Why Your New Android Phone Already Feels Outdated

By Ryan Whitwam

Can we ever hope to keep up with the Android update cycle, or will new phones always leave us lusting?

Let's set the stage. It is late 2009, and your mobile phone contract is up. Magically, almost like it was preordained, the Motorola Droid has been released on Verizon. The first truly great, speedy Android phone is out. You buy it, sign a two year contract, and all is well. Until a mere two months later when Google launches the Nexus One running a brand new version of Android on killer hardware. Bummer, but it's been happening at an ever increasing rate ever since. Now CNN has taken to calling this " Android's law". A variety of factors are coalescing to make it so. 


Why this is happening, and who's to blame

The fact that Android can be put on multiple ARM hardware platforms is another part of the puzzle. Android can run on TI ARM chips, or Qualcomm ARM chips -- it really doesn't matter. The companies that put out these SoC chips are more than happy to foster the new mobile market by creating faster and faster parts. An SoC lets manufacturers design slimmer, faster phones in less time. As such, they can put Android on these new hardware platforms and get more phones out the door faster. This comes back to the spec race. If a phone maker can get another checkbox filled with a new piece of hardware, they'll do it. That results in lots of frowns as the hot new phone of last week is eclipsed.  

We'd also have to admit that this is just a tiny bit our fault too. Consumers have really taken notice of phone specs in the last few years. We reached some sort of inflection point not too long ago and suddenly everyone cared about ARM chips and screen resolution. In some ways, you can't blame manufacturers for just giving people what they want, because we have made it perfectly clear we want newer, faster phones.  

The effect on consumers

The onslaught of new phones may never stop. It seems like every month there is a new handset to make you regret any purchases you have made. The new hardware drives the software, and that's the first problem. After about a year, your smart phone is going to start feeling like it's behind the times as apps start to pass it by. Look at the Motorola Droid. It was snappy by the standards of the time when it came out, but now some higher end games are running too slowly, and it has far too little internal storage. 

starting to show up. Does your phone have NFC? Most likely not.  

The other issue this causes for consumers is in the software update department. Android is likely going to continue to be updated every few months as time goes on. That new software will come on new hardware woven together into an ideal out-of-the-box experience. But that busted old phone you have? Not so much. The issue is that because Android is basically free, manufacturers will see higher income if they put out new phones than if they update phones that are already on the decline. Only top sellers get meaningful attention. 

Buying Android in the future

We're beginning an new era in Android devices with the tablet experience. These devices won't be immune from "Android's law". A Tegra 2-based tablet might sound perfect right now, but so did the Motorola Droid with its OMAP 3430. With the tablet form factor much more static than phones, we may see even faster iteration of hardware as manufacturers seek to differentiate themselves.  

The roaring update cycle of Android might be annoying when you've just bought a phone, but it's also amazing. Mobile technology is evolving at a speed we would never have believed a few years ago. From an intellectual point of view, we love seeing all the new phones dropping every other week. But it's something more visceral happening when your new phone gets left in the dust too soon. This trend probably isn't going to stop -- not while there are more people looking to buy smart phones.  

The next time you go to buy a phone, you may just need to shop knowing that you have to be happy with what you get. If you know a 2 year contract is going to leave you upset in a year, don't take the contract. It might be more expensive up front, but you can trade up whenever you want.