Author(s): Geoff Blaber
Smartphones have become an essential item in over 3 billion people's daily lives. They have become an indispensable tool for communication, entertainment and access to a wealth of content and information. With the establishment of Android and iOS, usage has become ever more sophisticated, with social media topping voice and text as the function that commands the majority of users' time and attention.
There is little question that Apple and Google have together created the platforms that have allowed the app economy to flourish and enabled usage and features to develop far beyond those seen just six years ago. Android and iOS let developers create experiences that were previously hindered by a Web designed for PCs rather than mobile devices.
But as much as these platforms represented a new fertile landscape, connectivity is the oxygen that these experiences need in order to breathe. Without connectivity, most of today's smartphone experiences are either useless or extremely limited.
This might seem a statement of the obvious. We know connectivity is important. Why else would operators be investing billions in networks and planning to deploy next-generation technology years in advance? Why would Google be flying balloons and Facebook incurring the wrath of regulators preoccupied with Net neutrality all in the name of connecting the unconnected? Connectivity is a central part of the fabric of society and a global economy. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. As more objects become connected, the Internet of things will bring the next phase of disruption to industries as diverse as automotive, agriculture, manufacturing and healthcare.
This raises the question as to why connectivity in devices is given so little attention. A new device launch is met with specification scrutiny as every attribute of the hardware is assessed. The chipset in particular has risen in prominence, with mainstream media now reporting on the core count of the CPU or graphics chip, and bloggers going into ever more detail, using benchmarks such as AnTuTu to assess the CPU, graphics and memory.
Yet while connectivity and modem performance in particular has huge variability and a significant impact on the user experience, it's rarely given the same, if any, attention. This could be for various reasons. It's a complex area that is rapidly advancing and factors such as the LTE category, carrier aggregation, QAM, MIMO and so on are not easily communicated to the public. This is before attention is turned to the RF front end and the filters and switches that manage the connection between modem and antenna.
Another reason is that the market is still adapting from the PC era, when performance was achieved and measured solely in terms of CPU, graphics and memory. These are by no means irrelevant but need to be understood in the context of the broader performance of a system.
We believe this situation will change, albeit slowly. The gulf in performance between differently priced phones using modems from different suppliers will ultimately begin to generate broader awareness of the need to consider connectivity as part of the bigger picture. The advent of 5G networks and the greater complexity that will come with them will also increase focus on connectivity, particularly as they are likely to herald significant competitive differences between modem suppliers.
Nonetheless, more component-specific benchmarks aren't the answer unless they're used in conjunction with established tools for measuring processing performance and graphics. Benchmarks must also be considered alongside real-world usage. Ask someone to live with their device in airplane mode for a day and the importance of connectivity will soon be apparent.