Why don’t smartphones last longer?

Ever since the last software update, my iPhone has been playing up. I’ve had it for 13 months. This is considered middle-aged by the standards of these devices, and when you think about it that’s completely insane.

You’ll have experienced it yourself. The slowdowns. The random bugs, the battery life crashing through the floor, having to plug in at 14.00 to make it through the day. Then comes the process of looking through the battery log to try diagnosing the problem, maybe even uninstalling apps one by one to see if any of them could be causing it. Then it’s time to try reinstalling a backup and hoping it doesn’t brick the phone.

This kind of nonsense has affected several smartphones I’ve owned (including three iPhones). People shrug, accept it as part of modern life, and hand over hundreds of pounds for a new one.

This is madness.

I’ve been a smartphone user since 2010. I decided to write a list of all the devices I’ve owned, how long I used them for, and what happened to them.

1. HTC Desire (early 2010-mid 2011)

My first smartphone was an early flagship Android device. The hardware was actually pretty nice but it was crippled by a minuscule amount of internal memory that caused all kinds of problems once you received a certain number of text messages. After about a year, a software update turned it into a paperweight.

2. Nokia E7 (mid-late 2011)

(From mid 2011 to mid 2014 I worked at Carphone Warehouse and was able to buy phones at a steep discount. The Nokia E7 was my first contract upgrade.)

Again, beautiful hardware. The E7 had a glorious sliding keyboard and Nokia’s rather quirky Symbian operating system. My E7 died after only a few months thanks to a failed attempt at updating the firmware.

3. Nokia Lumia 710 (late 2011-early 2013)

In many ways this is actually the best smartphone I’ve owned – which might surprise you, considering it was a Windows Phone 7 device. The plastic body was sturdy and durable, the battery life was ok, and it did the basics well. I only upgraded it because I thought I needed apps that could only be found on other smartphone platforms. It lived as a backup phone in my desk drawer until late 2017, when I found it would no longer switch on.

4. Google Nexus 4 (early-late 2013)

The hardware was attractive at first glance but the all-glass construction made me uneasy, and it was very slippery to hold. I liked the stock Android experience (which was, at first, very fast and fluid). The camera was terrible and battery life was never great. In late 2013 battery life went into a death spiral and, after a software update, it was too slow to use without going insane. I put it on eBay as ‘spares or repairs’.

5. Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (late 2013-early 2014)

At this point I reasoned that my Android issues had been caused by buying low-powered devices. My contract was due for renewal anyway, so I went for a top-end Galaxy Note. This one soon developed hardware faults, and when I returned it for a refund I decided on impulse to give Windows Phone another try.

Galaxy Note 3

6. Nokia Lumia 1520 (early-mid 2014)

This was an absolutely massive Windows Phone with a 6” display. It was just too big to handle. This was the only phone I managed to physically break; it fell out of my pocket and smashed on the pavement after only a few months.

7. Apple iPhone 5S (mid 2014-early 2015)

My rationale for spending a bit more on an iPhone was to get something reliable that would last a bit longer. It was great at first, but the iOS 8 update crippled battery life and made the whole thing impossibly sluggish to use. The Apple Store claimed ‘hardware problems’ when attempts at reinstalling iOS 7 made no difference. It went on eBay.

iPhone 5s

From late 2014 to early 2015 I went through a phase of using an old basic Nokia handset as my main device, because I was getting tired of social media, notifications etc. on my phone. I went back to using the iPhone shortly before its failure.

8. Apple iPhone 6 (early 2015-late 2015)

As above. iOS 9 was the culprit here. At this point I was getting seriously hacked off at replacing phones at such regular intervals due to unmanageable software issues, and resolved to spend a lot less next time. I was seriously tempted to go back to a basic dumbphone for good, but decided against it.

9. Motorola Moto G3 (late 2015-late 2016)

This phone was absolutely great. The battery lasted ages (much longer than my iPhone 6’s battery), it was fast enough for my needs, it was waterproof, and it was a fraction of an iPhone’s cost. Sadly the USB port became damaged after just over a year and it would no longer charge. If this hadn’t happened, I’d still be using it.

 10. Apple iPhone SE (late 2016-present)

My contract had been due for upgrade for a while. I must have forgotten about the reliability issues of the iPhones I’d owned, because for some reason I thought the SE – the re-issued, faster version of the 5S I’d owned in 2014 – would be a good idea. It ran perfectly for about a year… then the iOS 11 update crippled it. It isn’t unusuable, but battery life is horrendous, it keeps randomly switching itself off, and 4G only works about 30% of the time.

At this point I am about 11 months away from my next contract upgrade. In a period when smartphones are rising in price, there’s no way in hell I’m going to spend money on another handset to tide me over until late 2018. I’m absolutely sick and tired of smartphones lasting for less than a year before they go wrong due to shoddy software updates.

More and more of us rely on these powerful pocket computers to get through our daily lives. The default behaviour is to upgrade every two years, because that’s how contracts work (although you aren’t obliged to upgrade every two years, most people will). People who are into technology – especially Apple nerds – often upgrade yearly even if there’s nothing wrong with their old phone. I personally know people who buy every single iPhone that comes out just because it’s the new thing that Apple tells them to buy.

‘Let people spend their money how they want!’ I hear you cry. Fair enough, but what about the environmental impact?

This is what repairability looks like. Sadly, even Apple’s laptops since 2012 have been increasingly sealed and unable to be serviced by the user

These things are made of silicon, glass, aluminium, oil products, and conflict minerals1. The cost we don’t see is massive: the human cost in third-world countries, the environmental cost, the mountains of e-waste2.

There have been attempts to build modular devices that can be upgraded and maintained (to a limited degree) by the user. Most of these attempts have failed3. The modern smartphone is a sealed box with few repair options. They can be re-sold or recycled, but they can’t be upgraded – most phones don’t even have SD card slots or replaceable batteries any more.

I can’t be alone in thinking this is a deeply mad state of affairs. I’ve been unlucky with my smartphone history, that’s for sure – many people will only have had 3-4 devices since 2010, but even that is too many. In a sane world, you’d buy a smartphone and it would last as long as a good computer. My Mac was made in 2012 and is still running fine; I plan to still be using it in the early 2020s. Why can’t the same be true for smartphones?

Ah yes, market forces, commercial pressures, the hype machine. It’s madness.

My fiancée Hannah has had the same basic Nokia since 2010. Every time she uses her phone to make a call or send a text message, it challenges my preconception that I ‘need’ a complex smartphone with massive computing power. I’ve rebounded back to basic phones out of frustration a couple of times over the years and I’m wondering if it’s time to put the smartphone aside for a while again. I’m tired of the upgrade cycle, tired of astronomically expensive, unreliable devices that work for a short period and then fizzle out.

It’s my hope that at some point our culture can develop a sane relationship with technology and consumption, but we aren’t there yet.

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/mar/11/search-smartphone-soaked-blood
  2. https://www.androidauthority.com/owning-smartphone-human-environment-cost-656030/
  3. https://hackaday.com/2017/04/21/ask-hackaday-why-did-modular-smart-phones-fail/