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Should we still care about the spec wars? Or are phones already good enough?

In this week's Friday Debate we discuss the spec wars. Do we really need QHD displays and other high-end specs, or are phones already more than good enough? Be sure to vote in our poll!
May 9, 2014
oneplus one vs galaxy s5 aa (10 of 12)

It’s 2014 and already we’ve seen quite a few from both major manufacturers and newcomers, all packing as impressive of specs as possible. With the upcoming LG G3, we expect this trend to continue with the handset maker becoming the first major company to embrace QHD resolutions on a smartphone.

But is there a point where enough is enough? As devices become more powerful, we have to wonder if focusing on increasing specs is really the best strategy for manufacturers. In this week’s Friday Debate, we discuss the spec war and whether it’s really worth keeping up with anymore.

Some could argue that we’ve already reached a point where phones are “good enough”, and that it’s time for handset makers to reevaluate their strategy and focus on new areas.

What’s your take? Join in the discussion below and answer in our poll!

Jonathan Feist

I love the idea of meaningful innovation. Don’t get me wrong, the latest string of phones and components heralding in an era of large and powerful Android devices is very exciting; however, putting my money where my mouth is, I do not want a 6-inch QHD phone.

Let me explain what has been good enough for me in one phrase, Nexus 7.

With the Nexus 7 in tow wherever I go, my requirements of a phone are that it is easy to lug around in my pocket, great battery life and serves up great hotspot speeds for the tablet. A great camera is good too. In the end, a 6-inch phone would only be a redundancy for me and likely to be damaged as it would not be able to just slide, forgotten, into a pocket to serve up my WiFi, only to re-emerge to place calls and snap photos.

Looking at devices in terms of ppi screen resolution, I find it terribly silly that we are getting into the 500, even 600ppi+ territory. I am not against 2K or 4K resolution in general, I love the tech behind it and the idea of where it can go next, but at the screen sizes we are talking about here, the human eye really cannot see the difference. Sure, the screens may look different, but is that because we are seeing the individual pixels or, speaking about that meaningful innovation, is the pixel materials, layout, color and brightness different?

For the sake of seeing what it is all about, I have been using a Moto G as my daily driver for the last couple weeks. This thing packs specifications that this year’s flagship devices absolutely laugh at, but is still a really great device. Is it going to be my long term user? No, but that is for lack of functionality (LTE, Gyroscope, MHL/Slimport, camera…,) not lack of performance or size.

As it turns out, my beef is purely with size, I think a phone should be small but powerful and a secondary device or an attached secondary display should handle your larger screen needs. I think back to one of the greatest things that never really came to be, an Ubuntu phone. Not the Ubuntu built device with Ubuntu mobile OS that flopped as a kickstarter, I am talking about back when they promised we could run a Galaxy Nexus with Android in hand, then dock it and instantly boot into a desktop OS.

My dream machine is a combination device of the idea behind the faded from memory docked Ubuntu OS, a play on Asus’s silly PadFone nightmare, just with universal connections and a selection of modular size upgrades, Chrome OS and full Chromecast device mirroring. To me, meaningful innovation would see to more power, more function and more external display and peripheral support, not so much on ppi counts. But, I suppose I am strange like that. As long as the majority of users continue to use their smartphone as little more than just an entertainment device, the smart move for manufacturers may be what I am arguing against – on that note, let’s go for it, show me a 6.5-inch 4K display!

Robert Triggs

The tech loving side of me always wants to keep an eye on what’s going on at the bleeding edge of the industry, but the savvy consumer in me can’t justify spending $600 on something shiny and new when my current handset does everything I want. For me, smartphones have been “good enough” for a while, and the industry certainly isn’t keeping pace with the big generational hardware leaps seen in the glory days of the old Samsung Galaxy series.

The big handset manufacturers have come up against a wall this generation particularly, with none of the recent flagships doing much to impress me compared with the last batch. I wouldn’t say that the big companies have forgotten how to make great phones, rather I think that they’re struggling for meaningful innovation now that smartphones can manage pretty much everything that consumers can throw at them.

Fingerprint scanners or slightly louder speakers don’t justify a $600 price tag to me, but the big names have to appear to be doing something to justify their leading positions. That being said, if you look to Motorola, Nvidia, or cheap developers like OnePlus, they are innovating in areas which some consumers care about, such as smart software, gaming power, and price.

Whilst some handset manufacturers may be suffering from a lack of ways to improve the basic calls, internet, and media formula that most people demand from their smartphones, the more niche sectors, such as gaming or ultra-high resolution content, continue to go from strength to strength.

The spec race isn’t over for me, but I concede that it’s becoming harder and harder to justify in mainstream handsets. Devices are more than good enough for what most people need.

Andrew Grush

Are today’s smartphones really good enough, and is the spec race over? Yes and no. While I personally love having bleeding-edge hardware, that’s really more the competitive geek in me than anything.

The reality is that, while my Nexus 5 is considerably better than my wife’s Moto G, they largely do the same things. We both use them for ocassional e-book reading on the go, we both use them for browsing the web, listening to music and playing a few games. They are both fast and both are decent looking devices. There are very few things that my Nexus 5 can do that the Moto G couldn’t, allow mine might do it a bit faster and with a much more impressive display (both size and resolution).

So, the answer in my opinion is that the spec war is becoming less meaningful for consumers, but it’s far from over. There will always be those that want better specs for better specs sakes. I’ve seen AA comments dissing Snapdragon 800 CPUs are a poor choice when the Snap 801 is avaliable and I’ve been guilty of somewhat stating this in my own articles. And yet the differences are very minimal.

As for the notion that manufacturers have lost touch with what makes a phone good? This is also somewhat true. I feel that none of 2014’s major flagships have done much to impress me, though smaller brands like Oppo and OnePlus have attempted to change things up in terms of pricing and other areas that make things a bit more interesting.

Ultimately, I think that manufacturers haven’t lost touch, but they are struggling to figure out exactly how to move forward now that the jumps between CPU, RAM and other components aren’t as drastic from generation to generation. Going forward, I hope that manufacturers spend less time on pure specs and more time on price, battery life and user experience.

Speaking to the latter point, Motorola is a good example of a manufacturer that’s starting to target user experience over specs, though I’d like to see something that lands a bit more in the middle.

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