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Bill Bennett

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How long should you keep a phone?

New phone models arrive all the time. The phone product lines 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.

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

Add in the smaller brands and yes, we see a dozen notable phone 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 longer than two years. No-one forces us to operate on a fixed timetable.

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.

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. 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 hold on to phones for longer is that 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 cosmetics.

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.

Phone hardware can live for years

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.

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 roughly six years for Apple iPhone users.

Apple released iOS 13 in September 2019. It will support the iPhone SE but not the iPhone 5s, 6 or 6 Plus. Apple released the iPhone 5s in 2013, it is now out of support. 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.

Update: 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. That’s far less than Apple, but that’s better than rival Android brands.

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