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History Repeating: The Misguided Smartphone Spec War

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.

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.


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.

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