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The Weird World Inside Your Smartphone

ATurton / 7 February, 2019

You probably feel like you know your smartphone like the back of your hand.

But, between your thumb and fingers, inside those few millimetres of casing, there’s an awful lot going on. In fact, your smartphone is millions of times more powerful than all of NASA’s combined computer power in 1969. Which means, in theory – and with enough rocket fuel – you could use it to fly to the moon. So, what makes today’s smartphones so amazing? To find out, let’s have a look inside.

 

 

Sensors

Ever wondered how your phone changes song when you shake it, or how it can orientate itself on a map? Your phone achieves these things using sensors – usually six of them. Each sensor is responsible for measuring a certain metric, e.g., light levels, user proximity, rotation.

Most modern smartphones have the following:

  • Accelerometer – detects movement
  • Gyroscope – detects rotation
  • Digital Compass – detects device orientation
  • Ambient Light Sensor – detects lighting levels
  • Proximity sensor – detects how close the user is to the phone
  • Microphone – detects acoustic phenomena

Just like our human senses, these sensors provide your phone with raw data about its surroundings. They are essential in ensuring your phone automatically locks when it is placed next to your ear, in locating your position on a map, in detecting the tilts and shakes used in some games, for automatically increasing or reducing screen brightness depending on your environment, and much more.

The information collected by a phone’s sensors is sent to the SoC, where it can be processed and used by various software.

Manufacturers are always considering new sensors to give their phones, with Samsung recently equipping one of its devices with an ultra-sonic fingerprint reader. Smells, air pressure, humidity – who knows what our phones will be able to detect in the future. Only one thing is for sure, and that’s that phones are likely to get even smarter.

 

The Display

The most obvious element of your phone is its display, and you may consider this part of the exterior of your phone. But most of the tech that makes your screen light up is contained inside your phone.

There are two main types of display technology: Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED) and Liquid Crystal Display (LCD).

Without getting too far into the technical details, OLED screens work by having each pixel emit its own light. Whereas LCD screens shine a backlight through polarizers (or optical filters which only allow light of specific frequency to pass) to illuminate the screen – which is why, if you fill an LCD screen with a black rectangle, you will be able to see light coming from your phone.

The other important part of your display is its touchscreen capacities. There are two major touchscreen technologies: resistive and capacitive.

Resistive touchscreens were used in the first smartphones, and use a screen consisting of two separate flexible plastic sheets. When you press down on the top sheet, it contacts the bottom sheet and completes an electrical circuit – enabling your smartphone to interpret what values you are putting in.

Capacitive touchscreens are used in most modern smartphones. These work by using the electrical properties of the human body to change an electrostatic field on the screen. That’s why your phone won’t work if you wear gloves or use the end of a pencil to try and navigate your display.

 

The SoC

What makes a phone “smart”? The answer is the System-on-a-chip or SoC. Your phone’s SoC combines the required electrical circuits of various computer components – such as the Graphic Processing Unit (GPU), Central Processing Unit (CPU), display processor, video processor and more – onto a single, integrated chip.

To understand the SoC, you can imagine it as a complete computer that’s been shrunken down to fit on a single chip. We use our phones for such a variety of tasks these days – surfing the web, watching videos, making calls, playing games, taking photos, etc. – that modern SoCs are incredibly complex things. What’s more, every time a new smartphone model is released, it will have a new SoC – and therefore new capabilities and specifications.

The SoC development market is incredibly competitive, and as soon as a fantastic new SoC is released someone else will come out with something even better. Some of the largest SoC manufacturers today are Qualcomm, Samsung, MediaTek, Huawei, NVIDIA and Broadcom. These companies sell their products to hardware companies which use them in the devices they produce

 

Memory

Processing power is one thing, but if your phone can’t remember what it’s doing from one moment to the next, that power is wasted. As such, your phone needs to have Random Access Memory (RAM) and system storage memory.

RAM is a super-fast type of memory that stores data quickly and gives almost instant access to that data. It’s much faster than your phone’s main storage (which is where apps, photos, videos and music are kept). You can think of RAM as your pocket and system storage as a backpack. Of course, it’s much faster to pull something from your pocket than your backpack, and if you plan to use it again soon, you can just return it to your pocket

Similarly, when you open an app on your phone, all the data is pulled from system memory to RAM – or from the backpack to the pocket. This allows you to access it quickly and easily, allowing you to switch between apps without having to keep dipping into your system memory and thus making your phone nice and quick. So, the more RAM you have, the faster your phone is.

Your system memory is your smartphone’s long-term memory. It is the equivalent of a computer’s hard disc. It is a permanent memory bank and won’t be lost when you turn your phone off. In some cases, you can expand storage memory using microSD or similar devices. Most smartphones have between 32GB—256GB of system memory.

 

The Battery

Your phone most likely uses a lithium-ion battery. Lithium-ion batteries use lithium ions moving from the negative electrode to the positive electrode to provide an electric current. When the ions run the other way, the battery recharges.

Lithium-ion batteries first became widespread in 1991, even though the technology underpinning them was discovered by the American chemist Gilbert Lewis in 1912. There are many advantages to lithium-ion batteries. For one thing, they provide a substantial amount of energy for their weight. And because they don’t contain cadmium (a highly toxic heavy metal), they are better for the environment than other types of battery.

However – as anyone who bought the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 knows – lithium-ion batteries very occasionally catch fire or explode. The reason why lithium-ion batteries have the potential to explode is the same as what makes them such great batteries: their ability to store lots of energy.

 

Why Do Phone Batteries Explode

 

 

Although very rare, the primary reason lithium-ion batteries explode is short circuiting. This happens when the anode (the terminal where current flows in) and cathode (the terminal where current flows out) touch. When they do, the battery quickly begins to overheat and, sometimes, catches fire or explodes. As we say, though, this is very rare, and lithium-ion batteries are some of the safest batteries around.

 

The Modem

We’ve covered a lot so far. But none of the things we’ve looked at will allow you to do the thing that phones are most famous for doing – make a call. This is the modems role. Modems are communications components that allow you to receive and send text messages and calls.

Since your modem is also responsible for connecting you to the internet, without it, your phone would be little more that a personal information manager. In other words, without a modem, your phone would constantly be in “airplane mode”.

Your existing modem is likely to be a 4G LTE modem. However, soon, 5G modems will become available. These promise to make your connections faster than ever before. But just remember, until your country has 5G infrastructure in place, there’s absolutely no point in upgrading your phone to one with a 5G modem.

 

Cameras

Putting cameras on phones was an ingenious idea – one that allows us to take high-quality snaps on-the-go without carrying a separate camera.

However, no one expected their most popular use to be taking photos of ourselves. Alas, narcissists that we are, this is exactly what most of us use them for –  which is the reason most modern smartphones have two cameras: one facing the world and one facing our own face.

Camera quality is one of the biggest selling points for modern smartphones. And there’s still no industry staple: different phones will take pictures that look quite different even in the exact same conditions. In years gone by, the number of megapixels a phone camera had was a good indicator of its quality. Today, however, camera performance is more about sensor quality. Smartphones have small sensors and making them perform better – especially in low lighting – is something smartphone manufacturers are working hard to improve.

 

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