Bill Bennett

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How long should you keep a phone?

New phone models arrive all the time. The main phone product lines each get an annual refresh.

Apple holds its annual iPhone launches all at once. In recent years this has always happened three or four months before Christmas.

Android phone makers like Samsung, Xiaomi and Nokia have more than one product lines. Each line gets its own annual update. The phone makers tend to stagger launches throughout the year.

Add in the smaller brands and we see a dozen notable smartphone launches each year.

Goodbye two year phone refresh cycle

Phone makers expect you to hang on to a device for at least two years even if they refresh their model lines every year.

Carriers agree. Their phone plans are two-year contracts. Remember carriers make money when you to buy new phones and roll over two-year contracts. While two-year contracts remain popular, they’re less common today than five years ago.

New Zealand’s Inland Revenue Department depreciates phones at 67 percent a year. That implies a life expectancy of under two years. Depreciation rates are similar in other countries.

We’re holding on to phones for longer

Most of us now hold onto phones for considerably longer than two years. No-one forces us to operate on a fixed timetable. People think nothing of keeping PCs and other devices for much longer.

There’s a noticeable difference between Apple and Android phones. Android phone users tend to keep their phones for a shorter time than iPhone users.

Apple’s sales figures reflect this. iPhone revenues peaked in 2015. Apple now focuses more on selling services to its customers to make up the revenue shortfall.

Android phones last less than iPhones

In 2016 Benedict Evans reported Android users keep phones for under two years. Back then, Apple iPhones stayed in use for more than two years. In many cases closer to three years. There are interesting theories about this in the comments on Evans’ post. This also explains why second-hand iPhones hold their value better than Android phones.

One reason people now hold on to all brands of smartphones for longer is that hardware and feature upgrades are more incremental than in the past. A few years ago there would be dramatic changes from one year to the next. Now phone makers emphasise cameras and cosmetic changes.

It’s no accident that phone makers hold launch events that look like fashion shows. They want to create the impression that you need this year’s design.

You almost never do.

Android support cut-off

Android phone makers are still more aggressive about moving customers onto new models. In early 2022, Google announced it will stop support for the Pixel 3 phone.

As the media reported, this meant there would be no more operating system or security updates for what would otherwise be a perfectly usable phone.

This sounds awful yet it is an improvement on what used to happen with Android phones. Until the last three or four years many Android users would get the operating system that was available when the phone launched and never see an official update. There were workarounds, but it could be hard for non technical people.

Compare this with Apple. The iPhone 6s was released more than six years ago. Late in 2021, Apple updated its phone operating system to iOS 15. That includes support for the iPhone 6s.

It’s worth noting that phones will work after they are no longer supported. They may not be as secure and there may be things you’d like to do, but can’t.  If you take care, you can continue to use an old phone without upgrading.

The latest version of iOS will not work with an Apple iPhone 5 or older. Yet there may be security updates for older Apple models.

How long should a phone last?

Phones can take a beating. Owners handle them many times each day. They get dropped, knocked, scratched and soaked.

Yet, there are few moving parts to seize up. (Avoid any phone that does include moving parts such as a pop-up camera.)

If you look after your phone and it doesn’t pick up too much moisture, the battery is the first part to wear out. Constant use and charging cycles mean they degrade over time. After about three to four years use they hold as little as half the charge they managed when they were new.

You can replace phone batteries, even those in sealed phones. It can be difficult, there are official repairers and a cottage industry exists.

Although it may look expensive, paying someone NZ$100 to replace a battery is cheaper than a new phone.

Officially Apple has given iPhone owners the right to repair their phones. Later this year it will sell spare parts and the tools needed to make repairs. It’s not for the fainthearted.

Screen life

Screens last three to ten years depending on the technology, build quality and your use. Often the screen backlighting goes first. Again, repairers can fix these problems.

There are times when a new phone model is compelling.

Sometimes moving from one year’s model to the next brings a must-have feature. Even so, you can expect to get at least two years from a device. They should last for three or more. Five years is no longer exceptional.

There are users who give their phones a pounding. If that’s you, or a family member, you have two choices. You could buy a more robust phone model. Or you could opt for a cheaper model that won’t break the bank when replacement time rolls around.

How long should you hold on to a phone?

There’s no simple answer to ‘how long should you hang on to a phone’. What works for one person doesn’t work for another. You should hold on for at least two years. Yet that’s unambitious.

For some people the best time to replace is when the battery life is not enough to get you through the working day. For others it’s when the operating system is no longer supported and there is a security risk. That’s six years for Apple iPhone users.

If you think that is bad, spare a thought for Android users. Six years is more than double the official supported life of Android versions.

If you love Android and worry about phone longevity, chose a Nokia phone. The company has a policy of keeping phone software up to date.

It guarantees two years of updates but to date has extended support beyond that time. It may be far less than Apple, but that’s better than rival Android brands.

This post was updated on January 29, 2022 to reflect recent changes including Google cutting off Android support after three years and Apple giving customers the tools and parts needed to repair old phones. 

Photo by David Mellis. Creative Commons.