As important as “specs” are to screens, speakers, cameras, and other electronic components, the related concept of “diminishing returns” always looms large. Short for “specifications,” specs define a product’s performance characteristics, while diminishing returns suggest that there’s a performance level beyond which further improvements aren’t adding anything important enough to justify their added expense for most people. Once a component reaches the point of diminishing returns, typical users stop caring about or being willing to pay for further improvements.
One example: a smartphone screen with more pixels per inch than the human eye can perceive at a usable distance. Is there any point to further increasing the level of detail, or will there be little to no return — either benefit to users or profit to vendors — from doing so?
Smartphones are bundles of components that are individually at various states on the diminishing returns curve, though not always in ways that are obvious to either users or vendors. A screen, for instance, might reach detail parity with the human eye, but have a low refresh rate, sub-optimal color rendition, or high energy consumption. More disruptively, the screen might lack for a feature that suddenly becomes important — say, the ability to fold, remain fully usable outdoors, display glasses-free 3D, or remain “on” at all times.
Other smartphone components are changing faster than screens. Cameras are presently seeing massive changes in raw pixel counts, depth sensing abilities, and throughput, enabling slow motion and up to 8K video capture. AI cores are rapidly growing in tera/trillion operations per second (TOPS) counts, while multi-core CPUs and supercharged GPUs are similarly pushing pocket devices into laptop (and sometimes better than laptop) computing territory.
So even if smartphone sales have plateaued, it’s clear that smartphone innovations haven’t stopped. My big question is whether any of these new technologies will actually move the needle, either for the size of the smartphone market overall, or Android’s market share relative to iPhones. Even if individual technologies continue to advance, it’s possible that overall smartphone performance has reached the point of diminishing returns, such that every new feature addition from here on out won’t really increase sales in any meaningful way.
Qualcomm deserves a lot of credit for trying to move the market forward. At last December’s Snapdragon Tech Summit, the company introduced the Snapdragon 865 and a variety of related innovations, setting the stage for the 2020 release of phones with 100-megapixel cameras, console-rivaling graphics, and laptop-beating computing capabilities. Some of these changes represent major steps beyond the latest iPhones’ performance.
But will Android users care? Will iPhone users on the edge consider switching?
Specific specs matter; so do specific users. We may have reached “peak screen” for the general population, such that bolstering the current resolution, color accuracy, brightness, and refresh rates beyond current levels won’t matter to most people. Yet a subset of users, such as gamers, might really appreciate smoother refresh rates or better colors.
The same people who value further screen performance improvements may similarly appreciate continued CPU and GPU bumps that move phones further into console performance territory. But they may or may not also care about other spec improvements that could be important to attracting other customers, such as camera performance bumps.
This is why we’re beginning to see some interesting splits in the Android phone market that aren’t yet evident in the iPhone market. Qualcomm has targeted specific chips, such as the Snapdragon 855+ and 765G, directly at the makers of gaming phones. These chips offer performance boosts over the latest 8- and 7-series chips, and as the company revealed last year, the prospect of graphics driver performance updates independent of Android as a whole.
At the same time, there’s a Snapdragon 865 with even more horsepower. It’s intended for premium flagship phones, enabling crazy levels of camera throughput and AI performance, with no shortage of gaming performance. The 865 is benchmarking just under 600,000 on the Antutu test, compared with the iPhone 11 Pro/Apple A13’s just under 500,000 score, and closer to the latest iPad Pro’s score of just over 700,000. If you’re a Geekbench fan, the 865 is roughly tied in multi-core performance with the A13, hitting just under 3500 points (versus around 4500 points for the iPad Pro). My guess is that Apple’s A14 will more than catch up here.
I’ll similarly put cellular performance differences aside for the time being. At this point, top Android phones have potentially huge 5G advantages over 4G-only iPhones, but real world 5G performance remains uneven from country to country, city to city, and neighborhood to neighborhood. Apple will almost certainly catch up on cellular speeds in September.
The camera spec gap is likely to be much larger between Android phones and iPhones this year. Apple’s strategy of sticking with and optimizing 12-Megapixel sensors is already being challenged by 100-Megapixel camera phones, with at least one 200-Megapixel model promised for this year. These new devices deliver raw detail differences Apple cannot match, either with software tricks such as Deep Fusion or otherwise, unless iPhone 12 models adopt similarly high-resolution sensors.
Granted, Apple users generally aren’t obsessed with specs. The company has effectively taught millions of people not to care about raw numbers, or at least not to obsess over one or two deficiencies, because they don’t tell the complete story of a product’s performance. Even if the latest iPhone’s CPU or wireless performance isn’t up to snuff with a top Android phone, that’s not going to cause most iPhone users to abandon ship.
But if enough of a flagship Android device’s specs — ones that aren’t just examples of diminishing returns, and are properly marketed to users — leapfrog Apple’s for more than just a single phone generation, the status quo may change. We probably won’t know for a year whether this is happening, as Android phones with Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 865 processor are just rolling out, and the performance gap may well be eliminated — or tilt in Apple’s favor — by September, when the iPhone 12 series debuts. In the meanwhile, it’s going to be worth watching both the specs and the sales of new Android phones again, to see whether any or all of the latest hardware actually makes a difference in the marketplace.