One of the unwritten rules of tech is the idea that more is better, the purpose of which is to have us continually buy the latest generation of a product. The rule began with the model year releases of automobiles and became adopted by the tech industry. Unfortunately, we consumers don’t often enough question whether the latest features really do matter. We aren’t helped by tech reviewers who often seem to advocate more for the tech industry than consumers. An example that I am thinking about is the push for faster refresh rates on smartphones.
If you have read smartphone reviews over the last year or so you have probably been convinced that phones with 60Hz refresh screens are bad and really should be avoided. We all should be clamoring for 120Hz or at least 90Hz screens so that we get the fastest, smoothest screen scrolling. Do we, really, need smartphone screens faster than 60Hz?
Up until last week I have been using the Pixel 4a, and it’s “limited,” 60Hz screen as my daily driver. When I got the new Pixel 7a I dutifully changed the setting, as prescribed by nearly all tech reviewers, to turn on Smooth Display so that it displays at 90Hz. Every reviewer who directs one to make this change intones something to the affect, “why is Smooth Display not enabled by default?”
While I can say, yes, after turning on Smooth Display scrolling text up/down on the Pixel 7a is faster, what nobody seems to ask is, on a 6-inch display, does one really need that scrolling to be faster? I am skeptical. I am thinking we are being convinced that faster smartphone refresh rates are needed, but they really are not. Increase the size of the screen to perhaps the 11-inch standard tablet, or larger, and I can see how faster refresh can really matter, but on a 6-inch screen?
Another example, at least to me, is the “insistence” that we all need 5G wireless data on our phones. Of course, I ran a speed test using the Pixel 7a as soon as I could and observed the fact that the 86 Mbps download feature is faster than the “plain” LTE transfer speed of my Pixel 4a. Ok, but in what way am I really going to notice or even need that faster transfer speed on a smartphone with a 6-inch screen? For example, I streamed video on the Pixel 7a and it looked no better to me than on the Pixel 4a. Again, if I were on a tablet or certainly a PC then I would likely benefit by the faster transfer rate, but I doubt that 5G is really going to make difference on the Pixel 7a.
To be fair, I do gain some benefits in the upgrade from the Pixel 4a to the 7a. I am finding the front, under-screen finger print scanner is much better than the back scanner of the 4a. The camera is much better and thus I am getting better pictures. Battery life seems to be better, probably thanks to a larger battery and the Tensor G2 chip, and I am happy to finally have the convenience of wireless charging.
Truth is, we likely reached peak smartphone many years ago, therefore there are really fewer needed new features that really matter, and consequently there is a need for more marketing to get people to buy phones. If you are wondering why Google will be selling the Pixel Fold, the reason why is because the smartphone “industry” is convinced such foldables are needed in order to keep selling phones over the next ten years. (The main case for foldables is people want to carry smaller devices, but ironically that could be served by selling phones with smaller screens!) In my opinion, the only change in smartphones that we really need is in battery life, and the technical problem of gaining more battery life from the same size batteries appears to be impossible to overcome. Ironically, one way to improve battery life is to set the screen refresh to 60Hz and use slower file transfer speeds, but then we could get by with last year’s phone.