NEW YORK — When Apple unveiled the iPhone 5 late in 2012, it was the fastest and most capable smart phone on the market, a highly intricate collection of electronics that had been miraculously forged into a single sturdy slab of aluminum and glass. Unlike most ephemeral gadgets, this phone felt as if it were built to last for ages.
I kept on thinking that for about 12 months, when I promptly ditched my nearly flawless iPhone 5 for its successor, the 5S, which promised a few more cheap thrills.
In my defense, it’s my job to adopt the latest and greatest blinking thing. But what’s your excuse? On average, Americans keep their smart phones for about two years before jumping to a new one, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm.
Until recently, that’s been a wise strategy; carriers’ contracts encouraged frequent upgrades, and the smart phone business was advancing so rapidly that old phones just couldn’t keep up with the state of the art. But that aggressive upgrade cycle is taxing to the environment and to our wallets, and is unsustainable over the long run.
“There are 5.6 billion adults in the world, and one day they all should have a cell phone,” said Kyle Wiens, the co-founder of iFixit, a site that publishes repair manuals for electronics. “To make that happen, we’re going to have to make sure that any phone manufactured today lasts for 10 years.”
Despite their small size, smart phones are expensive, resource-hungry goods, and they deserve a better life cycle than two years of use followed by an eternity in a forgotten desk drawer. It is possible to buy smart phones with an eye to longevity — a strategy that will save money and global resources and give you the snooty self-satisfaction of knowing you’re shunning gadget consumerism.
The main points are: Use your phone for more than two years, hopefully three; when you run into trouble, try to repair, not replace it; and when you’re done with it, trade it in. When you’re looking for a new phone, don’t just consider the latest high-end devices; many people will find last year’s best phone just as useful as the newest one. You might even consider buying a used phone instead of a new one.
Sound complicated? It’s not. Let’s dive deeper into this plan.
● Keep your phone longer. It’s become a cliché among tech critics that smart phones have crossed the threshold from amazing to boring. High-end phones seem to have hit an innovation plateau, with each new iPhone or Samsung Galaxy just incrementally better than the last.
This is bad news for gadget nuts like myself, but it’s great for people who just want a nice phone. The innovation plateau means that for most people, in most cases, the latest and greatest phone won’t be all that much better than the one you’re using now, so there’s less pressure to upgrade.
Sure, phones’ microprocessor brains keep getting faster, but for ordinary uses — Web browsing, email, Facebook — those gains are difficult to notice, especially when you’re on a spotty mobile network. The latest phones might offer nice extras like a fingerprint scanner or a better camera flash, but few of these are really necessary. You can wait for them.
But what about obsolescence? Won’t your phone lose its power as it ages? Yes, but that’s easy to fix. The main thing to worry about in an older phone is a dying battery; after two years, you’ll notice your phone struggling to keep a charge. Some phones, like Samsung’s Galaxy line, let owners swap the battery; you can just buy a new one and pop it in. Replacing the iPhone’s battery requires special tools, but it’s a relatively cheap and easy fix.
IFixit’s iPhone 5 battery kit, for example, sells for $30, including tools.
“Anyone who isn’t totally clumsy can do it in about 20 minutes,” Mr. Wiens said. There are also thousands of phone repair techs across the country who’ll do it for a small fee. One service, iCracked, will even send techs to your home or office to fix your phone while you wait, or buy it from you.
● Trade it in. Apple, Samsung, and other smart-phone manufacturers sell their top phones for more than $600 each without a contract. But with a two-year mobile contract, that price gets baked in to the cost of the commitment. So many people don’t understand the true cost of their smart phones — or their true value.
“One thing I’ve learned in this business is that everything has value — everything, even broken devices, which we use for parts,” said Israel Ganot, chief executive of Gazelle, one of the oldest and largest gadget trade-in services.
That value is determined by simple economics: Demand for the world’s best phones far outstrips supply, so devices that seem outdated in the United States still carry cachet in the developing world.
When you sell your old phone to Gazelle, the staff reviews its physical condition and checks it against a database of phones that have been reported lost and stolen. Then Gazelle shuttles your device on a path to its new life. Most end up in huge markets in Asia where they’re purchased by traders from across the globe, then fixed up to look as good as new and shipped to points far and wide.
“In many countries, a new iPhone can cost a thousand dollars,” Mr. Ganot said. “We’re providing the equivalent of a certified preowned BMW for less than half the price.”
The global demand for old smart phones has prompted a boom in trade-in services like Gazelle. Yet the supply of used phones remains low; only a quarter of smart-phone users trade in their devices. Many smart-phone owners are worried about the safety of their data (though erasing it works fine). Others never bother because they think their devices are worthless. But that’s wrong. Two years after you first bought it, Gazelle will give you about $150 for your old iPhone.
And if you don’t need the money, do it for the planet. A smart phone that isn’t sitting in your drawer is one less smart phone that has to be manufactured anew.
● Buy a used phone. As I explained a couple weeks ago, America’s largest mobile carriers are now offering contract-free wireless plans that separate the price of your device from the price of your service. These plans offer incentives to buy from the secondary market; if you get a cheap used phone, you might save a bundle on your monthly bill.
Here’s how: According to data from Gazelle, phones lose most of their value in the first year. After a year of use, an iPhone will sell for about half of its original price. After two years, it’s worth about a quarter of its original price. After that, prices stabilize and depreciation slows way down. For top Android models, like Samsung’s Galaxy line, the pattern looks similar to the iPhone’s, with price levels slightly lower.
This suggests a strategy for staying ahead of the costly upgrade cycle. Avoid buying a brand-new top-of-the-line device. Instead, when a new phone comes out, you can get a good deal on last year’s model. Then, when you trade it in after two years, you’ll recoup much of the cost of your phone. Ultimately, this strategy will let you save about $20 a month per phone.