The Smartphone Deception: You (Probably) Don’t Need the Latest Phone

Microsoft's new flagship, the Lumia 950
Microsoft’s new flagship, the Lumia 950

A few days ago Microsoft announced its new flagship smartphones. They are impressive devices which left me wishing I was a bit wealthier. Those who know me know that I have something for Windows devices.

I’m looking for a new phone since my old (flagship lol) Nokia is now old and is starting to have some annoying battery issues.

A friend also wanted to buy a new phone, he felt for some reason that his S4 was too old. So he wanted the Moto G, an affordable Motorola that’s probably the best phone in the $200 range.

He later bought a very nice Acer for a reasonable price but he was saying he should have waited for the new Nexus phones which were recently announced. There’s nothing wrong with his new phone, in fact it’s quite impressive but he’s likely fallen victim to advertisers’ tricks.

While I can’t question his economic sense, after all he’s knows more about money than I do and runs a personal finance blog, I think most people end up buying expensive high end smartphones they don’t really need.

Device manufacturers spend a lot of money to trick us into buying their latest offerings. You only need to look at the hype their “events” create.

We’re told that the new processor is faster, there are more pixels per inch, the colours are deeper, there is Near Field Communication (NFC), a better version of Bluetooth, and some other garbage most people don’t understand. We are told about benchmarks and tests and how there’s the latest picture taking technology, a fingerprint sensor, iris recognition and a slew other things we don’t use. The RAM is much bigger, the manufacturers say, and the latest $800 flagship is 1/100 sec faster than its $700 predecessor from six months ago (which you got a month ago on credit).

These specifications are true, of course. The processors are usually faster and newer, the cameras are better and the RAM is bigger. Yet these impressive specs mean less and less in real life usage. Sure your S6 Edge+ has 3Gig Ram, but is it really that much faster than a $200 Xiaomi Rednote in everyday usage? Maybe, but $500 faster? I doubt.

Electronic and Computer Engineering students learn about what’s known as the “common case fast law” in Computer Design and Architecture.¹ It basically says if you make a computer fast for those purposes for which it’s most frequently used then it becomes fast. Common sense right?

Well more and more manufacturers are getting the common case law right. Most phones are now very fast for common things like music, Facebook, twitter, texts and calling. I challenge anyone to really show me how the faster processors lead to a faster calling experience. These new, expensive, fancy flagships are of course faster, and perhaps even more in some specialised, niche applications such as gaming or those benchmarks.

The question therefore is : Do you really need 4 Gig RAM, the latest processor and other fancy bits of silicon to play Temple Run, go Facebook and Twitter and WhatsApp?

Truth is you end up paying a lot of money for hardware you do not use. When was the last time you used NFC, or the speech recognition feature besides the one time you were showing off to comrades at the bar?

Another thing is that your “latest”, “fastest”, “fanciest” and other “ests” device will be dethroned in a few months (or even weeks) by some other device.

And of course there are some other trade-offs such as battery life and size. Today’s phones are getting bigger and bigger and to power such powerful processors requires even larger batteries. In the rare smartphones where the battery doesn’t suck it’s usually very big.

In his rather condescending book, The Millionaire Fastlane, MJ DeMarco spends some time talking about why people in the Slowlane and Sidewalk (aka the poor, me, you and 90% of the world) like buying stuff they probably do not need or cannot afford². He says the problem is that we look at these things from a consumer’s view.

Instead DeMarco says we should try to think like the producers, for example Apple, Samsung or HTC. Their goal is to sell as many units as possible. What better way to do it than to make you think your perfectly fine phone is a slow, heavy and ugly thing. In a few months another device is released and the cycle repeats.

Nowadays there are very few things a $200 smartphone cannot do. In fact I can’t think of anything I do on a regular basis that an affordable midrange smartphone cannot do (and I’m a techiee). Especially with the emergence of Chinese manufacturers such as One Plus, Xiaomi, and others which are often as powerful as- or better than- your $800 iPhone 6 or the latest HTC.

There’s really little need for a flagship now. The smartphone world has reached a point where the major differences are in our minds.

Of course if you have a lot of money or just like showing off, you may just decide to get the latest phone. But you’ll be falling victim to marketers and worse, you’ll be paying a lot of money for hardware that will be old in a week or month.

I’m getting a new phone but I’ve resolved that instead of saving for a flagship I’ll just buy something I can afford, for example the Lumia 640 LTE which costs less than $200 but can do everything I need.

In this fast paced, silicon driven world, no matter how much you run you cannot keep up.

Notes:

  1. In a very influential Computer Architecture text, making “the common case fast” is one of the “8 Great Ideas In Computer Architecture” — Patterson, D.A and Hennesey, J.L, Computer Organization and Design The Hardware/Software Interface, 2014
  2. DeMarco, in The Millionaire Fastlane, predicts that the people who spend too much on fancy stuff while living from paycheck to paycheck, end up poor. He calls this way of life the “Sidewalk”, as opposed to the “The Slowlane” which leads to mediocrity and ” The Fastlane” which leads to wealth.