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Android Device Service Life

In recent years Android devices have been the most expensive things I’ve purchased apart from airline tickets and other travel/holiday expenses. As they are expensive I’d like to use them for as long as possible to get the most value for money. Also as I give my devices to relatives when they no longer work for me I’d like to avoid having relatives hassling me about their phone not working as desired. So I’ve been thinking about the features that I need to make it possible to use a phone or tablet for a long time.

RAM

The way Android works is that when an application in the foreground requests more memory background applications may be closed to free some memory. Android doesn’t use swap by default, there is some documentation on how to enable it (and it’s not difficult to figure out for anyone who has used Linux before) but generally it’s not done.

If you run a larger application the chances of apps closing in the background (causing delays when you switch back to them and possibly a loss of context if the app is buggy and doesn’t preserve all state) are increased. As a general trend apps tend to get bigger to provide more features and also because users who own newer bigger devices don’t complain as much about memory use.

Also to make things worse new versions of Android tend to use more RAM. So a phone that runs well can suddenly start performing badly when you upgrade to a new version of Android (which incidentally usually can’t be reversed) and upgrade to new versions of apps (which can’t be reversed through the Google Play Store).

The Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 was a very nice phone when it was released, it ran Android 2.1 very quickly. When I upgraded the Xperia X10s that my wife and I used to Android 2.3 (which was necessary to have the phone run as a Wifi access point) performance dropped considerably. The Android upgrade combined with newer larger apps means that those phones are barely usable now. 384M of RAM was plenty in early 2011 when I first used the Xperia X10 but it’s not nearly enough now.

Recently 2G of RAM has been the minimum for a mid-range or high-end phone. It seems difficult to imagine a new Android feature as compelling as the addition of Wifi access point support in Android 2.3 that would drive an upgrade to a future memory hogging version of the OS. It also seems difficult to imagine Android apps needing enough memory to destroy the performance of a phone with 2G of RAM. But then I couldn’t imagine the 384M in an Xperia X10 becoming inadequate or the 512M in a Samsung Galaxy S becoming barely usable either.

Storage

Until fairly recently storage in an Android device was divided into USB attached storage (a VFAT filesystem that could be directly mounted on a PC) and a Linux filesystem that was used for all internal operations of the phone. On such devices it typically wasn’t possible to change partition sizes without a lot more skill than most users possess and most of the storage space was reserved for USB attachment. If you only had a few Android apps and lots of photos, movies, etc then this worked well. But if you wanted to install larger Android apps then you would have big problems. Even with Android 4.x devices (which all seem to have a single filesystem) you can easily run out of space.

Modern games often take several hundred megs of storage. Games that take 500M+ for the Android package install (which also requires the same amount of temporary space for installation and upgrade) are common. Sometimes games download data files after they have been installed for a total size approaching 2G (such as The Sims Freeplay).

When I bought a Nexus 4 for my wife I got the version with 8G of storage because paying an extra $50 for the 16G version seemed unreasonable. 8G was fine for my wife, but when she got a new phone I gave the Nexus 4 to a relative who wanted to play The Sims and other big games. That relative isn’t so happy about having a limited number of games on their phone and I have to fix it when storage space runs out and things start aborting (when storage runs out the Google App Store program aborts and uses lots of space for temporary files).

I recently bought a tablet with 32G of storage and filled 16G on the first day (tablets are good for watching
TV and TV shows are big). Fortunately the tablet in question has a SD socket so that when space becomes a problem in a year or two I can buy an SD card and keep using it.

An unfortunate recent decision by Google was to prevent apps from being run from a SD card. So even if you have a device with a SD socket you still need to have enough internal storage for all apps and their private data. At 500M+ for a modern game that means a device with 8G of storage (which includes space for the OS) will be lucky to get 8 games installed.

If you want to use a phone to it’s full capacity (playing various media files, games, etc) then it seems that the minimum storage capacity would be 8G of internal storage and a SD socket. For a device without an SD socket (such as the Nexus 5 with 16G or 32G of storage) your future use will be limited. 32G is probably enough for a phone given that you can recode movies to use less space (the FullHD screen on the Nexus 5 is nice but 720p movies will probably look good enough). But the larger screens of tablets demand better video quality so the Nexus tablets are probably a bad choice due to lack of storage space.

Screen Size and Resolution

I have previously written about the sizes of devices and how they may be used by people of various ages [1]. That should be of use for anyone who plans to use their old phone as an educational device for their children (which appears to be very common). But apart from that I can’t think of any reason why size would suddenly make an old phone obsolete. Only young children will have their hands change size in any significant way.

Resolution also shouldn’t be a huge problem, the 480*854 screen on the Xperia X10 is fairly good for a 4″ screen. While a higher resolution makes text more readable at a small size for most users the availability of a higher resolution screen isn’t going to make their old phone obsolete.

CPU

The only Android devices I owned that appeared to develop CPU speed issues late in life were the Xperia X10 phones, and that might be more due to RAM limits and the OS upgrade. All the other devices were either obviously slow at purchase time or are still performing well now.

CPU speed may make it difficult or impossible to play new games, but shouldn’t affect other uses of a phone or tablet.

Conclusion

It seems to me that if you want to use an Android device for more than 2 years then storage capacity should be a major factor in choosing which device to purchase. It seems that lack of storage space is in many cases the main factor that makes older devices annoying or impossible to use.

4 comments to Android Device Service Life

  • With a somewhat different angle, but I too try to get the most out of my devices — As an example, my phone was a Nokia N95 for over seven years. The last year or two, the phone had already some known-broken bits (i.e. it was impossible to turn the volume up/down, as a fall led to the volume button breaking off), but I used it while it worked. And seven years of daily (ab)use for a ~US$400 device is quite right in my book. Stopped using it when the screen died — The phone still worked, but nothing would display. That’s quite annoying, so I ended just discarding it.

    I now have a cheapophone (ZTE V791, costed ~US$80 in early 2013); came installed with Android 2.3, and I have (precisely due to what you mention) no desire to update it. It would be cool if I could update it with something more interesting, say, a Replicant… But the hardware won’t support it. So, I cannot see this thing as a general purpose computer (it is not! It’s just a phone). I’m not into the “app” thingie, and with 256MB RAM and 512MB of internal storage (and full with sh*t shipped by the carrier), I’d just be frustrated were I interested in installing anything but the most basic stuff.

  • Alan Jenkins

    I don’t like the idea of throwaway hardware either.

    > It seems difficult to imagine a new Android feature as compelling as the addition of Wifi access point support in Android 2.3 that would drive an upgrade to a future memory hogging version of the OS

    Excuse my ignorance, but: security? Do you get fixes for the default browser, if you don’t upgrade the OS? (Email access seems a valuable target, let alone apps for online banking).

  • Alan: Yes, I don’t mind about security. I very seldom use a phone as an Internet terminal, and if I do so, I don’t do any authentication. Of course, banking is out of the question. So is mail (I prefer reading my mail from ssh).

  • etbe

    Gunnar: You are obviously a less demanding phone user than I am. I want to use my phone to replace as much of my desktop computing as possible. I’m always searching for new apps to entertain me and productively use time in which I have no access to a more powerful computer.

    Alan: Yes if you knew of a security flaw and knew that an OS upgrade fixed it then that would be compelling. However users generally don’t know of security flaws and don’t know what upgrades might fix it so that’s not going to be compelling for most users. Also the lack of well known exploits of phones means that users don’t associate phone security flaws with real losses the way they do with PCs.

    It’s definitely a real reason for me to upgrade, but some of the people I give devices to don’t have much need for security (EG ones who use a phone mostly as a gaming device).