If you’re planning to pick up a shiny new smartphone during Black Friday, you might be tempted to compare the specs of various models. Is the iPhone XS’ bionic A12 processor any better than the Samsung Galaxy Note9’s Snapdragon 845? And what about cameras? Are more megapixels always better?
Well, here’s the thing. While it’s fun to compare specs (we’re guilty of doing it ourselves), all those competing numbers are essentially meaningless. Here’s why.
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It’s hard to believe that the smartphone, as we know it today, is only about a decade old. At the start of 2006, most of us were rocking candy-bar phones with crappy colour screens, cameras that were good if you liked grainy photos, and confusing user interfaces.
A lot has changed and as the smartphone market grew manufacturers sought ways to differentiate themselves and used specs as part of the sales pitch. But comparing specifications is usually pointless. Here’s why.
Great smartphones aren’t just about hardware. Whenever I ask someone why they like their smartphone they inevitably talk abut how the software makes their life easier. They do mention performance a lot, but not in the context of the “Snapdragon 845 is way faster than the 835 I had last year”. They say things like “it’s easier to find the information and do something with it”.
When you crack open the modern smartphone, there’s really not a lot that differentiates them from a functional point of view. Peek inside a Galaxy or iPhone and you’ll find a processor, some system memory and storage. There will be radios to support all the latest 3G/4G/LTE, Wi-FI and Bluetooth standards and the innards of the cameras and various sensors we take for granted.
It’s also important to understand that specs don’t tell the whole story. For example, the way Apple manages memory in the iPhone is quite different to how it’s managed under Android. Apple’s complete control of the entire device gives it the opportunity to do things differently to Android makers who have a lot more freedom.
That doesn’t make one platform better than the other – they just do things differently.
There are some specs that matter. But not from a “whose numbers are bigger” perspective but from a “what can you do” perspective. For example, given the choice between two phones with the same sized display, I’d always choose the device with the higher display resolution, assuming the price wasn’t prohibitive.
Camera specs are getting harder and harder to differentiate. Now that multi-camera set-ups are common, the software that controls them is arguably more important than the lenses and sensors. That means you need to see some actual photos from different devices in order to tell the difference.
Even battery capacity is tricky because the the time a full battery will last between charges is determined by a number of factors outside the user’s control. For example, with AI now being used to tune multiple processor cores for specific use-cases, manufacturers have been able to extract more use from battery tech that hasn’t evolved at the same pace as the devices they are used to power.
What does this mean for you?
Buying a new smartphone is more about the experience you want rather than a matter of comparing specs.
I’d suggest there are just two specifications you really need to focus on; size and storage. Getting a phone that conformably fits your hand and has a display that you’re happy to look at dozens of times a day is critical. And having enough space for the music, photos, movies and other content you want to carry is important.
In other words, if the phone does what you need, the specs on the box aren’t that important.