Is a smartphone a computer? The short answer is yes. The reason why I answer that way is a little bit more complicated, but a smartphone meets every definition of a computer.
Why a smartphone is a computer
A smartphone is a computer, and we are not talking in the simplest sense, like an Arduino. A smartphone is a rather powerful computer, with a CPU, memory, a display, networking, and storage. And it runs a Unix-like operating system.
The only thing that stops you from connecting a USB keyboard and using it like you would use a desktop computer is the size of the screen.
The major differences between your phone and a more traditional computer, besides the size, is the CPU architecture and the operating system it runs, along with the security.
Smartphones versus general purpose computers
Traditional computers tend to run on Intel x86 or compatible CPU, where smartphones almost always use a CPU architecture called ARM. ARM processors actually had their start in desktop computers in the UK, but the CPU proved to have other uses, because it was much more efficient in low power applications than the more complex Intel architecture. When Microsoft decided to design a handheld platform to compete with the Palm Pilot, they chose the ARM architecture. The problem with handheld computing was it was easy to end up having to carry around too many gadgets, so it was inevitable that eventually handheld computers and cellular phones was merge into a single device.
Intel wanted to get into this market, but its miniaturized Atom CPU never really caught on for that purpose. I would argue the reason for that was the lack of customizability. Any company can license the rights to the ARM CPU, then bolt whatever GPU and other components they want onto it to create a custom single chip computer, or system on a chip. The custom design work is what sets an Apple SOC apart from, say, a Samsung or a Qualcomm SOC.
Smartphones and Windows
Since Intel was trying to get into the smartphone market, that raises a question. Can you run Windows on a smartphone? There was a time when you could. Microsoft had a product called Windows Phone and even bought a smartphone maker, Nokia, in hopes of imitating Apple’s success.
It didn’t work out so well for them. The few people who bought Windows phones liked them. At least the people I know who had them liked them a lot, but I don’t think Microsoft marketed them as well as they could have.
Microsoft gave up on having its own phone platform and ported its major applications to iOS and Android.
Advantages of a smartphone vs a computer
There are certain types of work that lend themselves better to a full-size computer than they do a phone, but in a pinch, you can do a lot of computing tasks on a phone. I write the first draft s of the majority of my blog posts on my phone. It lets me capture my thoughts, and I can compose my drafts while I am walking. It’s not exactly practical for me to walk and type with a laptop. But I can write rough drafts of blog posts and other work related documents, and first drafts of email responses, then edit them when I get back to my desk, where having a full-sized monitoring keyboard makes it easier to quickly find and fix any mistakes before sending or publishing.
Of course there are limits to how much computing power you can stuff into a device that fits in your hand, but my smartphone is infinitely more powerful than the first computer I used in 1981, and for that matter, it’s more powerful and capable than the laptop computer I bought to travel with 10 years ago.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.
2 thoughts on “Is a smartphone a computer?”
I’d love to have a unique device that is portable and also usable with keyboard, mouse and a big screen. Ideally through a smartphone docking station. I know Samsung used to commercialize one but not sure if they still have it on sale though.
Don’t know why a unique device with which you can do everything and use in different situation is not so spread and there are rather multiple devices doing more or less the same thing.
And today, with cloud services so common, it should be very straightfoward sharing information and save them in case the single point of failure that would be my ideal device breaks down.
Samsung DeX is the tech that lets you use your phone as a desktop system. ETA Prime did a good YouTube video on this using a Galaxy S10, but this link https://www.samsung.com/us/support/owners/app/samsung-dex seems to imply that it’s included on current models as well.
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