We’re smack in the middle of a flagship smartphone barrage from Apple, Google, LG, and Samsung. The hype from tech sites like CNET is already feverish, and the urge to upgrade will be overwhelming. Well, don’t.
Okay, that sentiment isn’t meant for those of you still rocking a three-year-old dumbphone, or who just smashed, kicked, bent, dunked, or otherwise violated your personal digital assistant. The rest of you? You don’t need a new smartphone.
First off, your new phone will look just like the image at right. Seem familiar? That’s because it looks exactly like your old phone. No matter what phone you own. I’ll give you this: It’s pretty intoxicating to open the box on a new smartphone for the first time, gathering a faint whiff of Foxconn air, and peeling off the Mylar film. After that, what do you have? Same shape, same size, same weight, and 700 to 1000 fewer dollars.
But this one’s better, you wail. It’s glass all around! All that means is, after you spend the afternoon polishing your Kentucky Fried fingerprints off the thing, you will jam its stunning yet comically fragile body into a thick, hideous, rubberized plastic case, because you need to protect a carrier’s investment that won’t actually be yours for 23 more months.
But this one’s different, you howl. This here is the new iPhone 7 with, for the first time, a Space Black exterior. So, black, you say. Like. Every. Other. Phone. (Also: see “thick, hideous plastic case,” above.)
Then you turn the thing on. It immediately offers to transfer all your apps, files, and settings from your old phone. Apple and Samsung both offer this feature, and it’s superb. Go ahead and do it. Ah, perfect. Your apps, your desktop wallpaper, everything—exactly how you remember. Now your new phone looks and works exactly like your old phone. D’oh!
Even if you forgo the previous step and start from scratch, your software experience will give you a powerful sense of déjà vu. All iPhones from the past three years look exactly the same when you turn them on. Same icons in the same places, same wallpaper. That’s because they all run an identical operating system: iOS. Admit it, iPhone owners: replacing a three-year-old iPhone, yet getting the same opening screen on your new iPhone, is a bit of a letdown. I’ve done it, I should know.
Android is worse. All the freedom to customize as you please with Android can’t compete with the fact that you can’t get the latest software and firmware. With the iPhone, everybody in the country gets the new iOS software/firmware upgrades on the same day. Android’s version 7 (Nougat) just debuted last month, yet less than 20% of Android phones have been upgraded to last year’s version 6 (Marshmallow). That’s because Android doesn’t control the upgrade pipeline; carriers like Verizon do. And they have almost no incentive to upgrade your software, not when they want you continually upgrading phones instead.
This means your upcoming Android phone is virtually guaranteed to be feature-deficient, slower, and less secure — simply because it’s on yesterday’s software. And that includes the spanking new Samsung Galaxy Note 7, which ships with Marshmallow, and will be upgraded to Nougat when your carrier is good and damned ready. The best way to get a new Android phone that stays current is to switch to a Google Nexus phone, which works on the Apple model of day-and-date upgrades directly from the factory.
With every brand, there will always be upgrades to the screen, camera, and innards. However, hardware upgrades have slowed in the past couple of years as phones have gotten universally amazing. How much faster do you need your graphics processor to be, anyway? Hasn’t your shockingly good phone camera already replaced every standalone camera you’ve ever owned?
Here’s the best reason not to buy a new phone today. Next year marks the 10th anniversary of the first true smartphone: the iPhone. And all signals, including the iPhone 7’s water-treading upgrades, point to Apple saving the really good stuff for the iPhone 8. There are plenty of improvements they could make: edge-to-edge OLED display, virtual-reality support, shatterproof screen, scratch-proof back, iris scanner, etc. Yes, your favorite apps will work as they always did. And your icons will still be in the same place. But it’s gonna be glorious.