How to Buy a Smartphone: Understanding Smartphone Specs

by Reads (2,228)

Did you ever take a close look at a smartphone spec sheet? Have any idea what the numbers and letters mean, what they tell you about the smartphone? While Apple fans have argued for years that “specs don’t matter” because they often don’t directly translate to the actual user experience, they can serve to guide to a buying decision. Here’s what you need to know.

Processor

The processor is sometimes listed as the SoC (system on a chip) or just CPU (central processing unit). The processor is essentially the brain of the smartphone, and as such is one of the single most critical specs to consider. On smartphones, the processor houses both the CPU and GPU (graphical processing unit), and it’s typically based on the ARM architecture.

ARM processorA processor’s speed is rated numerically, in megahertz (MHz) or gigahertz (GHz). These numbers define the processor’s “clock speed,” and it’s a reflection of the number of instructions a processor can handle per second. A processor running at 1 MHz can handle 1 million instructions per second, while a processor running at 1 GHz can handle a whopping 1 billion (1000 MHz roughly equals 1 GHz).  As you might imagine, the higher the number attached to the CPU, the faster the processor speed, and you won’t find a new smartphone with an advertised speed of less than 1 GHz. Higher processor speeds are generally desired if you like to game or run intensive apps, but high speeds aren’t always necessary for casual use.

The next thing to look at in a processor is the number of cores, or processing units on a chip. Processors come in single-core or multi-core varieties. The differences are easy to grasp. The more cores there are, the more processing units, and the more tasks a smartphone is able to perform simultaneously without experiencing a significant lag in speed. As of this writing, smartphone processors top out at eight cores (octa core), but many still ship with four (quad core).

Multi-core processors are built for multitasking, and any new smartphone released in 2016 will have at least two cores. It’s important to note, however, that more cores and higher clock speeds don’t directly translate to better performance. Software plays a big role, and efficient software doesn’t need as powerful a processor to run swiftly. In addition, software has to be written specifically to take advantage of multiple cores and clock speeds.

Apple presents an excellent example here. The iPhone often lags behind Android flagships on the spec sheet, but new iPhone performance is always top notch. This is because iOS is very efficient, a benefit Apple enjoys because it produces both the hardware and software itself.

You may also see a “64-bit” processor. This is an upgrade over the traditional “32-bit” processors. 64-bit processors are able to access bigger chunks of memory, run more complex apps, and are better able to handle multi-tasking

Display

A smartphone’s display is often front and center to a buyer’s decision, and rightly so. You look at it and interact with it more than any other part of the phone, and displays that aren’t of sufficient size or quality will spoil the experience. But with the vast number of terms you’re likely to encounter, making the right choice can be tough. On the spec sheet, you’ll find references to display type, size, and resolution. All are important considerations.

Samsung Super AMOLED displayThe spec lists for smartphones are packed with an alphabetical overabundance when it comes to displays: AMOLED, Super AMOLED, IPS, LCD, OLED, Retina, LED and TFT, to list some of the more popular. Each of these refer to a specific technology behind the display.

At the time of this writing two of the best options in terms of the visual experience are AMOLED and IPS. Super AMOLED is a next-generation AMOLED, and LCD is sometimes called LED. IPS (in-plane switching) is an LCD variation that delivers extra-wide viewing angles so the contrast and colors on the screen won’t shift if your viewing angle changes.

Many Android smartphones feature some version of AMOLED. It’s a newer display technology that many prefer for its deep blacks and vibrant colors. Its high contrast makes it great for cutting through overhead glare, and it potentially results in thinner devices because it doesn’t require a backlight … which also makes it more battery efficient than LCD. Each pixel in an AMOLED display is individually lit separately (or off completely, which explains the deep blacks).

Apple still sticks with good-ole LCD for its iPhone and iPad (the Apple Watch is OLED). It’s a tried-and-true technology that produces more balanced colors and brighter whites than OLED. Because it’s backlit (you can often see hints of light bleeding around the edges), blacks appear slightly washed out. IPS delivers a better viewing experience at odd angles compared to a traditional LCD but requires a more powerful backlight, which can quickly drain the battery. You’ll see IPS displays on higher-end smartphones and phablets. TFT, which stands for thin film transistor, is a modern variation of the traditional LCD. It’s cheaper to manufacture, but won’t deliver the wide viewing angles of IPS and therefore is found in low-end smartphones.

After that, you’ll find marketing terms to define pixels and other unique display tech. Apple’s “Retina” is probably the most famous. It signifies a high pixel density. You can’t make out any one individual pixel when viewing a Retina display at a certain distance (10 to 12 inches for a smartphone display with 300 pixels per inch). All high-end smartphones currently exceed the Retina designation, but only Apple uses it because Retina is Apple’s trademarked term.

gorilla-glassYou may also see “scratch proof/resistant,”or “Gorilla Glass” mentioned, or maybe even “Sapphire.” These are protection technologies built into the glass used for displays. Gorilla Glass is made by Corning and it’s what keeps your smartphone display from shattering when you drop it. Motorola has a similar technology in Shattershield.

Display size is another important consideration. It’s measured diagonally, corner to corner. Most Android phones exceed 5 inches, while the iPhone 6s stands at 4.7. For infrequent use, you don’t necessarily need to have a phablet-sized smartphone (exceeding 5.5 inches). However, if you’re buying a smartphone to act as a mobile media device capable of streaming movies, consider picking a screen large enough to view movies comfortably.

Big displays also equal bigger phones, and therefore may not be a good fit for you if you prefer single-handed use. But it’s important to keep in mind that as components shrink, so to do smartphones. It’s possible to squeeze bigger displays on smaller devices than it was just a few years ago.

Finally, display resolution is a straightforward spec. Think of a smartphone as a grid, with pixels running up along the side of the device, and then along to top. The number of pixels on those sides represent the resolution. Common resolutions include Full HD (1920 pixels by 1080, just like a common HDTV) and Quad HD (2560 x 1440), but these numbers vary. The iPhone 6s has a 1334 x 750 display, while the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium has a 3840 x 2160 display. More important than the resolution is the pixels per inch (PPI), or pixel density. High-end Android smartphones top 500 pixels per inch, while the iPhone 6S has a pixel density of 326 ppi. The higher the PPI the better, but there are diminishing returns as the number goes up. Anything over 300 is typically indistinguishable by the human eye unless you’re viewing the screen at extremely close distances (such as using your phone with a VR gaming headset).

Connectivity

We’ve covered cellular networking technology, and all smartphones now support Wi-Fi, with most supporting the latest Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ac. Some budget smartphones top out at 802.11n; previously the highest consumer standard. Most smartphones also support dual-band Wi-Fi, which means it can connect to both 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi networks. The 5GHz networks typically provide faster and more reliable Wi-Fi, in part because they are less crowded with devices. But that’s not all. Smartphones have a few other networking technologies:

  • Bluetooth is a standard on all smartphones and is the preferred method of choice when connecting your mobile device to wireless speakers, headphones, keyboards, and other accessories. Bluetooth variants include 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, and 4.0. Version 4.0 is also often referred to as Bluetooth Smart, BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) or just LE (Low Energy). As of this writing, version 4.2 reigns as the state-of-the-art upgrade to the technology, which enables faster connections, improved internet connectivity, and increased security. Apple has also developed its own class of BLE tech called iBeacon.
    Bluetooth is reverse compatible, which means you can pair a Bluetooth 4.0 smartphone up with a set of Bluetooth 3.0 speakers. Smartphones have to have equivalent or higher Bluetooth tech in order to communicate with external devices. What this mean is that if you own a Bluetooth 4.0 headset, you’ll need a smartphone running 4.0 in order to pair up.
  • NFC, or near-field communication, allows you to transfer data, like photos and contacts, to or from your phone to another NFC-enabled device without the use of cables. Uses for NFC also include things like point-of-sale payments like Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, and Android Pay.
  • USB Type-C, full-sized USB 3.0

    USB Type-C, full-sized USB 3.0

    USB connectivity is used to charge smartphones and also enables the transfer of data via a wired connection. The prevailing USB types on today’s smartphones are microUSB (version 2.0) and the newer USB Type-C (which supports the USB 3.1 standard). Smartphones equipped with USB Type-C ports are convenient because the cable ends are reversible and can transfer data faster when connected to another USB 3.0 or 3.1 device. One of the drawbacks of adopting a Type-C device is that it requires a different cable, rendering all those spare microUSB cables you have lying around useless. Additionally, Type-C cables aren’t compatible with traditional USB ports for your computer or external devices and require a USB Type-C-to-USB adapter to enable the connection.
    When looking at the type of USB connectivity, consider the fact that sometimes a move “up” in handset iteration doesn’t always mean an equal move forward with respect to technology. A good example of this is the Samsung Galaxy S5, which came with a faster microUSB v3.0 port, and the Galaxy S6 and S7, both of which took backward steps in speed by re-incorporating a microUSB v2.0 port.
    If you’re looking at an iPhone, take note: Apple has its own proprietary connectivity port called Lightning (replacing the large 30-pin connector), which is incompatible with micro USB and USB Type-C cables. This means that in order to connect your iPhone to another device, you’ll need a Lighting cable to do so.

Memory

Screenshot_20160321-104142System RAM and Flash RAM aren’t the same thing, but both fall into the memory category. The amount of system RAM (random access memory) impacts the smartphone’s ability to multitask, just as it does on your computer. Therefore, more RAM means more speed and stability – but it’s also possible to overkill on RAM if you’re not going to be utilizing it all that often. High-end smartphones top out at about 4GB RAM as of this writing.

Flash RAM or Flash memory is often found on spec sheets as “internal storage” or “capacity,” and it reflects how much storage space the device has to house things like photos, videos, music, and apps – all of which can quickly fill up your device. The amount of internal storage available to you, as opposed the GBs being consumed by the device’s OS and included apps, differs from one device to another. Some smartphones ship with 10 GB of the internal storage already gobbled up by the operating system and the bundled apps out of the box. Before you buy, look into how much of that storage is actually available, as this is a more accurate representation of how much storage space you have.

In general, smartphones ship with 16, 32, 64, or 128GB of internal storage. Most find 16GB to be insufficient, especially as apps become more sophisticated, and photo/video files become larger. If you purchase a new smartphone capable of recording 4K video then you probably don’t want anything less than 64 GB worth of storage.

The presence of microSD card slots on some smartphones makes it possible for you to expand on the internal storage. Some Android smartphones have a feature that enables users to mount microSD cards as internal storage, using them to store and run apps. Otherwise, microSD is suitable for storing media, like photos and videos.

Sensors

Smartphones come equipped with all sorts of sensors that improve the user experience and turn them into something far more than “just” phones – or devices to be used for time-killing exploits like playing games and watching movies. Here’s what you’ll find on a smartphone spec sheet.

  • glonass-logoAccelerometers and gyroscopes detect motion in your smartphone, performing quick functions like automatically switching between landscape and portrait mode. Other smartphone features that allow you to launch certain actions with a shake of the phone, are reliant on an accelerometer or gyroscope.
  • Proximity sensors are helpful for identifying the difference between your fingertip and your cheek. Smartphones with proximity sensors won’t accidentally launch applications if you’re having a conversation and your face accidentally brushes up against the screen.
  • GPS, when engaged, uses satellite technology to find your location and is used for functions like mapping routes and finding your smartphone if it’s been lost or stolen. Many smartphones now ship with GPS and GLONASS, which are different, but do the same thing. While the US was deploying GPS satellites in the 1970s, the Soviet Union was deploying GLONASS. It’s now commercially used as a GPS alternative, or in conjunction with GPS for an overall better experience.

Camera

The lens and image sensor make up the bulk of the camera spec. Megapixel is the most common spec, and it refers to the number of pixels in an image, measured in the millions. Five megapixels is five million pixels. The more megapixels, the higher the resolution, and the greater your ability to crop a photo without experiencing pixelation.

aperatureThis isn’t to say that more megapixels always make for better quality pictures. Some image sensors have larger individual pixels, which are able to pick up more light and perform better in low-light conditions. Because they are physically larger, there are less of them, and the images have fewer megapixels.

The camera lens also affects image quality. A smartphone camera lens is measured by the size of the diaphragm, often called the aperture. The more open the diaphragm, the more light that can get in, the better the camera performance in low light. This is expressed in f/stops, or “f” followed by a number. The smaller the number, the more open the diaphragm. Many smartphone cameras hover around f/2 and f/1.9, with some now shipping at f/1.7. Remember, the smaller the number, the better.

Stabilization is also important. OIS stands for optical image stabilization, and it’s basically a suspension system that keeps the lens steady from shakes, twitches, and any other movement. Without it, your videos would look like earthquake footage and your photos would be blurry. The alternative to OIS is digital image stabilization, which uses software to correct images. OIS is better.

Video resolution is another consideration. A smartphone capable of recording video in 1080p or Full HD resolution at 30 frames per second (fps) is the base standard. Many flagships shoot Full HD at 60fps, and newer phones even record 4K video.

There’s a lot more to cameras, including focus technology/speed, and camera software capabilities. And just like the display, the spec sheet is loaded with marketing terms.

The Importance of the Test Drive

There is much more to smartphone spec sheets, including networking bands, networking category, battery size (the bigger the mAh number, the better), charging technology, and build material, to name a few. Just remember, the spec sheet best serves as a high-level guide. Our advice is always to realistically evaluate your needs, read professional reviews, and then pay a visit to your local big box store and devote some time to testing out your available choices.

Specs aren’t everything. Thanks to recent advances in smartphone technology, it’s possible that a $200 smartphone will do everything need – including saving you hundreds of dollars.

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