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History Repeating: The Misguided Smartphone Spec War

Gordon Kelly

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The word is about, there's something evolving

Whatever may come, the world keeps revolving

They say the next big thing is here

That the revolution's near

But to me it seems quite clear

That it's all just a little bit

of history repeating

- the Propellerheads featuring Shirley Bassey

Yesterday the iPhone 4S went on sale in France, Germany, Australia, Canada, Japan, the UK and US, and it reignited the smartphone world's most ridiculous debate: specifications.

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As many will know the iPhone 4S ships with a dual core processor, an ~800MHz Apple designed, ARM based, A5 chip to be precise. It is the first iPhone to make the jump to multi-core architecture and iOS's ability to assign different tasks to different processor cores brings about notably faster performance. In fact Apple is heavily promoting the iPhone 4S as being twice as fast as its iPhone 4 predecessor. This is an important specification change and it is worthy of discussion. What quickly makes it ridiculous is comparison.

Take Android. It's premium smartphones have long had dual core processors. The first, the LG Optimus 2x, was announced back in January. In the nine months since it has been joined by high profile models such as the Motorola Atrix, HTC Sensation and Sensation XL, the Samsung Galaxy S2 and imminently the Nexus Prime. Even with the Optimus 2x its dual cores were already running at 1GHz, while the cores of the two Sensations and Galaxy S run at 1.2GHz. Meanwhile the Prime (teased below) is expected to race along on 1.5GHz cores. Whatever is Apple doing releasing a new iPhone which is already so significantly behind the competition? It hasn't, and this is the inherent problem in the smartphone spec war.

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Spec wars are nothing new. 'Geeks' like ourselves have been comparing their new and custom built computers for years, delighting in extolling the virtues of their faster processors, RAM, storage and graphics cards. They proudly run benchmarks under strict settings and laud their victories over one another. Furthermore they are justified to do so. Now, given the spread of smartphones and the rise of geek culture, ever greater numbers of people are hearing about gigahertz and megabytes and are keen to start the comparisons. Surely that's fine? No. No. A thousand times no.

What geeks have long understood, the mass market is rapidly confusing. Specifications in and of themselves are not what can be compared, only the performance they bring. The main point of strict benchmarking is in ensuring that not only are apples compared with apples, but that Golden Delicious is compared with Golden Delicious. By comparison today's mainstream smartphone users not only fail to recognise different varieties of apple, but different fruits altogether.

Jonathan Morris

October 15, 2011, 4:36 pm

Even the iPhone 4S now has an excess of 'capacity' so to speak when it comes to the performance.

The jump from a 3GS to a 4S will be significant, but how many people upgraded from the 4 to 4S and expected it to be 2-7 times faster?

The video linked below shows the difference is pretty minimal. It's not that the 4S is slow, obviously, but rather that the 4 was very fast in the first place. It was perfectly capable of doing what it needed to do.

Think back to 2007 and how slick the first iPhone was. Apple has always managed to get the most from its hardware (Mac OSX ran on hardware configurations that Windows would never have coped with) so it's actually a shame they feel the need to join in the rather pointless race.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1zLg4itgZA

Digital Fury

October 15, 2011, 7:19 pm

Ice Cream Sandwich is Android 4.x, not 3.x as mentioned in the article.

Luan Bach

October 15, 2011, 9:46 pm

I'm pretty sure Android ICS is going to be 4.0 and not 3.0 (which was Honeycomb) as kept being repeated in the article.

Greg Shewan

October 16, 2011, 3:03 pm

Yeah, ditto on the V4.0 for ICS... Also seems like choosing the Apple vs. apples was a little suspect ;).

Apple has one hardware platform to choose so obviously it is going to be more efficient, in fact if it wasn't it would be criminal considering it's price. Android has spread itself over so much hardware that it is always going to be more difficult to deliver a 'Apple-like' experience (if that's what your want).

Like Gordon said be happy with what you've got, but this still doesn't change the fact that the 4S is decidedly underwhelming whilst being vastly more expensive than competitors (in general).

Gordon394

October 17, 2011, 4:22 pm

Good spot. Thanks.

Gordon394

October 17, 2011, 4:23 pm

As above, thanks. Always a nightmare to write as the mind naturally says what follows 2.x is 3.x, not 4.x :)

Gordon394

October 17, 2011, 4:27 pm

Just a phrase ;)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apples_and_oranges

We'll see what happens when Android 4.0 benchmarks appear, but I'd say the price can currently been justified in that it is widely tested as being the fastest handset on the planet, with arguably the best camera optics and certainly the highest quality build materials.

That said, this is somewhat off topic!

Gordon394

October 17, 2011, 4:28 pm

I think you miss one point: the 4S is to cover app evolution over the next 12 months. In addition I suspect you will have seen how Siri has been ported onto an iPhone 4 and really struggles. Audio processing takes a lot of horsepower, so again that's another key factor.

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