They’re amongst the most ubiquitous technology today, and you can see smartphones literally everywhere, from kids birthday parties, the train to work, at concerts and even in swimming pools. There’s little doubt we’re at saturation point with an estimated 17 million smartphones in Australia, for around 20 million adults. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the average value of a smartphone and multiply it out – smartphones are huge business.

A big part of the business model in recent years has relied on people buying new phones every year or two. In part, this has been somewhat justified, as the pace of technology has quickened to the point that a phone a year or two old is quite dated by the present standard.

However, in 2018, things are a little different.

Two year contracts are no longer mandatory to get a new phone; in fact, prudent consumer advice encourages people to buy outright where possible and avoid lock-in contracts. Fancy smartphones need not cost $1,000 or more; great options start at $200-300. Even if you have expensive tastes, the differentiation year on year is rapidly reducing; I’m quite content with a phone that’s using 12-month old technology, and likely will be for some time. I’m not alone.

Holding onto our smartphones for longer isn’t a bad thing; it’s good for our wallets, it’s good for the environment, and we don’t miss out by doing so. Some of the biggest improvements today come from software rather than hardware innovations – AI and augmented reality rely far more on software upgrades (which can, but isn’t always, be delivered to older hardware quite easily). New hardware really isn’t so interesting – incremental improvements in camera quality to one side, not much else changes year after year.

We’re quick to downplay the use of “last year’s technology”, as many reviewers did when taking a look at 2017’s LG G6 which launched with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor released some months prior. At the end of 2016 it was the fastest processor around, and yet some months later in early 2017, it was “outdated” and yet still incredibly capable.

No, the reason many who upgrade frequently actually do so is fear of missing out.

Incrementally better cameras are becoming harder and harder to discern from those before, and though Qualcomm releases new premium processors each year, the stark reality is that the vast majority of users couldn’t tell a Snapdragon 821 from a Snapdragon 845, despite two years of engineering improvements in between.

But yet, consumers still buy the new phones, despite their $1,500 cost and arguably minimal improvements from the year before. As the most expensive piece of technology many of us own (as computers and TVs both cost less, most of the time), our phones are a bit of a status symbol, and who wants to try and impress with last season’s mobile? It’d be like wearing last season’s fashion .. apparently.

I think there’s an upper limit for how long all this holds true; holding on to a phone for a full two years now sounds very realistic, and I’d be keen to try doing precisely that with some of 2018’s phones to see just how long they last. A year is child’s play. Two years shouldn’t result in “missing out” on anything.

Three years might be the upper limit though. Over time, hardware does actually degrade, and nothing more so than the battery. Lithium Ion batteries – they’re in virtually every smartphone – last a fixed number of charge cycles before they degrade and (ultimately) fail. Unless your phone has user replaceable batteries – and most don’t – there comes a time after which it simply won’t work very well.

With improvements in technology, that duration will increase, but even if the batteries can last three years of routine use, that’s about the point at which technology will likely improve enough that your three year old phone will start to lag behind.

Not only will the hardware have fallen behind, but in Android specifically, that’s about the time when you can forget anything resembling software support. It’s already hard enough to get OS updates for Android from most manufacturers, but considering Google’s annual Android update cycle, for a phone to be fully useful over a three year timespan, it would need to receive at least one, and preferably two major OS updates.

If this were possible, a phone lasting three years is a phone I’d love to use. Without those software updates, too quickly would the software let the hardware down, and replacement would look far more attractive.

Let’s see if in 2018 the manufacturers can deliver us a phone we’d happily use for the full two years. The challenge is set.

    21 Comments
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    jjcoolaus
    jjcoolaus
    2 years ago

    Once we have a majority of android devices running Oreo, then there won’t be a need, but until then the lack of security updates for older operating systems is a real concern. The difference with Oreo is that google should be able to control the security update process, without relying on the manufacturers. The other reason to upgrade more frequently is speed and 4G/5G congestion. As the carriers buy new spectrum, and the capabilities of new modems in the new chipsets gets better, 4G will run so much faster and each faster phone reduces the congestion for everybody else, because… Read more »

    Lindsay
    Lindsay
    2 years ago

    ‘the stark reality is that the vast majority of users couldn’t tell a Snapdragon 821 from a Snapdragon 845, despite two years of engineering improvements in between.’

    Exactly! I still have my old Nexus 5 as a standby, even though I now use an LG G6. Poor old under rated G6, with it’s so yesterday 821 processor! I love it. It will be a few years before I feel the ‘need’ to upgrade. Cheers.

    Duncan Jaffrey
    Ausdroid Editor
    2 years ago

    I love this article, this is exactly how I feel about smartphones today. I’m currently deciding if I’m “done with flagships”, I love the toy/cool factor but I hate the commercialism they represent and the price gouging that goes on. I do a bit of AR (Jedi Challenges) and a good phone does make a big difference there, but for everything else, the Moto G5 Plus meets my daily needs. I agree that 2 years of security updates is a must, a good camera is a must, a great camera is a plus. I seriously want hands-on time with the… Read more »

    Ray Cliff
    Ray Cliff
    2 years ago

    I have always brought my phones on a 2 year contract and replaced them close to every 2 years, trying to time the change to the 2 year cycle of new phone releases, and on sell the older phone to friends or family who are not big users. Works for me and them !!

    Allan Thomas
    Allan Thomas
    2 years ago

    This piece is an excellent justification for buying the Pixel 2 XL. Three years of guaranteed OS upgrades, monthly security updates and superb warranty and service. I’ll keep mine for three years unless something dramatically superior comes along.

    EndlessTrail
    EndlessTrail
    2 years ago

    I bought my Sony Xperia Z3 Compact when it was first launched in 2014 and I only replaced it with the XZ1 Compact end of last year, so the phone actually lasted me 3 years before I replaced it. I figure it could actually go for another year, but I wanted that new phone feeling. 🙂 Also, I noticed that the battery life degraded a little and only lasted a day.

    Max Luong
    Max Luong
    Reply to  EndlessTrail
    2 years ago

    I was still happily using the Z3C as my business phone until August when a few vulnerabilities like BlueBorne made me pull the Nexus 4 out of retirement.

    Phone from 2012 still perfectly usable and patched with the latest security thanks to LineageOS.

    Oldmike
    Oldmike
    2 years ago

    There’s something to be said for hanging on to old phones , in some ways the old phones where just better made imo. Some of the new expensive phones are just rubbish . Not to mention this trendy 18.9 aspect ratio , and the sad sheep like copy cat actions of eliminating dedicated convenience features like headphone jacks and SD cards just because Apple has. Getting rid of bezels totally (which are handy for holding the phone) just to be trendy , on screen buttons you have to wake up before use . How is this better ? Out of… Read more »

    Dean Rosolen
    Dean Rosolen
    2 years ago

    The only reason I replaced my Nexus 5X is because it got the bootloop of death (RIP). I replaced it with the Pixel (the last Google phone with a headphone jack) which should last me through 2019.

    Dennis Bareis
    Dennis Bareis
    2 years ago

    I was getting a new phone every year but for me it is the price that prevents that, like petrol phones seem to have a price cycle (just longer term).

    Conan Thorogood
    Conan Thorogood
    2 years ago

    a good read and a sentiment i’m seeing echoed by a lot of outlets atm. i aim for a two year minimum with a goal of three years for each new device.. i got the galaxy s3 in 2012, the xperia z3 in 2015 and now the xperia xz1 compact in 2017. this device should *absolutely* last me three years.

    heartened to see smartphone sales drop off tbh, it really is the component of android obsession that feels a bit.. gross? the rabid consumerist side.

    Conan Thorogood
    Conan Thorogood
    Reply to  Chris Rowland
    2 years ago

    yeah i’ve found myself in a weird spot where new devices seem less and less tailored to my needs, to the point where i’ve ordered a (profoundly unpopular) device that’s not even available in australia.

    EndlessTrail
    EndlessTrail
    Reply to  Conan Thorogood
    2 years ago

    My Z3 Compact lasted me 3 whole years, so I’m pretty sure the XZ1 Compact will be able to last a good 3 years if well looked after.

    aum
    aum
    2 years ago

    Well I am very content with the 2 year old Nexus 6P, and will soon replace the battery. The fact that the Android updates arrive every month makes the 6P a very reliable phone.

    The 5 times zoom on the upcoming Huawei P20 might sway me.

    Cheers.

    AdamM
    AdamM
    Reply to  aum
    2 years ago

    I’m in the same boat, although I was late to the party buying my 6P so it’s only 15 months old. My Nexus 5 lasted me 2 1/2 years until I dropped it and broke the screen for a second time. At that point it was getting pretty slow and really wasn’t worth getting the screen replaced again. Looking around, I really can’t decide which phone I would get next. I suspect it’ll be a Motorola or Nokia of some kind, even if that means missing out on the latest and greatest hardware, so I get the ongoing security updates… Read more »