MWC 2017: The year Android smartphone 'specification wars' takes a breather

Maybe it just isn’t viable for bigger Android smartphone brands to fight the spec-sheet game anymore.

By Rohan Naravane

If you were to go through MWC 2017 keynote presentations of companies like Nokia, BlackBerry, LG, Motorola and even Huawei, you might see a pattern. A lot of the narrative focused on actual features and how they can be of use to customers. If I’m not mistaken, there wasn’t a single slide bearing benchmark comparisons in any of the presentations. Hallelujah, have the smartphone spec wars finally come to a close?

Benchmarks have almost never been a fair measure of the actual performance of a smartphone. For one, many popular phone makers have been caught in the act of putting the phone in overdrive when a benchmark app is running, to achieve higher scores. Next, it is difficult to ascertain if phone A with a better score will perform smoother than phone B, since it boils down to things like the kind of hardware the system-on-chip needs to drive, or how well-tuned is the often-customised version of Android on that phone.

Beyond benchmarks, smartphone comparisons for the past couple of years had become just a number race, with ‘more is better’ being the mantra. The number of cores in a smartphone CPU, the horizontal and vertical resolution of the display, the amount of RAM, the megapixel count of the camera sensors, the size of the battery - are just some of the things that kept ramping up year after year.

But seeing this year’s MWC presentations, it is obvious that there’s a decline to this trend. Almost everybody spoke at lengths about the premiumness of the construction, with companies like Nokia emphasising the use of quality materials even in its cheapest Nokia 3 smartphone. For Lenovo too, the highlight feature of the Moto G5 and Moto G5 Plus was the use of aluminium in those phones. LG spent about half the presentation talking up the display on its upcoming G6 smartphone, while BlackBerry’s KeyOne presentation largely demonstrated abilities instead of the spec-sheet, like how each key of the QWERTY keyboard can be assigned as a shortcut to your favourite apps. Sony spoke of features like ‘Motion Eye’ incorporated in the Xperia XZ Premium and Xperia XZs, which delivers features like a 960 fps super-slow-mo mode and predictive capture - that takes photos even before you hit the shutter button.

MWC 2017: The year Android smartphone specification wars takes a breather

The Nokia 3

You may think there’s an ulterior motive behind the reduced spec talks - Nokia’s most expensive phone today - the Nokia 6 - is powered by the Snapdragon 430, a chip often seen in phones costing many thousand rupees below its asking price in China. The BlackBerry KeyOne, for all its other premium components, runs a Snapdragon 625 chip typically seen in mid-range phones like the Moto Z Play. A Qualcomm executive on stage justified that this chip, known for its power efficiency, paired with a huge battery, should help the KeyOne deliver long battery life.

Sony Xperia XZ Premium

Sony Xperia XZ Premium


The LG presentation also had a Qualcomm rep talking about the Snapdragon 821 that powers the G6. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because the Snapdragon 821 is a slightly updated Snapdragon 820 from last year, powering phones such as the Google Pixel and OnePlus 3T, and not the latest and greatest Snapdragon 835, that’s said to be in the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S8. Surprisingly, in Sony’s presentation, the Snapdragon 835 present on the Xperia XZ Premium got just a passing mention, as the presenter rather focused on the chip’s support for mobile data speeds of up to 1Gbps, to aid fast access to 4K HDR content for the XZ Premium’s 4K HDR screen.

LG G6 HDR display 720


So what gives? Well, a few things are becoming increasingly clear - one, most smartphones manufactured today have become powerful enough to do most things that most people want. Two, hopefully market research has shown that people don’t want to know which Snapdragon is inside their next phone - just the knowledge of whether it’s good enough, is good enough. Maybe it also isn’t viable for bigger companies to fight the spec-sheet game anymore, as smartphone startups like Xiaomi and OnePlus have shown that a phone with almost-exact specifications as a premium phone can be sold at a substantially lower price. And maybe, companies (and more importantly, customers) are coming to terms with the fact that a smartphone isn’t just a sum total of a spec-sheet; it’s also the things that aren’t measurable - like the brand value, the feel and finish, the user experience, the reliability, and the after-sales.

Complete coverage of the Mobile World Congress 2017 can be found here.

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