Why Your New Android Phone Already Feels Outdated

Nexus S App Screen

Photo: Dan Frommer, The Business Insider

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.

Read on as we uncover how and why Android’s update cycle got so crazy. 

Why This Is Happening And Who’s To Blame
To be succinct, it’s is pretty much everyone’s fault. No one is specifically conspiring to make your new phone feel old and busted right away, but a big part of the reason is Android’s open source nature. Google created Android with the intention to distribute it widely and on a variety of devices. Manufacturers are more than happy to have the burden of developing an operating system handled for them. If Samsung wants to make a high end phone, they can simply take the Android core experience, then change it to work with their specific devices. This allows them to roll out devices more quickly than they might have previously. So much of the work is done for them.

The fact that Android can be put on multiple software 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. 

Qualcomm Processor

Photo: Tested

Manufacturers usually have tight relationships with carriers. A carrier will often ask that a phone remains exclusive for a period of time. This is  nothing new, but now that the makers have access to the versatile Android operating system, they can just saunter along and drop basically the same software on a new, slightly different handset for other carriers. Maybe they’ll even throw in a fancy new ARM chip to make us all jealous while they’re at it. 

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.

Even Google’s own Nexus One is feeling the pinch. HTC used an older digitizer that has trouble with multi-touch detection. As new handsets came out with high-quality touch panels, developers took advantage of it, multi-touch has become standard on the platform, and the Nexus One is occasionally left out. Even Google Maps does not completely support the Nexus One. Again we’re seeing a change in hardware that is going to make older phones feel out of date. The Nexus S has NFC tech for wireless data exchange. So of course, the NFC apps are 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
Google has said in the past that they will be slowing down the rate of Android updates. This likely isn’t going to mean the releases will slow down. It all comes back to the manufacturers and Android’s open source nature. Smartphone makers will continue to make new software skins and features over time. There is no need for a different version of Android for Motorola to put out a new phone to show off new software and hardware. Just look at the Atrix 4G. It has some crazy features, but it’s still on Froyo. This lust-worthy device is the sort of heavily modified beast we’ll be seeing more of in the future. 

Motorola Atrix

Photo: Motorola

We’re beginning a 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 two-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.This post originally appeared on Tested.

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