Have smartphones stopped noticeably improving?

Smartphones have improved greatly since the release of the original iPhone in 2007, but have they plateaued in recent years?

Today I was thinking about the smartphone industry and this topic sort of just popped into my head. Every few months it seems that a company like Samsung or Apple releases the next big thing, with the most recent example being the Galaxy S4. In the fall, Apple is likely to release the iPhone 5S to overtake Samsung once more as the company with the most powerful phone.

And here I sit with my iPhone 4S, pondering the significance of it all. Can the average smartphone owning consumer really tell the difference between a Galaxy S3 with its quad core processor and a Galaxy S4 with its slightly more advanced quad core processor? Or for iPhone owners, can we really tell the difference between the 0.8ghz A5 processor in the 4S and the 1.3ghz A6 processor in the 5?

I don't have any concrete benchmarking evidence to give you, only a short anecdote. A few days ago I found myself in an Apple Store, and saw several iPhone 5s lined up for customers to test out.* Curious, I pulled out my 4S, placed it side by side with the 5, and started comparing the speed between the two devices in terms of launching apps and surfing the web.

To my surprise, while the 5 beat out my 4S a few times, the 4S had the upper hand in more than a handful of my tests. The 4g on the 5 made web browsing quicker but not to the extent that I was ready to completely disown my 3g equipped 4S. The moral of my short story: other than the extra 0.5 inches on the iPhone 5's screen, I couldn't really see any difference between the 4S and 5 in terms of performing normal everyday smartphone tasks.

As mobile gaming becomes more advanced and Apple starts to take advantage of the iPhone 5's hardware with iOS7, we may see the gap between the 5 and 4S increase. Still, for $99, the 4S almost seems like a steal compared to the 5 since it can do nearly everything just as well while looking (in my opinion) far more sexy thanks to the stainless steel band that encircles it.

I'm not sure when it happened exactly, but it seems to me that smartphones stopped noticeably improving around mid-2011, if you judge them by everyday tasks like web browsing, light gaming, e-mail, etc. This of course is only true for phones that have been supported software-wise by their manufacturers, as phones stuck on Android 2.3 from 2011 for instance are obviously hindered compared to more modern counterparts. A supported 2011 phone like the 4S however continues to provide real world performance that rivals today's flagship phones such as the GS4 or iPhone 5.

What conclusions can we draw from this? For one, smartphone manufacturers need to find some way to take advantage of the powerful hardware in their phones. The dual core A5 in the 4S is more than adequate to execute the majority of tasks most people would think of using their smartphone for today. Therefore, it will be the job of companies like Samsung and Apple to find new ways for the consumer to interact with their mobile devices.

The traditional method of improving smartphones has, in my mind, become obsolete for the time being. Most people can't tell the difference between using apps and browsing the web on a 4S and 5, or a GS3 and GS4. Things like screen resolution, camera quality, and other traditionally upgraded features are also encountering diminishing returns. Does it really matter to the average Joe whether their 5 inch screen is 720p or 1080p? Most won't even notice the difference.

In some ways, this development is good for consumers. People on a tighter budget can go out and buy an iPhone 4 (yes, I said 4, the one from 2010) and be able to do most of the things on their smartphone that someone with an iPhone 5 can do. This is, however, bad for manufacturers like Apple and Samsung, because if they can't convince people they should buy a new phone then they're pretty much toast.

We'll see in the coming years if smartphones evolve into something that makes all these supercharged flagship slates worth the premium price. If not, plenty of people are happy sticking with their phones from 2012, 2011, and even 2010 for years to come.

*2/22/14 update:  I am talking about the iPhone 5 in plural form, not the iPhone 5S, which released months after I wrote this article.