This time last month, my house was sunk in gloom. In the living room, my brand new Samsung Nexus S smartphone – bless its little soul! – lay face down in its sleek leather casket, ready to be consigned to the Cemetery of Technological Obsolescence. To be fair, the death didn’t come as a shock. Even as I bought my Nexus sometime around the end of last year, there had already been whispers of newer, faster, more powerful phones, phones with dual-core CPUs, dedicated graphics processing units and gobs of RAM, that were ready to hit the market at any moment. And even though my Nexus wasn’t exactly a weakling, its days were numbered the moment Samsung released that sleek behemoth, the Galaxy S II. This one boasts of such impressive specs as a 1 GHz dual-core processor, 1 GB of RAM and a quad-core GPU. It is, by some measures, the most powerful smartphone in the market right now.
If you use a smartphone, hold on tight: this year, your phone is about to get a lot smarter. Many of last year’s top-end smartphones packed in at least a 1 GHz processor but 2011 promises to be the year of the dual-core smartphone. In fact, analysts predict that every high-end phone released this year will sport a dual-core processor. Christmas may even usher in the age of the quad-core mobile!
What dual-core chips basically do is this: they enable more power to be squeezed out of the processor because they contain two ‘cores’. For instance, a 1 GHz dual-core chip will have two 1 GHz processors that can be used in parallel to speed up the performance of your mobile. What this means for you is simple: high-definition video playback and recording, console-quality 3D gaming, on-the-fly multitasking and basically carrying around the equivalent of a small netbook in your pocket.
Is it time to throw away your clunky laptop yet? And what – just what – is your smartphone morphing into?
"Smartphones will be the computers for what technologists call the ‘massive middle of the market’, that is, a majority of people," says Internet entrepreneur and gadgets editor for MW magazine, Madhulika Mathur. Two things are happening in the world today. "One, smartphones are evolving at such a rapid pace that they will soon rival the speed and capability of netbooks, if not laptops. Two, our lifestyles are becoming increasingly mobile. With high-speed wireless networks available, we are no longer tied to our laptops and desktops."
Smartphones have been around for a couple of years but experts believe that we are now entering an era of the super smartphone. "What’s inside a mobile device now is as powerful as a device you would use for computing," says resident Brunch columnist and Gadget Guru Rajiv Makhni. "Naturally, there are differences in the way these processors are built for mobile phones and your regular laptops, but from a sheer horsepower standpoint, they are equal."
So what do you do on your phone? My Nexus S stores my entire music collection. The sharp, high-resolution screen is great to watch movies and TV shows during a boring flight (I’ve been catching up on Dexter), play games (Angry Birds has been beat so now it’s Fruit Ninja), browse the web (read Facebook), listen to music (paws up, Lady Gaga fans!) and read ebooks (Pride and Prejudice. About damn time). The camera takes fairly good pictures and the built-in GPS makes sure I never lose my way on Delhi’s roads.
All these things, believes Mathur, put pressure on the smartphone to be more powerful because then, it "no longer competes with other smartphones. It’s competing with your PCs, Tablets, netbooks, MP3 players, digital cameras, GPS units and e-readers," she says. "So doesn’t it stand to reason that the hardware inside the phone needs to evolve as well? If you put more power in these phones, it could convince buyers to chuck the iPod or drop plans to buy that compact digital camera they’ve been eyeing."
The name of the game is convergence. It’s about stuffing everything possible into that 5-inch slab of metal and plastic in your hand. Powerful, multi-core hardware has been gracing the insides of your laptops for years now, so the current trend suggests that at some point in the future, your phone and your laptop are headed for a resounding collision.
"I think that even smaller, 7-inch Tablets like the BlackBerry PlayBook will eventually converge into your smartphone," says Nishant Padhiar, editor, Stuff (India), a gadget magazine. "The Tablet, however, will become a standalone category. So we will all have a Tablet and this all-in-one pocket device for everything else."
Yes, you can!
So what will your future phone be capable of (let’s keep the sci-fi stuff – expandable displays, flexible screens, phones that are embedded in your brains – out of the picture for now)? "In the near future, smartphones will be able to offer a PC-like Internet experience, rich and vivid graphics, fast downloads, 3D gaming, multitasking, amazing high-definition video playback, uninterrupted battery life and multipoint video conferencing. Among other things," smiles Mathur. That’s the vision that chipsters like Intel and ARM, the leading processor makers have. "They’re targeting mid-2012, so it’s not far off," says Mathur.
The right innovation, however, needs to happen on the software side. Right now, we are using powerful hardware to run mobile operating systems that were meant for older generation hardware. "Once software catches up with current generation hardware, you could do things like stream a movie from your phone to your living room HDTV, play a game and have someone else use your phone as a WiFi hotspot – all at the same time with zero stuttering or glitches," says Makhni.
Also possible, is glassless 3D: yes, actual three-dimensional images popping out of your phone screen without those clunky glasses! Currently, this technology is possible only on screens that are five inches or smaller, making it perfect for your mobile screen. Plus, it requires vast amounts of processing power, which mobile phones didn’t have before. "The possibilities are endless. It’s exciting," says Padhiar.
too fast too soon?
Early this year, Motorola took convergence to the next level by releasing the Atrix, a high-end smartphone that has horsepower enough to run your laptop and your desktop computer. All you need to do is slide it into a dock that you connect to a plastic laptop body with just a screen, keyboard and battery and voila! Suddenly, you have a full-fledged computer system!
But that doesn’t mean that people will suddenly abandon PCs. Our primary computing experience still comes largely from sturdy, workhorse laptops and desktops. That is not going to change any time soon. "All of us have at least one ‘mothership’ machine which is home to all our critical data – movie and music collections, important documents, pictures, financial data and more. We would still like to rely on such a system," says Padhiar. Unless something like Apple’s recently announced iCloud service, which provides a backup of all your important data on the Internet, gains serious traction (difficult in a country like India that continues to be alarmingly bandwidth deficient). Then, it will be a different story.
There are also different use cases for different devices. I cannot – cannot – imagine typing this story on my Nexus S (though I know people who are capable of typing entire Hindustan Times columns on their BlackBerrys). For that, I need my good old Dell. Also, processor-intensive apps like video-editing and graphic designing require you to use a powerful laptop or desktop computer. So clearly, there’s plenty of room for improvement.
But does blitzing ahead at such a breathless pace have a flipside? Is there such a thing as innovating too fast, too soon?
Yes, says Ajith Pillai, a tech enthusiast and blogger who runs the gadget blog onlygizmos.com. “We saw mobiles with dual-core processors hitting the market at the beginning of this year and by the end, we’ll see the launch of quad-core devices. For consumers, it is difficult to buy the ‘best’ device as they change every other week.”
Early adopters, especially, get a raw deal.
“Frankly, to most consumers, terms like dual and quad-core processors, GPU and RAM are jargon. All they want to know is whether they are going to be able to run the latest game with all its bells and whistles or if their smartphone is smooth and snappy,” says Padhiar.
You know what else I care about? How much these damn things are going to cost!
Future-proof yourself: here are the most powerful smartphones you can buy today!
Samsung Galaxy S II
Tech specs: Dual-core 1.2GHz
ARM Cortex-A9 processor, Mali-400MP GPU, Orion chipset, 1 GB RAM, up to 32 GB of internal storage
Chink in the armour: A flimsy plastic body that doesn’t really suit such a premium phone. Yes, we’renitpicking.
Price: Rs 31,000
Tech specs: 1.2 GHz dual-core processor, Adreno 220 GPU, Qualcomm MSM 8260 Snapdragon, 768 MB RAM
Chink in the armour: A ‘death grip’ issue with the WiFi. Grip it too hard and watch your WiFi die. Also, the Super Clear LCD screen doesn’t exactly make for pleasant viewing in bright sunlight.
Price: Rs 30,500
Tech specs: Dual-core 1GHz ARM Cortex-A9 processor, ULP GeForce GPU, Tegra 2 chipset, 1 GB RAM
Chink in the armour: A lacklustre 5 megapixel camera? A TFT screen? What is this, the 21st century?
Price: Yet to be released in India.
LG Optimus 2X
Tech specs: Dual-core 1GHz ARM Cortex-A9 processor, ULP GeForce GPU, Tegra 2 chipset, 512 MB RAM
Chink in the armour: The IPS capacitive touchscreen isn’t as awesome as some of the displays that the competition sports.
Price: Rs 27,000.
- From HT Brunch, June 26
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