Are current smartphones good enough?

January 30, 2013
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Our phones are what keep us connected to the world. We are increasingly dependent on our devices to navigate us through our day, so we should be concerned with their functionality. As a central part of our lives, we want them to be as powerful, smart, and intuitive as we aren’t. Is that phone in your pocket or purse strong enough? Moreover, are any phones out there really able to keep up with us? Do we need more than what we have, or are current specs able to provide?

In taking a look at current phones, we’ll break it down into three categories: screen, hardware, and battery. These three characteristics should cover the bulk of our wants and needs, as well as allow us to consider which upgrades are necessary or wanted. They’re often dependent on one another, so a fail in one area may actually indicate a failure overall. It’s time to get your phone out and judge it mercilessly!

The screen

It’s the first thing you see, and one of your largest concerns. A phone’s screen is extremely important to us, as it’s our only real interaction with the device. Are you reading this on your phone? Is it crisp and clear, easily zoomed in and out? Can you see any pixels when you zoom in? If you aren’t happy with the screen on your phone, it may be time to upgrade. Then again, you may be falling prey to a mob mentality.

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Resolution

In this modern day of mobile technology, we are terribly demanding about screen specs. We want the densest screen resolution with the truest colors, all at a bargain. Manufacturers have been fantastic about meeting our demands, but we still want more. Is your resolution good enough, or are you just falling victim to the mass hysteria about PPI (pixel-per-inch)?

Studies show that current PPI is not visible to the naked eye. Any phone with a PPI of 250 or greater is essentially “flawless” to our eyes, so this talk of resolution has become moot. High-end phones are all 250PPI and above, meaning the only thing more pixels per square inch are really doing is eating up precious battery life.

Materials

As much as we like our resolution, that really only matters if the screen remains beautiful. If the screen is scuffed and scratched, not much else matters… ugly is ugly, high resolution or not. While we used to coddle our phones and swathe them in a screen protector immediately out of the box, those days are behind us.

Corning

Corning has developed a line of very thin, very resilient polymer glass-like material that acts as a screen on modern devices. These polymers are so advanced, they resist just about anything. Known as the “Gorilla Glass” line, the one thing we notice every day is just getting better. If you think your current screen is nice, wait until Gorilla Glass 3 comes out. Thinner and more resilient to scratches or breakage, it can only enhance our experience. Gorilla Glass 3 was announced and displayed at CES 2013, so look for it on your next device purchase.

Technology

If our current crop of smartphones have resolutions we can’t discern and glass that resists scuffing, it better be responsive, too. While phones used to require a bit of a heavy hand, a recent development will allow you to be as light on your fingers as you wish you could be on your toes.

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Project Butter may be a technological breakthrough, but its design is for your tactile enjoyment. Realizing that Android devices weren’t as smooth an experience as they hoped for, Google engineers set out to enhance that by increasing responsiveness and sensitivity on our screen. Released with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, Project Butter would give us a leap forward in interaction with our device.

No guts, no glory

You may love to wax philosophical about your screens, but it’s all the stuff we don’t see that is the true heart and soul of our device. Whether that be playing a game or the ability to access LTE service, what sits behind your screen is the workhorse of your phone. As ever-changing as the technology is, it’s always improving and may see a plateau soon.

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Processor

Dual-core, quad-core, million-core… who cores? You do, and you should. The processor is the most visibly invisible part of your device. Noticing a little lag? It might be your processor. Your phone’s processor is the tie that binds all the rest of it together, and it absolutely has to keep up.

In an age where a dual-core device is standard, our processors are well beyond where we thought we’d be at this point. A phone will routinely clock in a 1.5GHz, a standard usually reserved for entry-level laptop computers. The processors in our mobile devices are robust and fast, but often depend on other factors to truly showcase their talents. It’s easy to blame the processor, but it may not be the culprit if you feel you’re being robbed of speed and performance.

Remember when…

Memory is an increasing concern amongst cell phone users. As we matriculate into the age of cloud storage, less on-board memory is being afforded us to our device. A standard of 16-32GB is normal, and some devices have a mere 8GB of storage. When you take into account that Android takes about 3.5GB of memory, and a robust FPS game can eat up an additional 1-2GB, the 8GB phone is simply not going to work for many users. A 16GB phone seems to be the norm, but 32GB is an ideal standard device makers can easily achieve. Memory costs relatively little to make and install, and almost no additional room when upgraded. This is one area we’d love to see an upgrade to.

Nexus 4 battery

Battery

The one thing we can all agree on is our battery life is in desperate need of an overhaul. Getting through a full day, using our devices normally, is tough. We shouldn’t be asked to simply reduce our usage or change our screen brightness to accommodate the battery. On top of the poor battery life, some phones don’t have removable units to allow for a backup battery to be switched out.

Some phones, like the Droid RAZR Maxx HD, have great battery life, but not for any type of technology. The phone simply has a gigantic battery tacked on to a phone with an ultra-slim profile. While the larger battery doesn’t take anything away from the phone, it also doesn’t push any boundaries. Dropping an over-sized battery into a device is a novel idea, but a band-aid on a larger problem.

New thinking

Some really interesting things have been introduced in terms of battery technologies. Some of that technology is just too radical to be cost effective, while some could be easily instituted. The current thinking of a larger battery is just not going to cut it, and carrying a battery pack is not an option.

A recent study by Northwestern University has yielded what could be an important breakthrough. Rather than mess with exotic materials or some other method of changing the entire way batteries are made or designed, Professor Harold Kung tried a radically simple approach. One that, if proven successful over time, may change the way we think of batteries and charging.

Holes… millions of them

Professor Kung understood that the movement of lithium ions between the sheets of graphene in your battery is the key factor in performance and charging time. As a battery is used, the lithium ions travel through that graphene from the anode to the cathode, and back again for charging. He took to poking millions of microscopic holes in the graphene layers, reducing the roadblocks of all those lithium ions. the result was a faster charge, going from dead to fully charged in 15 minutes.

Removing roadblocks could have the same effect on battery life, also. A quick charge could mean less battery life, meaning we simply make many small charges in our day rather than one or two big charges. This also reduces overall life, as a battery is often rated for how many “cycles”, or charges, it can endure.

To counter this issue, Professor Kung and his team placed silicone between the graphene layers to assist in the travel of the Lithium and create a superhighway of power. This also allows for energy to be stored and utilized more effectively. The result of all this science? A battery that lasts a week on one 15 minute charge. It is also shown to be five times as effective as our current battery technology after a full year’s worth of charges. “We have found a way to extend a new lithium-ion battery’s charge life by 10 times,” Professor Kung said. We all know how much Larry Page loves doing things ten times better, so let’s hope Google and Motorola take a hard look at this.

Jelly Bean

Jelly Bean

Services

This may be the secret of your device, and it’s not even there. The services you access are the easiest to transition away from, but are also the reason you have the device to being with. As services get more comprehensive and useful, phones must meet the demands. It’s an odd symbiosis between hardware and nowhere.

Take Google Now, for instance. It has no bearing on your device, physically, but it demands as much from your device as almost anything else. Ask it a question, and every part of your handy little friend is being tested: the screen must display and be responsive, the processor and radios must react in time. The battery has to be on-call, powering the device, and the even the memory might be needed (depended on what you search for). That’s a second or two of your time, and a lot of stress on the device.

We love to play games, and we enjoy our maps and cloud storage, but it’s those things that are killing our phones and tablets so quickly each day. The next time you are reading Flipboard, or playing a game, consider just how much your device is going through to make that possible. While we shouldn’t be asked to give up what we’ve been given, we should respect that too much of anything is going to be a bad thing for our devices.

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Conclusion

Are our phones good enough? Yes… for now. We’ll always want more, and manufacturers will always push the boundaries. This is how great things happen, and why we’ll ask the same thing a few years from now. Do we need more? Maybe not, but we want it. Simple things like battery life and on-board memory are two things that can change immediately and have a huge impact on our mobile lifestyle.

We’re also left to wonder just what Larry Page was hinting at when he made those hopefully telling remarks about what a mobile device should be able to do. In part, Page said :

Think about your device. Battery life is a huge issue. You shouldn’t have to worry about constantly recharging your phone. When you drop your phone, it shouldn’t go splat. Everything should be a ton faster and easier. There’s real potential to invent new and better experiences.

An interesting statement by the CEO of Google. Is he hinting at the mysterious Motorola X project? This comment was made in reference to where Google is at with Motorola, so it would make sense. Then again, maybe he’s just saying what’s on everyone’s mind. Either way, he’s right.

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