Why do we still buy new phones?

By Khurram Liaqat – 13th July 2014
Why do we still buy new phones?

Phones are rapidly approaching a point where the hardware is more than good enough for most people, and yet, every other year, many consumers will begin a new contract for a new device that is, increasingly, only marginally better than what they had before. So what’s the deal with that? Why do we still buy new phones?

For the purpose of the article, let’s compare the HTC One S; a mid range device from the summer of 2012, to the HTC One (2013). Now, my point could be better made when looking between the current HTC One and last year’s model, as the differences between them are even smaller, however, I personally own an HTC One S, and have had hands on time with the One, so I can speak from personal experience.

On paper, the One is quite a lot more powerful than the One S, boasting a quad-core Snapdragon 600 processor, and 2GB of RAM, while the One S has a dual-core S4 chip and a single gigabyte of memory. The screen is also a decent change; both larger and higher in resolution than the One S. But what does this end up actually meaning in day-to-day use? Sadly, not very much. My applications might load up a little faster, games might be a little smoother, and movies a bit more immersive. Of course, I’m excluding features such as 4G lte as it’s not as applicable to smartphones of today. I don’t have huge reason to upgrade, and certainly not enough of a reason to spend several hundred pounds.

The truth is these differences are even smaller when comparing between phones of today. If we look between the Samsung Galaxy S4 and S5, we see a minor spec bump, some welcomed dust and water protection, and a couple of slightly gimmicky health features. While the dust and waterproof features are meaningful to the consumer, the others don’t seem to have much of an impact on the end user experience.

Apple has often been the target of criticism for not doing enough when updating the iPhone, but frankly, beyond a much-needed revamp of the screen, there’s not much they can do.  There hasn’t been any truly massive leaps in the mobile industry for quite some time, besides arguably Motorola’s, Google’s, and Oppo’s attempts, but of them, only one really impacts the user in a meaningful way.

The argument could be made that, in two years time, your device is usually so worn that you’d have to replace it anyway. But even then, is it worth spending money on a higher end device, with phones as promising as the Google Nexus, and the Motorola G which offer most of the functionality of higher end phones for significantly less in cost. Indeed, in a recent video by Youtuber Austin Evans, we see him take a side by side look at the Moto E, a budget smartphone, against the LG G3. In a couple of instances, the Moto E was ever so slightly faster than the G3, and on par with everything else.

The (lack of) a performance delta between the two devices suggests the level of importance of efficient software is very high in mobile devices, perhaps more so than hardware. In fact, software is one of the only things that really changes the user experience for the better. It can be argued that better hardware enables better software, but, again, we seem to have reached a point where that is less and less of a case.

The better hardware does improve gaming performance, but these days, most games target lower end phones, and the ones that do target higher end phones typically stumble on aspects such as controls. Hardcore gaming isn’t really a “thing” on mobile devices, despite the hardware being more powerful than most traditional portable gaming devices, and most likely won’t be for a long time. There are other slightly outlandish ideas as to what future devices could have that makes them worth upgrading to, such as being able to double up as a PC, or micro console. These are both interesting propositions, but whether or not they will take off, or even present a real reason to upgrade to, is doubtful.

So why do we still buy new phones year after year? Most likely that age-old human reason of just wanting to show off the fact that yours is bigger than his.