Monday, January 16, 2012

Buying a future proof smartphone

Every time the 'latest' phone comes out, I feel tempted to buy it, but I have developed a strategy that protects my pocket. I just wait for a few months. Grit teeth and wait. Sure enough, the next greatest phone appears on the horizon, is announced, or already launched. Waiting without jumping for  the latest phone has saved me thousands of rupees, and something more important - it has saved me angst. I have a different type of angst - for example, now my dilemma is to choose between a Samsung Galaxy S2 and the Galaxy Nexus - but this is better than being stuck with an S2 and wondering if I should have waited for  the Nexus.

How do you make sure that your expensive piece of kit stays relevant, at least for the 11.5 months that an average smartphone user keeps a phone before replacing it?

1. Software upgrades are the key to having an updated phone

It's the software, more than hardware alone, which controls the 'up-to-date-ness' of a phone.

Nowadays, all the major operating systems (Android, Apple, Microsoft) offer upgrades on a regular basis. All Apple and MS phones will receive updates promptly. Only Android phones will face a lag in getting updates as the manufacturer has 'skinned' these phones with their own operating system.

As a first step, if you want a hassle-free upgrade each time, perhaps its simpler to just buy a Windows Phone or an iPhone. Both are guaranteed to be future proof at least for a year if not more. In fact, the iPhone 3Gs has received an update to the latest iOS 5, making it still relevant even 3 years after launch. With Android, unless you put up Rs.30K + for the Galaxy Nexus, the bets are off. Of course, you could load a custom ROM, and with that we go to the next point.

2. Buy an Android phone and load a custom ROM

Android being a (largely) Open Source software, developers have the chance to develop Custom ROMs, which are their own flavors of Android. Custom ROMs can be modified to extract the most from the hardware - improve the battery life, improve the speed of the phone, set different themes etc. They also allow you to access and load 'unofficial' apps which do not appear in the Android Marketplace. And most importantly, custom ROMs allow you to gain access to newer versions of Android that might have never ever gotten an official release on your phone. For example, Samsung Galaxy S is officially not going to get Android 4 (ICS). However, at the XDA-developers forum, onecosmic and some other guys have released an ICS 4.0 Custom ROM for the Galaxy S. Obviously, it's like a breath of life for  the phone, plus these guys with 2 year old phones get to thumb their noses at those of us who are still waiting for ICS!

If you buy a phone with the view to load a custom ROM, it's worthwhile to first check if there is one! For example,  the Galaxy S has ROMs but Galaxy S i9003 (the S-LCD version of the Galaxy S) does not.  The LCD version of Galaxy S has a different chipset, display and battery and requires a different ROM, which has not yet been developed. Similarly the recently released Galaxy R does not have a ROM. If you do buy these phones you need to take a chance and wait for devs to start work on them. The lists are constantly updated but some good source links to check are -

Cyanogen Mod - list of supported devices
AOSP (Android Open Source Project)
MIUI