Making sense of it all: Smartphone specs and terms explained

Bezel-less phones on table
When shopping for a new smartphone, there are tons of questions you’ll have racing through your mind. How much battery life can I expect? How good is the screen? How well will it handle multitasking? Devices have gotten so complex, there’s a litany of technical terms and jargon out there that can overwhelm even the experts among us. With the lightning-quick pace of advancement in the mobile space, there’s new language seemingly popping up every day. Fortunately, we’re here to help. In this article, we’ll explain a host of smartphone specs and terms, with real-world examples to help you make sense of it all.

Processor

iphone 7 more powerful macbook air a10 chip

This is the spec you’ll probably see most frequently to denote performance. The processor is really the heart and soul of your phone. Different processors are usually classed by speed, which is expressed in gigahertz, or GHz. Additionally, modern processors are made up of multiple cores, which are individual processing units that can handle separate tasks. Duties can be split among the cores, allowing for parallel computing, and thus, faster output. Processors, specifically for smartphones and other mobile devices, are also termed “system-on-chips” or “chipsets” because they are usually a collection of multiple components on a single integrated circuit, like the device’s radios for calls and data, as well as the graphics processing unit.

Simply put, the faster a processor is and the more cores it has, the faster your phone should be. Here are some more specific descriptions of terms related to processors.

Manufacturers and brands (i.e. Qualcomm, MediaTek, etc.)

There are just a handful of companies that make processors for mobile phones. Qualcomm is the biggest, and they’re responsible for the Snapdragon series. Most devices running Google’s Android operating system feature Snapdragon chipsets, and Qualcomm has broken up its products into four classes: 200, 400, 600, and 800. In Qualcomm’s naming convention, the processors get faster as the numbers get bigger. So if you read that a phone contains a “Snapdragon 835,” you’re looking at Qualcomm’s top-of-the-line processor. Conversely, a “435” is a relatively lower-end chipset.

MediaTek is the second-largest producer of processors in Android phones. Devices running their chipsets are typically more common in Asia, though you can certainly find products in the Americas and Europe containing their hardware. MediaTek’s high-end processors are known as the Helio X series, with the Helio P series slotting just underneath. The rest of its offerings have less remarkable names, beginning with MT67, followed by some more numbers. As you’d expect, the bigger the number, the more powerful the processor — so an MT6753 outclasses the MT6738, for example.

There are other companies that produce processors too, like Huawei with its Kirin brand, as well as giants like Samsung and Apple that produce chipsets exclusively for their own products. Samsung’s processors are dubbed “Exynos,” while Apple has adopted a naming scheme of “A,” followed by a number. Apple’s processors are more generational in nature, so while the same rule of bigger number equals better performance applies, the A10 is also two years newer than the A8. There’s also the “X” series, like the A10X and A9X — though these are reserved for iPads and have yet to appear in a smartphone.

As an example of three high-end phones with relatively similar performance, the Samsung Galaxy S8 uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 in North American models, and Samsung’s own Exynos 8895 internationally. Apple’s iPhone 7 uses the company’s own A10 chip, while the Meizu Pro 6 is one of only a few phones to use MediaTek’s Helio X25.

GPU (Graphics Processing Unit)

Packaged with a mobile processor is a graphics processing unit, or GPU. The GPU is responsible for handling a device’s visual output, particularly where the creation of three-dimensional images is concerned. It usually comes into play with video games and, more recently, augmented reality applications  (where the device “augments” the feed coming from its camera with computer-drawn objects and effects).

Because the GPU is packaged within the processor on a smartphone, you won’t find many straight comparisons being made between GPUs in different devices. For example, any phone using a Snapdragon system-on-chip will also employ one of Qualcomm’s Adreno GPUs. Again, the higher number is better, so going back to the Snapdragon 835 as an example, the GPU used is Qualcomm’s Adreno 540. In terms of measuring GPU power, floating point operations per seconds, expressed as GFLOPS, are typically a better indicator of performance.

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