Monday, November 8, 2010

The latest and greatest smartphone specs - a checklist

I have blogged recently about how the cellphone industry is in a state of constant flux, with constant hardware and software upgrades making it impossible to buy the 'best' cellphone, as the best is always coming next quarter or even next month.  This is a state of affairs for which I squarely blame Android, with its Google-inspired constant beta innovation curve. Android has brought vibrancy and change into the cellphone space, both through the features of the OS, and through the enthusiastic response from handset manufacturers like Motorola, HTC and Samsung.

While this makes choice difficult for a buyer, some features seem to be stabilising, though slowly. And some have not really changed a lot over time! I thought it would be useful to make a checklist of such features for a prospective buyer to know what is the best - and then decide. This is an OS independant list, and covers purely hardware specs.


1) Display :
Currently the best displays are the Apple iPhone 4G 'Retina Display' and the Super AMOLED display on top-end Samsung phones like Wave, Galaxy S and Focus/ Omnia 7. Engadget compared both displays and called a draw, saying that personal preference would decide preference. This is the low down : theRetina Display has the highest pixel density (more than 300 pixels per inch) and therefore great sharpness, neutrality and clarity (better for text?) The Super AMOLED is brighter, has high color saturation (some complain of over saturation), high contrast ratio and true blacks. This makes it a brilliant screen to showcase colors of photos and movies. Both Apple and Samsung are ahead of competition, espcially TFT and AMOLED screens. Display technology may improve after this but on a mobile screen which rarely exceeds 4 inches, I doubt whether there will be any huge difference, even if we get a full HD display.

2) Display Size
This is the most critical element of the smartphone experience. I have a 3.3 inch screen on my Wave. I have discovered, the hard way, that I need a bigger screen, and I am even willing to shell out more for it. While the iPhone at 3.5 inches is plenty big, there is a lot of joy in the larger 4 inch display of the Samsung Galaxy S. HTC has put out the Evo 4G and the WP7 HD7 with 4.3 inch screens, which some feel are too large and unwieldy for a phone. I personally think 4 inches is the sweet spot for a display. You will value it when you browse the net, read long mails or e-books.

3) QWERTY sliders :
As mobile phone users discover the ease and delight of capacitive touch screens, pinch and zoom and scrolling (thanks to Apple), many of us including me still want our QWERTY keyboards back (blame Blackberry and Nokia). Towards end 2010, we have seen many touchscreen + QWERTY keyboard phones in a slider form factor. Blackberry Torch is an example. The Motorola Droid/ Milestone series has always offered this. Samsung is bringing it in through the Galaxy Q and Epic 4G and the low-end Wave 2 Pro. Even HTC, predominantly a purveyor of full touch Android phones, is acknowledging the needs of this segment through HTC 7 Pro. Dell provides this on the Dell Streak and the WP7 Venue Pro. Look for this option on more of the upcoming phones including Nokia E7-00 and LG Optimus 7.

4) Processor:
On a mobile phone, processor speed vs. battery life is a balancing act. In real life, a smartphone needs to last out at least a working day on a single charge, while performing basic operations like email, browsing, downloading and running multiple apps/ feeds, often on a wi-fi network, and of course, talking and texting. Today, the top-end smartphones across platforms use a 1 Ghz processor, with varying levels of efficiency. I personally believe that 1 Ghz is plenty for a phone and in the future, it's down to the operating systems to optimise and streamline their performance for greater speed. But I am not the decision maker.

Android is driving the specs on processor speed with its increasingly powerful apps and push towards true multi-tasking.. A leak of the specs required for Android 3 (Gingerbread) speculated that a minimum of 1 Ghz would be needed to run the operating system, meaning that the bar will be raised even further. I blogged last month about new, faster Adreno chipsets that will debut on several upcoming  HTC phones including the Desire HD. In simple terms, these chips will offer an incremental boost in speed and hardware acceleration support for Flash. It should make for a smoother user experience. Interesting point here - benchmark tests of the Adreno 205 vs. Samsung's current GPU (in the Wave and Galaxy S) show both running quite close. It will boil down ultimately to the efficiency of the new Android OS.

Dual-core processors will be coming in 2011, from QualComm and NVidia. I frankly don't understand processor talk, so I am just going to link this post to the NVidia Tegra page. To summarise, the dual core CPUs will offer console quality gaming, 1080 HD video playback,3D graphics capability and effortless multi-tasking, while also accommodating larger displays. LG has claimed that NVidia Tegra 2 will be used in its upcoming Optimus range of smartphones.  Motorola has also made similar claims. Judging by the description of the GPUs performance, we should also see applications in gaming phones and tablets.

So where does that leave us on the processor front? For a gaming phone or a tablet, it would make sense to get  the dual core processor. For most of the rest of us, 1 Ghz should suffice, with a more efficient GPU. The processor is the area likely to show maximum flux going ahead.

5) Gorilla Glass
Manufactured by Corning, this chemically strengthened, damage and scratch resistant glass is used on the world's best smartphones including Motorola's Droid/ Milestone, the iPhone 4, Dell Venue Pro and Samsung Galaxy S. AIncidentally, HTC phones do not have gorilla glass. This is another spec I would invest in at a premium if required.. It's not just about bragging rights, it's about protecting them against a few falls and jolts.