Commentary: Releasing new phones less often would lessen the environmental impact and might make phones exciting again.
Andrew LanxonEditor At Large, Lead Photographer, Europe
Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.
It's become standard practice that flagship phones from almost all brands, including Apple, Samsung and Google, are refreshed every year. It's a problem and it needs to stop. Not only is it a significant drain on the environment, I believe it's a major reason why the mobile phone industry feels stagnant and boring right now. By switching to a two- or even three-year update cycle, phones could become exciting again and we'd be doing the planet a massive favor. Let me explain.
The industry runs like clockwork. We expect Apple to release new iPhones in September, Samsung to launch new Galaxy S-series phones in January or February and Google to debut new Pixels in October. This predictable cycle means that there's always a flashy new product to buy whether you're upgrading from a five-year-old handset or simply want the latest, greatest tech available.
It is, of course, a money-making exercise, designed to make you crave the next best thing and give more of your hard-earned cash to both the phone manufacturers and the cellular network providers you're likely buying from.
The biggest problem with these quick update cycles is the environmental drain it causes. The electronics industry is a dirty one. From the mining of rare earth minerals to be used in all manner of device components, to the factories and production lines, to the shipping of the products themselves, the environmental impact of your phone is huge. And while most companies now boast various amounts of recycled materials in their phones, the bigger help in reducing that impact would simply be to release new models less often.
If you look after your phone then you can reasonably expect it to last several years. Manufacturers including Apple, Samsung and OnePlus even support their phones for up to five years, meaning a phone you buy today should still be going strong in 2028. Releasing phones less often would encourage people to hold onto their devices for longer, keeping devices out of landfills and requiring fewer resources to produce and ship brand new phones every year.
But the other problem I feel we're facing is how boring and predictable phones are these days. Bigger screens, higher-resolution cameras and more powerful processors are the headline features year after year, and genuine innovation seems to have been abandoned in favor of box-ticking incremental upgrades. The Galaxy S23 Ultra is a great phone, but it's barely any different than the S22 Ultra. The iPhone 14 Pro -- is it much different to the 13 Pro? I hoped that foldable phones might spark some excitement in the industry, but that hasn't happened yet. Meanwhile Motorola's Razr line skipped 2022 in most of the world, and returned with a vengeance this year with a refreshed model that debuted a more useful cover screen ahead of Samsung's Galaxy Z Flip 5.
With a two- or three-year update cycle, companies could hold on to those new features for longer, making the eventual launch of a new model seem like a bigger deal, with more valuable upgrades that we'd be excited to get hold of. I just sat through Samsung's Unpacked event where the Galaxy Z Fold 5 was unveiled. It's a slight upgrade over the Z Fold 4 but when I compare it to the original Fold launched in 2019 the difference is huge. It's even worse at OnePlus, where last year the company released the OnePlus 10 Pro and OnePlus 10T within months of each other, making the latter a questionable purchase.
Phone companies could adopt a similar model to the games console or camera industry. Sony took seven years to fully replace the PS4 with the PS5, while Canon replaced its 2016 5D Mark IV with the EOS R5 in 2020. And both the PS5 and the Canon R5 offered vast upgrades over their predecessors, dramatically changing the ways we used them and justifying the expense in upgrading. I spent thousands buying my Canon R5 when it launched. I wouldn't have done that if I knew it would simply be replaced next year.
Few of us replace our TVs every year, or our cars, or our laptops, instead waiting for meaningful moments to change things up when that new technology -- be it electric power in your car or 8K HDR in your TV -- means we'll really see a benefit. These are items we may keep for at least five years before upgrading and the same should be true of our phones. Dutch company Fairphone is one of the few phone-makers taking this idea to heart: Its 2021 Fairphone 4 is still the company's most recent phone and it allows for basic repairs using a screwdriver. However its reach is fairly limited, with the phone only recently getting a US release.
Releasing new flagship phones every two or three years would not only reduce the industry's environmental footprint, but by holding on to and refining those products, the launches would be much more exciting. And I miss the excitement.