Mobile phone spec sheets: What do they mean?

Spec sheets for tech devices can sometimes be confusing. though generally, comparing two mobile phones (or tablets) on a pure spec-for-spec basis is a good rule of thumb to determine a winner (‘this one has a bigger screen, better camera, it must be the better option!’), a list of abbreviations, file formats and numbers doesn’t always give you the full picture.

Avid consumers of mobile phones know, as does anyone who regularly reads tech and gadget blogs, it’s the good old user experience at the end of the day that wins out.

The INQ Cloud Touch and BlackBerry Torch 9810 both received three and a half stars in our reviews. However, if we scored every phone based on their specs alone, the Torch 9810 would win hands down with it’s more powerful processor and better camera.

But ultimately we felt that each phone offered an overall experience of equivalent value when you take into consideration price, ease of use, features and – crucially – who the phones are aimed at.

So, what should we expect from specs?

As soon as a phone or tablet is announced, there’s usually an accompanying list of specs.

GSM 850/900/1800/1900, 512MB, 1.2GHz, 8.1-megapixels, 32GB. all of these figures will be instantly familiar to the average tech fan; if not you can find out with a cursory Googling.

But what do they all really mean?

We’ve put together this short guide to all of what we think are the most important mobile phone specs are and what to consider when weighing up two similarly-specced devices.

Size and weight

Pretty self explanatory this. the dimensions of a smartphone are usually expressed in a Height x Width x Depth format, with measurements for each normally given in millimetres. the weight of a phone is shown in grams and is usually given with the weight of the phone including the battery.

Screen sizes, pixel counts, PPI and screen types

In contrast to a phone’s dimensions, a phone’s screen size is normally expressed in terms of inches. this measurement is derived from a diagonal measurement, e.g. from the top right corner to the bottom left.

So while two phones may have the same stated screen sizes (i.e. 3.5-inches) they might not be exactly the same shape; one may be longer and thinner than another.

Screen size doesn’t give you an idea of how detailed a display is either; this is when the resolution (normally expressed as number of pixels across height x width) and the PPI value (the number of pixels per inch).

The materials and type of technology used in a phone’s screen also have an impact on how well it performs. Different types of display hold up better in certain lighting conditions than others and some are better at reproducing colours and shades.

AMOLED and Super AMOLED screens generally boast superior levels of contrast compared to LCD type screens. Screens with IPS (In Plane Switching) technology can be tweaked to provide stunning levels of detail while providing fantastic viewing angles. have a look at our recent comparison of these smartphone screens for a better idea.

Operating System / OS: the Operating System is the main program that basically ties everything together, from the phone’s dialler and settings menus to the camera application to the web browser and games like angry Birds.

For example the OS for Apple’s iPhone and iPad is iOS, the OS for BlackBerry phones is called BlackBerry OS, and Android devices currently run on Android 2.x or Android 3.x depending on if they’re phones or tablets. Windows Phone 7 or Windows Phone is the new mobile OS from Microsoft.

CPU and speeds – 1GHz, 800MHz: The CPU (short for Central Processing Unit) also known as the processor is the part of the phone that responds to your commands; open an app, start the phone’s browser etc.

CPU performance is measured in terms of the frequency at which it powers through processes, measured in Hertz, megahertz (MHz) and gigahertz (GHz). the faster the CPU, the more quickly your phone will be able to respond to your commands.

RAM / Memory: RAM can be confusing, as it’s sometimes listed simply as ‘Memory’ (RAM is short for Random Access Memory). this could possibly lead you to think that Memory refers to internal storage (i.e. where you store your pictures, MP3s, etc) which isn’t the case.

RAM is used to temporarily store app and program information and carries out the ‘physical’ running of processes if you will, things like playing music, running the web browser or loading a game.

Generally speaking, the more RAM a phone has, the more capable it is at carrying out tasks.

MP/Megapixels and camera specification: the megapixel count of a phone’s camera determines how large and roughly how detailed the images it takes will be. A megapixel is a million pixels. A phone with a 12-megapixel camera therefore will take much bigger pictures than a phone with a 3-megapixel camera.

Sure, an 8-megapixel camera means that the phone is capable of taking big images. That’s all. It’s not a totally accurate way to judge camera quality, there are other things, which we’ll go in to in a minute.


A specification that we’re increasingly seeing listed in spec lists at the moment is the camera lens aperture, expressed with an ‘f-number’ like f/2.4 or f/2.8.

Generally, the smaller the f-number, the greater amount of light is able to reach the image sensor. Therefore, the camera will the smaller number will be able to perform better in gloomy or poorly-lit conditions without you having to turn the flash on.

The Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc, Xperia Neo and Xperia Ray phones cameras have an aperture of f/2.4, the Nokia N8’s 12-megapixel camera has an aperture of f/2.8 and the HTC Evo 3D has a f/2.2 aperture, but many phones don’t quote the lens aperture in spec sheets.

Most cameraphones will have an auto-setting where the camera will adjust for light accordingly, but others will have a manual control for exposure settings as well.

As well as aperture levels, it’s also worth noting if a phone’s specs mentions anything additional like Sony’s Exmor R sensor, which allows for even greater photo clarity in gloomy locations, combined with the comparatively big apertures of all these phones.

Camera Flash – xenon, LED, dual LED?

Phones with xenon flashes built in are pretty rare these days, generally only seen on Nokia smartphones like the N8.

There are many advantages that xenon flashes have over LED and dual LED. Generally, xenon flashes are better for illuminating shots across a wider range of situations and provide a more powerful burst of light. We’ve seen instances where a xenon flash will properly illuminate an entire area if it’s dark or gloomy where an LED or dual LED flash just doesn’t have the muscle to do this.

Jay Montano over at The Nokia Blog has put together a number of comparison shots which effectively weigh up the advantages of both of these and there’s a similar post demonstrating this over on All about Symbian.

One area where LED and dual LED flashes have an edge over xenon is in terms of video. an LED flash can kick out a continuous stream of light for use when recording video in the dark, something that a xenon flash can’t do. Xenon flashes are also quite big, adding considerable bulk to a handset.

Internal storage and microSD cards: Also, if a smartphone has a powerful camera but only say 8GB of internal storage and no microSD slot to expand the memory, then you’ll have to consider that that 8GB is going to get filled up mighty quick if you’re intent on taking lots of pics.

Internal storage (occasionally referred to as ROM, Read-Only Memory) is where your phone saves things like pictures, apps, music and other files. Internal storage is measured in either MB (Megabytes) or GB (Gigabytes) depending on how much a phone has. 1GB is approximately equivalent to 1000MB.

Music files vary greatly in size depending on the length of the song, their type and their bitrate. Songs ripped in lossless formats like FLAC can be as large as around 30MB for a 3-4 minute song whereas an MP3 of a similar-length song will be around 3-5MB.

Often a spec sheet says you’re getting ‘8GB’ or ‘16GB’ of storage, but in reality you often end up getting fractionally less than that. this is due to space being set aside for firmware, OS upgrades and other things.

In the case of the iPhone 4 for example, some users have reported that 14GB of the supposed 16GB is actually available. this is a common problem with internal memory on all smartphones, something we most recently noticed when we compared the HTC Sensation with the Samsung Galaxy S2.

MicroSD cards: most phones these days will come with a microSD card slot, which allows you to add more memory by buying an additional microSD memory card.

You can currently get microSD cards of up to 32GB in size. most phones released over the last couple of years will work with these, making it an easy way to expand storage. 16GB cards are currently available to buy for around £11 to £20 depending on where you look and a 32GB one costs between £33 and £40 at the moment.

Wired connections: micro USB, HDMI and MHL: most phones these days will have some kind of connection that connects to a mains adapter and to a computer via USB.

Either the phone will have a micro USB connection on it that’ll mean that any micro USB-to-USB wire will work, or a proprietary connection-to-USB cable (that will come supplied in the box), like the iPhone 4.

Many phones these days also come with HDMI ports that allow you to hook your phone up to an HDTV set, for the purposes of watching video recorded on the phone on a bigger screen. normally, you find an HDMI connection on a phone that’s capable of playing and/or recording video at 720p or 1080p.

If a phone lists ‘MHL’ (Mobile High-Definition Link) in its specs then this means you should be able to stream HD video from the phone even if there’s no HDMI port.

A phone like the HTC Sensation for example, has no HDMI port, but it’s micro USB connection features MHL connectors in it. You’ll have to buy a separate MHL to HDMI cable and adapter to connect your phone to a TV set’s HDMI port. But this means there’s a way to connect your phone to an HDTV screen without there being an HDMI connection on the phone itself.

Wireless Connections; EDGE, GPRS, 3G, HSDPA, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth: EDGE and GPRS generally mean that a phone can access the internet at the slowest possible speeds going on your phone’s network. your phone will normally display an ‘E’ or ‘G’ icon next to the four bars of signal when you’re connected to either of these.

3G provides a faster and more power-efficient web browsing experience on the go, so much so that it allows you to make video calls (if the phone has a front-facing camera).

HSDPA, sometimes called 3.5G is faster still, and is represented by an ‘H’ or ‘3.5G’ icon on some phones.

HSDPA stands for High Speed Download Packet Access and can support download speeds of up to 14Mbps on your phone, theoretically faster than fixed-line broadband in many instances.

Some phones will also list HSUPA (High Speed Upload Packet Access) speeds as an indicator as to how quickly your phone can upload information (sending emails, uploading pictures to Facebook).

Most phones these days will come with a Wi-Fi antenna built in, which allows you to connect to the internet through a home broadband wireless router or through an open Wi-Fi hotspot in town. the main advantage to doing this is that your web use while you’re connected to Wi-Fi won’t come out of your monthly data plan.

Bluetooth is a short-range wireless technology that allows you to securely “pair” two devices together like a Bluetooth headset or handsfree kit with your phone, and to easily send files like pictures between devices (such as two phones).

GPS and A-GPS: A GPS antenna allows you to locate yourself on navigation programs like Google Maps, Nokia Maps and Bing Maps using satellites that are part of the GPS (Global Positioning System) network.

A-GPS (Assisted GPS) is a term used to describe when a phone uses cellular data from mobile masts to help triangulate your position alongside the GPS, allowing for faster location locking.

Talk Time / Standby Time: A general level of service governed by the phone’s battery and power management techniques, usually measured in hours (for talk time) and days (for standby time; i.e. if the phone it totally inactive).

However, because people use their phones for a number of different things, playing music, playing games, browsing the web, it’s harder to tell just how effective a phone’s battery is.

High-level smartphones which allow you to perform a number of tasks all at once generally don’t have a long lasting battery life; it’s advisable to carry a spare mains charger or USB cable around with you just in case or to charge it every night.

GSM Tri-Band/Quad-Band: Networks in the UK, Europe and (most of) Asia occupy the 900 and 1800 MHz GSM frequency bands of the radio frequency spectrum. Networks in the United States use the 850 and 1900 MHz bands.

Note that this is not to be confused with the MHz of your phone's CPU – if your phone only has a 600MHz chip, that doesn't mean the phone won't work on the 900 – 1800 bands!

Most phones these days are ‘quad band’, meaning that you can use them to make calls virtually anywhere in the world. You’ll often see ‘GSM 850/900/1800/1900’ listed in spec lists – this basically means the phone will be able to make calls wherever there are services supported on these frequencies in the world.

DLNA and AirPlay: DLNA is short for the Digital Living Network Alliance, an affiliation of companies which includes Sony Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia, LG and Samsung.

Devices that are DLNA Certified will work in some capacity with others. the most common use of DLNA in smartphones is the ability to stream audio, photos and video to a DLNA compatible TV set or speaker system.

AirPlay allows for much of the same kind of thing (wireless streaming of audio, video and pictures to compatible devices), but is exclusive to Apple products. With AirPlay you can stream media from your iPhone 4 and iPad 2 to an Apple TV receiver that’s plugged in to an HDTV set.


While this is intended as a brief guide as to what everything means on a spec sheet, there’s more to a list of stats than meets the eye.

At the end of the day, there’s no way of really being able to get a feel for how a phone looks or works until you get some proper hands-on time with one and you need to find the features that suit you, you might not need a Xenon flash and lots of storage.

That said, hopefully this guide gives you a better idea of what to look for in the stats and helps you make an informed choice when you’re in the market for a new phone.