Why Do Specs Change When Hardware Hits the USA?

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You’ve been researching a new smartphone or tablet, looked all over, checked out your favorite technology website, and have finally decided on one particular device. Sure, it doesn’t have everything you want, but it’s got 95%, and you figure that’s good enough. A month or so passes after it’s announced you find it on your carrier, but it’s changed…

What?! How dare they! That’s bait and switch!

Well, maybe not.

The world is a big place and things aren’t the same everywhere. Different areas of the world use different frequencies for their mobile telephony and data — some countries even have carriers the still use CDMA! Gasp! It makes sense that there would be differences in radios and whatnot, but differences in battery, dimensions, RAM? Really?

Actually, a few of those aren’t too difficult to explain. Radios and antennae aren’t all the same size, so the phone may need to be reworked a little to allow for the extra space. The different radios may require more power to run, so a bigger battery may be included to ensure the same usable time — which can also mess with the dimensions. But that’s really not what we’re talking about here.

What we’re referring to are changes to RAM, ROM, processor, the inclusion or omission of expandable storage… stuff that makes your blood boil. Why would a manufacturer announce a phone, build up hype about it, then change things when it hits your carrier?

Ah! There’s the rub!

The carrier.

Let’s switch to video card on PCs for a minute, shall we?

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Say AMD comes out with a new video card. They create what’s called a technical reference card. It’s a fully functional card, and it does everything AMD says it will. But MSI, Asus, Sapphire, and everyone else get their hands on it and make a card based on the reference card (paying licensing fees to do so, of course). Their card might have more (or less) RAM, the RAM might be running at a different speed, the processor may be over-clocked or over-volted. One might have an HDMI port where another has a DisplayPort, and another has a DVI port. Each manufacturer has customized the card to help differentiate theirs from everyone elses. Doing so might let them charge a premium (for faster versions of the card), or sell for a deep-discount (for cards with less or slower RAM). It’s all about price, and what consumers are willing to pay for it.

Back to smartphones.

Using the video card analogy, smartphones aren’t that much different: the manufacturer essentially creates a “reference platform” that they attempt to sell to carriers. The carriers may need a different radio (CDMA versus GSM; HSPA+ versus LTE), they may want a slimmer phone so they can advertise they’ve got “the slimmest on the market” — and so forth. Ultimately, they also have to make a buck… so they cut corners… er… look at intelligent options to save money.

Cutting down on RAM might save a few bucks without hurting performance too much. Building the battery into the phone (non-removable) can save another few dollars. Taking out the sdcard slot will save even more! All that together and you might be saving upwards of $10 per device. Multiply that by a few million devices and that’s a pretty substantial savings, wouldn’t you say?

Another “benefit” is that by cutting down your internal storage (or filling it with bloatware that users can’t remove), reducing the RAM, and/or taking away your ability to replace a failing battery means that you will “fill up” your phone sooner, or it will start to get slower (thanks to new, heavier-weight apps and limited RAM), or only make it a few hours before you have to plug in… In all those cases you need to buy a new phone, right? And that means another two years on-contract with your carrier.

They’re scared to death of people being able to change to a different carrier at the drop of a hat. The more people that switch, the more competitive the market gets. More competition leads to lower prices — and lower profits.

So, why do specs change when phones and tablets his the USA? It’s about keeping you tied to your carrier — and making it difficult to change. It’s about preserving the status-quo.

Now go get in line. I hear the greatest phone yet is just about to be released! Just renew your contract and you can get it for a discount!

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About The Author
Joe Levi
Joe graduated from Weber State University with two degrees in Information Systems and Technologies. He has carried mobile devices with him for more than a decade, including Apple's Newton, Microsoft's Handheld and Palm Sized PCs, and is Pocketnow's "Android Guy".By day you'll find Joe coding web pages, tweaking for SEO, and leveraging social media to spread the word. By night you'll probably find him writing technology and "prepping" articles, as well as shooting video. Read more about Joe Levi here.