There was once a time when buying a cell phone was like buying a CD player. Only a few specifications mattered, and they were generally easy to understand. Over time, however, phones have become miniature computers – and the specifications are nearly as complex as a PC’s.
Besides the processor and RAM, users also have to worry about cellular, wireless, the camera and more. All this can seem overwhelming, but don’t worry; this guide will prove you don’t need to be a genius to figure out a phone’s innards.
Let’s deal with the most complex component, the processor, first. Smartphones actually don’t have a socketed “processor” in the traditional sense, as they instead are built with a system-on-a-chip architecture that combines other functions into a single piece of silicon. The CPU has become a permanent, irreplaceable part of a larger ecosystem.
I could, at this point, go on about clock speeds and core counts, but there’s a problem; none of that’s very informative. In the computing space, comparing figures offers some information because there’s just a few competing architectures from two companies, AMD and Intel, but the smartphone market is broader. There are numerous designs from numerous manufacturers.
My advice is to ignore the tech jargon and go straight to benchmark scores. There are several publically available sources that publish catalogs of benchmark results including Geekbench, PassMark and Anandtech. These will bring you up to spend on the relative performance of current phones.
Memory And Storage
RAM is a very important part of a PC. A lack of memory can lead to very poor performance in certain productivity applications and games, and even Windows itself can consume a surprising amount of memory.
Smartphones are a different story. You won’t see much mention of RAM speed or bandwidth because, frankly, it doesn’t make enough of a difference for most consumers to care. More memory is better, but that doesn’t mean a Samsung Galaxy S4, which has two gigabytes of RAM, blows away the iPhone 5s, which has only one gigabyte.
Memory has taken a back seat because developers are working within much tighter hardware constraints and users can’t upgrade available RAM. If an app developer makes something that doesn’t work with a phone that has one gigabyte of memory they’ll receive nothing but complaints.
Storage can also be viewed from a simple more-is-better standpoint. There are different types of long-term memory chips that operate at different speeds, but you don’t need to sweat those details. Just buy a phone with as much storage as you think you’ll use. My article debating whether sixteen gigabytes is enough for an iPad will put you on the right track.
The display is arguably the most important component in your smartphone because it serves as your only interface. You’ll spend a lot of time staring at it – so you’ll want it to be good!
Most buyers will first focus on resolution. This can be deceiving because a large screen with a high resolution may not be as sharp as on a small screen with lower resolution. What you really want to know is how many pixels are packed into each inch. You can calculate this yourself if the specification isn’t provided. More pixels per inch mean a sharper picture.
Once you know the pixel density (PPI), you should find out the display technology used. The most common flavors are IPS-LCD, OLED and Super LCD.
IPS-LCD is the traditional route and involves a backlight LCD screen that features In-Plane Switching, a technology that can increase color gamut and almost eliminate problematic viewing angles. On average, phones using this technology can be harder to read outdoors than others because glossy glass is usually used to maximum contrast. The iPhone 5s is an example of a top-tier phone with an IPS-LCD.
Next up we have organic LED, or OLED, which uses light-emitting organic compounds to produce an image without a backlight. This technology is thin, efficient and can produce great contrast. However, most OLEDs use a “pentile” arrangement in which each pixel can only display two colors rather than the three primaries of red, blue and green. Some users find this creates an unpleasing dotted or tiled look. Samsung is the most well-known pusher of OLED (it uses the term AMOLED) and the uses it on all high-end phones.
Finally there’s Super LCD. This is similar to IPS-LCD, but the gap between the outer glass and the screen is narrowed substantially to reduce glare and create a more seamless look. The best Super LCDs are about as vibrant as IPS-LCD (in fact, they sometimes use an IPS panel underneath the glass) and are generally a good choice for outdoors use. HTC is the most dedicated maker smartphones using Super LCD.
Which technology you prefer is a personal choice. I’ve found Super LCD to be my favorite because it provides a clear screen that’s easy to see outdoors, but others prefer the vibrant look and strong contrast of a good OLED.
There are two main branches of cellular service in the world; GSM and CDMA. GSM is common worldwide, but some major North American carriers like Verizon and Sprint use CDMA. The technical differences aren’t worth knowing; GSM vs CDMA is only important because of compatibility. You should not buy a CDMA phone if you plan to travel internationally, and you should not buy a GSM phone if you plan to sign up with a CDMA carrier.
Next up, you’ll want to think about 3G vs 4G. I’ve already penned a long article about 4G and what it does for you, so read the full story. The summary is this: 4G is preferable, but it doesn’t guarantee speed. Your carrier’s network is just as important as the cellular technology in your phone.
WiFi is currently making a jump to a new standard. 802.11n is now old, 802.11ac is new, and computers are starting to adopt the latter. 802.11ac will become standard equipment in most laptops and WiFi-enabled desktops sold during the last quarter of this year.
This is a feature you should pay keen attention to if you frequently use your phone as a video player or gaming machine at home. The new Samsung Galaxy S5, which uses a powerful new 802.11ac networking chip, can manage speeds of over 430 Mbps. That’s six times faster than the Samsung Galaxy S3 and four times quicker than the iPhone 5s, both of which are limited to 802.11n.
A note of caution, however; you must have an 802.11ac router to utilize the improved bandwidth. Buying an 802.11ac phone is pointless if your home router doesn’t support the new standard. The phone’s WiFi will still work, but it won’t offer improved bandwidth.
A camera is an incredibly complex piece of equipment, which is why many smartphone reviews include sizable section devoted exclusively to it. Trying to break it down into specifications is crude, but there are a few areas worth your attention.
The first is megapixels. More megapixels translate to high resolution photos and a better ability to zoom in to view more detail. More is better, though a camera with more megapixels isn’t always better than one with less.
Next is video resolution. Again, higher is better. Most modern smartphones can manage 1080p, which is what I’d recommend as the bare minimum to anyone who intends to record with their phone. A few phones can even manage 4k.
Finally, look to see if slow motion and image stabilization features are offered. This are really features of the phone’s software, not the camera itself, but they’re still important. Slow motion will result in a clearer video when recording any fast-moving object. Image stabilization, meanwhile, makes recordings appear smoother and more professional.
Bluetooth: This is a wireless standard commonly used for connecting peripherals like headset and keyboards. This is a common feature on smartphones and one I highly recommend you seek out. The newest version of Bluetooth is 4.1, but you’ll probably be fine with Bluetooth 3.0 or newer.
GPS: Essentially a standard feature on all modern smartphones, GPS is needed to use location-based features and apps, like Google Maps. The details of the technology aren’t a concern; having GPS is all that matters.
Sensors: All new smartphones have a microphone, of course, and most come with a gyroscope and accelerometer too. These are the most common sensors and are used by many apps, so make sure you have them. Less important, but still desirable, is an ambient light sensor (which can be used to automatically adjust screen brightness) and a proximity or gesture recognition sensor (which can be used to disable functions when your phone is held up to your face or even for touch-less navigation, a feature boasted by some Samsung phones).
I hope this guide has brought you up to speed with what’s important in a smartphone. If you have any questions, or any advice for buyers, feel free to leave a comment below!