A guide to understanding smartphone specifications

By Karen Chin


Just about everybody owns a cellphone these days, if you exclude those in the child-and-below age group category – although some children do own cellphones nowadays and could actually phone-shame me with what their parents are willing to buy them!

I am going to talk about smartphones and the meaning of those ‘specs’ that keep popping up in techie conversations to help people make an educated purchase and choose a smartphone that suits your lifestyle, rather than be pushed into buying something just because the salesperson said it was good or your friend recommended it.

Here’s a handy guide for those who are techie dummies like me!


Communication Services = GSM and the Occasional CDMA


Just like men who say ‘PSM’ when they mean ‘PMS’, these terms to me are just randomly-sequenced alphabets.

Basically, GSM stands for Global System for Mobile communication and as its name implies, it is a system which enables communication from mobile to mobile worldwide.

Mobile phone users here in Malaysia don’t have to worry too much as it is almost exclusively using GSM. Its competitor CDMA is more common in USA and Russia. So when the cellphone specs says it is using GSM technology, you can be sure that you can use any simcard in Malaysia. However, if you purchase a phone overseas using CDMA-technology hoping you can put in your local Malaysian number when you get back, you might run into some problems like being unable to unlock the phone.


Networks = The G, The E, The H and The Likes


You know those little alphabets that show up next to your network bars? Those are mobile data networks (the stuff that enables you to connect to the Internet) you are connected to at the moment.

So these start off with 2G (Second Generation), followed by 3G (Third Generation) and ends with 4G (yup, you guessed it, Fourth Generation) for now.

In 2G, you get GPRS, and EDGE which is about three times faster than GPRS – these show up on your phone as little Gs and Es respectively. I think that GPRS is pretty useless (you may commonly observe that this G phenomenon happens while you are in an elevator or underground), while EDGE could still probably allow you to hold a decently-paced Whatsapp conversation.

Then comes 3G which, in Malaysia, commonly shows itself as H which stands for HSPA (High Speed Packet Access) and its little upgraded versions (for example, HSPA+ which are sometimes categorised as pre-4G, LTE and WiMax).

Sometimes some companies will name their latest network 4G as a marketing strategy, but it is actually the high-end of 3G, which some others refer to as pre-4G.

Confused? Here is a little picture to clear it up:


Here’s to know what all those little alphabets (in brackets) mean

Here’s to know what all those little alphabets (in brackets) mean


However, basically all you need to know is whether the area you are living, working or spending most of your time in has 3G coverage before you purchase 3G. Same goes for ‘4G’. Even if the phone you are using supports 4G, right now there isn’t much 4G coverage in Malaysia (maybe just in bigger cities, such as Kuala Lumpur and Kuching) so your phone will go on 3G automatically most of the time anyway.


SIM the Card, Not Your Chinese Friend

Everyone understands that SIM cards are what you get when you need a cellphone number. What is the concept of dual SIM you may ask? Yes we all know that means two SIM cards in your phone but how does that work and why would anyone want that?

This is especially useful for those who are have two numbers, sometimes for work and personal use, but do not want to carry two phones. It can also be useful for those who frequently travel in and out of the country; this way you can have your travelling number and your local number without the hassle of switching the SIM cards all the time.
Otherwise, this feature is not essential.


Display and Screen Specification Terms That You Might Want To Know


When it comes to display types, you might come across terms such as:

TFT (thin film transistor)-LCD: A very common type of display in touchscreen phones and is a pretty good display. However, it does not have a good viewing angle, meaning that someone viewing your screen from the side would be unable to see the screen well (good for if you have snoopy companions), and it has poorer visibility in sunlight.

IPS (inter-plane switching)-LCD: Superior to TFT-LCD and has a wider viewing angle, and therefore more expensive than TFT-LCD. Typically used in higher end smartphones.

Capacitive touchscreens: Respond to the electrical properties in the human body, meaning they only need a light touch to activate.


How do I choose the best screen for my smartphone?

How do I choose the best screen for my smartphone?


Developed by Samsung, Super AMOLED display is built with touch sensors on the display itself, as opposed to creating a separate touch sensitive layer (as in capacitive touchscreen).

Retina display is exclusively an Apple term for their high-resolution IPS-LCD screen and is named so because its pixels cannot be individually identified by the human eye, thus making the display super sharp and brilliant.

Multi-touch display allows you to pinch and stretch your touchscreen with one, two or more fingers on the screen at a time.

When it comes to screen protection, I am sure some of you have heard of Gorilla Glass (it makes me think of King Kong with highly-defined brown pectoral muscles and black hairy arms beating on it – wait, or was that Donkey Kong?). Gorilla glass is a shield with heavy-duty damage resistance that protects your screen from scratches (boo!) and bumps from everyday accidents and clumsiness.




These are the smartphone’s vital organs. CPU (computer processing unit) is basically the brain which processes all the information received. GPU (graphic processing unit) is the graphic card – somewhat the same as a CPU except that it deals exclusively with graphics – good for those who game, watch a lot of full HD movies.

OS (operating system) is the phone software. Among the most popular ones are Android, IOS, Windows, and Blackberry. If you have the option, go with the operating system that is the latest and the most updated because eventually you will probably want to update your OS too.

By the way, remember those yummy names Android had for their OS? They apparently had no particular reason for naming their OS after sweets in alphabetical order – Cupcake, Donut, Éclair, Froyo (frozen yogurt), Gingerbread, Honeycomb, Ice-cream Sandwich, Jellybean, Kit Kat, and the coming Lollipop. I think it is beyond cute!


Android OS names always make me crave for sweets!

Android OS names always make me crave for sweets!


RAMs and Sheep (Just Kidding)


RAM stands for random access memory and helps you multitask on your phone. It acts as a temporary memory that enables several applications to run simultaneously. Get the one with more space for RAM if you are the type that utilizes a lot of applications and their smartphones.


Remember what RAMs are good for!

Remember what RAMs are good for!


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