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It’s Getting Easier (and Smarter) to Put Off That Big Phone Purchase

THe camera module of the iPhone 11 Pro.

I’ve had my Galaxy Note 8 for more than two years now, and though I’ve been tempted by new Pixels and OnePlus phones, I don’t think I’ll be updating any time soon. And according to market research, I’m not alone.

People are waiting longer and longer between big phone purchases, driven mostly by huge price increases at the top of the market. It’s having some interesting effects, as consumers themselves and the market in general start to feel the strain of purse strings. The takeaway is that it’s easier than ever to hang on to that phone for longer and longer.

Prices Are Soaring. . .

If you’ve shopped for any flagship phone in the last few years, you’ve noticed a rapid jump up in retail prices. Carriers and even manufacturers themselves have tried to disguise this, hiding behind easy-to-find financing options, but the jump is undeniable. The iPhone 7 started at $650 in 2016, with a fully-loaded 7 Plus version going for $950. Today the “budget” iPhone 11 starts at $700, with the top-of-the-line 11 Pro Max going for an astonishing $1,449.

A comparison of flagship phone prices.

Samsung and Google have made similar leaps at the top of the flagship space, with most other manufacturers trying to compete for those lucrative, high-margin sales following. Budget brands have been holdouts, with OnePlus, Blu, and Motorola offering more affordable options at predictably lower prices. But those phones don’t get the spots right by the door in Best Buy.

There haven’t been any massive increases in manufacturing costs: The phones are just getting more expensive because manufacturers want to charge more, and for the most part, customers are willing to pay more. At least enough of them are that it offsets any loss in sales those high prices might create.

. . . Value Isn’t

The thing is, with the notable exception of cameras, these fantastically-priced phones aren’t actually offering much more than they used to. Phone screens have gotten bigger, processors have gotten faster, storage has become more generous in general, but most of us are using the same old apps, browsers, and communication tools that we were before prices started to inflate.

The back of the Pixel 4
The latest smartphone cameras are their most innovative feature. Justin Duino

Go into a carrier store and ask, “What will this new phone do better than my old one?” The first response you’ll hear is that the camera is better—and it is, undeniably. Camera upgrades, both in terms of the sensors and lenses of the hardware and the phenomenal image processing in the software, appears to be driving plenty of high-end phone sales. Apple and Google both ended their latest phone reveals talking almost exclusively about how wonderful their cameras are, and not unjustifiably so.

But if you don’t need a camera that blows your old phone out of the water, and you’re not looking for some specific and esoteric feature like Google’s questionably useful radar tech or OnePlus’s eye-catching pop-up selfie cam, it’s easy enough to just sit on the phone you have. Especially when you look at retail prices. It helps that, especially for phones from Android manufacturers like Google and Samsung, waiting a few months past launch means you can find triple-digit savings in sales.

Folding phones are a novelty at the moment, but 5G seems like it might be the next truly notable upgrade in smartphone tech. Even that has extremely limited availability at the moment, and it’s not as if LTE networks are dog-slow in most areas. For anyone on a budget, there’s no rush to get the latest and greatest.

Repairs Are Getting Easier (Kind of)

Aside from the allure of a hardware upgrade, the other thing that drives new phone purchases is old phones wearing out. And that certainly happens: Broken screens and dying batteries are the things that seem to claim old phones most often.

But those problems are also getting easier to fix, literally. The prevalence of expensive phones has led to a huge swell in electronics repair shops, both authorized and independent, which seemed to have been depressed in the days of more disposable electronics. If you live near any large city, you have innumerable options for replacing a screen or swapping out an internal battery, among other fixes. Even my tiny Texas town has two independent repair shops, both with supplies of screens and batteries ready to swap out in under an hour. $50-150 can make your phone look just as good and last just as long as when you bought it, an easy way to put off that $800-1,400 purchase for another year.

A technician repairing a smartphone screen.
Screen and battery repairs are relatively inexpensive ways to extend the life of a smartphone. Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock

If even repair prices deliver a sticker shock, there are more options for insuring your phone, too. Most manufacturers and carriers offer phone insurance above and beyond the standard one-year warranty for a few dollars a month, delivering peace of mind on that big purchase. If you don’t want to be beholden to the whims of an Apple or Samsung appraiser, third-party insurers like Asurion will offer more or less the same service, often with more flexible options in terms of payments or deductibles.

Repairing a phone on your own isn’t an easy task, and it’s not getting any easier as they become ever tinier and more compact. But you have more options than you used to, thanks to the efforts of the Right to Repair movement and online repair chroniclers at iFixIt and YouTube. If you’re willing to risk permanently breaking your phone—and if it’s already broken and out of warranty, why not?—you can do so.

It’s Good for the Environment

Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle are the three Rs of environmentalism, and it’s no coincidence that “reduce” comes first. With consumers more and more aware of their environmental impact, it’s good to know that simply using your device for a longer period of time is the easiest and most effective way of reducing it.

“Electronics recycling” is much more complex and less efficient than putting paper and plastic in the bin, as big, complicated parts of these machines can’t be economically broken down. E-waste is a big problem and only getting bigger. The best thing you can do to curb it is to resist the call of consumerism.

I’m not saying people are hanging on to old phones purely out of concern for the planet. If we had that kind of altruistic self-awareness, we wouldn’t be in the dire situation we are. But it’s certainly a nice feel-good bonus.

Software Is the Downside

Aside from the simple wisdom of saving money, there is one big downside to holding off on the upgrade: Phone software marches to the beat of flagship hardware. iOS and Android tend to eat up more memory and storage as they update, and some apps lose features and performance if you’re not running the latest and greatest. And that’s when manufacturers aren’t intentionally slowing down your older phone.

For software versions at least, phones from Apple and Google have a clear advantage here. Apple keeps iOS updated even on years-old devices, and Google makes sure its Pixel phones are competitive in that regard. Samsung, LG, Motorola, and similar competitors lag behind because there’s little profit in providing speedy updates to people who’ve already paid you. A few exceptions, like OnePlus, seem genuinely interested in keeping software up to date, but those exceptions are few and far between.

The Bold N1 with camera extended.
The Bold N1 offers (mostly) flagship features for under $300. Cameron Summerson / Review Geek

Even if your phone is running the latest OS software, plenty of users will say their phone is just slower and less responsive than it used to be. There’s nothing like the “snappy” performance of a new flagship to give you that little thrill of novelty.

If you can resist the call of the shiniest and newest phone, however, you can save a lot of money by keeping or repairing your old one, or just settling for a “boring” budget model if you have to upgrade. Because even a boring phone is (usually) pretty great.

Michael Crider Michael Crider
Michael Crider has been writing about computers, phones, video games, and general nerdy things on the internet for ten years. He’s never happier than when he’s tinkering with his home-built desktop or soldering a new keyboard. Read Full Bio »