All about: Smartphones

Something as ubiquitous as the smartphone belies their importance to us. In many cases, they are extensions of our hands, functioning as our primary social tool and increasingly as our wallets, personal storage units, mobile gaming console and personalised WiFi network providers. Communications have become centralised around mobility and the ease of access for users and certainly the evolution of mobile phones has continued to transcend previous iterations of the traditional mobile.

What are Smartphones?

Underneath the layers of user interface, the polished bevels and sleek designs, all mobile phones are actually mini-radios, designed for sending and receiving radio signals. Smartphones work using existing network principles. Each locale is divided into ‘cells’ (hence cell phone network), and each cell has a dedicated phone antennae. The cell technology smartphones require is entering its 4th generation – 4G – with data transmission speeds that outstrip the original analogue signals of the early 80’s. It is widely accepted that mobile cell technology evolves every ten years, with 5G expected midway through the 2020’s with transmission speeds able to download entire movies in seconds.

Back to the phones. The current iterations of smartphones are essentially pocket sized computers containing microprocessors, high resolution screens, multi-pixel cameras and advanced network connectivity. Depending on whom you ask there are several leaders in the smartphone manufacturing race, each using a host of different components to power their devices. It is widely accepted that Samsung and Apple head the OEM pile, with HTC and Google following closely behind. Increased competition and saturation throughout the global market has led to outstanding offerings for consumers as OEM’s increasingly turn to hardy materials to give their devices the edge. As far the external aesthetic goes, the user interface is still key to delivering outstanding user experiences that capture consumer confidence and as such, the smartphone market. The market is further divided by the introduction of multiple operating systems from Apple, Android (Google), Windows, Symbian and other Linux/Unix based systems, though we will explore this later.


What's inside a Smartphone?

The internal smartphone is built around the processor, much the same as a traditional computer. ARM Holdings, Qualcomm, Apple, MediaTek, NVIDIA and Intel lead the way and dominate the mobile market. Mobile processors are evaluated by the same measurements as the traditional: by number of cores, processing speed in GHz and their energy efficiency. Whilst all are important, in the mobile market energy efficiency is particularly scrutinised due its direct effect on phone battery usage and performance. Smartphones include memory modules allowing for local storage. The size of storage has rapidly expanded throughout the past decade, with some phones now shipping with up to 64GB internal storage and a microSD slot for an additional 128GB. The size of internal storage can be a deciding factor for consumers for a number of reasons such as HD photography and video storage, music storage and the multitude of applications available to consumers across all OEM. As well as memory modules most smartphones include specialised chips for internet usage and connectivity, Near Field Communications, Bluetooth, or specialised media chips for music playback.


Smartphone OEM software

Smartphones also contain multiple layers of OEM software depending on their hardware composition. The software usually comes packaged, containing the following aspects:

  • Kernel: A management system for processes and provider of drivers for smartphone hardware.
  • Middleware: As we have seen in other articles, Middleware provides communication libraries between smartphone applications, ensuring each aspect is operating correctly.
  • Application Execution Environment: (AEE). Application programming interfaces, which developers to create their own programmes.
  • User Interface Framework: Graphical interface for user interactions with the device.
  • Application Suite: OEM packaged applications for users (e.g. messaging service, calendars, home screen designs, packaged games).

The software available for a smartphone depends on the OEM. Apple ships their devices with a current version of iOS, exclusive to their devices. Their main competitor is Android, an open source operating system developed by Google which due to its open nature is found on the majority of global devices. Windows, Symbian and other open source OS make up the remainder of the market though with vastly reduced market penetration. The software that individuals prefer shapes the overall user experience.


Apple or Android or...?

Apple offers a relatively rigid phone structure with little customisation and maintains high standards over the content of its application store (App Store). Conversely, Android is known for its high levels of customisation, though the security status of its application store (Play Store) has come under scrutiny several times. Smartphone usage has already exceeded the predictions of many experts whilst penetration is still rapidly expanding. The smartphones ability to act as a miniature computer has enabled individuals in many emerging economies to ignore laptops and desktop counterparts and conduct their online activities entirely through a smartphone, further adding to the rise in global connectivity. Smartphones are set to evolve further. The market has already accepted ‘phablets’ – a portmanteau of phone and tablet – as the bigger brother of traditional smartphones. Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) screens are set to enable folding phones, as well as potential for solar power phones that almost never run out of charge. Consider the dust and waterproof options already on the market and you begin to understand why the smartphone has modified our digital lives like no other device yet.


Smartphone Terminology

Some other Smartphone based terminology you may encounter when choosing your smartphone:

  • App: Abbreviation of application, the programs designed to run on smartphones. They range from office assistance word processors to picture modification applications that make your face appear fat.
  • Caps/Capping: Part of the monthly or pay-as-you-go contract required to run a smartphone. Capping refers to a limit placed on your usage of minutes, SMS and increasingly, data.
  • HPSA: High Speed Packet Access. Describes the process of sending and receiving data packets through the national networks, using the same technology as 3G to deliver high speed content.
  • 2G: First iteration of digital mobile network. Adequate for digital calls and messaging.
  • 3G: Third generation of mobile technology, second entirely digital. Users able to browse internet sites, stream music and video and engage with direct video chat.
  • 4G: Next generation, or fourth generation of mobile networking. Vastly increased speeds.
  • LTE: Long Term Evolution. Part of the 4G mobile spectrum enabling speeds between 15-100 times faster than the current 3G network.
  • Megapixel: The pixel capacity of the smartphone camera.
  • UI: User interface. The interactive screen users utilise to navigate their device.

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