Spec sheets for tech devices can sometimes be confusing. Though generally, comparing two mobile phones (or tablets) on a pure spec-for-spec basis is a good rule of thumb to determine a winner (‘this one has a bigger screen, better camera, it must be the better option!’), a list of abbreviations, file formats and numbers doesn’t always give you the full picture.
Avid consumers of mobile phones know, as does anyone who regularly reads tech and gadget blogs, it’s the good old user experience at the end of the day that wins out.
The INQ Cloud Touch and BlackBerry Torch 9810 both received three and a half stars in our reviews. However, if we scored every phone based on their specs alone, the Torch 9810 would win hands down with its more powerful processor and better camera.
But ultimately we felt that each phone offered an overall experience of equivalent value when you take into consideration price, ease of use, features and - crucially - who the phones are aimed at.
So, what should we expect from specs?
As soon as a phone or tablet is announced, there’s usually an accompanying list of specs.
GSM 850/900/1800/1900, 512MB, 1.2GHz, 8.1-megapixels, 32GB. All of these figures will be instantly familiar to the average tech fan; if not you can find out with a cursory Googling.
But what do they all really mean?
We’ve put together this short guide to all of what we think are the most important mobile phone specs are and what to consider when weighing up two similarly-specced devices.
Size and weight
Pretty self explanatory this. The dimensions of a smartphone are usually expressed in a Height x Width x Depth format, with measurements for each normally given in millimetres. The weight of a phone is shown in grams and is usually given with the weight of the phone including the battery.
Screen sizes, pixel counts, PPI and screen types
In contrast to a phone’s dimensions, a phone’s screen size is normally expressed in terms of inches. This measurement is derived from a diagonal measurement, e.g. from the top right corner to the bottom left.
So while two phones may have the same stated screen sizes (i.e. 3.5-inches) they might not be exactly the same shape; one may be longer and thinner than another.
Screen size doesn’t give you an idea of how detailed a display is either; this is when the resolution (normally expressed as number of pixels across height x width) and the PPI value (the number of pixels per inch).
The materials and type of technology used in a phone’s screen also have an impact on how well it performs. Different types of display hold up better in certain lighting conditions than others and some are better at reproducing colours and shades.
SLCD and AMOLED: AMOLED and Super AMOLED screens generally boast superior levels of contrast compared to LCD type screens. Screens with IPS (In Plane Switching) technology can be tweaked to provide stunning levels of detail while providing fantastic viewing angles. Have a look at our recent comparison of these smartphone screens for a better idea.
SLCD (sometimes S-LCD) is short for Super Liquid Crystal Display. It’s a type of display seen in many phones available today such as the HTC Sensation. Generally speaking, SLCD screens boast a greater colour fidelity than OLED and AMOLED screens, which in turn, boast greater levels of contrast and are more battery efficient.
Operating System / OS: The Operating System is the main program that basically ties everything together, from the phone’s dialler and settings menus to the camera application to the web browser and games like Angry Birds.
For example the OS for Apple’s iPhone and iPad is iOS, the OS for BlackBerry phones is called BlackBerry OS, and Android devices currently run on Android 2.x or Android 3.x depending on if they’re phones or tablets. Windows Phone 7 or Windows Phone is the new mobile OS from Microsoft.
CPU and speeds - 1GHz, 800MHz: The CPU (short for Central Processing Unit) also known as the processor is the part of the phone that responds to your commands; open an app, start the phone’s browser etc.
CPU performance is measured in terms of the frequency at which it powers through processes, measured in Hertz, megahertz (MHz) and gigahertz (GHz). The faster the CPU, the more quickly your phone will be able to respond to your commands.
Dual Core: If a phone or tablet has a dual core processor inside it, then generally speaking, it’s an indicator that it’s better suited to high-level tasks such as rendering high definition video, advanced games with 3D graphics, is faster in terms of overall performance and is often more battery efficient.
As with regular single-core processors, this won’t always be the case. Phone A with a faster processor than Phone B might not have as smooth a performance as another if Phone B has more RAM or more powerful graphical processing unit.
Quad-core (and higher) chipsets for mobile devices have been announced and detailed, promising even greater battery performance as well as the possibility of current-gen console-quality graphics on phones and tablets.
RAM / Memory: RAM can be confusing, as it’s sometimes listed simply as ‘Memory’ (RAM is short for Random Access Memory). This could possibly lead you to think that Memory refers to internal storage (i.e. where you store your pictures, MP3s, etc) which isn’t the case.
RAM is used to temporarily store app and program information and carries out the ‘physical’ running of processes if you will, things like playing music, running the web browser or loading a game.
Generally speaking, the more RAM a phone has, the more capable it is at carrying out tasks.
MP/Megapixels and camera specification: The megapixel count of a phone’s camera determines how large and roughly how detailed the images it takes will be. A megapixel is a million pixels. A phone with a 12-megapixel camera therefore will take much bigger pictures than a phone with a 3-megapixel camera.
Sure, an 8-megapixel camera means that the phone is capable of taking big images. That’s all. It’s not a totally accurate way to judge camera quality, there are other things, which we’ll go in to in a minute.
A specification that we’re increasingly seeing listed in spec lists at the moment is the camera lens aperture, expressed with an ‘f-number’ like f/2.4 or f/2.8.
Generally, the smaller the f-number, the greater amount of light is able to reach the image sensor. Therefore, the camera will the smaller number will be able to perform better in gloomy or poorly-lit conditions without you having to turn the flash on.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc, Xperia Neo and Xperia Ray phones cameras have an aperture of f/2.4, the Nokia N8’s 12-megapixel camera has an aperture of f/2.8 and the HTC Evo 3D has a f/2.2 aperture, but many phones don’t quote the lens aperture in spec sheets.
Most cameraphones will have an auto-setting where the camera will adjust for light accordingly, but others will have a manual control for exposure settings as well.
As well as aperture levels, it’s also worth noting if a phone’s specs mentions anything additional like Sony’s Exmor R sensor, which allows for even greater photo clarity in gloomy locations, combined with the comparatively big apertures of all these phones.
Camera Flash - xenon, LED, dual LED?
Phones with xenon flashes built in are pretty rare these days, generally only seen on Nokia smartphones like the N8.
There are many advantages that xenon flashes have over LED and dual LED. Generally, xenon flashes are better for illuminating shots across a wider range of situations and provide a more powerful burst of light. We’ve seen instances where a xenon flash will properly illuminate an entire area if it’s dark or gloomy where an LED or dual LED flash just doesn’t have the muscle to do this.
Jay Montano over at The Nokia Blog has put together a number of comparison shots which effectively weigh up the advantages of both of these and there’s a similar post demonstrating this over on All About Symbian.
One area where LED and dual LED flashes have an edge over xenon is in terms of video. An LED flash can kick out a continuous stream of light for use when recording video in the dark, something that a xenon flash can’t do. Xenon flashes are also quite big, adding considerable bulk to a handset.
Internal storage and microSD cards: Also, if a smartphone has a powerful camera but only say 8GB of internal storage and no microSD slot to expand the memory, then you’ll have to consider that that 8GB is going to get filled up mighty quick if you’re intent on taking lots of pics.
Internal storage (occasionally referred to as ROM, Read-Only Memory) is where your phone saves things like pictures, apps, music and other files. Internal storage is measured in either MB (Megabytes) or GB (Gigabytes) depending on how much a phone has. 1GB is approximately equivalent to 1000MB.
Music files vary greatly in size depending on the length of the song, their type and their bitrate. Songs ripped in lossless formats like FLAC can be as large as around 30MB for a 3-4 minute song whereas an MP3 of a similar-length song will be around 3-5MB.
Often a spec sheet says you’re getting ‘8GB’ or ‘16GB’ of storage, but in reality you often end up getting fractionally less than that. This is due to space being set aside for firmware, OS upgrades and other things.
In the case of the iPhone 4 for example, some users have reported that 14GB of the supposed 16GB is actually available. This is a common problem with internal memory on all smartphones, something we most recently noticed when we compared the HTC Sensation with the Samsung Galaxy S2.
MicroSD cards: Most phones these days will come with a microSD card slot, which allows you to add more memory by buying an additional microSD memory card.
You can currently get microSD cards of up to 32GB in size. Most phones released over the last couple of years will work with these, making it an easy way to expand storage. 16GB cards are currently available to buy for around £11 to £20 depending on where you look and a 32GB one costs between £33 and £40 at the moment.
Wired connections: micro USB, HDMI and MHL: Most phones these days will have some kind of connection that connects to a mains adapter and to a computer via USB.
Either the phone will have a micro USB connection on it that’ll mean that any micro USB-to-USB wire will work, or a proprietary connection-to-USB cable (that will come supplied in the box), like the iPhone 4.
Many phones these days also come with HDMI ports that allow you to hook your phone up to an HDTV set, for the purposes of watching video recorded on the phone on a bigger screen. Normally, you find an HDMI connection on a phone that’s capable of playing and/or recording video at 720p or 1080p.
If a phone lists ‘MHL’ (Mobile High-Definition Link) in its specs then this means you should be able to stream HD video from the phone even if there’s no HDMI port.
A phone like the HTC Sensation for example, has no HDMI port, but it’s micro USB connection features MHL connectors in it. You’ll have to buy a separate MHL to HDMI cable and adapter to connect your phone to a TV set’s HDMI port. But this means there’s a way to connect your phone to an HDTV screen without there being an HDMI connection on the phone itself.
Wireless Connections; EDGE, GPRS, 3G, HSDPA, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth: EDGE and GPRS generally mean that a phone can access the internet at the slowest possible speeds going on your phone’s network. Your phone will normally display an ‘E’ or ‘G’ icon next to the four bars of signal when you’re connected to either of these.
3G provides a faster and more power-efficient web browsing experience on the go, so much so that it allows you to make video calls (if the phone has a front-facing camera).
HSDPA, sometimes called 3.5G is faster still, and is represented by an ‘H’ or ‘3.5G’ icon on some phones.
HSDPA stands for High Speed Download Packet Access and can support download speeds of up to 14Mbps on your phone, theoretically faster than fixed-line broadband in many instances.
Some phones will also list HSUPA (High Speed Upload Packet Access) speeds as an indicator as to how quickly your phone can upload information (sending emails, uploading pictures to Facebook).
Most phones these days will come with a Wi-Fi antenna built in, which allows you to connect to the internet through a home broadband wireless router or through an open Wi-Fi hotspot in town. The main advantage to doing this is that your web use while you’re connected to Wi-Fi won’t come out of your monthly data plan.
Bluetooth is a short-range wireless technology that allows you to securely “pair” two devices together like a Bluetooth headset or hands-free kit with your phone, and to easily send files like pictures between devices (such as two phones).
Wireless Tethering: Wireless Tethering basically means you can turn your phone into a portable Wi-Fi hotspot, using the 3G signal to connect other devices like laptops, PCs and other phones to the internet.
Most Android phones have a Wi-Fi tethering option built in and it can be enabled on iPhones as well, although depending on your contract, you may have to pay a bit more in order to do this.
Roaming and roaming charges: ‘Roaming’ is a term mainly used in the UK to describe accessing a mobile network when you’re abroad. Using your phone abroad is more expensive than when you’re at home, with it costing you more to not only make calls to people back home, but also costing you money to receive them as well. Text messages cost a little more to send to numbers back at home but are free to receive.
The cost of using data abroad is also higher and unless you’ve opted into a plan which specifically covers you for data use abroad, it’s probably best to simply turn 3G off when you’re on holiday and if you want to check emails on your phone, stick to using Wi-Fi in your hotel or at an internet cafe.
Synchronisation: Synchronisation or sync is something you’ll increasingly mentioned in phone and app reviews. Services such as iCloud, Dropbox, Spotify, Evernote, Gmail or Google Calendar sync information, whether it’s pictures, documents, playlists or calendar dates, to your phone and vice versa.
Syncing something will involved transferring information wirelessley, usually over WI-Fi or 3G, or through a wired connection, normally USB. When you plug an iPhone into your PC or Mac, you’ll get the ‘Sync in progress’ notification, letting you know that your iTunes purchases are being synced between what you’ve bought on your phone and what you’ve bought through iTunes on your computer.
The video below from Google, describing Google Sync, explains further:
The Cloud: ‘The Cloud’ is used to refer to cloud computing. Any time you upload a file to Dropbox or Evernote or Google Docs, from your phone or your computer, it could be referred to as ‘saving your work in the cloud’.
Apple’s iCloud service, a feature of iOS 5 and the iPhone 4S is an example of cloud computing. Google Docs and the forthcoming Google Music is another and Windows Phone phones have access to SkyDrive.
Push email: Also called ‘always-on’ email. Push email services actively ‘push’ email to your phone as it arrives, meaning you get a more responsive and up to date email service on your phone. Push email is a common feature on most phones these days.
BlackBerry phones arguably became popular because they notably featured push email with BlackBerry Mail. The iPhone supports push email, as does Android’s Gmail app. Windows Phone supports push email and Nokia Messaging on Symbian smartphones provides a push email service.
GPS and A-GPS: A GPS antenna allows you to locate yourself on navigation programs like Google Maps, Nokia Maps and Bing Maps using satellites that are part of the GPS (Global Positioning System) network.
A-GPS (Assisted GPS) is a term used to describe when a phone uses cellular data from mobile masts to help triangulate your position alongside the GPS, allowing for faster location locking.
Talk Time / Standby Time: A general level of service governed by the phone’s battery and power management techniques, usually measured in hours (for talk time) and days (for standby time; i.e. if the phone it totally inactive).
However, because people use their phones for a number of different things, playing music, playing games, browsing the web, it’s harder to tell just how effective a phone’s battery is.
High-level smartphones which allow you to perform a number of tasks all at once generally don’t have a long lasting battery life; it’s advisable to carry a spare mains charger or USB cable around with you just in case or to charge it every night.
GSM Tri-Band/Quad-Band: Networks in the UK, Europe and (most of) Asia occupy the 900 and 1800 MHz GSM frequency bands of the radio frequency spectrum. Networks in the United States use the 850 and 1900 MHz bands.
Note that this is not to be confused with the MHz of your phone's CPU - if your phone only has a 600MHz chip, that doesn't mean the phone won't work on the 900 - 1800 bands!
Most phones these days are ‘quad band’, meaning that you can use them to make calls virtually anywhere in the world. You’ll often see ‘GSM 850/900/1800/1900’ listed in spec lists - this basically means the phone will be able to make calls wherever there are services supported on these frequencies in the world.
DLNA and AirPlay: DLNA is short for the Digital Living Network Alliance, an affiliation of companies which includes Sony Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia, LG and Samsung.
Devices that are DLNA Certified will work in some capacity with others. The most common use of DLNA in smartphones is the ability to stream audio, photos and video to a DLNA compatible TV set or speaker system.
AirPlay allows for much of the same kind of thing (wireless streaming of audio, video and pictures to compatible devices), but is exclusive to Apple products. With AirPlay you can stream media from your iPhone 4 and iPad 2 to an Apple TV receiver that’s plugged in to an HDTV set.
Android: Android is the operating system that many phones run on today. Developed by Google, phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S2, HTC Sensation XL and the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc run on Android and can run many of the same apps and games that are available on the Android Market.
Android phones come in all shapes and sizes and have many differing specifications and features. For a closer look at what Android is, read our in-depth article here.
Symbian: Symbian is an OS commonly associated with Nokia phones although other phones have run on Symbian in the past. Phones from back in the day including the Nokia 3310 and 6300 ran on versions of Symbian.
The Nokia N8 was the last high-profile phone to run Symbian; Nokia is now concentrating on making high-end smartphones that run on Windows Phone instead.
Symbian’s not finished however; phones such as the Nokia 700 run on a new version called Symbian Belle. New versions of Symbian going forwards will be optimised to be easier to use on touchscreens, whereas in the past, Symbian was designed to work best on phones with the older 12-key set up.
BBM: BlackBerry Messenger or BBM is a popular instant message (IM) service that’s only available on BlackBerry phones. BBM is popular due to its speed, your ability to share messages with no limit on character length, unlike with Twitter or text messages. You can also share videos, photos and music files as well as chat to friends.
While this is intended as a brief guide as to what everything means on a spec sheet, there’s more to a list of stats than meets the eye.
At the end of the day, there’s no way of really being able to get a feel for how a phone looks or works until you get some proper hands-on time with one and you need to find the features that suit you, you might not need a Xenon flash and lots of storage.
That said, hopefully this guide gives you a better idea of what to look for in the stats and helps you make an informed choice when you’re in the market for a new phone.