Smartphones are often called “boring” these days. The iPhone is a classic example of that sentiment. Its design often remains the same for at least three years at a stretch and discernible changes in performance are difficult to detect when a new one hits the market. The iPhone isn’t alone, flagship Android phones too face this challenge often. Be it Samsung’s Galaxy S series phones, including its new foldable phones, OnePlus devices or the likes of Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi. And there are tangible reasons for this change.
Since the late 2000s, smartphones have made massive advances in display technology. Be it the transition from resistive screens to capacitive ones, LCD to OLED or the jumps in resolution. The bezels have been eliminated by most manufacturers. Phones had also started adding high refresh rate screens by 2019. However, since the turn of the decade, display technology has reached a level of saturation where the returns are diminishing.
Tech curve and the law of diminishing returns
The biggest leap has been Samsung’s folding screens. In the coming years, we will see devices that will double down on this concept alongside rolling screens. But as we have witnessed with foldable smartphones, manufacturers have not figured out how to use the extra real estate the folding screens provide.
Similarly, the performance cannot be quantified through performance benchmarking software that reviewers and enthusiasts often use to judge a device — determine how fast it is etc. In the early 2010s, the performance jumps, both in Android phones and even the iPhone, were manifold. Today, improvements are incremental. Even Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor, which was announced in Hawaii earlier this week, only promises up to 25 per cent of improvement in GPU performance. It will be relevant for games that are optimised to the T.
This year, Apple didn’t even bother adding the A16 Bionic to the iPhone 14 Plus and it just has carries the iPhone 13 Pro’s A15 Bionic. Google’s new Tensor G2 chip is not significantly different from the first Tensor chip it introduced with the Pixel 6 models.
In fact, the software developers are barely catching with semiconductor innovation from 3-4 years ago. So, massive leaps don’t make sense for the end consumer as well. More software-driven features that people can see are more important.
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Battery life the parameter
Leaps in hardware on smartphones are harder also because of thermal limitations dictated by a smartphone’s form factor. When you get a powerful processor, it also needs to be balanced with battery life. That’s why, since 2019, Apple has doubled down on the battery life of the iPhone. The iPhone 11 was deemed to be boring at launch but users swore by its battery life. With the addition of 5G, Apple compromised on the battery life of the iPhone 12 models. But the iPhone 13 Pro Max, even today, is considered to be one of the best phones if battery life is a consumer’s priority.
The new iPhone 14 Pro Max is not far behind but the iPhone 14 Plus blows past even the iPhone 14 Pro Max, largely dueto Apple pairing back on cutting-edge high refresh rate display and not using its latest A16 Bionic processor on it. It is also the reason Apple has stopped making its compact iPhone mini models, which were panned for poor battery life and didn’t sell well.
Battery life has become critical and it can make or break a phone. Google’s Pixel line is known for innovation but has been plagued by poor battery life ever since their launch in 2016. That’s why they haven’t sold well.
This year, with the Pixel 7 Pro and Pixel 7 models, Google’s new chip, the Tensor G2, focuses on AI innovations and doesn’t chase pure performance, which could have sacrificed battery life. The results are impressive. In a Twitter poll that I ran a couple of weeks ago, 27 people out of 85 said that the new Pixel 7 Pro, which has a 5,000 mAh battery, had the best battery life of a 2022 Android flagship phone.
In the poll, Samsung’s Galaxy S22 Ultra came a close second with 26 votes in its favour. My tests also correlated the findings of the poll and on balance, the Pixel 7 Pro and S22 Ultra had the best battery life of a modern Android flagship phone. But admittedly, these phones still had poorer battery life than the iPhone 14 Plus and iPhone 13 Pro Max.
However, the gap that had gone quite wide last year with the launch of the iPhone 13 Pro Max has been bridged massively this year. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor will further double down on battery life as its CPU promises up to 40 per cent more efficiency, promising better battery life when playing games.
And mind you, battery life will be even more important with 5G as that will guzzle your charge.
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Phones are cameras
The manufacturers’ focus has moved from pure performance as phones are also mobile cameras now. The smartphone OEMs don’t need to prove they aren’t mobile computers. The A16 bionic chip or the new Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor is faster than most mid-range laptop processors from Intel or AMD.
The major differentiation is how these phones are cameras and how these chips are enabling computational photography. Apple talks up the image signal processor (ISP), which is the element on its A-series processors, that enables the phone to take multiple shots in the blink of an eye and merge them to create the perfect shot. It uses the neural engine and AI hardware to propel artificial intelligence (AI) trickery. It enables DSLR-like imagery when you use portrait mode or take bright photos at night.
The Tensor core on the Tensor G2 chip on the new Google Pixel 7 models can do similar tricks but goes a step further. On the Google Photos app, your old photos, which haven’t been clicked by the same phone or camera, can be enhanced or unblurred thanks to the wonders of AI. It can remove subjects from a frame using AI.
Vivo’s V2 chip is there on the X80 Pro and the iQOO 9T. It hands-off the processing of the cameras, enabling mystical AI witchcraft. Qualcomm’s latest chip, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2, the ISP, can support 200-megapixel camera sensors that can shoot 8K video at 60 frames per second. The ISP dictates how many pixels/resolution camera a phone can support. So far, this was limited to 150-megapixels.
Camera optics have developed for smartphones in the last decade. Phones now have ultra-wide lenses that can also do macro photography; the general size of the primary wide-angle camera has become larger along with the resolution and aperture. And there are also telephoto lenses that use prism-like mechanisms to provide long-range zooming. But these optics are also limited by physics. The AI capabilities of the chips of smartphones are enabling them to bypass the laws of physics.
That is why battery life and camera performance have become the most important aspects of a modern smartphone.
It is not about peak performance, or how many gigahertz a processor is clocked at or how much RAM or memory the phone has. Memory will be offset by 5G and cloud storage for many.
Display technology has also reached a saturation point and the gains are diminishing, till folding screen phones become mainstream. Customers should be on the lookout for these nuances, not pure specs.
That’s why the best phones today in India are the iPhone 14 and iPhone 13 models alongside the new Pixel 7 models. The Samsung’s Galaxy S22 line and Vivo’s X80 series also belong to this category, thanks to their focus on battery life, and AI for photography.
Sahil Mohan Gupta is a Delhi-based technology journalist. He tweets @DigitallyBones. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)