The Nexus 4, Moto X and how Google is changing Android perception from "high spec" to "high experience"
This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
When the average consumer walks into a store to buy a device, it is extremely rare that they will care much about specs aside from general issues like battery life, storage capacity, and camera quality. Aside from those three issues, the average consumer goes on feel: how does the device feel, how does it look, how does the system feel in use - is it intuitive and familiar, or awkward? This alone is why Apple's iPhone is still such a popular device. The average consumer doesn't care about the internal specs, they only care about how the device feels in use. It's also why consumers keep going back to Samsung despite impressive offerings from other manufacturers: they know Samsung, and feel familiar with the device.
Unfortunately, in our community, where we are supposedly more knowledgeable on these topics, we still fall back on the same argument: specs are everything. The trouble with that view is that it is a holdover opinion from the days of desktop PCs, and a holdover from the days when Android wasn't as mature a system as it is now.
Specs vs experience
The closest analog to these kinds of arguments are the PC vs console wars. PC gamers are adamant that consoles are terrible, because after the initial release window at best, console specs can never match those of high-end gaming rigs. And, no matter how mature console platforms become, they simply can't offer the same level of functionality as a full PC. On the console side, the argument is all about the games and the ease of the console experience.
Not everyone wants to buy or build a gaming rig. Not everyone needs to have a singular device that combines computer functionality and gaming. Some people just want a box that hooks to their living room TV, that is easy to interact with, and offers the games they want to play. Sure, Far Cry 3 may look better on a high-end PC than on a console, and some prefer the option of keyboard input, but some have no interest in keyboard input, and don't care about the slight difference in visuals. Some just want to play a good game, because the game is the experience, and the visuals are secondary.
That had been the general argument between Android vs iPhone for a long time: specs and functionality vs experience. Really, that is still the argument that many fanboys keeps fighting on either side. But, arguing specs and functionality for Android is ignoring how mature and amazing the experience of the platform has become, and the argument doesn't even hold that well within the Android ecosystem itself. We've started to move away from the "higher megapixels FTW!" argument with camera quality to understanding the need for better sensors and lenses, but we still haven't gotten past the false idea that the CPU and RAM are all that matters with performance.
Even within the Android ecosystem, specs and benchmarks are an easy way to "prove" one device is better than another, but at the end of the day, it's the experience that matters. You can point to the specs of the Samsung Galaxy S4 all day long, but I'm still going to use my Nexus 4 because I like the experience better, and the performance boost from the better processor just doesn't make enough of a real world difference to matter. TouchWiz, in my opinion, does nothing but add unnecessary features and bloat; and, the S4 hardware just isn't as nice in the hand as my Nexus 4. You can talk specs all day, but it doesn't change the experience that I prefer, because when I use my device, I do a lot of things, but constantly running benchmarks isn't one.
Add in the cost differential, and the choice is far less about specs than some may want. I could get an S4 or HTC One Google Edition and get more of the experience I want with the slight performance boost of the newer specs, but is that boost really worth the extra $300 it would cost compared to a Nexus 4? Not in my book. Some may argue that better specs are all about future-proofing your device, but with 2-year mobile contracts, and if Nexus devices and Motorola can consistently hit that $300 off-contract price point, how much future-proofing do you really need?
Google's new aim is high experience
We don't know for sure, but we've heard repeated rumors that the Moto X will cost about $299 off-contract, and Motorola CEO Dennis Woodside has said that the company's focus is on high-quality, low-cost devices. So, it sounds like Motorola is looking to continue the standard set by the Nexus line of devices. The Nexus 4, 7, and 10 have all offered more than consumers expected at a price point far lower than the competition, and there is a fair chance that Motorola will do the same with the Moto X.
The sneaky part of this argument is in the fact that the spec race is largely unnecessary since Android 4.1. Before Jelly Bean, Android detractors would constantly talk about how the system was laggy and buggy, and it certainly was. The counter to that old argument tended to be that you just needed better specs to make up for the lag issues, but that argument doesn't hold anymore. The bugginess was largely squashed with Android 4.0, and Project Butter came with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean to knock off any lingering lag issues. Now, arguing the spec difference between processors and even the difference between 720p and 1080p displays on a 4.7" screen doesn't yield appreciable differences in the real world.
The real "high performance" metrics are in battery life, and the feel of the system. Many say they are disappointed in the idea that the Moto X will likely have a Snapdragon S4 Pro and a 720p display. But, most forget that the workload that a 720p display puts on a processor's GPU is much lower than that of a 1080p display. Additionally, very few apps are optimized to really show the difference between HD displays, so you'll likely only notice the difference if you happen to be comparing two devices side by side. Otherwise, humans adapt to what they have and use consistently.
The Android system updates have been all about performance recently, and the rumor has it that the focus of the Android 4.3 Jelly Bean update will be on tweaking battery performance. Motorola has said that the Moto X has specific power saving options built-in to the device that it has added, along with a number of contextually aware options to have the phone give you what you need when you need it. We don't know the specifics, but it sounds like we might expect something that power-users have asked for with Android for a while with custom contextual homescreen layouts: different apps that are displayed based on being at home, at work, traveling, or being out to dinner or a movie.
The more a mobile device can offer you what you want, when you want it, specs fall into the background. Specs become the sole arguing point of fanboys and trolls, because the belief is that specs remove the need for subjective opinion, which couldn't be farther from the truth. There is nothing more important in the relationship between a user and their device than the subjective opinion of how that device feels to that specific user. Specs can play a part in explaining why you prefer one device to another, but they can't prove that one device is objectively better than another.
This is the power of Android. With the iPhone, Apple tries to generalize the subjective opinion of the masses and create one device that pleases as many people as it can. Android creates many different devices, and puts the onus on the user to find the device that fits them best. But, the average user doesn't like to search too much, so the majority of the focus lands on flagship devices. Samsung offers a huge range of device options, but the main choices are the Galaxy S and Galaxy Note. HTC has the One. Google has the Nexus. And, as far as cross-carrier devices, Motorola is going with the Moto X, since it seems the RAZR Ultras will be Verizon only.
Samsung offers the "offer every feature anyone could conceivably want" approach to software design. HTC has gone with the social/news gathering Blinkfeed as its focus. Google, unsurprisingly, offers the Google experience with pure Android. From what we've heard, Motorola is aiming to give users whatever experience they want, by offering design and customization options up front. The unifying thread on all of these approaches is that specs don't come into the question. The focus is always on the experience provided to the user, and the specs of each device are in the background to simply show that this is a new device (because with some, like the Galaxy S III/S4 you might not notice otherwise). Maybe we should all keep that in mind.