Happiest away from the smartphone bleeding edge?

Published by Steve Litchfield at 21:35 UTC, August 11th 2013

It's always interesting to spot a pattern in one's own behaviour and experience. Forgive me if I do a little platform jumping here....

On Symbian, perhaps the least typical of the pattern, I've been happiest with the Nokia 808 PureView (great camera, great collection of high spec components, low resolution display and an ecosystem that's winding down). Although the most recently launched Symbian smartphone, it's still well over a year old now.

On Windows Phone, I've been very happy with the Nokia Lumia 920, also now almost a year old and which has reached 'bargain bin' status at many online retailers. Available from £250, SIM-free, if you shop around, this is actually something of a stunning bargain, given that its update to Windows Phone GDR2 and Nokia Amber is imminent. The key feature for me (over the 925 and 720) is the built-in wireless charging - once you've experienced this it's very hard to go back to inserting microUSB jacks or living with clunky add-on covers (which make the 925 and 720 as chunky as the 920, it has to be said).

Lumia 920 charging wirelessly

On Android, I've tried them all. Galaxy S4 and S4 Zoom, HTC One, RAZR HD, Nexus 4... and I find myself, out of choice, back on the two year old Galaxy Nexus, recently updated to an extremely swish Android 4.3. The screen's great, the form factor is just beautiful and just about perfect, the camera's better than most people give it credit for, and even the much maligned speaker got a little better in the most recent Android update.

Now, although I've put forward technical reasons above to justify my choices, there's more to them than this. You see, there are quite a few advantages to staying away from the bleeding edge flagships that (naturally) fill the tech media's column inches each month:

1. The obvious one - money

Being fortunate enough to get lent devices for review for much of the year, I don't have to buy many, but - just occasionally - I do. In which case I experience first hand the brutal devaluation that occurs both in the 'new' price of flagship smartphone X and in the 'used' price, second hand. It's often said that you lose a couple of thousand pounds immediately when you drive a new car off the forecourt - though this is often more like double that these days - but the same applies to most smartphones. Though the Apple iPhones seem less prone to this effect because of their status, as much as jewellery/fashion as a computing device, almost every other smartphone is immediately worth 15% less than its new price the moment you break the seal on the box.

In addition, there's the devaluation multiplier at work, since the longer you leave it since the launch date, the cheaper the 'new' price will be. You can't blame manufacturers and retailers for setting the initial price sky high, to get maximum profits from early adopters, but such buyers do - literally - pay a heavy price.

Add both factors together and there's a savage devaluation factor that comes into play. Smartphone X is branded and marketed as a new, sexy, function-filled flagship and is pitched at £550, SIM-free (in the UK, for example, I'm sure you can substitute local currencies where appropriate) on release. Early adopters buy these, but within a month the 'new' price is down to £500. Within three months, the exact same new smartphone is being sold for £450, and within a year it's effectively 'last year's model' and is sold - still brand new and sealed - at £350. If you're a keen watcher of smartphone economics then you'll have seen this factor at work.

'Used' prices (e.g. via eBay or private forums) fall with both the curve of the 'new' prices and the age and condition of the devices, of course. In the above example, one might expect to find 'Smartphone X' for sale in 'excellent' condition at £250 around nine months after the initial release. In other words, under half the initial price, yet for ostensibly the exact same device and still with plenty of warranty left.

There's a definite 'nervousness' that comes over me whenever I'm being loaned something top end and brand new. I'm very aware that I'm holding something very valuable and that the damages are down to me if I drop the thing. This is doubled if I've ended up buying such a device, since I know - in addition - that for every day I hold onto the device it's resale value is dropping.

In contrast, away from this bleeding edge, devices hold their value far better (since most devaluation has already occurred) and, almost as a bonus, there needs to be far less nervousness in use, since they're ultimately cheaper to replace, if smashed on some pavement(!)

2. Stability

Ever since the first software-upgradable gadgets hit the market, early purchasers have effectively been beta testers. It's an all too common story for the first month or two (or more) of a smartphone model's existence to feature bugs and issues, both small and little. What seemed nice and stable within the factory and test labs, unsurprisingly, wilts a little when faced with hundreds of thousands of initial purchasers and their very different requirements and set-up.

Happily, since about 2008 (I think Nokia were first to do it on the N96) it has been possible to upgrade operating system firmware over the air, painlessly and without loss of data. Which means that it's comparatively easy for manufacturers to address the worst bugs and issues head on and issue fixes. By the time a smartphone model is nine months old, there's a good chance that its firmware will be pretty stable.

Buy a flagship on day one, then trade it in/re-sell it and buy the next in line every six to nine months (as many seem to do) and you're constantly living with bugs. In contrast, buy a smartphone that came out nine months ago and you'll almost always find that there are updates and bug fixes already coded and waiting for you to apply, resulting in a much smoother and more stable experience.

Over the air updates etc

3. Experience (or others)

Ah, yes, talking of experience, it's very useful using a device which others have pushed, prodded and explored in the months beforehand. So a quick Google for "<insert issue here> <device X>" will almost always bring up sensible and relevant results, others who have hit the same issue (months ago) and who have long since found the answer or a workaround. Again, hang away from the bleeding edge and let others deal with the initial pain, etc.

4. Functions (after all)

You may remember that I listed a few of the functions of the handsets I've ended up with on each platform? There's another factor here which has to be at least acknowledged - manufacturers don't always keep adding features - sometimes they take them away again, perhaps leaving yesterday's flagship out-specifying the current one, in terms of your requirements.

So, for example, there's that built-in Qi wireless charging on the Nokia Lumia 920, there's the removable battery on the Galaxy Nexus, there's even the overwhelming array of flexible gadgetry on the Nokia 808 PureView that might cancel out a platform and ecosystem which is on the wane.

____

Of course, you can't go too far back. Think, in the Symbian world, of switching back to a S60 5th Edition device like the X6 or C6-01. So much is lost under the hood in terms of compatibility with 2013 services, so much is lost in terms of interface. Think, in the Windows Phone world, of going back to a Windows Phone 7 device, with no persistent wi-fi connection and even more restrictive multitasking and homescreen UI. Think, in the Android world of going back one step to something running Android 2.3, with crippling system disk space restrictions and incompatibilities with lots of modern software.

So, yes, it's OK to take one step back from the bleeding edge, but don't retreat completely!

Comments welcome if you've been through any of the above too, especially if you've ended up in a similar position to me, on any of the platforms mentioned above.

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