Apple has announced the new iPhone X, a beautiful redesigned iPhone with a screen that stretches from edge to edge, a fancy new camera, and some wild facial recognition tech. And just like every year when Apple releases its latest and greatest iPhone, millions of people ask themselves (and their tech-savviest friends) the same question: Should I upgrade?
No one can answer that question for you. It depends on all sorts of factors, chief among them being how much money you've got kicking around. But the iPhone X is the exemplar of growing wave of "premium" phones, and as we look across the selection of them, a value judgement starts to peek out: It's never been less worth it to upgrade to a new phone if you don't have to. Buying a new but older-model phone, or just keeping the phone you have, is a better call than ever. New smartphones are offering less for more.
The performance plateau
It's important to remember—and easy to forget—how primitive early smartphones were. The first iPhone launched without an app store or 3G connectivity. The Curve, Blackberry's last pre-iPhone handset, had a 320 × 240 screen and came in models that didn't have GPS. The first Android phone, the HTC Dream, launched with a physical keyboard because, at the time, Android did not even support an on-screen option.
And as these competitors leapfrogged back and forth, outpacing one another in one area and falling behind in others, some new phones came with updates that could fairly be called "life-changing." The inclusion of GPS, the development of app stores, new wireless radios that offered internet speeds suitable for streaming video—each of these advancements were not just items on a "new features" checklist but actually changed the way we lived our lives.
each of these advancements actually changed the way we lived our lives.
As these technical advancements began to roll in, the role of processing power was also incredibly important. Screen resolutions doubled and quadrupled up from grainy and low-res to full HD and beyond. Data speeds facilitated larger and more complex apps, with more detailed and sophisticated graphics. Updating to a phone with a better processor—whether or not it came with any other great new features—could have incredible implications for your quality of smartphone life, either by running older software better through sheer brute force or giving you access to the latest round of more computationally intensive apps.
These general trends of advancement continue today, but a few key variables have shifted. The frequency of truly life-changing features has slowed. I'd argue that quick-read fingerprint sensors are the most recent advancement that qualify, and they debuted in earnest on Apple's 2013 iPhone 5S. Many of the "advancements" that followed it—like the facial recognition tech in FaceID for the iPhone X—only serve to emulate the same basic features that were already there. Similarly, the continual need for extra processing power has mostly dropped off as well, unless you care a whole lot the nascent world of VR and AR which, for the most part, has yet to prove its worth.
However, the frequency of new phones has not dropped off at all. This has some enormous (if rarely discussed) benefits. For example, the gradual slowing of significant innovation and an increasingly uniform set of expectations about what a phone needs to do has given almost all smartphones an opportunity to catch up to the baseline. There aren't really many bad phones anymore, at least not in the way that there used to be flagship stinkers. But this also makes the question of whether or not to upgrade more complicated. After all, what are you really paying for?
The features that actually matter
At the same time we've watched a general slowdown of truly revolutionary features, there have been two key areas where smartphones really do desperately need to improve: battery and repairability. An innovation in either one would make buying a new phone a much more compelling proposition. And yet modern smartphones have been running away from both of them in such a unified way that it seems purposeful.
We are stuck with lithium-ion batteries because there's no clear alternative, and shifting to something new will be a herculean undertaking. So, barring some sea change in technology, phones won't last more than a day or two before they need a charge, and their batteries will degrade over time.
There are two good solutions to this problem, but the majority of premium phones today opt for neither. The first would be to design phones with easily replaceable batteries that allow you to buy a backup and swap it in. Bam, instant 100 percent charge. This was the norm in many phones (excluding the iPhone) for years, until it was phased out in favor of the slimmer, slicker unibody phones that people (theoretically) want, at least according to smartphone advertising. The other option—to forgo mostly pointless thinness in favour of a big ol' battery—has only been genuinely explored by a handful of phones like the Droid Turbo, which didn't always live up to their battery promises and were never widely available.
Bad battery life is an annoying day to day nuisance, but in the bigger picture, it's part of a more systemic longevity issue in the entire tech industry. Despite everything they can do—and how much they cost—phones still can't reliably last more than two or three years max. It's a confluence of problems including the fact that batteries gradually lose capacity and cannot be easily replaced, that screens can shatter and require expensive professional repairs, and that companies abandon their older phones by introducing newer operating systems that don't support them.
None of these problems is completely avoidable, but each could be mitigated. Replacing batteries and screens could be much easier and simpler—potentially even a DIY job—if phones were slightly chunkier and amenable to disassembly. Instead, slim and admittedly slick designs that rely evermore on glue make repairs so difficult that an upgrade the only sensible option—not because the new phone is better, but because it's not broken (yet). Besides, investing in repairs can be like throwing good money after bad, especially if the company is going to force your device into obsolescence. Google's home-grown Pixel phones, for example, will receive software updates for only the first two years of life presumably regardless of whether they can handle whatever new software is coming down the pike.
The beautiful busted future
In the face of these problems, phonemakers have embraced an anti-solution: to make the phones slimmer, more polished, more beautiful. If we're all willing to settle for buying new pocket computers every two or three years, then that's fine. The problem is that phones are also getting more expensive without getting meaningfully better.
Take the iPhone X, for instance. With a beautiful high-resolution OLED screen that covers the entire front of the phone, the iPhone X is an undeniably beautiful piece of design. But the bulk of its new features were invented to accommodate that design rather than to make any meaningful steps forward. The iPhone X's infrared facial recognition technology, for instance, exists entirely to replace the fingerprint sensor it used to have. It's cool, but it seems marginally more useful in practice. The only problem it solves is one Apple created.
iPhone X's infrared facial recognition technology exists entirely to replace the fingerprint sensor it used to have
Combined with some new camera technology, wireless charging, and a better processor, the X should make for a fine if not revelatory upgrade. But that price! It costs $1,000 for a brand new iPhone X, and the 256 GB version will be even more. The minimum cost of upgrading last year by buying a new iPhone 7 was $650. Upgrading to the X will cost $350 more for roughly the same improvements to camera, processor, and battery life you'd expect from the cheaper annual updates of years past. That is a big premium to pay for a pretty face.
Apple is not alone in this. An unlocked Samsung Galaxy S8 costs $825, a $150 premium over the $670 launch price of an unlocked Galaxy S7. Similarly, the S8 has little more to show for the added cost than a good-looking, button-free design. Google's first Pixel phone (homely by comparison to these other two) launched for $650 last year, up $150 from the $500 price tag of its previous Nexus 6P. All that for a design that is still easy to break, hard to fix, and will die the slow death of battery degradation.
None of this should be surprising. There's not a tech company in the world that is incentivized to make your phone last longer than you expect it to. Apple can make money charging for services like Apple Music and iCloud. Google can make money selling you Google Drive space and advertising against your data. But you buy a phone only once in a great while, and that phone represents the bulk of the mobile business. Eventually you will need a new phone, but Apple would prefer to sell you one long before you reach that point. But even once you reach it, consider the alternative: buying a new version of a cheaper, older phone.
I don't blame you if you're considering upgrading to the new hotness. Maybe you have the money to spare, and it does look quite nice. Just remember: This is a snowball trend that leads to upgrading your phone more frequently and more expensively, and for diminishing returns. And for each one of us that upgrades on a whim, it will only get worse.