New phones bring minor upgrades. Here's why that's okay

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
New phones bring minor upgrades. Here's why that's okay
Wait, which one was the new one again? Let me check in the settings real quick.

In 2018, we saw a lot of new phones, but few of them offered more than a bump across the specs sheet. A couple more gigs of RAM here, 20% better performance there, sprinkled with an hour more screen-on-time and there you have it, the latest and greatest smartphone from Whatever brand.

Naturally, some people find that underwhelming, and with the increasing prices of flagship phones, the natural question arises: Why do we have to pay so much for so little improvement? And while I totally agree that phones have gotten more expensive than they should be, when it comes to the upgrades being only incremental, I’m not judging manufacturers one bit. Here’s why.

The distortion lens of the vocal minority

For one reason or another, smartphone manufacturers, much like sports teams, have fans. Those fans are often loyal and invested in what the company is doing not only more than the average consumer, but more than they should be. And while having fans is generally a good thing, their emotional attachment can also have a negative side.

So when a new phone comes out, who’s most likely to care about it? Tech enthusiasts in general and fans of the brand in particular. Now, fans can often be separated into two categories: those for whom their subject of fandom can do no wrong no matter what. You all know the type. The other category is the fans who put everything under extreme scrutiny because they want only the best. Neither group is really doing the brand a favor.

Tech fandom is more of a by-product than a goal for most manufacturers, and with smartphones becoming so widespread, the fraction of people that are aware of the changes that happen between generations is minuscule.

For the average users that changes phones whenever their contract expires or some part of their device finally breaks, these things don’t matter. They want something that came out recently and looks good. For them, the performance improvement is often 100% if not more from their old device. When they start using their new phone, they’re amazed by how fast it is and how awesome the photos are. Those are the people smartphone manufacturers release top-of-the-line phones for each year or even twice a year.

If you don’t see a reason to switch from your year-old phone to the next generation, don’t go saying how manufacturers are not doing enough or just trying to milk as much money as they can from users (which they obviously are, just not from you specifically). This phone simply wasn’t made for you.

And while it can be somewhat hurtful that a company doesn’t care about its biggest fans and what they want, the truth is, when it comes to technology, fans are not enough. A huge fan of some NFL team, for example, might spend 100 times more on tickets/merchandise/etc. than someone who only tunes in for the games on Sunday. In the smartphone world, however, you only have one Galaxy S9/iPhone XS/whatever just like the guy next door who has no idea why there are two cameras on the back of the damn thing.

There’s something else as well, however…

Manufacturers are doing their best, that’s just how things are now

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard of Moore’s law. If you haven’t, well, it was a prediction about how the number of transistors in chips would double every two years but over time it became a synonym for “technology will improve with great leaps!”. Spoiler alert: this prediction stopped being true a few years ago.

However, a lot of users that witnessed the rapid development of computers and then mobile phones really enjoyed the thrills that came with such fast-paced innovation. They still want to feel the same excitement as when they got a fingerprint scanner on their phone for the first time or amazingly fast 4G internet.

Today’s reality is quite different, however. While we still occasionally get new and exciting features, they’re few and far apart. Meanwhile, engineers in research and development departments over the world are sweating over how to produce a chip using 5nm architecture instead of 7nm, so the latest model can have that boost in performance that people will ultimately find meh.

Some even say that manufacturers are sitting on cool tech and are just feeding us one spoonful at a time to preserve their revenue in the long run. While I have no insights about what’s happening behind the scenes, that sounds a lot like a conspiracy theory. Don’t you think that if Samsung could release a smartphone that will blow the iPhone (and competing Android phones) out of the water and pull millions of users into its ecosystem for the next few years, it wouldn’t do it? 

Or Apple, for that matter, with its almost unlimited financial resources, is offering pretty much the same phone two years in a row, only so that Tim Cook can later write a letter saying “Things aren’t going great, guys!”. I really doubt that was his goal. In a world where investors and shareholders have CEO’s by the... you know, it’s far too big of a risk to hold back on innovation on purpose.

And while I believe that in other industries there have been cases of companies switching to cruise control for a while (looking at you, Intel!), the smartphone market is far too competitive for a company to have the luxury of taking its foot off the gas.

So where does that leave us?

Well, since reality is harder to change than our expectations, I suggest we try the latter. While companies should try to underpromise and overdeliver, we, as consumers should probably adjust to having more realistic (or toned down) expectations of what’s about to come out in a given year. And although that might sound as if I want to let manufacturers off the hook, as long as people are voting with their wallets, companies will get the right cues.



1. bucknassty

Posts: 1395; Member since: Mar 24, 2017

ya'll know who brings minor upgrades and does not think outside the box... they market it as something that you have to have... bottom line.... and people believe it, thats all it takes

12. Bankz

Posts: 2550; Member since: Apr 08, 2016

Maybe they just don't have people that are that smart industry anymore. The only thing I've been remotely impressed about recently has been the Moto mods, infinity display, face ID and the (half baked) reverse wireless charging. We need someone else to come and shake up the industry the way Steve Jobs did.

17. bucknassty

Posts: 1395; Member since: Mar 24, 2017

what would it be? the only thing i can think of is a new form factor... and i dont think the folding phone is it... now samsung had that video where the screen popped out the side of the phone.... which was cool if we can get there.... like LG did with that new TV... that would be awesome... I agree with all that you said

19. blingblingthing

Posts: 986; Member since: Oct 23, 2012

Face ID is only a rehash of face unlock.

36. Phullofphil

Posts: 1846; Member since: Feb 10, 2009

Samsung galaxy line is a rehash of an iPhone which is a rehash of a pda or windows phone. Face ID is way beyond face unlock. There won’t be another Steve Jobs moment in smartphones. It’s gone the way of a computer. At the bleeding edge of technology waiting on the next innovation hoping it will work. The car May be the next frontier but who knows. Better affordable flying cars. There is no shortage of outside the box and inside the box thinking geniuses in the industry

18. blingblingthing

Posts: 986; Member since: Oct 23, 2012

Exactly. Your typical iPhone user is only able to quote the catchy ad about his iPhone. Why? Because it's all that matters. Just like a Trump supporter claiming witch Hunt and no collision. Doesn't matter what evidence comes up, they only know what limited information of their source.

27. CreeDiddy

Posts: 2284; Member since: Nov 04, 2011

General statement at best...

29. Crispin_Gatieza

Posts: 3187; Member since: Jan 23, 2014

Nothing general about it unless you're in the subject group. Even the author said as much in the article regarding fanboys.

46. Well-Manicured-Man

Posts: 726; Member since: Jun 16, 2015

The fact that all flagship phones are quite similar to each other proofs that the industry is at its technological limit. Furthermore all OEMs buy at the same suppliers so that hardwarewise smartphones are almost identical. The only real way to differentiate yourself is through software making more use out of the hardware.

2. slashas

Posts: 147; Member since: Jul 17, 2017

But to charge more is not ok ;)

23. Mixkhata1

Posts: 162; Member since: Feb 26, 2017

Couldn't agree more!

30. Crispin_Gatieza

Posts: 3187; Member since: Jan 23, 2014

Charging more is not only OK, it's the lynchpin of capitalism. PAYING more is stupid and until the buying says "enough" they'll continue to milk that cow till it moos.

3. cncrim

Posts: 1590; Member since: Aug 15, 2011

And you must be smoking to except 35% price hike for small upgrade?

8. Be_Mine unregistered

*accept* I'm sorry. I don't want to be a Grammar Nazi. But accept and except have entirely different meaning.

35. cncrim

Posts: 1590; Member since: Aug 15, 2011

The X and C close... that's tell you typo not grammar, either I give you that.

38. maherk

Posts: 7054; Member since: Feb 10, 2012

Not trying to sound like a jerk, bit dude, just admit you completely misspelled it and don't blame it on the keyboard. Yes the X and C are close to each other, but either way, if you pressed the X by mistake, it's not eccept it's accept.

45. lyndon420

Posts: 6915; Member since: Jul 11, 2012

*but dude ?? Can't help but find the comment section more interesting that the articles lol.

47. maherk

Posts: 7054; Member since: Feb 10, 2012

I noticed that, but I knew I wasn't going to blame it on the keyboard lol

4. monkeyb

Posts: 414; Member since: Jan 17, 2018

I have been an iPhone user for a very very ling time and I can only talk about Apple from my side: 1. I was so into buying Apple’s latest flagship that I could only afford the base version every year. Apple gave only 16Gb for many years while many average user/fan was crying. 2. Why does the XR at $749 have lower or similar specs than a one year old iPhone 8 Plus in “few aspects”. 3. Why is that everytime my friends with a cheaper Pixel compared to folks who have X or XS are always asked to take pictures in low light conditions. I can keep going on and on about how tech companies who are charging you a bomb are simply cheaping out with mediocre tech. With all of Apples money, I definitely do not see them churning out better hardware than Samsung or Huawei. I am inclined to think that they just do not want to give consumers the best that is available even while charging horrendous prices. Note: This is just personal opinions of a frustrated Apple fan.

14. slashas

Posts: 147; Member since: Jul 17, 2017

If Steve would be alive he wouldn’t allow that to happen... cook cooked Apple...

26. KakashiHatake4444

Posts: 79; Member since: Jul 30, 2018

Apple screen size would prolly still be at 3.5"......idk just saying

44. perry1234

Posts: 654; Member since: Aug 14, 2012

It got to 4" with Steve's involvement, the 5 was designed before Steve passed away. I think he had enough of a foresight that content consumption on smartphones was increasing at a rapid pace and would have come up with a big screen+amazing one handed UI to handle the big screen. Not just shift the icons down.

5. John-Knotts

Posts: 380; Member since: Feb 28, 2015

LOL... all these armchair / backseat developers in here. Fans are stupid. They want all the advanced features they see in rival phones, but they somehow want the prices to stay the same. What kind of fantasy world...

6. jlczl

Posts: 6; Member since: Dec 18, 2018

The reason many tech fans get upset is because they can build a dream smartphone in their head and can't grasp why manufacturers won't do it. You state in your piece that companies wouldn't spoon feed us tech slowly if they were sitting on truly stellar tech but the truth is they will because they have long term vision and not just what they can release this one time. Can you imagine if there was still removable batteries in top tier flagships? There would be even less adoption of newer models because battery degradation is one of the leading causes of replacing your device. But manufacturers took care of that a few device generations ago.

7. Poptart2828

Posts: 498; Member since: Jan 23, 2018

I mostly use Chinese brands so last year was a great year to be an Android user. Got ťo try some real amazing tech and experience the future of what's to come for the western markets.

11. TheOracle1

Posts: 2340; Member since: May 04, 2015

I agree. This article reads like an Apple apologists speech. Incremental improvements and astronomical price increases apply to one brand only.

39. maherk

Posts: 7054; Member since: Feb 10, 2012

"Peacefully", I see what you did there lol

40. dimas

Posts: 3446; Member since: Jul 22, 2014

You're link is late. He already bought it before we even knew it exist.

10. Whitedot

Posts: 893; Member since: Sep 26, 2017

Paying a grand for new phone I expect more than minor upgrades. Minor upgrades are acceptable if you pay few hundred dollars but the thousand.

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