New phone?
July 28, 2017 6:12 AM   Subscribe

Why do people still buy new smartphones? Haven’t we reached peak smartphone?

Surely smartphones are now like laptops/computers, newer ones don’t really look any different/have any increased features, yet every new release is still marketed massively and people still go to buy them in droves.

I’m aware that something like the new Samsung S8 is pretty undeniably attractive, but then we have thin and sexy laptops too these days, and yet few people seem to go out and buy one, as they just hold onto the old ones they already have (I myself am currently typing this on a decrepit old hunk of junk that still functions fairly adequately).

Any logical reasons?
posted by inner_frustration to Technology (53 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Right off the top, in the case of the S8, I think that having a waterproof phone is pretty useful to people who are active or clumsy or both.
posted by ftm at 6:18 AM on July 28, 2017 [7 favorites]

Logical reasons:
New versions of software eventually aren't supported on older devices.
Phones age and the battery no longer holds a charge.
Sometimes people break their phones.
Companies buy phones for new employees.

People like newer, cooler things.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:19 AM on July 28, 2017 [16 favorites]

I'm a serial iPhone user (I'm on my... fourth? I think?), and I find that after a couple of years, its battery drains much faster, to the point that I can't rely on it if I'm out of the house all day on the weekend. I don't know whether that's because the battery is dying or because the next-next iOS is running too hot for it, but that's most of why I replace mine every couple of models.

I replace my laptop only slightly less often (I think I've gotten two new ones since I started buying iPhones), and it's generally for much the same reason: battery issues or the new Windows creaking along on my old one. But I use my laptop less than my phone.
posted by Etrigan at 6:21 AM on July 28, 2017 [5 favorites]

I feel like you may not be looking deeply enough into the question.

Each new phone from a top-tier producer -- mostly, Samsung and Apple -- has new and better features. Sure, each is an evolution from the prior iteration, but as with anything iterations accumulate pretty dramatically over time. Just compare the features of any piece of technology purchased in 2017 to the rough equivalent from 2012 or 2007.

With the iPhone, the biggest changes are typically in battery capacity and the capabilities of the camera. Those are big selling points, because they're features people use all the time. I'm not an Android user, but I assume those are the "big two" for Samsung & etc as well.

I realize now that you might be asking why people just don't use phones forever, i.e. why do they buy new ones at all. The useful life for a phone is, at best 2-3 years, and the last year is probably much less fun than the first two. Your battery isn't working as well. The touchscreen may be less responsive, and general wear and tear take a toll.

I'm experiencing this now. I skipped my usual even-year upgrade because the iPhone 7 lacks a headphone jack, so I'm still using a nearly-3-year-old iPhone 6. There's a measurable gap between my camera and the shots taken by a 7, and the phone itself is a little wonky in ways I chalk up to being dropped or whatever a few too many times.
posted by uberchet at 6:21 AM on July 28, 2017 [8 favorites]

A lot of people are on contracts which will give you a 'free' phone every few years. It is in the networks interest to push you onto a newer phone because larger screen /faster/more features generally means more data being used.
posted by Lanark at 6:23 AM on July 28, 2017 [6 favorites]

Also, storage space. When you buy a phone, the amount of space for apps/photos/music/podcasts usually seems vast. Three years later, you're frantically deleting things every time you need to download a file, and the new phones on the market suddenly have a lot more storage room than they used to.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 6:27 AM on July 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Smartphones wear out -

the battery starts going flat faster,
the phone starts "crashing" and needing to be turned on/off,
the touch screen starts becoming unresponsive...
posted by Murderbot at 6:30 AM on July 28, 2017 [9 favorites]

Planned obsolescence. Phones aren't made to be repaired or last longer than the next release. Companies want you to buy and will innovate (i.e. Remove your earphone jack) so that you feel you are getting something for it.
posted by Iteki at 6:30 AM on July 28, 2017 [12 favorites]

There is a bit of planned obsolescence in cell phones. Updates to your apps and operating system can eat up storage space and eventually slow performance noticeably. For the non-tech savvy clearing out the storage may be tricky or not something they think to do often.

Also, these miraculous devices can be fragile. Buttons and touch screens can break. Batteries can wear out. Water damage is a nightmare. My sister managed to flush her phone; I drop mine constantly and will eventually step on it, drop it in water, or feed it to a dog.

So there are certinally enough people needing or wanting new phones to keep up a demand, whether through necessity or a bit of a luxury.

Cell phones are also priced to be affordable. Computers require all the funds up front, in hand (for the most part, obviously credit and layaway and such exist) but buying a new cell phone can often be a matter of adding a little bit to your monthly phone bill for a while.and like Lanark said, phone companies and accessories manufacturers have incentives to keep this economy rolling.
posted by Jacen at 6:32 AM on July 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Jonathan Blow gave a talk about his new programming language that explains why pretty well, although he wasn't talking about softphones in particular.

Watch the first few minutes.

the tl;dw; is that as computers get faster, programmers use the new speed to either make development easier or add more features, or just to be lazy and not optimize. All of your apps that used to be awesome 4 years ago, after a bunch of updates are now barely usable on your phone. So you buy a new one that's 8 times faster.
posted by empath at 6:34 AM on July 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

To expand, I probanly •have• to replace my 5S now as a couple of drops have caused the digitizer to be a bit fucked and the battery is flat. I changed the battery myself but could t fix the digitizer and no companies will as the frame has bent so it will be too difficult to reassemble. I am trying desperately to make it work, including trying to work out if I can just have it with a completely different frame, because I hate, hate, hate the present forced upgrade cycle. I also want a 4" smartphone and that's almost a fuggeddabout it at this stage. Gonna try buy a used SE. Smartphones are made from stuff mined from the earth by small kids, we should be on a much slower turnaround on these things.
posted by Iteki at 6:36 AM on July 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

In my most recent case, I upgraded from an iPhone 6 to a 7 Plus.

My specific, tangible reasons:

- better haptic feedback, "3D touch", etc
- some apps were running too slowly on the iPhone 6 (Evernote, I'm looking at you)
- TouchID for payments, unlock, etc
- larger storage capacity for photos, podcasts, etc
- other peoples' money (work phone)
- switching from 'regular' to 'Plus' was a nice screen size upgrade and allowed me to repurpose an iPad mini for my family's use

Of course, most of these were evolutionary rather than revolutionary changes, but I would rather have them than not.
posted by theorique at 6:48 AM on July 28, 2017

I mean, I had an iPhone 5 and upgraded to the 7 because my phone was old as hell and would barely stay charged.
posted by Brittanie at 6:56 AM on July 28, 2017

For me, my last upgrade was to get a phone with a camera so good I could leave my "real" heavy one at home when I went out. The recent improvements in phone cameras has been phenomenal.
posted by pangolin party at 6:58 AM on July 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

My HTC EVO 4G, which used WiMax, allowed me to talk and browse the internet at the same time. Every phone since then uses Sprint Edge and cannot.

My Galaxy S5 was waterproof, had a removable battery and a high-speed USB port. My S7 does not have a removable battery and only has USB2.

Upgrading is getting less and less compelling.
posted by grumpybear69 at 7:02 AM on July 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

  1. You're wrong that smartphones have reached a plateau. In fact, smartphones have been getting better (in terms of raw hardware capabilities) much faster than computers that run desktop operating systems.
  2. Similarly, the industry is still figuring out the interaction model for phones. The whole WIMP (windows/icons/menus/pointer) interface is pretty well settled for the desktop. With phones, the industry is still experimenting with voice interfaces, AR, VR, haptic feedback, etc.
  3. While I don't discount planned obsolescence entirely, I think it's overstated. Instead, I think we mostly see the results of a feedback loop between hardware and software. As hardware improves (which has been happening rapidly), software is developed to take advantage of new capabilities. But new software also requires those new capabilities, so either you can't upgrade the software, or you do upgrade the software and find your phone bogs down.

posted by adamrice at 7:14 AM on July 28, 2017 [8 favorites]

For me it is about the battery wearing out and the fact that I have dropped it so many times that a number of key things are working poorly.
A factory reset or 4 helps me but eventually I have to move on.
posted by k8t at 7:29 AM on July 28, 2017

AR (augmented reality) is going to drive another generation of phones. Doesn't matter if it's useful to you or not, but that's typically what we say about things that are still too early to find a killer app.

Take a look at this working example using the AR features on the newer iPhones (coming with iOS 11). Looks crude, but imagine where it will be in 5 years.
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:29 AM on July 28, 2017

To give you a specific example of upgrades: ARKit looks to be the new hotness in iOS 11. Fancy virtual reality overlays mediated via your phone. It'll be shipped with the OS update and so be a software upgrade for old phones, too. But it'll probably take more CPU, and storage, and your old phone will start feeling a little slow. Also it'll probably work better on newer hardware with better cameras, gyro sensor, etc. If ARKit succeeds that hardware upgrade is going to look real nice.
posted by Nelson at 7:30 AM on July 28, 2017

I am on team trying to stay as clear of tech in my life as I can (mind you I work on a computer all day). So I always am entitled to a "free phone and upgrade" for a year or more before I switch (unless I break my phone or it stops working). The concept of planned obsolescence pretty much interrupts my soul's desired way of being so I still take the vacuum cleaner to a repair shop when I can, etc. But it's reality - even tech curmudgeons such as myself have to upgrade because our old phone breaks or doesn't work well, the software updates no longer work for our phone's capabilities, everyone else on the metro can get a WiFi signal but I cannot, etc. And yes, I think other people like fun new things to play with, their phone is failing, appreciate upgrades and changes, some are sold to believe things are better (whether they are is a different question), etc.
posted by anya32 at 7:51 AM on July 28, 2017

The phones still need people to carry them around (wait is this not an AI conspiracy thread?)

There seems to be a huge corporate windfall occurring, note the large display stores for each of the major telecom companies (Verizon, ATT, Sprint) all investing in large store fronts which must have huge rents. Just like new cars, last decades model would solve most of folks transportation needs but lacking that new phone car smell ;-)
posted by sammyo at 7:52 AM on July 28, 2017

In my experience this is driven by the sellers. I was forced to replace my last iPhone because it was not compatible with the latest OS and would not update. I would have been happy to keep it.
posted by bunderful at 7:59 AM on July 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

The ones I can't understand are the people who get a new phone every six months. That's just insane.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:01 AM on July 28, 2017

I upgraded from the iPhone 6s to 7s because I have hearing problems and the sound is great. I could barely hear video on the 6s. The larger screen is also helpful for my aging eyes. Otherwise, I've gone from a first adopter to an eh, maybe one day over the last decade.

But without the subsidiZed phone it would be moot.
posted by Room 641-A at 8:02 AM on July 28, 2017

I'm thinking of replacing my three-year-old Samsung Galaxy S4. It is the first time I've gone more than two years without getting sufficiently annoyed with my phone to want to replace it. It's nearly good enough for what I need it for, but the battery barely lasts a day, once a week or so it "forgets" my PIN code and I have to restart it, and I have to have a "one in, one out" policy for apps, since it's running out of space and there's only so much I can put onto the SD card I installed in it (the way Android deals with this leaves a bit to be desired). Plus it's running fairly slow these days.

I'm buying it a new battery in the hope of alleviating the first problem such that I can put off the replacement for a little while. But it is getting towards new phone time, and the above list explains why that time has come for me.
posted by altolinguistic at 8:04 AM on July 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

I still have the cheap and cheerful Chinese smartphone I bought five years ago because my even cheaper Korean flip phone couldn't be a personal wifi hotspot. It still works about as well as it did when I bought it. I think that's mainly because I have a really strong aversion to touch screens in any form, so I never got into the whole thing people seem to have now of relying on my phone to meet my every digital need. I use it for calls and texts, taking the occasional happy snap, personal wifi hotspot and wifi signal strength meter; that's about it, although I was kind of pleased to discover that it was also usably competent at voice-guided GPS navigation - impressive in a device that cost me AU$70.

I've replaced the battery once. The screen has a crack in it from before I understood the value of ensuring that it went in my pocket with glass facing inward.

I continue to be astonished at the eagerness other people display for hurling hundreds of dollars into landfill every two years, but then again I never did understand fashion.
posted by flabdablet at 8:06 AM on July 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

In the last few months, I've replaced my phone and my Kindle: the phone because (at four years old) it no longer held a charge plus it had problems connecting to the internet; the Kindle because (at nine years old) it too had trouble holding a charge plus other operating problems. My seven year old laptop also died, but I have no intention of replacing it, since either the phone or my work computer more than cover for it.

So: why do people keep buying the latest & greatest new gadgets? Sometimes it's to replace old dead/dying items, sometimes some people just want the newest toys, sometimes it's to upgrade to a phone or computer that has useful new features.
posted by easily confused at 8:07 AM on July 28, 2017

Availability of and trust in repair services seems like a big factor to me. I've had my iphone 5 since 2012 and it still works fine for me. I've been living in eastern Europe and SE Asia during that time and repair shops are all over the place. It's $15-30 and 30 minutes of my time to get a new battery or replace a button that stops working, so it's always made more sense to repair rather than replace my phone when there's a minor problem. I don't remember seeing nearly as many of these repair services in the US. And it also seems like its become so normal in some places to replace a phone because of an easily-fixed issue like a weak battery that it often doesn't even occur to people that their phone could be repaired.
posted by horizons at 8:07 AM on July 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Believe me, I would not ever buy a new phone if I didn't have to. Those things are EXPENSIVE! But smartphones seem to only work well for a couple years before they start having problems. Just bought my spouse a new phone because his old one no longer worked as an actual phone. And apparently my mom's isn't holding a charge so hers is next to be replaced. I miss the days of Nokia bar phones and Motorola RAZRs which seemed to last for a much longer amount of time.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:19 AM on July 28, 2017

There's a dramatic difference in phones even over the last two years or so. In particular, battery life is about to go through the roof as manufacturers begin to use more power efficient components. You can, if you look, get smartphones that last two or even three days now, where you were lucky to get 2-3 hours usage even a year or two ago.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 8:21 AM on July 28, 2017

My primary (though not only) use for my phone is as a hotspot for my iPad Mini, and I hate spending money on it, but software upgrades require iOS upgrades require better hardware to run at decent speeds or sometimes at all.

Also, I don't think you should underestimate the likelihood of significant cumulative damage to an item you carry around on your person constantly for years.

I dragged my last phone out three years and it was pretty painful by the end.
posted by praemunire at 8:42 AM on July 28, 2017

Personally I have a knack for breaking the screens on a regular basis, and on the cheap phones I buy, it often makes more sense to replace the whole thing.
posted by curious_yellow at 8:57 AM on July 28, 2017

I upgraded from an iPhone 5 to an iPhone 7 plus. I actually technically had two iPhone 5 because I got the first one replaced after two years when the Apple technician killed it trying to replace a recall battery. So I technically had two brand new phones that I used for 4 years before switching this year.

I ended up getting it replaced because I upgraded from a 16 gig to a 128 gig, the camera was significantly better, and I needed the much larger screen real estate. The iPhone 5 also started running incredibly buggy. It's a beautiful phone and still my favorite, but it is clearly not optimized for the most current app updates. Touch ID has been incredibly useful though and greatly improved my userexperience , so I do think the latest iPhone is pretty great.
posted by yueliang at 9:12 AM on July 28, 2017

For me, it's mostly about the camera. I do a fair amount of semi-serious photography on my phone, and every generation the cameras get more capable. So when that upgrade option rolls around, I take it.

Also, a new phone has a new, scratch-free screen and a battery that hasn't been thrashed half to death. Plus it always seems like they just don't build these things to last more than a couple years; by the time I'm eligible for an upgrade, lots of bits are generally starting to not work right. My iPhone 6s Plus is only a year and a half old and already it has overheating issues, charging issues, and the 3D Touch feature has stopped working.

I'm looking forward to upgrade time.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 9:19 AM on July 28, 2017

Apps get much bigger, demanding more memory/space, so your phone becomes obsolete over time whether your own needs change or not and whether the original functionality has degraded or not.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:33 AM on July 28, 2017

Your question applies equally well to cars. Cars have been sold for over 100 years now; new cars look about like old cars did, and the technology is close to the same. Yet new cars come out every year, they are heavily marketed, and people buy about 16 million or so a year in the USA.

1. Accidents happen. If either your car or your phone go into a lake, or smash against something, it's time for a new one.
2. Product lifespan. You can make it last a good long while, but eventually it may not be worth repairing when you can just get a new one.
3. Upgrade. Does it come in red? Do I need/want it to do something the old one didn't do?
4. Fashion. Some people just want the new hot thing.
5. Financing. You don't have to cough up $25K for a new car, or $600 for a new phone, on the day of purchase. You can buy with no/little money down.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 9:34 AM on July 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

I only replace mine when I lose it, which seems to be fairly reliably every 2 years (I'm talented).

That said, there's been a dramatic improvement in performance each time. Much faster response, less crashing, better battery, nicer graphics, more storage, etc. So I think your premise of "newer phones aren't any better" is pretty shaky. Smartphone appearance may not have changed much in the last 5 years, but their guts definitely have. And that's not even counting the decreased performance as your phone ages.
posted by randomnity at 9:41 AM on July 28, 2017

One-word answer: camera. (Yes, it's been mentioned already, but this is the driving factor for a lot of people. And we are nowhere near peak smart-phone camera.)
posted by veggieboy at 10:24 AM on July 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Definitely part of it is planned obsolescence. Storage size is also a big thing. I ran out of space on my old 16gb phone just by downloading podcasts and not listening to them immediately.
posted by radioamy at 10:27 AM on July 28, 2017

I have an iPhone 5C that is over 3.5 years old, ancient by phone standards. I've replaced the battery and it works fine. Is it the fastest, or have the best camera? No, but I am determined to get all the life I can out of it, then see what the new models are. I'd upgrade right now if money were no object. That said, I baby my phones, and keep it in a case with a screen protector. I also clean it regularly.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 10:49 AM on July 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Piling on to say the camera on smartphones gets noticeably better every single year, and that's a big part of why I'm a frequent upgrader.
posted by Ryon at 10:53 AM on July 28, 2017

People LOVE to complain about "haw haw haw planned obsolescence," but I'm pretty sure there's nothing to that.

Technology moves forward. Things get better. The bill of materials for an iPhone is assembled first and foremost to meet the demands of a product at that scale, and secondarily to meet the price points in question while preserving Apple's margins. I don't think there's any mustache-twirling chicanery about "we'll make 'em buy a new one in 2 years," because a phone's life is pretty hard.

Pre-smartphone, I got a new phone every year. The idea that you can, today, use one for 2 or 3 years without suffering too much is kind of amazing to me. And when you upgrade, you get something even MORE amazing in terms of battery tech, camera performance, and overall computing power, all of which kept moving forward in the interim.
posted by uberchet at 11:55 AM on July 28, 2017

I work for a company that makes smartphones.

I can tell you with confidence that the engineers are trying hard to make new, cool stuff people want to buy, not vaguely crappy stuff people are forced to replace with something else they wont really be happy with.

The planned obsolescence theory attributes to malice something that is adequately explained by [stupidity/ignorance/the limits of human ingenuity/inevitable production tradeoffs].
posted by mrmurbles at 12:31 PM on July 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Haven’t we reached peak smartphone?


But I think the minimum required feature set has been reached:
Phone call
text message
web browsing
and any cheap smartphone can do those as some basic level.

Everything else is gravy, and gravy is what sells new phones.
posted by LoveHam at 1:00 PM on July 28, 2017

Another anecdote from the "phones just get old" camp: my iPhone 5c has crashed a few times while I tried to use the phone "feature". When a phone fails at being a phone, that's a critical issue. (Luckily, those instances have been pretty rare, but I'm eyeing my options now more.)
posted by filthy light thief at 1:55 PM on July 28, 2017

Pre-smartphone, I got a new phone every year. The idea that you can, today, use one for 2 or 3 years without suffering too much is kind of amazing to me.

What? Before smartphones there was just calls and SMS and maybe some crude internet. One could easily have the same phone for years on end to no ill effect since there were no Jonses to keep up with.
posted by grumpybear69 at 2:13 PM on July 28, 2017

Even if we accept that the chips and screens can't get any better (which I wouldn't accept anyway) there are lots of other improvements to phones that would make getting a new one worthwhile. For example some phones now have fast charging where in 15-30 minutes of charging you can get up to an 80% charge.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:23 PM on July 28, 2017

I don't think anyone has mentioned security yet.

I would gladly keep the same phone forever but the apps I use include banking, shopping, messaging, etc. and developers are constantly updating them to respond to security threats. Newer versions of these apps (or the security patches) are frequently not compatible with old phones, as the developers have a finite amount of time and resources.

So even if, like me, you could care less what people think of your phone (or anything about the Joneses for that matter), if you use your phone for anything other than voice phone calls, and you are concerned with security, you must keep your phone updated.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 3:33 PM on July 28, 2017

I haven't read the whole thread, but people often upgrade for the better camera, which are still improving to some degree. You are right that smartphones have mostly plateaued and that the marginal utility of a new $650 phone is pretty small.

There's also a bit of software entropy with a phone over time. This is often due to buggy or battery hogging (Facebook),apps but that's hard to figure out, and most people don't even try to do a software reset before just outright buying a new device.

Newer versions of these apps (or the security patches) are frequently not compatible with old phones, as the developers have a finite amount of time and resources.

I don't know if this is a problem in iPhonelandia, but it definitely isn't on the Android side. However, lack of security updates *is* a problem, though I think most folks don't particularly care.
posted by cnc at 3:45 PM on July 28, 2017

mrmurbles: The planned obsolescence theory attributes to malice something that is adequately explained by [stupidity/ignorance/the limits of human ingenuity/inevitable production tradeoffs].

Greed rather than outright malice.

In this very thread, people have mentioned fading batteries and lack of storage space as reasons for upgrading. Seems to me that for any portable device, it would be trivial in terms of cost and complexity for the manufacturer to provide an SD-card slot and a user-changeable battery. Apple especially are a gang of mofos for not including SD-card slots in their devices, just so they can sell you the vastly-overpriced model with extra storage space. You say this isn't corporate greed pure and simple, but can be better explained by "stupidity/ignorance/the limits of human ingenuity/inevitable production tradeoffs"? Kindly explain to those of us on the outside.
posted by tenderly at 12:46 AM on July 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

Kindly explain to those of us on the outside.

Most people would rather have a thinner phone than one with a sd-card slot they'll never use. More people would use user replaceable batteries, but those also require design compromises that keep phones bulkier. Phones with these features do not outsell those without.
posted by skewed at 1:34 AM on July 29, 2017

Best answer: For exactly the same reasons people buy new cars or new houses or new clothes when their old ones are serviceable. The question imposes a moral and rational framework that is easily falsified. Very little of what we buy and own is necessary. Very few people keep and fix old stuff of any sort. There are economic rationalizations that go beyond utility too. The psychology of consumerism has an enormous academic literature, which generalizes to electronics just fine. Spending money as such is not constructed as morally problematic in modern American culture -- to the contrary it is aspirational for many, something many anti-consumerism progressives sometimes seem to fail to understand. Why do people buy a new BMW every two years instead of a perfectly solid used Honda Fit every 8 years? Because they like new car smell, see a car as a status symbol, enjoy higher performance, or just because that's what their neighbors all do, and sometimes even because they can afford it without devoting mental energy to rationalizing it at all.

On the one hand, there is almost no first world person who does not buy many more things than they "need" to live, or even to live comfortably, just because they can. On the other hand a couple of billion people can't get even what they need reliably, as in safe food and water and sanitation. Phones have become a sort of metonym for this moral dilemma of modernity. /
posted by spitbull at 5:47 AM on July 29, 2017

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