Generations: Using Older Hardware In A 2016 World
The smartphone and tablet industry is used to a two year product cycle, although there are signs that this is slowly changing. Many plans are based around a two year cycle and because of this, most manufacturers support their products for two years after launch. The plan here is that after two years, customers go ahead and buy a new device: but what if customers keep their original smartphone or tablet? For some people, discarding a perfectly serviceable device after two years is wasteful and expensive: it's bad for the environment and it's bad for our pockets. Do we really need to replace our devices? Let's take a look.
Keeping The Operating System Updated
One of the main reasons why consumers may wish to upgrade their device is to keep their operating system up to date. There are two main reasons for this: one is to benefit from any new features that arrive in later versions and the second is to benefit from important security fixes.
The two dominant smartphone operating system platforms, Apple's iOS and Google's Android, have annual major releases. Because these mobile operating systems are still being advanced at a rapid rate, we haven't reached the point where a given version of an operating system will be with us for a few years as we've seen with Windows. Because software engineers are adding more and more features to the operating system, this means that major updates may simply not be compatible on older hardware. We saw this with the release of Android Nougat, which was not compatible with the older Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 and Snapdragon 801 chipsets, which power devices such as the HTC One (M8).
Applications in 2016 are larger and more sophisticated than ever before. In 2015, Google increased the maximum application size on the Google Play Store, which means today's applications can do more but may also have higher requirements of the host device. This is more of an issue on devices with many, many applications installed but it can impact on all devices. More often than not, the reason for an older device being unable to run a newer application is because the updated version of the application requires a later version of the installed operating system.
Case Study One: The 2012 Google Nexus 7
Google released the original Nexus 7 in mid-2012. It's based around the quad core, 1.2 GHz, 32-bit NVIDIA Tegra 3 with a 720p resolution, 7.0-inch display, 1 GB of RAM and a choice of 8 GB, 16 GB or 32 GB of internal memory. The tablet comes with 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.1, a front facing camera and NFC. Google also sold a version with a built-in 3G modem that benefited from Bluetooth 3.0. The device was originally released running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and has subsequently been updated to Android 5.1.1 Lollipop by Google.
Unfortunately, Android 5.0 Lollipop was not a great user experience for 2012 Nexus 7 customers. Devices became very sluggish performing anything. Everything from tapping the screen to pop up the keyboard to rotating the device to or from landscape mode, to launching an application can result in long delays. The Nexus 7 is better running Android 5.1.1 compared with older versions but it is still noticeably sluggish compared with Android 4.4.4 KitKat.
Whilst there are a number of theories as to why the device is sluggish from an aged processor, to only having 1 GB of RAM, to having slow internal storage, the original Nexus 7 is not a great advert for trying to use a modern operating system on an older device. It is likely that given the difficulties the 2012 Nexus 7 experiences running Android 5.1.1, Google decided not to continue updating the device to Android 6.0 Marshmallow.
Case Study Two: The 2013 Motorola Moto X
Motorola's 2013 Moto X was released a little over a year after the original Nexus 7. It comes with a Motorola-customized version of the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro, a 2012 chipset, which has as its heart a dual core, 1.7 GHz, 32-bit Qualcomm “Krait” application core, assisted by 2 GB of RAM. It uses a 4.7-inch, 720p resolution AMOLED panel and came with a choice of 16 GB or 32 GB of memory. There's dual band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC and a 10MP rear camera. Motorola originally released the Moto X running Android 4.2 Jelly Bean but officially updated it to Android 5.1.1 Lollipop.
The Moto X runs Android 5.1.1 Lollipop much better than the first generation Nexus 7. It's smooth and fluid, launches applications well and zips between running tasks quickly and seamlessly. There are occasional performance hiccups where the device hesitates, usually associated with moving to and from the camera application, but otherwise the Moto X makes a very good account of itself. It remains a great handset and runs Android Lollipop very well.
It's a shame that Motorola didn't update the Moto X to Android Marshmallow, as the device has a similar (but not identical) chipset to the 2013 Nexus 7, which runs Marshmallow well. The hardware is almost certainly capable of running the newer version of Android.
Case Study Three: The 2014 HTC One M8
Sony released the HTC One M8 in 2014 as a follow up to the successful 2013 HTC One. The One M8 is based around the 2.3 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chipset with a 5.0-inch, 1080p resolution screen and was launched running Android 4.4 KitKat. HTC updated the device first to Android 5.0 Lollipop and subsequently to 6.0 Marshmallow.
Whilst the HTC One runs HTC Sense over Android 6.0 Marshmallow well, with no slowdowns to report, there is one area where the One M8 is not as great: battery life. The device offered stellar battery life with the original 4.4 software, which was reduced running Android 5.0 Lollipop. Android 6.0 Marshmallow improved battery life but it was still not the same as the original software. However, in every other respect the One M8 shows that two year old hardware can run a modern operating system with no qualms.
Unfortunately, whilst the device is almost certainly capable of running the next version of Android, HTC's track record is that they update their devices for two years before concentrating on newer products. The One M8 will not be officially updated to Android 7.0 Nougat.
Pick Your Device
There are many other devices new in the last two to three years that give a good account of themselves when it comes to running a more modern version of Android compared to the one they shipped with. Newer versions of Android have minimum specifications closer to the previous version; the 2013 Moto X is almost certainly capable of running Android 6.0 Marshmallow well and 2014 HTC One M8 is likely to be able to run Android Nougat well. In both cases the manufacturer has elected to drop support for the older device to help boost sales of newer devices.
The odd one out is the original Nexus 7, which struggles to run Android 5.1.1 Lollipop. This device is unlikely to be able to run Android 6.0 Marshmallow much better than 5.1 and going forwards, I wouldn't expect it to be able to run later versions.