I won't say that planned obsolescence is a part of the major smartphone makers' strategies or business plans. There's certainly no way for me to prove or demonstrate it. Many intelligent people have argued that the concept in the tech world is a "myth" perpetuated by conspiracy theorists in tinfoil hats. But it seems like more than a coincidence that, as more carriers make it easier and more affordable to buy phones more frequently, the need to upgrade more often seems to increase accordingly.
Evolution of the Smartphone Refresh Cycle
Let's take a quick look at the evolution of the smartphone refresh cycle.
Samsung released is first Samsung Galaxy S devices in the United States in the summer of 2010, with names like Fascinate, Captivate and Mesmerize. (Oooo, ahhhh!) A little more than a year later, in the fall of 2011, it released the Galaxy SII in the United States. The Galaxy SIII hit U.S. store shelves in early July 2012 and the Galaxy S4 arrived in late April 2013. Note the shorter time period between each update. These are only the Galaxy S devices; Samsung released countless Note, Tab and other updates during these years as well. A quick comparison of hardware enhancements shows mostly minor improvements between generations.
Before Google's acquisition of Motorola Mobility bumped it off track a bit, Motorola was rapidly releasing new DROID models, with months separating each update instead of years. Again, with the exception of battery life, which can usually be directly attributed to larger battery packs, hardware improvements were negligible.
Apple released all of its new iPhones almost a year apart from the previous generations. (Check out specifics and details on those releases here.) But its introduction of the "S" model device between each full numeric progression, as in iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4S and iPhone 5S, could be seen as a sort of acknowledgement that true, significant updates don't really come every year, and definitely not every six months. After the release of the last two generations of iPhones, the phrase "evolution not revolution" was bandied about, along with general disappointment from some reviewers due to a lack of new notable features.
To Buy a New Phone or Not to Buy a New Phone
To sum all this up, your current smartphone, assuming you purchased it relatively recently, probably isn't very different than the shiny new handheld that Samsung, Motorola, Google or Apple is peddling - as long as it's still working. In fact, it may be built better and last longer.
Whether or not you care about this truth is one thing; maybe you just want the latest and greatest. That's understandable. Maybe you have money to burn - good for you, if so. Or perhaps your phone isn't performing as well as you'd like, for whatever reason, and you feel like a $200 or more purchase is justified. That's your prerogative.
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