Is the Upgrade Hamster Wheel Tiring You Out?

It's almost smartphone upgrade season, but what does that mean for you?

Illustration of hamster on hamster wheel with a smartphone

Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

While you’re packing your bags for the July 4th weekend and mentally unplugging from the demand of work and day-to-day home life, tech insiders are already focused on August, when Samsung will unveil its Samsung Galaxy Note 10 in an arena setting usually reserved for concerts and basketball games.

We're sure the news reached you in some fashion today. Maybe a column (like this) or a Google News spot or an alert on your current phone.

And what of that phone? Perhaps it’s last year’s Galaxy Note 9, a gorgeous 6.4-inch screen-sporting handset that, like all Notes before it, hides an incredibly useful stylus inside of it.

Your Choice

Whenever a company like Samsung or Apple prepares, announces, hints, or leaks info on its next big smartphone, friends and co-workers ask me if they should upgrade or, if they’re in the market for a new phone right now, wait for the next big thing.

On the one hand, yearly updates have, like a shiny watch swinging steadily before their eyes, hypnotized consumers into believing that they should upgrade their phones every year. Consumers do resist; studies show many consumers wait up to two years before upgrading their smartphones.


Samsung Galaxy Unpacked Invite
My invite to the Unpacked Event in Brooklyn.

The upgrade cycle is a hamster wheel every hardware manufacturer would love to get us on. Even automakers would appreciate consumers seeing the annual International Auto Show in New York City as a signal that it’s time to turn in the still-shiny “Young Reliable.”

For better or worse, average consumers do not have that much expendable income. But with smartphones, this is possible. In fact, it’s encouraged.

Apple, for instance, has an iPhone Upgrade Program that, with a monthly payment plan, allows consumers to upgrade to the latest iPhone model every single year.

As tech editors, we love the newest thing, and, if we're being honest with ourselves – and you – we’d say that we get a little sad when we haven’t gotten our hands on the hot new thing.

Hardware Envy

Samsung's DJ Koh holds up a Galaxy Fold
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images 

Earlier this year, we spotted some early looks at Samsung’s eagerly-anticipated Galaxy Fold. This would be the first broadly available folding-screen smartphone. The device featured a relatively standard smartphone screen on the outside and unfolded to reveal a tablet-sized one on the inside. Frustrated that we missed out on trying, touching, hugging…ahem, sorry…the device, we contacted Samsung for a quick hands on.

We got our time with the Galaxy Fold and found it impressive and a signal that the future of smartphones might be taking a bit of a turn.

However, we didn’t predict what came next. All those folks who got early reviews started to discover major technology and fabrication issues with the folding screen. It was such a disaster that Samsung pulled the plug on the Galaxy Fold release and, to this day, won’t commit to a new release date.

What Samsung will do, however, is jump right back into the breach with another new device. For consumers, who were intrigued by the Fold and possibly own perfectly good Samsung Galaxy S10’s or Note 9’s, this could be a confusing time.

Why is Samsung rushing to deliver more new hardware while it’s still trying to figure out how to make a folding device work?

The truth is, the Note 10 release isn’t so much for you as it is for the industry. It’s about:

  •  Competing with Apple
  • Reminding people that everything is okay
  • Attracting new customers
  • Showing off new innovations

Manufacturers live in fear of the Apple iPad upgrade scenario. Until Apple made radical changes to the iPad design and functionality with the sharper-edge iPad Pro, people were holding onto their devices for years as iPad unit sales tumbled.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9
Samsung Galaxy Note 9.  Samsung

On that last point, the Note 10 is unlikely to be a huge innovation leap. First, it’s hard to compete with even an aborted-launch folding-screen smartphone. Second, from what I’m hearing, the Note 10 will, like the Note 9 before it, mostly carry forward technology updates introduced on this year’s Galaxy S10 line. So, you can expect:

  •  An edge-to-edge screen
  • Wireless charge sharing
  • A selfie camera hole in the screen
  • A slightly better stylus
  • The same mobile CPU as you’ll find in the S10 (Qualcomm Snapdragon 855)

From our perspective, the Note 10 will be moving in the right direction, but for you, these aren’t necessarily upgrade-triggering changes.

A month after Samsung’s Note 10 arrives, Apple will hold its own major product event in the custom-built Steve Jobs Theater on its own giant terrarium-like Apple Campus. The updates to the iPhone XS, XS Max and XR, are unlikely to be any more momentous than what Samsung’s offering, but the very news of it will cause you to close your eyes and wonder, again, about upgrading.

We can’t tell you whether to do so or not. All we can do is remind you that for these companies, the end game is not necessarily delivering technology to enhance your lives. It’s selling you something, again, and again, and again.