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Competing with the iPhone's specs is harder than it seems

Competing with the iPhone's specs is harder than it seems

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It’s a common fallacy, convenient to Apple, to think that the iPhone maker doesn’t care about specs. Oh, they’re too busy sticking cigarette stubs into people’s ears, those Cupertino types, to mind the nerdy feeds and speeds of their phones. The iPhone is behind the Android curve on almost every spec, and yet it remains the world’s best-selling smartphone year after year. It’s not because specs don’t matter, but because the same spec means different things in the iOS and Android ecosystems.

A small matter of scalar asymmetry

Take the iPhone’s battery as the cardinal example. At IFA 2016, I watched Huawei advertise its new Nova phones by noting they have almost double the iPhone 6S’ 1,715mAh battery capacity. This is the typical asymmetry between an iPhone and its nearest Android rivals. To compete with the iPhone’s battery life — the effect of the spec — Android manufacturers have to build consistently larger batteries to offset inefficiencies. Granted, many of them have larger screens than the 4.7-inch 6S, but even the 5.5-inch iPhone 6S Plus only has a 2,750mAh battery in an Android world where the baseline expectation is now 3,000mAh.

Read next: Our iPhone 7 and 7 Plus review

Consider all the implications inherent in this basic inequality of power efficiency. Batteries are dense, heavy things that require space, so to design an Android smartphone that lasts as long as an iPhone and yet is as thin and light actually requires you to not just match Apple’s engineering, but to outdo it. You have to run just to keep up with Apple at walking pace. Your bigger battery also takes longer to recharge, so you should probably develop a quick-charging solution, too.

iphone 7 jet black

Samsung’s approach to competing with the iPhone has always been to sprint at a breakneck pace and reach new hardware milestones first. But that has backfired horribly this year with the unfortunate Galaxy Note 7 recall, which was caused by exploding batteries. Chasing ever higher densities and ever more aggressive fast-charging methods, Samsung seems to have made the mistake of pushing that little bit too hard. But that’s the sort of risk every Android manufacturer is taking on: Xiaomi launched its Mi 5 flagship earlier this year with the highest-density battery technology available.

And it’s not like Apple is standing still either: the new iPhone 7 is the first officially water-resistant iPhone and adds stereo speakers and LTE Advanced for faster cellular connectivity. While others wrestle with overcoming Apple’s inertial lead, Apple is quietly checking off the features its phone didn’t already have.

Every spec has a threshold after which more of it is no longer really valuable

The iPhone’s greater power efficiency stems from two major factors: neither of its models has class-leading display resolution, and neither has as much RAM as the typical Android smartphone. This resolution issue is a great example of knowing when a spec ceases to be important: Samsung, LG, HTC, and others have all reached more impressive resolution numbers than the iPhone, but none of their Quad HD flagship displays looks much better than the iPhone’s. Apple achieves enough resolution (for everything but VR applications), crossing its Retina display threshold, and then it stops. Such pixel frugality leads to longer battery life.

As to the iPhone’s memory, this is more of a philosophical distinction between Apple and Google. The former is neurotic about killing background processes and dumping background apps from memory in iOS, whereas the latter is more liberal with app management in Android (though Google is gradually moving toward the Apple way of doing things). The upshot is that an iPhone can feel super smooth and responsive with half the RAM of an Android device. RAM consumes power, so having less of it is another factor contributing to the iPhone’s efficiency lead.

iphone 7

It is to Android manufacturers’ great credit that they’ve been able to build phones the size of an iPhone with specs many times better. But even once they’ve negotiated the RAM, display, battery, and design issues, they come up against the classic problem of fragmentation. Each new generation of iPhone has only one processor and two screen sizes and resolutions — so game designers and app developers know the exact hardware that they’re targeting with their new software. With Android, on the other hand, there’s a diversity of processor and graphics chips, unevenness in screen sizes and resolutions, and never any certain minimum standard of either hardware spec or software API.

Yes, fragmentation is still a problem for Android

Nvidia tried once. When the graphics card leader still offered Tegra chips for mobile devices, it sought to entice game developers to create Tegra-optimized editions of their games, featuring prettier explosions and water splashes, persistent gore, more detailed shadow and light interplay, and other graphical enhancements that couldn’t be found elsewhere. That venture failed, partially because coding for Tegra wasn’t exactly easy, and partially because there was no impetus to go to all that trouble when there were no Tegra devices out in the world.

Apple has sold a billion iPhones, Tim Cook told the world at last week’s event. Every quarter, tens of millions more iPhones get added to that incomprehensibly large number. And the latest iPhones have Apple’s fastest and best processing chips, creating a much more enticing platform for game development. It’s no accident that Nintendo’s first smartphone game is coming to the iPhone first. A developer can invest more heavily (and reliably) in an iOS game, knowing that the hardware platform is better defined and the user base is more willing to spend on apps and games. These are just some of the advantages of a company being able to develop its own operating system, custom chips, and hardware design in parallel.

Carriers are keeping the odds stacked in Apple’s favor, too

With the iPhone 7’s camera, Apple is making quite a significant leap in max aperture from f/2.2 to f/1.8. It’s also finally adding optical image stabilization to its flagship, non-Plus model. Both are features that Android competitors have been offering for a while now, but Apple’s lead in terms of imaging quality and sheer popularity has allowed it to be late in the feature race without leaving its users feeling like they’re missing out. It’s not fair, it’s not strictly rational, but iPhones have grown more popular as everyday cameras while lacking the latest specs: the top six most popular cameras on Flickr in 2015 were iPhone models.

iphone 7 camera

As if all of these inherent advantages weren’t enough for the iPhone, the ultimate arrow to the knee of Android competitors is the carrier situation. Apple has the scale and profitability to dictate what apps are shipped on its phones and to distribute its software updates painlessly and reliably. Mobile operators don’t need much encouragement to advertise iPhones, and many of them are presently running special upgrade offers around the iPhone 7. Android device makers, on the other hand, are hamstrung by carrier interference and bloatware. To finance their razor-thin profit margins, many Android companies also engage in promotional partnerships that bundle even more junk software in.

The iPhone’s specs might not seem imposing, but they are

As an Android manufacturer, then, you have to overcome a series of impediments just to get on an even footing with the iPhone. Most of these actually require you to build something better than the iPhone (and probably price it cheaper) so as to entice both users and developers to your product rather than Apple’s. It’s the sign of a competitive market that so many companies are taking on the challenge, and we’re getting some damn fine engineering out of it, but let’s not forget where the iPhone’s strengths lie.

Yes, the iPhone is defined by its superior user experience and unmatched ecosystem of apps and accessories, but the nexus of it all lies within the phone itself. The iPhone’s specs might not seem imposing, but they are. And when a new iPhone comes out and Apple casually adds a 14 percent larger battery, a wider camera aperture, and the latest generation of its mobile processor, its competitors are forced to go even further and reach even deeper to keep up.

Apple iPhone 7 first look