At the start of August Samsung’s Galaxy S4 made headlines across the web when it was discovered that the flagship android phone had been returning artificially enhanced benchmark scores in tests. These discrepancies were revealed by Anandtech after it had conducted a typically extensive investigation.
The writers found code buried in the DVFS (the part of a computer’s architecture that deals with power management) which boosted the CPU and GPU usage to maximum when certain, industry standard, benchmark software was detected. What this meant was that when customers read a review which included these benchmark tests, and then compared them with other phones, the Galaxy S4 would look faster, but in real life they would never achieve those levels of speed.
Samsung was quick to deny any wrong doing, offering instead the explanation that the DVFS would naturally alter the behaviour of the chips in response to different user requirements. Anandtech’s revelations of a code string named ‘BenchmarkBooster’ made Samsung’s claims ring hollow, with many calling the behaviour flat-out cheating.
What the debacle revealed, apart from some highly dubious ethics inside the Samsung Galaxy team, was that the Korean giant was apparently willing to go to extreme lengths in order to secure a position at the top of the specs charts. The fact that the S4 was already a screamingly quick handset wasn’t good enough: it had to be the fastest.
Looking back over the history of technology it’s easy to chart similar obsessions with benchmarks and technical specifications. In the 80s and 90s Windows users were often blinded by the megahertz wars, waged by manufacturers who heralded every small speed increase in technically detailed advertisements that required engineering prowess to decipher.
As a new millennium dawned and digital cameras came to the fore we saw the beginning of the megapixel race - one that Nokia recently won (temporarily, no doubt) with its 41MP Lumia 1020 phone. Now it seems manufacturers have chosen the battlefield of CPU cores and MHz speeds once more. Only this time they may just be competing among themselves, as technology buyers don’t need to care anymore.
In the early days of computing you needed patience and a lot of it. Dial-up internet was painfully slow, especially if you wanted to view any images, and the miniscule amounts of RAM PCs bore meant processing was conducted at a more pedestrian pace.
Today things are appreciably different. For your average undemanding user, pretty much any vaguely new computer will be able to do what they want with no problems at all. Email, YouTube, web browsing, basic photo editing, media management, and even simple video editing can all be done on a laptop that you drop in your trolley at Tesco before wandering off to find the frozen food aisle.
PCs are almost hilariously overpowered for most of the jobs they’re asked to do, and the biggest evidence of this is the fact that tablets such as the iPad, Kindle Fire, and Nexus 7 are slowly beginning to replace them. See also: new Nexus 7 versus old Nexus 7 comparison review
Cloud storage is deconstructing the idea of a big desktop machine being the central repository for music and photographs, and devices such as Apple TV and Google’s Chromecast are building new relationships between our mobile devices and large screen televisions. Phones already deal with many of our daily computing needs, and have the distinct advantage of being in our pockets or bags all the time.
Of course for office work or more processor-intensive work, a larger machine will always be the preferred solution, but phones are never really sold that way, with the painful collapse of Blackberry being a cautionary tale for those that would look to the enterprise as a marketplace. Instead the focus has shifted firmly to lifestyle enhancement, with cameras and battery life being the two specs to which customers pay particular attention.
With this in mind it’s all the more bizarre that Samsung would risk public disgrace to bump up some numbers that really don’t matter to its potential audience. At the launch of the Galaxy S4 the company went to great lengths to highlight the various new camera functions, hands-free operating tricks, and hefty bespoke software suites that it had crammed into the slim device. The advertising campaign that followed also focussed on these details, while taking the obligatory shot at Apple’s iPhone, which is always shown in the hands of ageing parents.
One possible explanation is that it was concerned how power-users would regard the device. Whereas the general populace are happily oblivious to the innards of their gadgets and computers, there is still a cadre of customers who care how something works.
They know how much RAM will mean an early retirement from a software upgrade path, or which graphics chip will cope with the latest games. But recent evidence is suggesting that even this hard-core chapter is beginning to succumb to the mantra that what we have already is good enough.
When Motorola recently released a teaser poster for its upcoming Moto X phone, the first to be designed with Google since the search giant purchased the manufacturer, speculation on the device spread like wildfire. The additional knowledge that the Moto X could be customised only fuelled the debate on what the phone would be. Some hoped for a successor to the Nexus 4, replete with Google subsidised pricing, while others contemplated a superphone to lead the Android charge. Then, when the curtains were raised by Motorola, the general response was one of outrage and disappointment at what appeared to be a mid-range handset with a premium price. But the specs really didn’t tell the full tale.
As reviews appeared, it became clear that the Moto X was actually very good, and that the trade-off of top end components for slightly lesser ones resulted in a strong battery life and smooth performance. It might not top any charts for speed or built-in features, but the chances were that you might actually use the ones included, and enjoy doing so. Sure the customisable options were only aesthetic, and the camera was something of a lottery in regards of results, but the device would do everything most people needed without the aid of a quad-core Snapdragon 800 chip inside it.
Perhaps this suggests that phones have come of age now, just as the PC did before, and the most mileage for improvement will lie in the user interface. Google has worked extremely hard in this regard, improving and refining the current version of stock Android, with results that are truly excellent. Windows Phone 8 may lack some apps, but the cool design and operating smoothness is unquestionable. Even Apple has decided to give its all-conquering iOS platform a complete overhaul to ensure they don’t fall behind.
Of course we’ll still want faster chips and more RAM - this is just a natural part of technological progress - but maybe the next great battleground will take place on the screens of our devices rather than in the components. It will certainly be harder to lie about that.