Smartphone Upgrades: Keeping up with the Droids and iPhones

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


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience 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.

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  • RE: Gadget lust

  • I don't even try

    I don't even try to keep up. I'm not much of a phone user, so while all these phones have the "cool" factor, I still haven't gotten one. However, I am planning on getting a Windows Phone 7 device, simply because I love my Zune HD, but there isn't enough WiFi where I live to be able to stream from the marketplace.
  • Actually this is all very good for the consumer... least for the consumers that are not the equivalent of little children who stamp their feet and declare that they have to have that new toy "RIGHT NOW" (you iPhone pre-orderers I'm talking to you).

    For the rest of us this means good deals. My wife and I get new phones every two years when our contract expires. So we are not chasing the latest technology all the time. We bought Motorola Droids in May of 2010 when they weren't the cool thing anymore but are still great phones that do everything we need and more. And they were buy 1 for $99 and get one free. Sure, we signed away our souls to Verizon for another two years. And we could have paid more to get the Droid Incredible or waited a couple of months for the Droid 2 - but really, who cares?
    • I'm a consumer


      it's not good for me

      my first phone was an analog Motorola 550
      that I had from 1997 - 2003
      try getting that lifetime out of a new phone

      I just want a phone,
      I don't need all the crap that they come with now

      and I certainly don't want to be buying a new phone every 6 months

      why aren't the "Greens" jumping all over this waste of resources?
      Who Am I Really
  • I would have an iPhone if...

    Verizon carried it. I refuse to switch to AT&T so the Droid/Incredible/X will serve me just fine. My 2G iPod Touch is all I need to run the apps that are important to me on the iDevice platform.
  • Crazy pace is only Android...

    The crazy upgrade cycle is only happening on the Android platform between the big name manufacturers and Google, not Apple. Now it seems like the race between Android has shifted to who have the biggest screen-size (hey!) and still able to call it a phone. The latest Droid X with its 4.4 inch may take the crown there, until HTC answer with their 5.5 incher next week. Maybe Dell was onto something here with their Streak brick. <br><br>If you are frustrated and confused with this pace, imagine the everyday consumer.
    • RE: Smartphone Upgrades: Keeping up with the Droids and iPhones


      I agree i have a motorola droid thru my employer since Nov 09. My boss has one as well. While all of the new droids are nice the manufacturers are doing a "my *ick is bigger than yours" this is great for the consumer from a competition standpoint it is confusing from the constant new phones being released i think the droid we go to a once a year cycle in the future
    • I love how threatened the Apple zealots are by Android

      I just love watching you guys squirm. :)
    • RE: Smartphone Upgrades: Keeping up with the Droids and iPhones

      @dave95. I imagine the everyday consumer is ignoring this stuff.
  • RE: Smartphone Upgrades: Keeping up with the Droids and iPhones

    I became eligible for Verizon's New Every 2 program yesterday. I'm having a hard time deciding between ordering the Incredible (currently on back order until Mid-July), or upgrading to a newer BlackBerry. This blog post was really helpful. I've had the hardest time deciding if I want to jump on the droid bandwagon for fear that the second I choose one, it'll be obsolete. Thanks for making me feel like I'm not the only one with this problem!
    Alex H
    • RE: Smartphone Upgrades: Keeping up with the Droids and iPhones

      @Alex H I'd go for the Droid X or Droid 2 instead of the Incredible.
    • RE: Smartphone Upgrades: Keeping up with the Droids and iPhones

      @Alex H Any way you go an Android phone will be a better phone than the Blackberry. The only thing I miss about my BB is the physical keyboard. The consumer is the winner here there are so many rapid developments on the Android platform. If I had to chose a Verizon phone I think I would get the Incredible.
  • RE: Smartphone Upgrades: Keeping up with the Droids and iPhones

    Although I've never had a smartphone, I do have an iPod Touch 2nd gen. Even though the 3rd gen has been out for quite sometime, I've been happy enough with it that upgrading doesn't seem all that necessary - yet. Unless the 4th gen comes out with a camera, I'm sticking with what I got, or I'll just get the Dell Mini 5 when that comes out.

    Two cents.
  • RE: Smartphone Upgrades: Keeping up with the Droids and iPhones

    I'm very surprised this Arthur or any commenter failed to mention the mighty HTC EVO 4G. It quite simply is the best celly I have ever had the pleasure to own. I live in Dallas and I'm seeing on average 3.5 mbs down and 1 mbs up. I like to watch video a lot and so far the Washington Post, MSNBC, and the L.A. times including YouTube HQ all stream flawlessly to my unit. I watched the BP grilling live on my phone. With my corporate account, my monthly bill averages just under $70. If I was some big wig, I'd consider Big Red but its simply too expensive for what you get. Besides, Sprint allows me to get a new handset every year. So, this time next year I may have a Sammy Bada running WiMaxx and LTE who knows but I do have that option.
    • RE: Smartphone Upgrades: Keeping up with the Droids and iPhones

      @worldbfree4me FYI, the world does not revolve around the "all mighty" EVO.
      • RE: Smartphone Upgrades: Keeping up with the Droids and iPhones

        @Zc456, they jus' keep trip-trappin' over your bridge, huh?
      • RE: Smartphone Upgrades: Keeping up with the Droids and iPhones

        @polandro I could stab 'em that'd make me feel a whole lot better. Though I won't.
    • RE: Smartphone Upgrades: Keeping up with the Droids and iPhones

      @worldbfree4me I love my EVO too it is AWESOME!
  • RE: Smartphone Upgrades: Keeping up with the Droids and iPhones

    Welcome to open source my friend! Constant change is good! Just because Billy has the newest greatest phone, your phone is not less functional. Android rocks!
  • Waiting for Windows

    Having had smart phones for years, I'm waiting until MS brings out WinMo 7. My current Windows Mobile phone works well and I prefer the use of a stylus for text messages rather than thumb pressing or fingerpainting. I even upgraded to a different UI for $19.

    So while I applaud the advances by Android and scorn the iPhone, I need a professional business smartphone that directly interfaces to my Office content and email and synchs with my Windows PC as well as being able to jump the usual organisational IT issues. I'm sure I can cobble together something with other phones, but why bother?

    Windows Mobile 7 is going to be the choice of professionals and given WinMO is still running third as a phone OS, I think a lot of the ABMers are going to be eating their words ;-)