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How Long Can You Expect Your Smartphone, Other Devices to Last?

Tech firms’ new models encourage customers to replace equipment that works just fine

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Touting pro-grade cameras, hot-to-trot displays, big batteries and features born of artificial intelligence, Samsung took the wraps off three pricey Galaxy S22 series smartphones this month, the freshest iterations of the company’s flagship Android handsets.

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By all appearances, the phones, which start at around $800 and soar past four figures on some models, look impressive. But you could have said the same of the then-state-of-the-art Galaxy S-series phone you might have purchased two or three years ago. That Galaxy is still more than capable, and you may decide not to buy this time around, even with decent trade-in offers.

But suppose you do buy. In 12 to 36 months, or whenever some prized new model catches your fancy, might you be tempted again?

This do-I-or-don’t-I replacement mindset is by no means only a Samsung issue. Apple devotees have similar thoughts whenever new iPhones are released. The same goes when other companies unveil their latest and greatest. Marketers prey on your uncertainties by communicating the not-so-subtle message that what you have now is long in the tooth, no matter its chronological age.

That’s true not only for phones but for a host of tech products: computers, fitness trackers, refrigerators, smartwatches, tablets, televisions and washing machines. Even if you’re not the type of person who jumps at the next big thing — or doesn’t have the finances to do so — you may wonder about the lifespan of all the tech products in and around your home.

Reasons to retire a product

How long you want your devices and appliances to last doesn’t often square with how long they actually do last. Why the disconnect? Are such products past their prime?

Maybe yes, maybe no — the answer is tied to the age, condition and type of gear approaching retirement. Things get dinged up, parts fall off, batteries reach their limits and stuff breaks. Is fixing it impractical or too costly? Are parts still available or has the warranty expired? Does the product lack the technological muscle to handle the latest features or software updates? Has the manufacturer pulled the plug on support?

Eventually things get left behind for factors beyond your control. For example, the phone you’re still using from a decade ago will be neutered when the wireless carriers shut down their 3G networks, starting with AT&T on Feb. 22, 2022.

Or perhaps you ditch the old simply because you’ve been seduced by the promise of the new.

Do companies practice planned obsolescence?

In 1924, light bulb manufacturers formed what was known as the international Phoebus cartel to coordinate pricing and lower bulb life. Almost 100 years later, the concept of planned obsolescence, a term that dates to at least the Great Depression, often has a conspiratorial tone attached to it.

The concept suggests companies don’t want products that live indefinitely, so they can produce profitable replacements. And manufacturers may use flimsy parts or employ cheaper labor to drive down their costs.

A more positive spin is that companies want to innovate, avoid stagnation and help stimulate spending. The cliché “they just don’t make them like they used to” carries a mostly negative connotation.

“It’s absolutely true that they don’t,” says Jonathan Chapman, a design professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who leads a program for designers “committed to making positive changes in the world,” according to the school’s website. “But I think that’s good and bad. In some ways, things aren’t built to last anymore … and they’re definitely not built to be dismantled and repaired easily if they break or when they break or need updating.”

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But Chapman adds that for some energy-intensive products, such as fridges, washing machines and cars, “I’m glad they don’t make them like they used to. We’ve got holes in the ozone layer that will testify to that.”

Why not make products easier to repair?

Nathan Proctor directs the national campaign for the Right to Repair movement at the United States Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG), a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization. Right to Repair’s aim is to extend the amount of time a product can be repaired.

“I mean, the idea that your stuff doesn’t last as long as it used to is an objective reality,” he says. “[Manufacturers] aren’t making things with the thought that they’re going to be around for a long time.”

Right to Repair reformers want state officials to give consumers and small businesses access to the parts, tools and service information needed to make repairs. The European Union has already adopted such rules for certain appliances.

Replacing gear instead of repairing products does more than crimp the family budget. Disposable tech is environmentally harmful, according to US PIRG.

Americans spend about $1,480 per household on new electronics every year and have 24 pieces of electronics in their homes, the group found in a study done in the 12 months from the third quarter of 2018 through the second quarter of 2019. And the average family generates 176 pounds of electronic waste annually. That adds up to 6.9 million tons a year in the United States.

But opponents say Right to Repair measures pose safety and security risks.

In November, Apple announced a Self Service Repair program that will give customers who feel comfortable handing their own repairs — not just authorized service providers — access to the company’s parts and tools. The program, which kicks off this year, will be available initially for iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 parts as well as for Mac computers with Apple’s M1 chips. The first phase of the program will focus on such commonly serviced modules as the iPhone display, battery and camera.

“Absolutely, it’s a step in the right direction,” Proctor says. “But there are still problems with that program. It’s very limited.”

Do new products last half as long?

Anecdotal examples abound of newer products that don’t age as well as their predecessors.

“My mom had a KitchenAid dishwasher for at least 20 years. I can’t get one, even the high-end brands, to last more than five years before something electronic goes out, and the repair is 50 percent or more of a new one,” says Claire Lematta, a freelance grant writer in Portland, Oregon.

Anne Ward replaced her 20-year-old dishwasher recently after it started not working so well. “We noticed immediately that the new one was more cheaply made, the rack is far less sturdy, and now we strongly doubt it will last half as long,” says the chief executive of CircleClick, a Silicon Valley digital marketing firm.

Ward also has considered replacing the washer and dryer she bought about a decade ago for more energy-efficient models with advanced tech features.

“But several people told me if I upgrade them, the new machines will mostly have plastic parts,” she says. “Plastic parts don’t last as long. Although they’re not top of the line, these older appliances are reliable, and so we won’t upgrade them until we have to.”

Emotional vs. physical durability

Design professor Chapman approaches the subject from two perspectives. First there’s “physical durability,” which is what happens when something breaks or deteriorates. Then there’s “emotional durability” — the product is still functioning fine, but you’ve either fallen out of love with it or become distracted by something new.

“In some ways, you could say, ‘Why do they keep coming out with new phones?’ But then you could also say, ‘Why do we keep buying them?’ ” says Chapman, whose recent book, Meaningful Stuff: Design That Lasts, investigates why we throw things out that still work.

People may convince themselves to replace their phone because a new one is faster. “Why does that matter to you?” Chapman asks. “What, do you work at NASA or something? Even the supposedly technical failures or deficiencies are often not really problems. But we’ve been trained to believe that they are.”

For folks who do hold on to things longer, “it almost feels like an act of protest or disobedience, because it’s just so unconventional to do that,” Chapman says.

Ability to update some devices extended

As part of the S22 product launch, Samsung announced that select Galaxy phones will be supported through four generations of Android operating system upgrades, up from three generations, and five years of security updates. Samsung’s smartwatches will get four years of software updates.

It “ensures millions of Galaxy users have access to the latest features for security, productivity, better usability and more, for as long as they own their device,” Samsung said in a release.

For its part, Apple’s latest operating system for iPhones, iOS 15, is compatible with devices dating as far back as iPhone 6s handsets, which debuted in 2015, though not every feature works on the older devices. How long you can expect your devices to last may boil down to a matter of perspective.

“I have a clock radio my family purchased in 1982,” says Lisa Hitt of Northern Virginia. “Still works, still in use. I doubt if any similar device purchased today will still be in use in 40 years.”

Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA Today, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and Fortune and is the author of Macs for Dummies and the coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.

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