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Mobile devices: Upgrade considerations

Mobile device upgrades can be a minefield involving a number of considerations. This tip focuses on how to evaluate a device's age, capability and adaptability for potential hardware or software updates.

This week, I want to explore some upgrade options and strategies for the two key classes of mobile devices, notebook computers and handhelds, the latter including mobile phones. As I noted last time, the decision on if/when/how to upgrade needs to be rooted in a cost-benefit analysis. Given the limited useful life of any mobile devices -- such limitations being imposed by technological evolution and obsolescence, evolving applications and other usage requirements, and loss or damage -- any upgrade decision needs to be made carefully and with return on investment (ROI) in mind.

Keep in mind that upgrades are not always straightforward and that things do occasionally go horribly wrong. Especially with mobile devices, it is sometimes best to leave well enough alone and allow natural obsolescence to take its course.

To illustrate this point, let's start with notebooks. Most notebooks have very limited hardware upgrade possibilities to begin with, those being confined to:

  1. new external add-ons, such as PC cards, ExpressCards, and USB and FireWire peripherals
  2. memory upgrades
  3. internal wireless upgrades
  4. hard drive upgrades
Any of these can have a positive impact on the performance, functionality and utility of the device. Yet all but option a) have serious risks associated. For example, option b) is usually pretty simple -- open the memory door, remove the old memory cards, insert the new ones and that's it. But many parts are fragile, and a stray static shock can fry the machine.

For more on mobile device upgrades, check out other Craig Mathias columns
Keeping up with the upgrades: Part 1
The same can be said for upgrading an internal wireless LAN or WAN. The connectors involved, especially for the antennas, can be very fragile indeed. And a new hard drive, while adding both capacity and, usually, performance, can be a really big job -- backing up the old drive, swapping drives (which is mechanically quite simple), and then reloading the backup copy. Sometimes things go very, very wrong here -- meaning that the operating system must be reinstalled from scratch. This is not hard, but it can take a very long time. And all of this can be avoided anyway -- the easy way to add more storage is via USB FLASH drives, which are now amazingly inexpensive.

The beauty of option a) is that any new hardware can be reused on the next notebook, and -- other than the possible need to install new drivers -- this is usually very low risk. Of course, software upgrades, such as moving from Windows XP to Vista, can demand more memory and disk space, perhaps motivating an upgrade. But caution is again advisable here -- do you really need a new operating system? Upgrades like these are usually not recommended, and it is often preferable to introduce new operating software on new PCs as the natural replacement cycle takes its course.

This situation is especially true in the case of Vista, which suffers from application compatibility problems -- despite the zippy new Aero user interface, which really does, by the way, require a whopping two gigabytes of memory to run well and adds very little in the way of useful new functionality. A final note -- I generally recommend against BIOS upgrades on PCs unless there's a known problem that needs fixing. FLASHing a new BIOS is somewhat risky, and there are usually few, if any, performance or functionality benefits here if everything is otherwise working well.

As for handhelds -- well, there are rarely opportunities for hardware upgrades, perhaps thankfully. But, frustratingly, software upgrades are also usually very limited. For example, my Motorola Q, which runs Windows Mobile 5, cannot be upgraded to Windows Mobile 6. This may just be a cynical attempt to get me to buy a new phone, which I do quite frequently anyway. Still, other software upgrades can make a lot of sense in extending functionality and thus ROI on handhelds. For example, though I can't get Windows Mobile 6, I can install a new browser that will produce a more satisfying and productive Web experience. It's also possible to add new applications to OS-based phones, and many of these are either free or fairly inexpensive.

Finally, make sure your cell phone is up to date with your carrier. The carriers usually make this easy. For example, on the Verizon Wireless network, enter *228 on the handset to make sure your Preferred Roaming List (PRL) -- whatever that is -- is current. Verizon states that performance is improved if this is done regularly.

No matter what, the cardinal rule of upgrades is this: If there's a quantifiable benefit -- adjusting for the risk involved, of course -- and the useful life of the device still has a good while to run, then do it. If not -- well, we'll review my recommendations in detail next time.

Craig Mathias
About the author: Craig Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm based in Ashland, Mass., specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. The firm works with manufacturers, enterprises, carriers, government, and the financial community on all aspects of wireless and mobile. He can be reached at

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