Lag isn’t always a death sentence

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We recently had the opportunity to review the Sony Xperia Tablet Z, an experience we enjoyed primarily because of the device’s innovative hardware: a 6.9mm-thick, 495g chassis that manages to squeeze water- and dust-resistance onto its list of features.

Pocketnow is currently in the midst of reviewing the BlackBerry Q10, a peculiar blend of yesterday’s design cues with a modern OS – and we’re enjoying the feeling of real physical keys under our thumbs again.

The third-generation Apple iPad and Microsoft’s Surface RT also share space in our office, and we love the sturdy (if heavy) hardware feel of each. Other high points include the 4:3 aspect ratio of the former, and the capacity of the latter to transform into a faux-ultrabook when needed. They’re excellent pieces of hardware.

What do these smartphones and tablets have in common? They’re all devices we have great things to say about. They all play an important, positive part in our day-to-day interactions with technology. And, at one point or another, every single one of them demonstrates software lag.

No doubt due to a problem with the Matrix.

No doubt due to a problem with the Matrix.

If there were a most-wanted-criminal list in our industry, tablet and smartphone lag would sit right at the top. While not exactly the same malady bemoaned by the gaming community, lag in mobile devices has the same effect: it breaks our trust. Gamers expect that when they pull a trigger or command their on-screen avatar to move, the action will be carried out in real-time; any delay could result in serious negative consequences for the player character. By the same token, mobile device users expect that when they tap a key to input text, or swipe a finger across the screen to move a card aside, the action will be carried out in with nearly 1-to-1 fluidity. If it isn’t, the entire “flow” of using a mobile interface is disrupted, and once again, a user’s trust in the device is shaken. When inputs happen hundreds of times a day, as they do with smartphones and tablets, that’s a big deal.

The deleterious effects of lag have resulted in some very concentrated efforts to eliminate it. For all its limitations, Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform has always received high praise in the technology press for its responsiveness. Palm’s ill-fated webOS was savaged by the same media outlets for stuttery behavior in version 1.x, so version 2.0 incorporated hardware acceleration and other improvements to deliver a smoother experience. Google’s Project Butter, introduced last year as part of Jelly Bean, was a multi-pronged assault on the lag and stutter that had tarnished Android’s reputation for years.

You know they're serious when they put the technobabble right on the slides.

You know they’re serious when they put the technobabble right on the slides.

But the battle against lag has also had a more-visible, more-insidious effect on the industry: it’s become the ultimate trump card, the omega call of product judgment. No matter how incredible a device might otherwise be, the barest hint of a stutter in the animation from one home screen to the next will often be met by outright disdain, if not outrage. It’s not at all uncommon, in our review and comparison videos, to see a comment that consists only of “01:55 LAG!!!!!!” – the sign that someone’s noticed UI stutter at one part of the video, and has decided to scold the device like it’s a puppy that’s peed on the carpet.

He knows what he did.

He knows what he did.

Part of this loud, panicky aversion to any evidence of unresponsive behavior is understandable: history has taught us that lag tends to worsen over time, so a device that’s bogging down right out of the box is likely to continue doing so for its entire lifetime. That’s a legitimate concern. But what many fail to take into account is that there are degrees of lag, some of which are more acceptable than others.

For example, while the third-generation iPad we have sitting here usually delivers a very responsive and fluid experience, we can force it to lag relatively easily: all we need to to is swipe to the left from the home screen to enter the Spotlight search screen, which stutters noticeably almost every time it’s launched. Similarly, the Tablet Z needs only a few of Sony’s homescreen widgets loaded up in order to skitter and fidget when swiping between homescreens, and most Samsung Galaxy smartphones can be forced to “jump around” just be entering the widgets portion of the app launcher.

House of Pain would be proud.

House of Pain would be proud.

The degree of acceptability will change from user to user, but the point is that these deficiencies aren’t end-all write-offs … at least not to most people. Millions upon millions of people put up with the occasional stutter on their iOS and Android devices, every day. When the Nexus 7‘s Android 4.2 update brought a significant amount of lag to the formerly-buttery device, we were disappointed, but we didn’t abandon the tablet for greener pastures – it still served its purpose well enough that we stuck around and waited for the OTA fix. And, again, millions of people did the same. Even the more-significant responsiveness issues we experienced with the Tablet Z weren’t enough to cast a cloud over its excellent hardware – and we expect that the occasional lag we’ve experienced so far on the BlackBerry Q10 will similarly fade in importance next to the device’s bright spots.

What I’m saying is this: the black-and-white, “slightest lag=don’t buy it” mentality makes sense, and it comes from a very understandable source that goes to the very roots of trust and reliability when it comes to mobile devices. I get it. But it’s also unreasonable: it skirts far too close to the illusory notion that there’s a “perfect device” out there. There isn’t. Every smartphone and tablet falls short in some areas – and due to the complexity of the software powering today’s mobile devices, those shortcomings are probably going to include lag of varying degrees for the foreseeable future. It’s okay to say that extreme lag is unacceptable -it is- but to use any observed inefficiency as a reason to write off a device is irresponsible, and it’s destructive to the dialog. More importantly, in a lot of cases it means you’ll be missing out on an otherwise-great product. Lag isn’t an instant death sentence, folks – so let’s stop acting like it is.

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!