Smartphone Upgrades: Keeping up with the Droids and iPhones

Summary:The decision to upgrade to a newer version of a smartphone platform needs to be driven by practicality, not for sheer "gotta have it" factor or because your carrier or the fanboys tell you that you need it.

The decision to upgrade to a newer version of a smartphone platform needs to be driven by practicality, not for sheer "gotta have it" factor or because your carrier or the fanboys tell you that you need it.

A whole seven months ago, back in November of 2009, I bought myself a Motorola Droid. At the time, the phone was considered to be absolutely state-of-the-art, with a high-resolution display, advanced Android 2.0 software, voice recognition, integrated GPS, 600Mhz OMAP processor, and a nifty slide-out keyboard design.

In those seven months Google's Android OS has advanced at a pace equivalent to bacterial gestation in a petri dish.

Seemingly overnight, the platform has exploded, spawning many new phones from all the major carriers and TWO major OS upgrades, "Eclair" (2.1) which debuted on the Nexus One and now "Froyo" (2.2), which was announced at the recent Google I/O conference.

In addition to the base OS upgrades themselves, the various handset manufacturers have been rolling out their own software and hardware enhancements with the phones, trying to outdo each other with each new handset release. It's almost as if the minute a handset is released, within days, another one from a competitor makes it obsolete.

Someone else always has a better, bigger, higher resolution screen, or a faster processor, better camera, more RAM, more integrated storage, or better user interface integration. Heck, it's not unusual to see this happen within the same handset manufacturer between two different carriers. HTC is one of the biggest offenders in this area.

I'd liken this activity to an arms dealer supplying weapons to opposing third world nations, watching them exchange fire, collecting the proceeds from the sales, and then selling them both new and improved weapons to kill each other. Except that it's happening on what seems to be a month to month basis, or even faster.

All of this is just fine, as capitalism and revenue generation is a good thing. Spending money is good as it improves the economy.

However, from a consumer perspective, this seems rather frustrating, as the constant "what's coming next?" factor is always in play, and if you are someone who is at the end of a contract cycle or between contracts, it's always a question of when the right time is to upgrade or to jump on a new platform.

Unless you are someone who has a very, very close eye on the industry -- like our own Matthew Miller and Andrew Nusca -- and have good contacts with the handset manufacturers or the carriers who are willing to brief you or leak information -- the answer is, nobody really knows when the right time to make a move is.

This holds true even for more evolutionary, iterative platforms like the iPhone or even the BlackBerry, which releases in one year cycles. Getting one of these phones STILL interrupts your typical contract term if you want to get the new one each time it is released, and the penalty is considerable if you switch between contracts.

I consider myself something of an armchair observer of the mobile industry who understands the platforms a great deal, but there's no way even as a very knowledgeable consumer who reads the cellphone/gadget blogs voraciously that you've made the right purchasing decision.

Your average consumer is far more uniformed and confused by this rapid obsolescence than someone like myself. I get numerous emails from readers and friends about what phone they should buy when they end contracts, and I'm usually at a loss as to advise them what phone they should get any given date.

At some point you have to throw your hands up and say to hell with it, I bought this phone, and I'm sticking with it until the contract is up. Because unless your carrier gives you some kind of discount or incentive to switch phones during your contract period, it makes absolutely no sense to upgrade, especially if the improvement is incremental.

Sure, the Droid 2 and the Droid X -- both of which will replace the original Droid only seven months after its introduction -- look really nice, but do I really need one?

Maybe if the upgrade cost was $200.00, but since I'm not even halfway through my two year contract period, I know I won't be eligible for any kind of subsidy. Those phones will probably cost me $500.00 if I were to pick one up without any incentives or discounts.

[NOTE: A word to the wise -- the second you buy a new smartphone, make sure you get your carrier's device coverage/replacement plan added to your monthly service, because if your device dies mid-contract past its warranty period (which is almost in every case only a single year) and you don't have that coverage, you are HOSED. I learned my lesson on my last carrier, the hard way.]

And what am I really getting for that $500.00 if I upgrade early? Froyo 2.2 with Flash support? Supposedly, Motorola is going to be upgrading the original Droids to Froyo 2.2 over the summer (as they did with Eclair 2.1) and if they keep their promise, I've got that covered without any additional cost to me.

Should Motorola re-neg on their promises (which would be highly inadvisable given Verizon's loyal customer base that just bought a ton of original Droids in the last seven months) it's not like I won't be able to run other mainstream Android 2.x apps. Sure, I won't get the performance enhancements, and I won't get Flash, but so what?

And okay, I won't get a faster 1Ghz processor. But still, it's not like my Droid works slowly.

What would that 1Ghz really give me, a 30 percent improvement in application response time if I get the Froyo upgrade on my current unit?

And yeah, the screen won't be higher resolution or bigger, but look, we're talking about a cellphone here, not a tablet. If I want the big screen, I'll use my iPad or my PC. Just about the only thing I really want that's in the Droid 2 that isn't in the current Droid is a better designed keyboard. C'est la vie.

But the biggest reason why upgrading at this point in time doesn't make any sense? The network. Yes, Verizon has an excellent network, but what would be the point of sinking $500.00 on a new phone if my mobile network speeds aren't improved?

When Verizon goes LTE in 2011, maybe I'll consider a new phone that runs on that new network before my contract ends. Maybe. For all you folks with iPhone 3GS units on AT&T, you might want to consider the network aspect before you upgrade early to the iPhone 4.

Have you too become sick and tired of the Smartphone upgrade arms race? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Hardware, iPhone, Mobility, Smartphones

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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