“Specs are important, but software is importanter“
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I’m a great believer in the power of software. Hardware is a mere enabler… the means to an end so to speak, whereas it’s the software that drives things. A Lamborghini in the hands of a person who can’t drive is a massive waste, and the same is the case with powerful smartphone hardware riddled with software that can’t offer a smooth user experience. While it’s easy to get overwhelmed by a gazillion gigs of RAM phones come with these days, and be enamoured by the Snapdragon 845s and the A12 Bionics of the world, one has to realise that without software, these are mere chips that, on their own, can’t figure out what one plus six equals… if you know what I mean.
The recent Google Pixel 3 launch reaffirms this. Just look at the facts – 4 gigs of RAM and a solitary camera at the rear. These details sort of stand out in the specs sheet. Remember, it’s 2018, and smartphones with 6, even 8 gigs of RAM are now commonplace. Heck, there’s even a phone with 10GB of RAM now. Dual rear cameras can be found on the most basic handsets, and there are some that offer three shooters at the back. Samsung has just announced a phone that sports no less than four cameras at the rear, and there are rumours of Nokia developing a pentacam flagship. Amidst all this, there’s Big G, which has outed its latest flagships with a ‘measly’ 4GB RAM and just one camera handling primary photography duties. And if you think the new Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL (review) can’t match up to others that offer better specs on paper, think again. It’s not just a shot in the dark, as the Mountain View major has already proved what software can do with its 2017 flagships. The Pixel 2 XL (review) from last year is still one of the best camera phones out there, even after a year of its launch, and the new Pixel 3 / 3 XL take things up a notch, pun unintended. With a single camera, the Pixel 3 XL isn’t just able to deliver awesome bokeh, but also offers zooming capabilities that would otherwise need a separate telephoto lens. Google’s image processing algorithms, computational photography, and expertise in machine learning is able to drive that single shooter so well that the Pixel 3 XL’s shooting prowess is able to match – and even better – camera results from the latest flagships from other tier-1 brands.
That’s not to say that software can work its magic with any hardware. Sure, software platforms need capable hardware to work, but many just tend to run after the best specs, the most number of camera megapixels, the sharpest resolution screens, and the highest battery capacities without giving a second thought to the platform on offer. Xiaomi’s MIUI platform for example, remains a personal favourite, mainly because it packs in tons of tiny, yet useful features that I keep missing whenever I use any other smartphone. The ability to turn off one instance of a recurring alarm when there’s a mid-week holiday, or letting you copy OTPs directly from incoming SMSs for example, are features that come in really handy in everyday life.
I can tell you, as someone who tries out and gets to play with a ton of new phones on a daily basis, that there’s really no perceptible difference between using a phone with a Snapdragon 835 versus one that packs a Snapdragon 845 for everyday tasks. Ditto for a phone with 6GB of RAM compared to one that boasts 8 gigs of it. This holds true for a vast majority of tasks we perform and apps we run on our phones multiple times each day – I’m talking about WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook… you get the drift. Sure, intensive gaming needs solid hardware, and so does stuff like AR, etc. Beyond a point though, hardware upgrades stop making sense.
At the Pixel 3 launch event, Google never once made a mention of the processor or the amount of RAM its new flagships come with. For years, Apple has followed a policy of never alluding to specific hardware details packed inside its iPhones. Details on RAM, battery capacity etc, are never officially revealed by Apple, and it’s only thanks to teardowns that one gets to know about these. Ever heard an Apple fan mention how much RAM their iPhone has? Apple users are well aware of this strategy, and while many buy iPhones just because they’re iPhones, there are others who include the fluidity and simplicity of iOS, and the user experience offered by these devices among the key reasons of purchase.
Running after pure hardware specs can’t be the ultimate quest, especially where devices like smartphones are concerned. The choice between Android and iOS for example, isn’t just about buying a specific phone, but more about buying into an ecosystem. Just a couple of weeks ago, a friend called me to ask how he can mirror his iPhone’s screen on his TV, and in response, I asked him whether he had an Apple TV or not. It’s things like this that should be taken into consideration while buying a smartphone. Smart TVs are all the rage these days, and most come with Android-based platforms which usually play well with Android phones… for screen mirroring and other stuff. So if screen mirroring is feature you want and you already have an Android-based smart TV at home, buying an Android phone makes a lot of sense. On the other hand, if many among your family, friends and peers have iPhones, you should consider one too just because sharing stuff like photos becomes so much simpler (thanks to AirDrop). Similarly, buying an iPhone also makes sense if you’re invested into Apple’s ecosystem and have other devices from the brand, such as an iPad or a MacBook. Android vs iOS is just an example here… the point I’m trying to make here is that the specs sheet alone shouldn’t make your decision for you. Sure, there could be budget constraints to consider, but even if you’re eying an affordable or a mid-range daily driver, weighing and comparing two devices spec-by-spec may not give you a result that can be guaranteed to keep you satisfied over time. Google and Apple may be two examples I’ve spoken about thus far, but others like Nokia and Motorola have also tried to focus more on the core experience offered by their phones than pure specs.
With stuff like AR, AI, computational photography and machine learning now becoming available to the masses, it’s clear that going forward, software is going to take on a bigger role with each passing day. And the sooner we realise that the number of processor cores are going to do very little to improve our core usage experience, the better it will be for us. Sure, it’s easier to evaluate and compare specs than gauge how well-optimised the software on a device is, but that’s exactly where reviews and feedback from other users of the device come in. While looking for a new phone, pay attention to the specs, but also check out reviews and actively seek feedback from others to make sure the device you’re planning to buy can deliver on the overall user experience.
A smartphone with well-optimised software is the one you should be after, and that may not necessarily be the one that’s loaded with top-of-the-line specs. Sure, RAM is important, but God lies in the details, and the software details are the ones that really matter.