Sunday, December 28, 2014

Your old Nokia sucked: here's how much better phones have become in 20 years

Smartphones are a relatively recent invention: the first so-called smartphone, Ericsson's R380, didn't ship until early 2000. In the 1990s phones had modest specs, proprietary operating systems and the ability to make and receive phone calls, sometimes.

Today's phones haven't improved much on the calling front - for all their noise cancelling and cleverness, they still drop calls like they're hot - but everything else has changed dramatically in just 20 years.
Smartphones are a relatively recent invention: the first so-called smartphone, Ericsson's R380, didn't ship until early 2000

The numbers have changed too. In 1994 Motorola was pretty chuffed about selling 12 million handsets in a year. Today, Apple can do 10 million iPhones in a weekend. So what else has changed? Let's go back. Wayyyyy back.

When we think of early nineties mobile phones the Motorola 8000X brick phone tends to spring to mind, but while that behemoth looks so odd now was indeed on sale back in 1994 there were more interesting and much smaller phones such as Nokia's excellent 232.

The Moto X in 2014 is very similar to the Nokia 232 in 1994: it's not too pricey and it delivers a lot of power for the price. Of course, what power means in 2014 is a bit different from what it meant twenty years ago. Let's see what's really changed in two decades.
Smartphones are a relatively recent invention: the first so-called smartphone, Ericsson's R380, didn't ship until early 2000.


Frank Nuovo's design for the Nokia 232 was intended to be futuristic, and at the time it was: the neat, compact design was aimed at style conscious customers and even featured in the film Clueless.

The 232 won a stack of design awards and, inspired by Swatch watches, was the first phone to ship in a range of colours - although the cost of phones at the time meant most people stuck with plain old black instead of having different phones for different outfits.

Phones are a lot more homogenous today - there's only so much you can do with an enormous touchscreen, a camera and a couple of hardware buttons.

The Moto X mimics the Nokia in its customisation options: you can choose the back and front colours, the trim and even encase your phone in real wood. But there's no mistaking the huge changes phones have gone through in 20 years: in today's phones the software, not the hardware, is the real star.

Display, Interface and Operating System

The Nokia 232 had a 16-digit LCD display with additional indicators for signal strength, battery life and key features such as whether you were in a call or if somebody had left you a voicemail.

The phone ran Nokia's own proprietary operating system and was controlled with the keypad - so for example to experiment with the extensive selection of five ringtones you'd hit MENU, 2, up or down and STO to confirm the setting.

The Moto X has a 5.2-inch, full HD AMOLED display delivering 423 pixels per inch and protected by the third generation of Corning's Gorilla Glass.

The display is a touchscreen, the operating system is Android KitKat and there is a 2MP front-facing camera and a 13MP rear-facing one capable of recording Ultra HD video.

The user interface is customisable and via apps the phone can pretend to be anything you want it to be, from a musical instrument to a sensible tool. It's controllable by voice too.


Forget 4G: the Nokia 232 was 1G and ran on analogue phone networks known as AMPS (Advanced Mobile Phone System) in the US and TACS (Total Access Communication System) in the UK.

Those analogue networks were prone to noise and interference, easy to intercept and generally rubbish, and analogue phones were easy to clone too.

You could receive 14-character messages to notify you of missed calls and use DTMF tones to make choices on automated switchboards, and you could also use the Nokia 232 as a modem, although that required a separate data adaptor or car kit.

Let's take a deep breath: the Moto X has NFC, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, dual-band 802.11a/g/b/n/ac Wi-Fi, GSM, GPRS, EDGE, UMTS, HSPA+ and 4G LTE. It has GPS and a Micro USB connector and it can connect to the Moto Hint wireless earbud, Android Wear smartwatches, wireless speakers, health and fitness monitors and in-car entertainment and navigation systems.

To give you an idea of the difference between speeds then and now, in 1994 Network World magazine tested multiple cellular modems and found that the fastest one transmitted graphics at 71.2 kilobits per second.

In theory 4G LTE is capable of 300 megabits per second, which is 4,213 times faster. That would download a 5GB HD movie in just over two minutes; on 1994's networks, that would have taken seven days - assuming that the connection stayed up that long and that conditions were perfect, neither of which would be very likely.

Battery life

The Nokia 232 had various removable batteries depending on what you bought and where you bought it: a 380 mAh nickel cadmium battery offering 50 minutes of talk time and 10 hours standby, an extended 800 mAh NiCd offering nearly two hours of talk time, and ultimately the Ultra Extended nickel metal hydride battery delivering a whopping 2 hours and 30 minutes of chat and 32 hours on standby.

The Moto X ships with a 2,300 mAh battery that promises up to 24 hours of mixed use, although as with all battery figures that depends on signal strength and how you use your phone.

Comparing that to the Nokia makes it look like we've gone backwards with batteries, but of course the Nokia battery didn't have to drive a five-inch full HD display, lightning-fast 4G and a quad-core Snapdragon processor clocked at 2.5GHz.

The Nokia's simple features required an entire phone; now, they're just another app.


The Nokia 232 launched with an RRP of £49.99 (with contract, which equates to £82 today), which doesn't sound like much - but back then a pint of lager was £1.58, the average wage was just over £17K and the average house price was £50K.

As with all technology, prices fell fast: by 1996 you could pick up the little Nokia for as little as £19.99 with a Cellnet contract.

The Moto X comes with the usual dizzying array of contract deals, so for example it's currently available for £119 up front and £18.99 per month on T-Mobile. SIM-free versions are currently around the £400 mark. In real terms, then, the Moto X is much cheaper than the Nokia was 20 years ago.

Isn't living in the future brilliant?