By Stephen Schenck | July 9, 2013 10:23 AM
Things have a way of moving quite fast in the smartphone world. A lot of times, we really get to see just how fast things can get when it comes to hardware advancements. First, one phone is using a new Snapdragon chip, or upgrading to a 1080p display, and before you have time to blink, it can feel like everybody else is already rushing to follow suit. Take RAM, for instance; for Android phones, 2GB sure feels like the gold standard, but it really hasn’t been that way for too long. In fact, the first 2GB phones only started arriving a little over a year ago.
Even though rumors have been flirting with the idea for months, it’s only just now beginning to look likely that the first 3GB phones are about to arrive. We’ve heard that figure attached to both the Galaxy Note III and to LG’s G2 – as the first 2GB phone was also an LG handset, it might only be fitting for the OEM to usher-in this milestone, as well.
Regardless of who’s first with it, 3GB is coming, and you had better believe that once some phones start doing it, others will rush to catch up. So, now that we really seem to be headed down this road, it might be time to take a step back and wonder just what we’re doing here: will giving smartphones 3GB of RAM deliver some real benefits, or is this all just a matter of uncontrolled spec growth running wild?
I realize this is a bit of a dangerous question to ask, because it’s perilously difficult to predict the future of developments like this; take too hard a line one way or another, and there’s a good chance you’ll be eating crow when it’s clear six months from now just how wrong you were. Still, I think there’s something to be learned in how we moved to 2GB phones that can offer some lessons about this next step.
Want vs. Need
In a perfect world, our phones would never want for memory. They’d have such ridiculous quantities of high-speed, low-latency RAM that you’d never even come close to touching the memory ceiling. In the real world, we have to make difficult decisions about memory, and balance a number of trade-offs.
Although there will be situations where an app or a platform itself might demand access to so much RAM, in many cases apps are a lot less needy; adding more RAM might let you keep more processes in memory at once, and more quickly swap between them, but it rarely finds itself being a limiting factor alone.
Of course, there’s a fish-growing-to-fit-its-tank effect here, and as phones with more memory become more prevalent, developers actually will start coding with higher expectations in mind. In one sense, that’s progress, but it could easily be seen as the heart of a vicious cycle.
2GB was such a big leap over the 1GB that was the previous top spot, and now with 3GB just a year or so later offering similar improvements, we’re luckily seeing the pace of smartphone RAM growth keep far ahead of app demands. That’s not saying that they won’t catch up, but it could take some time. And even with the sort of programs that are normally so memory-intensive on PCs, like certain games, their smartphone equivalents haven’t proved to be quite so demanding.
We’re also a long way away from having more than 2GB of RAM becoming a platform requirement. Back when we were still seeing a lot of phones arrive with less than 1GB, that was a real problem – especially for users looking to get official releases of new Android versions – but that’s less of an issue with modern phones. Instead, while the HTC One S may never get a formal Android 4.2 release, the phone’s 1GB of RAM doesn’t appear to factor in to that decision. Leave it to OEMs – they’ll always find some reason to avoid releasing an update, but with memory becoming so plentiful, it no longer makes for a good scapegoat.
So, why push things? Well, let’s look at Windows Phone for a minute. Windows Phone has always manged to get a lot done with just a little RAM, and so far hasn’t even swum out to the 2GB end of the pool. If the latest Lumia 1020 rumors are to believed, that’s just about to change, and speculation has placed at least part of the impetus for change on the desire to more gracefully handle larger media.
It’s probably still several years from really hitting the mainstream, but 4K displays are trickling out. We’ll also see smartphones begin to capture 4K resolution video – each frame of such containing over four times the number of pixels of a 1080p frame. That’s a lot of data to work with, and especially if you’re talking about doing any kind of post-processing, RAM is going to be your friend. That’s not saying that a 2GB phone won’t be capable of such tasks, but having an extra gigabyte to play with could mean a big difference when it comes to performance.
A Different Season
I’d like to leave you with one final thought: what if phones with 3GB of RAM actually manage to break from tradition and remain outliers compared to the bulk of the pack? While I still believe that this industry loves to jump on most advancements as soon someone gets the ball rolling, we’re still a long way off from regularly taking full advantage of even the 2GB we have now; I’ve got a couple dozen apps living in memory at the moment, and my 2GB RAM Nexus 4 still has 840MB free – I’d have to make a concerted effort to fill all 2GB.
That might actually be really nice, were that the situation. All too often, the line between flagship and upper-mid-range blur, and 3GB might be a nice stand-out spec for the real cream of the crop – well, for maybe six months, at least. By then, we’ll probably be debating the value of 4GB of RAM in smartphones.