Smartphones are a ridiculous strain on our wallets. And ironically, getting rid of cheap phones could ease that burden. Manufacturers need to build quality smartphones that last a decade and replace cheap new phones with a strong and consumer-friendly aftermarket.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with buying a cheap smartphone. If I didn’t work in tech I would probably use one! My complaint is that cheap phones encourage waste in the smartphone market – we should recycle them Well Telephones, do not replace Poorly phones.
Cheap vs Expensive: What’s the Real Difference?
Everyone has their unique shopping habits, but in general we all share one basic idea – we believe that new stuff is better than old stuff. This is especially true when it comes to electronics, as it’s difficult to keep up with the never-ending stream of technological “improvements” and “advancements”.
Smartphone technology improved at a rapid pace in the late 2000s and early 2010s. But things have slowed down a bit. If you take a two-year-old iPhone and compare it to the latest model, you’ll see that they’re not all that different. The same applies to Android devices.
But what happens when you compare an old “expensive” phone to a new “cheap” phone? Well, you’ll quickly find that the old flagship is better than the shiny new budget device. It will use a faster processor and its camera quality will be similar to that of a new flagship.
Take the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra for example. This phone is around $300 on the aftermarket, but it uses a Snapdragon 865 5G chipset and has outrageously good cameras. New phones with a similar price, like the Moto Edge, lag behind the Galaxy S20 Ultra in performance benchmark tests and have significantly inferior cameras.
Cheap phones often lack key features like wireless charging. And they often suffer from strange problems that are never fixed by the manufacturer. The iPhone SE is a good example; its cell service is ridiculously unreliable.
Not to mention that flagship phones have a much higher build quality than budget options. And it’s about more than looks here – flagship devices use durable Gorilla Glass and are certified with dust and water resistance. Cheap phones, on the other hand, use cheap glass and rarely bother with an IPX water resistance certification. If you’re clumsy, you might end up buying a new cheap phone every year!
Flagship phones should be supported for a decade
It’s clear that an old flagship will outperform any new budget phone. But here’s the problem; Android smartphones only receive software updates for a few years. The Galaxy S20 Ultra that I mentioned earlier will get its last security update in 2024. After that, it slowly becomes more vulnerable to hackers and malware.
To be fair, cheap Android phones rarely get more than a year of updates. And some cheap phones never get an update! But the point remains – if we’re going to get rid of cheap phones, we need manufacturers that offer a decade of software support for flagships. This is the only way to build a strong aftermarket where quality phones are inexpensive and durable.
Some manufacturers are approaching this level of software support. Samsung and Google are now promising five years of security updates for their latest flagships. But Apple is the reigning champion as it still supports the iPhone 8 that launched back in 2017.
In fact, the iPhone is a great example of why we should ditch cheap phones. Rather than expanding with a bunch of cheap devices, Apple is focusing its energies on supporting a small selection of premium iPhones. It’s not uncommon for someone to buy an iPhone that’s three or four years old, but that’s not the case with Android products.
The only wart in Apple’s lineup is the iPhone SE. It’s cheaply made, so it can’t compete with older iPhones that sell for the same price.
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Of course, repairability is part of the equation
Even with extended software support, a smartphone might not last more than a few years. Falls, spills and other accidents are inevitable. And if you don’t smash your phone, its battery will eventually wear out and become unusable.
These problems can be fixed. Repair companies are everywhere and the aftermarket for phone parts is pretty robust. The problem is that repairing a phone is often more expensive or more difficult than buying a new one.
As manufacturers ditch cheap phones and flagships offer extended support, they also need to make those devices easily repairable. Screen replacements should be cheap, and it should only take a few minutes to replace a phone battery.
Repairability is slowly emerging as a major issue, and right-to-repair legislation is popular on both sides of the aisle. Also, companies like Google and Samsung are now working directly with iFixit, a site that sells aftermarket parts and publishes device repair guides. Things are getting better and better in this area.
Even so, the average person still can’t fix their phone. And the move away from cheap disposable phones won’t happen until repairability becomes a priority.
iFixit Essential Electronics Toolkit – Repair kit for PCs, laptops and phones
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This dream will probably not come true
Getting rid of cheap smartphones could help us save money and reduce waste. But cheap phones are not going anywhere. Buyers are entrenched in their habits, manufacturers don’t offer a decade of software support anythingand Right-to-Repair legislation will only improve repairability for those who actively seek it.
Also, if everyone kept their phone for more than two years, a number of companies would collapse and go bankrupt. I’m not sure any company, investor, or economist would appreciate the idea I’m proposing.
At the time of writing, Motorola is the third largest smartphone brand in the United States. And it’s largely a budget brand. Samsung comes in second, and a decent chunk of its sales come from cheap “A-series” devices.
The only outlier is Apple, which takes first place. It holds a huge market share because it has loyal customers and offers iPhone software updates for several years. If Apple decides to adopt the “cheap phones shouldn’t exist” mentality, so will other companies could follow. But given Apple’s track record of repairability, I suspect this is another dead end.
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