Upgrading was a huge deal in the early days of smartphones. Every year we’d see massive gains in performance, display, camera, and more. I remember this experience well, such as when I upgraded from Nexus 4 over to a Nexus 5. While today’s phones continue to obviously improve, it’s a much more incremental process.
Recently I was forced to temporarily downgrade from my Google Pixel 4 XL to a Google Pixel 2 XL. Long story short, the phone was sent to a colleague for data testing and so I took an older device out of our company’s inventory to use in the short-term.
I was a bit leery at first about going backward two full generations. I’d been using a Pixel 3 XL as a daily driver until I switched to the Pixel 4 XL but I’d since sold the device, so this was my only option if I wanted to keep using Google Fi with full network switching support. What’s surprising is just how little the switch to the 2 XL affected my day-to-day habits.
The downgrade: What stayed the same
When it comes to the basics like watching movies on Netflix, checking email, checking Slack, and doing basic web browsing — I really can’t tell I’m using a different phone in terms of performance and capability. Granted, the display isn’t the best. It’s clarity, sharpness, and overall tuning is below average, even for a phone released during the 2 XL’s generation. That said, it isn’t something that really negatively affects my day-to-day use.
The UI is fast and fluid, though the obvious benefits of a 90Hz display are missing. Because Google is fast with updates, I am also on Android 10 and have the exact same software experience as I did with the Pixel 4 XL.
Another area that remained the same was battery life. I can’t say that I’m charging any more or less often than I was with the Pixel 4 XL. I don’t get to use my wireless charging pad that’s by my bedside table anymore, but that’s a minor sacrifice.
Overall, day-to-day use has been extremely pleasant for me. I really thought I’d notice that I’m using “old” hardware and this would be some burden I’d have to face until the 4 XL was returned to me.
There were some situations where the Pixel 2 XL did show its age a little
While some of you might use your phone more than your laptop (or maybe you don’t even have a PC), I actually spend a lot more time on the computer. That’s largely because I work online. It’s also because, when I have rare moments of free time, I am an avid computer gamer.
My point is that on a day-to-day basis, I don’t actually use a phone for much more than the basics I mentioned above. When it comes to more complicated tasks though, surely the Pixel 2 XL shows its age, right?
Yes and no. The camera isn’t as good but it’s still pretty solid and produces excellent daytime photos. It is noticeably weaker when it comes to nighttime photography, but in the week or so I’ve been using the Pixel 2 XL I’ve only taken a single nighttime picture and that was to compare the difference. For more details on how the Pixel 2 XL holds up next to the Pixel 4 XL, check out our Pixel 1-4 camera comparison.
I did notice that editing photos in Snapseed took a bit longer. Photos from my Pixel 4 XL would load up near instantly, but the Pixel 2 XL takes a few seconds to do the same. It’s not a big deal, but I did notice it. The same applies to gaming. Every mobile game I have tried on the Pixel 2 XL runs well, though load screens take longer.
So yes, the Pixel 2 XL does occasionally show its age but even when it does, it’s not something that drives me nuts. It’s more of an extremely minor inconvenience. There are also some missing features like the Soli radar and advanced face unlocking but Soli isn’t something I use that often and switching back to a fingerprint scanner was more of a sidegrade.
So what does this say about smartphones, and about the Pixel series in general?
While I was a bit surprised at how well the Pixel 2 XL fills in for my Pixel 4 XL, I shouldn’t be. The Pixel series has always been about getting the fastest software and Google tends to keep to a minimalist approach when it comes to adding extra bells and whistles.
If this was a downgrade from a Samsung Galaxy S10 to an S8? I’d probably have noticed more of a functionality difference. Even so, I would have still found a solid performing phone that wasn’t necessarily worse, just less feature-filled.
This little downgrade experience makes me realize I personally don’t need a newer phone. It also makes me curious enough that I might try downgrading to something 3 to 4 years old in the future, just to see where the point is that I truly feel like my experience has become unbearably worse.
I now know that after being in this industry for over seven years, I’ve become spoiled. I almost always have a phone that’s no more than a year old, and sometimes I switch more than once in the same year. I assumed I was truly gaining something from these upgrades, and sure I was but it wasn’t necessarily anything I could live without. That said, I’ll likely continue to get new phones just because it’s important for me to be familiar with the latest as a journalist that covers Android devices.
Phone upgrades have become more about new features and design that truly needing the latest.
So what’s the big takeaway here? Unless you are an extreme power user that is going to be pushing your phone to the limit, phones have become so good in the last few years that jumping to new hardware is more about getting extra bells and whistles than about getting a truly superior experience.
So how often should you upgrade your phone? The answer to that is very subjective. I know many colleagues that would say yearly or at least every two years. I know friends and family that are happily using a mid-range phone that’s now three or more years old. I’d say it is going to depend on if you’re just using it as a portal to the web or if you’re using it for more advanced things like gaming, photo editing, as well as photography and videography.
So I’ll leave the question for my readers to answer. In the poll below tell me how often you upgrade. For those that upgrade less frequently than every two years, please hit up the comments and tell me why you upgrade so rarely. Is it just about the cost, or do you feel smartphones just don’t age that fast anymore?