When it came to smartphones, what is more important: experience or specifications?

The folks at Moto – very understandably, given the comparatively modest hardware lying within their device – had planted themselves firmly in the ‘experience’ camp as far as the Moto G went (they had interestingly not been as disparaging of hardware and spec sheets when they launched the Moto Turbo but that is another story for another day). And the days that have followed have seen the debate seeping into tech circles as reviews of the device have been published (yes, ours will be out soon too). At the cost of sounding Churchillian, it is almost as if an iron curtain has descended between two sides – one swearing by the spec sheet, the other by the experience.

The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between these two extremes.


But first, a little background. Although it had been a part of the PC world (where Macs and PCs fought over it), the “specs vs experience” argument in phones had first emerged somewhere towards the end of 2008 as an increasing number of manufacturers started giving out details of their smartphones on the lines of those given for PCs – there were processor clock speeds, RAM and the like mentioned and even highlighted in product releases. Ironically, most of the ‘established’ phone brands at that time (Nokia, Samsung, Motorola and the like) did not give out details like processor speeds and even processor names in spec sheets. The stress was more on display size (even resolution did not matter much at that time), camera megapixel counts and connectivity options. I remember a Nokia executive telling me, “Look, the E90 (the Communicator) just works, doesn’t it? Why do you want to know the clock speed of the processor or how much RAM it has?

However, within two years, the whole scenario had changed and the talk was switching to cores, GHz of clock speed and amounts of storage on a device. There are many who link this change to the rise in popularity of Android, with a number of manufacturers who used the OS highlighting the hardware muscle of their devices, and often not even mentioning the OS – Samsung and LG in particular seemed involved in a hardware slugfest, with each claiming to have the best processor and/or display of all. Even the likes of Nokia, Sony and Motorola had joined in.

The “experience vs specs” argument still existed of course, but now, it was the iOS users who were in the ‘experience’ camp, defending the relatively inferior specs of the iPhone by pointing to its allegedly superior experience. They would be joined in the coming years by two very unlikely bedfellows, BlackBerry and Nokia (later Microsoft), both of which also flew the banner of “experience” (although they blended it with ‘enterterprise’ and ‘security’) to answer the spec-hungry critic and reviewer brigade. To a large extent, the perceived wisdom was that hardware made a larger difference in Android devices as the platform was relatively more open and could be leveraged to make the most of better hardware.

Fast forward to today, when the “experience vs specs” argument is actually revolving around an Android device. To be fair, this is not the first time that Motorola has walked down the “experience beats specs” path in recent times – it did so too with the first Moto X, which it released with a dual core processor and a 720p display at a time when quad core processors and full HD displays were becoming a rage. That gambit did not do particularly well – a fact borne out by the fact that subsequent Moto X devices carried more “powerful” specs. Clearly “experience” did not work its magic then.

Which of course brings us to the core question:

Which is more important: “experience” or “specs”?

In our opinion, there is no clear answer to that question. Simply because there is no way you can draw a clear line between the two terms. Not least because the word “experience” means different things to different people – it is a sort of mix of UI, software, hardware, battery, calling and the whole phone’s performance, colored by the eyes of the user. It is this “coloring” (or “prejudice” if you wish to use a stronger word) that makes experience difficult to evaluate – simply because different people have different expectations. Even in the case of the iPhone, we had the faithful screaming out loud about its smooth user experience even as an equally vocal audience pointed out that it did not let you customise the look and feel of the interface and did not allow transfer of files over Bluetooth.

Which is why so many reviewers turn to hardware to try and evaluate a product. A processor is a processor is a processor, no matter who uses it. Its speed and performance do not change depending on the user. No, it is not always very clear – one user might like a camera delivering over-saturated images and another might criticise it for being unreal. But it is definitely easier to evaluate than that queer bird, experience.

Interestingly, “experience” and “specs” are not totally independent of each other. In fact, user experience depends heavily on a blend of the software and hardware on a phone, or in other words, “the specs.” If specs did not matter, you would have been able to run two apps next to each other on the iPad Air, and not just the iPad Air 2. If specs did not matter, users of the iPhone 5 would be able to record slow motion video just as those on the iPhone 5S/6/6 Plus can. Yes, we took the example of the iPhone deliberately, because that is the device most people use in the “experience vs specs” debate to justify the superiority of “experience.”

And if you are still not convinced, let’s take the new Moto G itself – the very device that triggered the whole debate. Motorola has released TWO variants of the Moto G, one with 1 GB of RAM and another with 2 GB. If specs do not matter – and RAM is pretty much a “spec” by most accounts – both devices should perform exactly the same. In fact, by that measure the OnePlus 2 with 3 GB RAM should be the same as the OnePlus 2 with 4GB, right?

It is a bit like food really. A good cook can make a better dish with the same ingredients than an inferior cook. But even he or she DOES need the ingredients – the “specs” in this case. Would you say that taste is all that matters and that ingredients are not important when it comes to food? Unless you are headed for dietary disaster, we would say no. A good cook CAN make a difference – a vast one indeed – but even he or she needs ingredients and/or equipment to work their magic. The same is the case with phones, really – all things being the same, a good manufacturer will be able to coax a better performance out of the same hardware than a less able one. But to say that hardware is not important is well, very unfair.

The fact is that no matter what sort of mumbo jumbo manufacturers or experts might utter, at the end of the day, better hardware does influence one’s experience. Yes, it does not SOLELY determine one’s experience of a device. There are other factors too. There is no guarantee that a device with a great processor, display, lots of RAM and other superb hardware add ons will perform brilliantly. But there is even lesser chance of your getting a good “experience” on a device with poor hardware.

To conclude:

Experience is important.

Experience depends to a large extent on specs.

And how a manufacturer uses them.

A good experience cannot exist without supporting specs.

Right, now let’s get back to our reviews, shall we? Our experiences, so to say…

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Associate Editor

Nimish Dubey has been writing for more than a decade now (well, Windows 3.1 was around and Apple was on the verge of being finished when he started). He has been published in a number of publications including The Times of India, Mint, The Economic Times, Mid-Day and Femina on subjects that vary from tech write -ups to book reviews to music album round ups. He managed to interview Michael Schumacher once and write two books for young adults along the way.