sending messages and even doing work, take great pictures, and everything in between. As such, defining what makes a smartphone great is not nearly as quantifiable as it once was.
Some people will show you benchmarks for their phone, as if to say “look how much faster this one is!” But those only tell half the story (if that much). How that phone feels when you use it is what’s important—what you like about the software, how quickly the camera reacts, the features you love—the things that simply can’t be quantified. Because most of the differences between phones today are subjective.
And that’s how I feel about hardware specs at this point: they’re basically the real-world, tangible version of a benchmark. They matter, and they help at least somewhat quantify performance and set expectations, but when it comes down to it, they don’t really make or break a phone.
The Devil Is in the Details
So what makes one phone better than another? These days, your phone is almost defined by its software—both in feature and function. Hardware has taken a back seat to how well the software is optimized—almost a paradox of Android’s humble beginnings. It started with poor optimization and focused on hardware, where now it’s all about what Google (and other manufacturers) can do to make that hardware go further.
For that, we have to give Google some credit: the Android team has done amazing things to make the operating system so much smoother over the last few years. And that applies regardless of hardware—Android does a terrific job “scaling” its workload according to the resources it has available to it, so it can perform fluidly even on lower-end hardware. It’s brilliant.
All that said, as each manufacturer—Samsung, LG, and the like—add in their own features and apps, guess what they have to do? Optimize them. They need to make sure everything flows natively with the rest of the operating system; in other words, the additions they add need to work well with the optimizations Google made. Otherwise things like performance and battery life take a nasty hit, and no one wants that.
So all manufacturers are not created equal. They may all be running Android, but once they start adding in their own stuff, things are destined to change—sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. That’s what makes the difference between each phone.
And it goes far beyond simple software optimizations, too. Each manufacturer has to decide how to makes its devices unique in a sea of choices—both in software and hardware features. What makes a Samsung phone different than an LG? What about Google’s Pixel? What sets one phone apart from the rest is where the value is really placed.
For example, waterproofing may be an important feature to you, in which case Samsung will likely be a front-runner for you next phone. The same goes for wireless charging, which is a loved feature by many. If you want a phone that gets timely updates, there’s nothing better than Google’s Pixel. Fingerprint scanners are available on essentially ever modern high-end Android phone, but you know what isn’t? Where to place said scanner—some manufacturers put it on the back, while others drop it beneath the display, à la Apple.
I could go on: USB Type-C, battery life, turbo charging, bundled software, tap-to-pay applications…these are the details that matter. This is what sets one phone apart from another—it’s not how fast the processor’s clock speed is or what kind of RAM it has.
In fact, I’d even argue that most budget phones offer 80 percent of the return of a premium handset when it comes to basic performance and experience, but at half the cost (or less!). There’s just a stigma attached here: Qualcomm processors versus MediaTek processors, for example. The latter has come a long way over the last few years, but it still has a bad rep online for various reasons. But they’re solid processors at a quarter of the cost.
It’s a fashion show at this point. A contest to see who has the biggest name under the hood, regardless of whether the more affordable option is just as good. And it’s time for that to come to an end.
Having good hardware under the hood of your smartphone is important—no one would try to argue otherwise. But the spec sheet no longer defines what that brilliant piece of hardware in your pocket is capable of. It’s time to accept the fact that just because a phone is $99 doesn’t automatically make it bad, just like a $700 phone isn’t automatically good.