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The Things That Make Your Smartphone Smart

AKA the tech inside that enables it to do the magical things it does
by Vince Sales | Mar 8, 2016
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That gizmo in your pocket fuels a worldwide smartphone addiction for a good reason. It's packed to the gills with different kinds of tech. We zip around with Uber, navigate through Waze, play motion-controlled games, and soon we'll be buying stuff with our mobile devices, too (if you're not doing so already).

But how many of us actually know what's inside our handsets and how it works? Stop wondering, non-geeks. We've got the answers!

Below is a host of things that make your smartphone, well, smart!

How does the smartphone know what I'm poking?

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The breakthrough that kicked off the smartphone revolution was capacitive touchscreens. "Resistive" screens from PDAs of yore required the use of a stylus, but capacitive touchscreens ended all of that primitive poking. Here's the nerdy stuff: Your phone's screen uses a layer of capacitive (hence the name) material that holds an electrical charge. Because your finger also has a charge, it changes the voltage slightly when you touch the screen, allowing the phone to figure out what you're doing sans the dorky stylus.

How does the phone know where I am?

The short answer is satellites. GPS (Global Positioning System) satellites hover up in space and can pinpoint your location pretty accurately. The problem is you need to be under the sky for GPS to work. When you're indoors, your phone uses your connection to local cell towers (a.k.a. assisted GPS) to figure it out, which is less accurate. That's also why your Uber often can't find you, and you have to call Manong Driver to get you to Starbucks.

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How does Siri understand what I'm saying?

Well, when Siri actually works, it's a combination of voice recognition software that lives in your phone and voice recognition software that lives in Apple's data centers which you connect to through the Internet. Your phone makes its best guess, but if it's not sure about what you're saying, it calls home to figure out your nosebleed English. So the more you use Siri (as with other digital personal assistants), the better it gets because your queries and your speech patterns are now in their servers.

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How do tilt controls work?

Inside your phone is a bunch of much smaller gizmos. There are gyroscopes that allow it to figure out which direction it's tilting and accelerometers to figure out how fast it's travelling. With data from both, your phone knows you turned it five degrees to the left, three degrees down, and how fast, so that it can move your car in your racing game in precisely the same way.


How do contactless payments work?

We can't do it here yet, but pilot programs of contactless payments using smartphones are already underway in other countries. The tech behind it is NFC (Near Field Communications) which lets you make secure payments by waving your phone at a kiosk or at the supermarket checkout counter. Think of it as the love child of RFID and a credit card. Your phone and the "cashier" exchange a small amount of info wirelessly, securely, without pairing, and without an Internet connection. And since, say, your iPhone is connected to your Apple account and Apple Pay... You get the picture.

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How does wireless charging work?

Available on some high-end smartphones, wireless charging looks like nothing short of witchcraft. Also known as inductive charging, wireless charging uses electromagnetic fields to transfer energy from a charging base to your phone. The charging base has an induction coil that changes electricity into an electromagnetic field. Another induction coil in your phone changes that field back into an electric current to charge its battery.

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How does my phone brighten photos using HDR?

A "good," properly-exposed photo is often a compromise. You can either choose an exposure for a dark area and blow out the bright parts, or you can choose an exposure for a bright area and cast the dark parts in shadow. HDR takes multiple photos using different exposures in rapid succession then gets the best parts of each photo. It then sticks all the photos together in one impossibly well-exposed snap that your photographer friends will hate and call rude things.

How does fingerprint recognition work on my phone?

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Phones like the iPhone 6S use a capacitive scanner to "see" your fingerprint. Think of this tech as a cousin of capacitive screens, but this time around it uses the electrical charge of the ridges on your finger to form a rough picture of your fingerprint.

How does my phone connect to telcos?

Your phone connects to your telco's cell network using a slew of wireless standards. Get ready for an onslaught of acronyms: LTE is best (read: fastest), but relatively hard to find. 3G is good but slower. When you're out in the boonies you'll have to settle for EDGE and GSM. What does all the alphabet soup mean? It's all good old radio waves, but hopped up on crystal meth and steroids, and constantly evolving to help us connect with each other wirelessly better, faster.


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