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When Is It Time to Upgrade Your Smartphone?

An iPhone 4 on a table next to headphones
George Dolgikh/Shutterstock.com

People tend to treat phone upgrades differently. Some line up overnight to nab the latest iPhone on release, while others prefer to keep their old beater going for as long as they possibly can. But nothing lasts forever, so when is it time to ditch your old phone and splash out on a new one?

Obviously, a modern smartphone should last longer than a year, and there isn’t a particularly large leap between generations. So you absolutely don’t need to buy a new version of your device every time one is released. But there will be a point when you should consider getting something new. Not doing so could inconvenience you, make you miss out on the latest apps, and even leave you open to security risks.

Security is Your Main Concern

A smartphone with a lock symbol on it
Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock.com

While the other points in this article might lead to some inconvenience, or even involve a situation where you essentially don’t have a phone, security is the most important issue when it comes to phone upgrades. Following your phone’s release, its operating system will receive updates for a few years, and those updates tend to come with plenty of noticeable features.

Those will eventually stop, and it may be because the newer OS is too demanding for your own phone to handle, but “security updates” may continue for a while longer. These updates patch holes and eliminate bugs in your phones code that hackers can exploit.

Smartphones are used for more than just calls and texts these days. If you use your phone to shop, bank, or transfer money, a lapse in security could see your accounts compromised. So if your phone is no longer receiving security updates, you either need to change how you use it or buy something new.

Battery Life May Cause Problems

Batteries degrade over time. While you may have once gotten a day or two out of your device, a few years worth of use could leave it unable to last longer than a few hours. Numerous factors cause battery degradation, but the most common one is simply charging and draining the battery repeatedly.

Your phone is likely in constant use, so it will go through more charging cycles than other devices. It’s also something people tend to take around with them, which increases its chances of being exposed to extreme temperatures. To cap it all off, it’s something you look at and use often, so the battery degradation will be far more noticeable. The battery degradation issue, and its solutions overlap with another common problem.

If Your Phone is Damaged, Think About Dumping It

An iPhone with broken back glass.
Sergey Eremin/Shutterstock.com

Like batteries, something like a cracked screen is a major issue. A drop or a bad scratch could essentially leave you typing on a glass cheese grater — so something will have to be done about it.

With broken or degrading parts, like screens and batteries, repair is an option. You can pay to have a phone’s battery or screen replaced, and if you’re more hands on you can even replace it yourself. Right to repair legislation, if it ever arrives, is only going to make things easier. Companies like Samsung are also ahead of the curve and are offering a home repair program.

This makes sense on a newer phone, where a screen or battery is far cheaper than the device itself. However, if your phone is getting long in the tooth, you’re splashing out to keep a borderline obsolete device going for a little while longer. You may be better off treating the repair costs as a sort of discount on a new device and putting the money towards a new phone. If your phone worked well before the drop or the battery degraded, and it’s still getting updates, consider repairing it. But it already frustrated you before you broke it, and it already stop getting security updates; it’s time to replace it.

Your OS is Old, and Nothing Works With It Any More

Before security issues start to spring up, you’ll likely be cut off from general operating systems updates. While this initially means you’ll just miss out on some new features — as the OS version you’re stuck with gets older, you’ll start to notice more problems.

App developers tend to aim their products at the majority of phone users, and the majority of users keep up to date with the latest versions of operating systems. Developing versions of an app that are compatible with far older operating systems requires resources and yields little rewards. So eventually, your favorite apps may stop working or not allow you to update, and many newer apps will be off limits.

Similarly, accessories like earbuds, hearing aids, smart devices, and even fancier electric toothbrushes are designed to work with newer devices. So your phone may not be able to interact with newer physical objects either. An old smartphone becomes less “smart” as time passes.

Modern Stuff is Just a Lot Better

OnePlus Nord N200 5G

We may have hit a point where year-to-year upgrades are minimal, and even the two-year smartphone upgrade cycle many carriers market is excessive. But we are still in a period of rapid technological advancement, and that technology does trickle down.

If you bought a flagship phone a few years ago, today’s mid-range devices may be far superior. Even low-end devices are arguably better in terms of computing power than flagships from three or four years ago. So if your phone seems slow four years on, you’re not looking at a four-figure sum for something modern. You can upgrade to something more powerful for a few hundred dollars.

You’re On an Old Standard

Standards change every few years, and that leads to issues for the devices that are left behind. The majority of Android phones used to charge through a Micro USB cable, and older iPhones used a 30-pin connector to charge and interface with other devices. Now Androids tend to use USB-C, and Apple devices rely on the lightning cable (at least for a little while longer).

This causes problems if you’re on an older device and vital parts like charging cables become obsolete. They become harder and more expensive to replace; you can’t just head to a gas station to buy one. Instead, they slowly become very specialist online orders. If you’re outside the house and have low battery, you have a reasonable chance of being able to borrow an iPhone charger, but the chances of you talking to someone with a 30-pin connector on their person is slim.

It’s not just phones, either. I’ve genuinely considered replacing a perfectly functional Xbox controller and several power banks because Micro USB cables are on the endangered list in my house. I’m down to about four, and things get damaged/lost all the time. I don’t even know how many USB-C cables I have. But they come with everything, so I’m fairly sure I could tie my collection together and rope the moon with it at this point.

There is Another Way


Modular smartphones are based around the ideas of repairability and upgradability. Break your screen? Just buy a new one and swap it out. Need a better camera? You can buy one of those and stick it in there too. Is everyone using a newer cable to charge their phones? Just get a new charging port. The parts are available cheaply, and the phones are designed to make at-home repair as easy as possible.

Fairphone is the premier modular phone brand, and they’ve even got a subscription plan which will send you out new parts you can upgrade your phone with and replacement parts for the bits that break. The subscription plan is based around you keeping your phone for as long as possible, and its price decreases as time goes on. Unfortunately, Fairphone isn’t widely available in the United States yet. Hopefully that changes.

If you want to keep a phone for many years, a modular system is the way forward. You don’t have to worry about pretty much any of the things I’ve mentioned in this article. If a modular system doesn’t sound right for you, then traditional upgrades are still an option. Just make sure you aren’t using a shattered phone with an outdated OS and 30 minutes of battery life.

Several factors play in to deciding whether to upgrade or not. If your phone is only three years old, you’re probably better off replacing a screen or a battery than you are buying a new phone. But if it has a shattered screen, the battery is failing, and it isn’t powerful enough to run the latest version of iOS or Android, then you’re better off putting that repair money towards a new phone.

Your current financial circumstances and what you actually need the phone for also plays a part. If pulling a couple of hundred dollars out of your pocket is a big deal, then you may be able to get a $20 powerbank and use it as a way to keep an old phone with a failing battery going until you can afford to upgrade. If you only use your phone to call and text, not being able to download newer apps won’t matter as much and you can keep that phone going a lot longer. Finally, if you’re looking for the middle ground, a used smartphone can be a great way to get a lot out of a limited budget.

Dave McQuilling Dave McQuilling
Dave McQuilling has spent over 10 years writing about almost everything, but technology has always been one of his main interests. He has previously worked for newspapers, magazines, radio stations, websites, and television stations in both the US and Europe. Read Full Bio »