By Joe Levi | March 19, 2013 3:58 PM
Android-powered smartphones and tablets have some of today’s most technologically superior hardware tucked neatly inside their compact shells. Most current models are running at least dual-core configurations with many running four, RAM is plentiful at 2GB, and regardless of whether you have LTE or HSPA, data speeds are pretty darn quick. I look back at my college days when I was running essentially the same configuration in a full-blown laptop and scratch my head. Why aren’t things faster?
My trusty laptop could crunch numbers in spreadsheets, be used to write reports with powerful word processors, create presentations that wowed my fellow classmates, take copious amounts of notes, organize my calendar, fulfill all my email requirements, and let me play video games in my down time. I also used it to edit videos and write articles. It was snappy. Now I have all that power and more tucked neatly inside a device that fits in my pocket. Why can’t I do all the same things that I could do on my laptop on my Android-powered smartphone or tablet?
Chicken and Egg
Like it or not, most of today’s mobile operating systems were designed to power a phone — not a “computer” per se. Even tablets are basically just scaled up phones — albeit without the “phone”. Apps have taken a long time catching up to new tablet optimized layouts, with many still lacking and looking pretty ugly when displayed on 7- and 10-inch screens. Layout, formatting, and usability notwithstanding, one would imagine that a slimmed-down, streamlined, light-weight operating system that was designed to work on 400MHz single-core processors would absolutely scream on the 1.5+ GHz quad-core beasts that we have today, especially when backed by several times the RAM. But they’re not.
Instead, today’s smartphones and tablets still run pretty much the same as their ancestors from yesteryear. It seems ridiculous! Things should be lightning-fast and rock-solid! Right?
Then again I look at my desktop computer. I have an SSD as the hard drive, 4GB RAM, a quad-core processor that I don’t even know how fast it’s running, and a fairly beefy integrated graphics chip. I’m maxed out (except for the graphics chip). I can’t do much to make my computer any faster. It’s essentially as fast as it can be. Specific tasks like video rendering or playing the new SIM CITY could be faster if I upgraded key components, but as far as core functionality and everyday activities go, doubling the processing speed or number of cores won’t do a thing — except make my wallet lighter.
It’s the same way with mobile operating systems.
Or is it?
Mobile operating systems aren’t quite as mature as their desktop counterparts, but they do have a few advantages: they can learn from their desktop counterparts and improve upon their shortcomings, and they aren’t hampered by requirements to support legacy hardware and software like full-blown Windows is.
But Android is based on Linux, and although Linux is lighter weight than Microsoft’s beast, it still has a lot of “bloat” in it that may be required for desktop, laptop, and even server deployments that have absolutely no use or utility in a mobile OS… or perhaps mobile only needs a portion of what the “bigger” versions support. It’s that overhead, the fact that it’s not “crafted specifically for mobile” that is holding us back. All we can do is wait while the fat is trimmed and code is re-written and/or optimized for our mobile environments.
That doesn’t mean we should wait
Project Butter was a perfect example of optimizing the Android experience to help coordinate interdependent processes to make the experience more smooth and fluid. More can be done, and we’ll continue to see incremental improvements in the core operating system and the kernel to realize improvements.
Operating system enhancements and improvements don’t help device manufacturers today, so they will continue to throw faster processors, more cores, and more RAM at the problem just so they can sell phones. Speeds will improve slightly, but it won’t be the breathtaking leap like one might expect. Nor should it be.
In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the “pocket computer” that I have, and revel in the fact that I carry with more processing power than was used to land a man on the moon. Or something like that.