The smartphone world is quite a fast-moving side of tech. Every year manufacturers release new smartphones with new hardware and software like clockwork. But is it really necessary to keep up? To buy a new smartphone every single year. Of course, not, and here is why.
Upgrading every year is wasteful
When you are upgrading your smartphone, the primary reason is usually performance related. You want to upgrade to a faster phone, a better camera, a bigger, longer-lasting battery, or a better-looking display (Once you go high refresh rate you can never go back).
Performance gains you’ll not notice in real-world usage
However, in the last 5 years, the year-on-year performance improvements in all these areas of a smartphone have been very minute. It has taken Apple 5 years to get to 100% improvement in the CPU performance of their smartphones (A12 bionic vs A16 bionic). They did grab huge gains in the GPU department of about 340% in the same time frame.
But you can see that it’s roughly a 20% year-on-year improvement for the CPU and a 68% year-on-year improvement in GPU performance. Performance gains like these are very hard to notice for almost all users, save for the very few trying to force a smartphone to do stuff it really shouldn’t be doing…yes, me.
Same goes for battery life
For Apple, the batteries in the biggest iPhone have increased in capacity by a mere 26% in 5 years (XS Max vs 14 Pro Max). Admittedly this is not a reflection of the battery life of the iPhone. The latest ones are lasting as long as Android smartphones with double the battery size so technology in the realm of efficiency has improved on the iPhone.
As for Android, the average battery size has been pretty stagnant at 4500mAh and it seems with current battery technology, that is the sweet spot for the biggest battery you can have whilst still retaining the wealth of features you can pack in a smartphone shell. What the Android world is now doubling down on is complementing endurance with much shorter charging times.
But again these are edge cases and with fast charging, you need the specific cable and brick combination for it to work. So I ask, how many of you are using the charger and cable that came with your phone? I thought so.
The last 5 years have only seen 2 major evolutions in camera technology. The first was the introduction of the 200MP sensor by Samsung putting it in the top spot in the camera resolution wars. The second was a physical sensor size of 1 inch which Sony pioneered.
What we have seen in the real world thanks to a scientific test done by MKBHD is that the best smartphone for photos, the Google Pixel 6a is using the same physical camera as the Google Pixel 2 released in 2017 (almost 6 years ago!). And to add salt to the wound it’s a 12MP camera made by Sony.
So in terms of smartphone photography, new stuff has come but the real-world performance of these cameras has not changed much. Which is again even less of an improvement year on year. But I have to say a lot of progress has been made on the video side of things. But if you take a peek into your gallery, videos are probably 10% or less of the stuff thats in there. It’s mostly photos.
Smartphones released in the last 5 years are good enough
Let me give you a list of smartphones released 5 years ago which if you are not aware is 2018.
- iPhone XS, XR
- Samsung Galaxy S9, Note 9
- Asus ROG Phone (the first one)
- Huawei P20, Mate 20
- Google Pixel 3
- Xiaomi Mi8
Ok, the elephant in the room here is that all these are flagships. And the reason why there are only flagships here is that they are the devices that best stand the test against time due to the fact that they come with the latest technology from their different manufacturers. The best battery and charging tech, the best and most advanced cameras, and the fastest processors. A good recipe for an extended, useful operational life of the smartphone.
The performance you will get from any of these smartphones is enough to smoothly run any of the common apps people run on phones right now. And they will perform with no glitches. Essentially the performance of smartphones got to a point in 2018 where it was just overkill for close to 95% of the smartphone use cases. And this ridiculous level of performance is just growing more and more with each new iteration.
For example, the Huawei Mate 20 on that list supports a feature called EMUI desktop which needs one cable and a monitor (Or wirelessly with a smart monitor/tv) to convert the phone into an Android desktop. Add a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse and the phone can be used as a desktop pc. The S9 and Note 9 also came with the same tech called Samsung Dex. If phones from 2018 can do this then I am sure they won’t struggle with WhatsApp and TikTok. But again the disclaimer is these are flagship smartphones, the expensive ones.
How to upgrade a smartphone the right way
1. Your current smartphone can no longer keep up
If your smartphone is now hardware limited in providing you the best experience then it might be time to replace it. Hardware limitations include slow speed when opening apps even after a full reset, battery life that does not last to your satisfaction (less than a day) and insufficient storage space. For some, screen size is also a factor.
These all cannot be improved by an app or a software update so if these sort of limitations crop up then it may be time to upgrade to a new phone. Just pay attention to the specs of the new phone to ensure you actually are getting a better device than the one you are replacing in all the important categories.
2. Take advantage of new global technologies
I fall into this category. Shamelessly so. When we talk about new technologies it is mostly communication technologies. So stuff like 5G, WiFi 6e, Satellite communication, eSIM, and Bluetooth 5.3 amongst other things. For an enthusiast, I feel the upgrade offers a lot more value if it goes beyond just a chipset and design tweak. And these big shifts in new communication technologies do not happen every year.
So for the best value of your upgrade, listen out for when new technologies are getting released and upgrade to a device that comes with those new technologies. And just to be clear, these technologies are hardware and so they cannot be added to existing devices via an app or software updates. Which legitimises the need to upgrade.
3. Older flagship is better value than new midrange
There is a lot of debate over this one. A Flagship is the most advanced and usually most expensive smartphone that a manufacturer makes. Apple only makes flagships, Samsung makes the S (They discontinued the Note), Huawei makes the P and the Mate, and so forth.
A midrange smartphone is a more affordable collection of smartphones made by the manufacturer where they do not invest as much into a development of a product so as to produce it at a lower cost and making it more accessible to the masses.
Reasons why an older flagship is a better buy over a midrange is that:
- It has more cutting-edge features
- It is prioritised on software updates
- The user experience is richer because it’s more powerful
- Quality is just better inside and out
- Camera performance is better
- All these reasons above will remove the need to frequently upgrade
- For environmentalists, it reduces e-waste
For a majority of people, a 5-year-old flagship or newer will serve their needs quite sufficiently. Smartphones are now just that good. I myself am using a Huawei Mate 40 Pro released in 2020. So it is just over 2 years old but it’s performing beyond my needs. And I am a tech enthusiast known for wanting to push everything to its limit but regardless, it’s been delivering reliably…as long as I ignore its lack of Google Services.
For those with the money to buy the latest smartphone whenever it is released, I say go for it! Most certainly. Its you who then give us real-world feedback on weather or not the shiny new stuff is worth buying. What do you feel is the right way to upgrade a smartphone?