Microsoft, Windows Phone 8 hardware must keep up with the times

This is a question that I never thought I'd ask -- Is the hardware leaving Windows Phone 8 behind its fierce competition? In September last year, I asserted that "Windows Phone 8 is the best idea Microsoft has had in phone tech" after analyzing the new hardware requirements imposed by the software giant for its smartphone operating system. But as we all know eight months is a long time in the tech world.

This is a tough question to answer. After all, in January, BlackBerry unveiled the BlackBerry Z10 with pretty much the same hardware that was available for Windows Phone 8 at launch. Apple's iPhone 5 is also not far away in terms of specifications. So should Microsoft rest on its laurels and send the engineers on vacation? Well, no. As a smart man once said, "You can never have enough power". And even Windows Phone needs better hardware, although some die-hard fanboys would beg to differ.

The Hardware Is Good...

I'll concede that Windows Phone 8 performs very well on compatible hardware. The dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processors are decently powerful even by today's standards, but a good processor alone does not make for a great nor popular smartphone today, as we all know.

My Lumia 920, bar the occasional hiccups likely associated with the branded firmware that I used to have (I now run a developer firmware on it), performs very well when navigating the interface or the installed apps. I have no major complaints concerning lag when scrolling, zooming, installing software or other such activities, but it's not perfect either.

... But Good Is Not Good Enough

I'm quite sure I've read that Windows Phone 8 is very fluid with no lag or stutter in a bunch of reviews. That's not entirely true. I sometimes encounter a slight stutter when navigating the interface or lag when resuming an app, both of which should be entirely eliminated by using beefier hardware.

When Windows Phone 8 can't handle the number of suspended apps -- because there's no true multitasking like on Windows -- it starts closing the most problematic or first-used ones. Likely due to the same reasons even Internet Explorer comes with a tab number limitation -- one can only have a maximum of six opened at the same time.

If the lag or stutter can be attributed to the processing power, the multitasking issue can be pinned on the amount of RAM. How can Microsoft take care of these problems? It's simple, just add support for the quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processors. Manufacturers could then use a mindbogglingly fast Snapdragon 600 or Snapdragon 800 inside their next Windows Phone handsets.

Look at Me!

Yes, I've got a gripe with the display as well. Windows Phone 8 devices are limited to having a panel with a maximum resolution of 768 by 1280 -- as the Lumia 920 has. But why is that? Well, you can also blame Microsoft's design principle here. Because when Windows Phone 8 came to market the software giant didn't give quad-core processors the stamp of approval so it would have been a mistake to allow manufacturers to use 1080p displays, for instance.

With a higher pixel count the smartphone would need more processing power at its disposal in order to deliver a similar user experience as it does now, otherwise it just bogs down. Basically one limitation creates another. It's obvious, but that proves Microsoft doesn't want to look beyond the near future. Shouldn't now be the time to learn from past mistakes?

And there's the other side of the coin -- manufacturers can't innovate or even follow market leaders. The perfect example for this is the phablet market. There, today's smartphones need 1080p displays in order to deliver the highest visual quality on a large screen. The higher the ppi (pixels per inch) density on a 5.5-inch panel (for example) the better. Windows Phone 8 can't compete for the phablet crown without a loss in clarity and customer satisfaction.

Constantly Behind the Curve

Windows Phone 7, Windows Phone 7.5 and Windows Phone 8 were all designed for the hardware available during the development process, which is a problem if Microsoft wants to release a major software iteration each year.

Windows Phone 7.5 devices ran on a single-core processor, 512 MB of RAM and a 480 by 800 display resolution at best. Not long afterwards beefier quad-core processors with 1 GB of RAM as well as 720p displays were available.

Guess what? Microsoft's operating system didn't support any of those specs. A similar story can be said about Windows Phone 8. It came with last year's hardware requirements when we now have quad-core processors with 2GB of RAM and 1080p displays. Of course, it doesn't support such hardware. So what should be done?

Microsoft should protect Microsoft from Microsoft. The company's thinking of limiting Windows Phone 8 to only support the hardware of its time is rendered obsolete by the fast-paced tech world. Develop today, but think of tomorrow as well.

The best scenario is to bear current hardware in mind but leave room for what's coming next. Or, if that leaves too much room for error, Microsoft could simply update its operating system more frequently to bump up the maximum supported hardware. It should have done so at launch, actually.

The Spec War

Microsoft shouldn't play the specifications war that is constantly underway in the Android world. But Microsoft can't ignore better hardware either. With better hardware the company can give Windows Phone manufacturers the opportunity to more clearly differentiate their products or give them a better fighting chance against the competition.

The company doesn't need to enforce a ton of stickers on the box touting the hardware that's inside, but when customers want to buy a smartphone they shouldn't be able to dismiss Windows Phone handsets based on inferior hardware specifications. Don't hate the player, hate the game.

By today's standards Windows Phone 8 devices are mid-range compared to their Android counterparts. People notice that. Why shoot yourself in the foot if you have the option not to do so? If Microsoft keeps up with similar limitations its smartphone operating system will always be one hardware generation behind. Has it helped so far? I'd say not.

The Options Matter

Truth be told, I find it silly that Microsoft can't provide users with the option to choose what they want. It is the same thinking that got the company into trouble with Windows 8, which even today gets a bad rep for not allowing users to use a simple Start menu on traditional computers. Why not show a sign of change, Microsoft?

As a Windows Phone 8 user I have to commit to using yesterday's hardware when I should be able get the best available today. Does it do the operating system any good? No. Does it do consumers any good? No. I just don't see the point, only excuses.

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