Getting a new iPhone every 2 years makes less sense than ever
Commentary: Flagship phones are giving us only incremental improvements, and our upgrade culture is making less and less sense.
Sareena DayaramSenior Editor
Sareena is a senior editor for CNET covering the mobile beat including device reviews. She is a seasoned multimedia journalist with more than a decade's worth of experience producing stories for television and digital publications across Asia's financial capitals including Singapore, Hong Kong, and Mumbai. Prior to CNET, Sareena worked at CNN as a news writer and Reuters as a producer.
We all know the drill. As Apple's annual fall event draws close, many of us start to check in on our previous two-year smartphone plan to see if we're eligible for an upgrade in September. After all, the newest phone is only the newest phone for so long. Even for discerning shoppers like me, it takes serious willpower to resist the lure of a purple iPhone or 1TB of storage.
Mobile carriers have long persuaded many of us to upgrade our smartphones every two years, offering two-year contracts linked to free or low-cost phone upgrades to keep the two-year upgrade cycle going. That feeling of ponying up just a couple hundred dollars (or less) for the newest, fanciest phone available has helped perpetuate the rise of the de facto two-year phone upgrade. Case in point: AT&T and Verizon marketed a "free" iPhone 12 last year for customers who buy unlimited plans and commit to a multiyear deal. And the trade-in deals were even better this year for the iPhone 13.
But even though that might still be the norm in the US, a routine upgrade isn't a thing for much of the world.
I was born and raised in developing Asia, a region where buying a smartphone is financially unattainable for hundreds of millions of people, much less a two-year upgrade. In India, the average person needs to save two months' salary to buy the cheapest available smartphone, according to a survey published by the Alliance for Affordable Internet last August. From my perspective, the trend of routinely upgrading a phone every two years when it doesn't change that much is a privilege, one that reminds me of the stark income equality gap as well as the ever-increasing digital divide globally.
Beyond that, and perhaps more tangibly, I think we should consider the environmental cost of purchasing a new phone. You've read the headlines: Climate change is accelerating at rapid speed. Countries around the world keep setting new records for the highest temperatures. There are more climate-related disasters than ever before, arctic caps are melting and biodiversity is disappearing faster than we can save it. What, exactly, happens to all those discarded phones over time? Does all that plastic ever fully decompose?
For years, developed countries like the US have shipped recyclable waste overseas for processing. Although that is now beginning to change, there are real costs. iPhones contain toxic materials like lead and mercury, for instance, which can harm the environment and people if disposed of improperly. And often e-waste isn't properly managed. In Southern China, there is a town called Guiyu that has become known as the world's biggest graveyard for America's electronic junk, and synonymous among environmentalists with toxic waste. The UN's 2020 Global E-waste Monitor report found that the world dumped a record 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste last year, of which the US is the world's second-largest contributor to e-waste, dumping 6.9 million tonnes.
While Apple is committed to a net zero supply chain by 2030, it's tough to argue that there's a better alternative to lower carbon consumption than less consumption. After all, Apple says the iPhone 12's end-to-end supply chain emits 70 kilograms of carbon to the atmosphere. If even 1 million people waited that extra year, we could save 70,000,000 kilograms of carbon from going into the air in a year. Imagine if it was 10 million or 100 million. It's something to think about before making that upgrade.
The smartphone upgrade cycle has gotten longer
Even with the enticing deals offered by carriers, the upgrade cycle has seemingly lengthened. In recent years, several reports show how Americans and Europeans are more than happy to hold on to their phones for longer periods of time. In fact, in 2019 smartphone upgrades hit record lows at two of the biggest US carriers, Verizon and AT&T. Carriers like T-Mobile and Verizon seem to have responded to this by offering month-to-month plans, which offer more flexibility and options, indicating a potential departure from the "norm" of a two-year phone upgrade.
Barring big-picture factors like the struggling global economy amid the ongoing pandemic as well as our increased mindfulness over the environment, I think this trend is persisting for a confluence of reasons. Phones today are receiving software, and therefore security, updates for longer. For instance, 2015's iPhone 6S is compatible with iOS 15, potentially dampening desires for a bi-yearly upgrade.
In addition to all this, smartphone innovation has hit a plateau, and the industry bears the hallmarks of one that's maturing: slowing smartphone sales growth along with the slower evolution of what we need, what we want and so forth. There are no big surprises here: Today's phones are getting more nice-to-have refinements rather than the awe-inspiring innovation seen just three or four years ago.
Decreasing technological gap
Up until a couple of years ago, smartphone manufacturers had us sitting on the edge of our seats, waiting for the next design refresh. But that's not as much the case anymore. With the iPhone 12 series, 5G was probably its buzziest feature -- one that understandably ended up triggering an upgrade supercycle. But the most exciting thing for many of us at CNET was MagSafe, which is hardly new. Apple's proprietary technology, allowing you to magnetically snap on attachments, was first introduced some 15 years ago with the first-gen MacBook Pro. It was then reintroduced for the iPhone 12.
When you look at what changed from the iPhone 11, you'll see the usual suspects on your list: 5G, OLED screen, new design. Admittedly there are a few more things you won't see everywhere, such as MagSafe and the Ceramic Shield, but nothing extra-special to truly write home about. Personally, the last time I was blown away by an iPhone reveal was back in 2017 when Apple introduced the iPhone X, which set new design standards for the modern-day iPhone. The iPhone X did away with the physical home button and chunky bezels of its predecessors and made way for a sleek, futuristic device that inspired the iPhone 12 family. Also, for the first time with Apple, we were able to unlock an iPhone with Face ID, Apple's facial recognition technology.
Looking at the iPhone 13, the narrative sounds familiar. We knew it wouldn't get a major technical upgrade (though that didn't stop us from wishing). While we appreciate the upgrades Apple did give the phone (a smaller notch, a larger battery and a faster screen refresh rate), the iPhone 13 is "not radically different," according to CNET's Patrick Holland. Plus a number of these new iPhone features, like the 120Hz screen, currently exist on Android phones, reinforcing the notion of a decreasing technological gap in the smartphone landscape. Apple itself says the life-cycle of a typical iPhone is now three years. So the company times its new releases accordingly: We get a major redesign every three years, not two, with more minor updates in between.
Look no further than the glitziest non-Apple flagship launch of this year for clues: Samsung's Galaxy S21 family. Here the standout change wasn't made to the hardware or software, but perhaps to its least interesting feature: its price tag. The S21 lineup has a starting price of $800 (£769, AU$1,249), which is $200 less than last year's $1,000 Galaxy S20, making for an enticing deal.
Apart from that, major differences between the S21 and last year's S20 were mostly incremental. I remember having to pore over the specs sheet to spot salient differences as I covered Samsung's virtual Unpacked event. Refinements were made to the usual suspects, including the processor, software and 5G. This might have been part of Samsung's response to the global coronavirus pandemic, but again it lends credence to the notion of that decreasing technological gap. It was also interesting to note the items Samsung dropped from the S21 flagship family to meet that lowered price. We said goodbye to expandable storage, bundled earphones and most notoriously the in-box charger, as Samsung followed in Apple's lead -- apparently in the name of the environment.
Let's also take a moment to consider the question: What makes the S21 an attractive buy? Chances are, a great camera, fast performance, battery longevity and a crisp display with narrow bezels are at the top of your list. But the truth is 2019's Galaxy S10 boasts all those features. Heck, even the Galaxy S7 from five years ago did. My point is yearly changes have become too incremental to compel most people to upgrade with urgency, especially given the backdrop of rising smartphone prices.
Are we at peak phone?
I'm not discounting foldable phones. Samsung and Huawei have made undeniable technological progress, and their bendy handsets have dramatically altered the way smartphones are used and could represent the future of the industry. But folding phones are far from the mainstream. Phone manufacturers and carriers in the US have moved the most innovative devices to a price that's simply beyond reach for most people. For instance, the Galaxy Fold 3 starts at $1,800 (£1,599, AU$2,499) and Huawei's Mate X2, available in China for now, costs nearly $3,000 ($2,800, £1,985, AU$3,640 converted). Until these prices hit price parity with, say, the iPhone 12 Pro or Pro Max, foldable phones are likely to remain a niche product.
Smartphone innovation has stagnated, and this is not a knock against the consumer electronics companies or the tech giants that design them. Maybe we've reached peak smartphone, and this is as far as it needs to go. It could well be part of the reason why the race to upgrade your phones is slowing.