Which 5G phones are most sustainable?
June 18, 2021 11:23 PM   Subscribe

My Moto G4(?) is accumulating sufficient defects after five years that it's time to look into new phones. I want another phone that I can keep for a while and not contribute as much to e-waste. I had to switch to the Moto G after my previous phone no longer worked with new (at the time) cell ranges and protocols, so maybe one with 5G would be a good investment? What are my options?

Location: North America

Other features important to me:
* sound quality (I play music from my phone, but have a separate camera that I can use if I need to take better quality photos, and don't watch videos or play games on my phone)
* size: fits comfortably in a smaller adult hand
posted by eviemath to Technology (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Not 5G, and I don't know much about the phone, but its claim to fame is that it is the most sustainable phone on the market. Fairphone 3+
posted by wile e at 1:26 AM on June 19, 2021

I have a Fairphone 3+ and love it! The camera isn't great, but the music quality and Bluetooth connection to a nice speaker are fabulous, I'm running multiple background apps and 51 chrome tabs as I type, and they'll replace any defective part for you under warranty - it can all be swapped out. I've had it for a year without needing to though.
posted by MarianHalcombe at 2:42 AM on June 19, 2021

MarianHalcombe (I love your username), how long does Fairphone promise OS updates for? I looked on their site but couldn't find a statement about that.

Hardware aside, the longer a phone gets updates the longer it can be used (relatively) safely, so that might be a factor worth looking at.
posted by trig at 3:29 AM on June 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately, Fairphone doesn't sell/ship to North America and doesn't necessarily support 4G connections in North America.

Eagerly keeping an eye on this thread for other suggestions!
posted by Hellgirl at 3:46 AM on June 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

Hardware aside, the longer a phone gets updates the longer it can be used (relatively) safely, so that might be a factor worth looking at.

Generally speaking, iPhones tend to enjoy the longest OS support. For instance, Apple has confirmed that the iPhone 6s will receive the upcoming iOS 15 update later this year. That will be close to 6 years of OS support. I know many people who still rock a 6s, too.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:17 AM on June 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I am on the Fairphone mailing list! But yeah, doesn't seem to meet the needs of North American users yet.
posted by eviemath at 5:26 AM on June 19, 2021

The environmental costs of smartphones are often exacerbated by the relatively short lifespans of these globally ubiquitous devices. When it comes to extending the lifespan of these products, brand name might be more important than repairability, a new study finds. (Science Daily)

Fairphone asks its customers to adopt a different mindset where longevity is key. It hopes its users will keep one of its phones for at least five years… In Fairphone’s lifetime, it has sold over 250,000 phones, of which approximately 60,000 are Fairphone 1s, 100,000 are Fairphone 2s, and 100,000 are the Fairphone 3. (New Statesman)

The iPhone is a really good smartphone – its a quality product which will last for years. Apple supports its iPhones for 4-6 years on an average through software updates. No other smartphone manufacturer supports a device for more than 2 years and some even less. (ILounge)

I do think the Fairphone is intriguing, but it is a pretty big gamble that they’ll be around in five years to provide support and upgrades. Economies of scale really work against them, for example Apple can produce half a million phones per day(!) which gives them advantages in sourcing, as well as investing in recycling and reclamation technologies. I’m pretty suspicious of modular phones and laptops, it is an idea that sounds great in theory but so far has been a failure when it comes time to upgrade them
posted by rambling wanderlust at 6:10 AM on June 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: We've established that a Fairphone doesn't meet my location requirements anyway. Please direct answers to my original question.
posted by eviemath at 6:43 AM on June 19, 2021

Response by poster: I am looking for practical suggestions of specific phones.
posted by eviemath at 6:43 AM on June 19, 2021

I bought a refurb iPhone 11 from Apple because there's an app I need that is ios only. I sucked up the expense because Apple's build quality is exceptional and the battery tends to last a very long time. I like a large screen because I read on my phone. I preferred my old Moto because the iPhone doesn't go up as much in volume. There are plenty of things I preferred about my Moto/Android like easier-to-read text display, better swipe-typing, notifications and alarm clock, not being so locked in by ios products (can't use alternate music player), not being so tied in to the Apple environment. On the Moto, I could turn the flashlight on or off with a chopping gesture; I miss that. But I had 2 Motos in a row that stopped charging because the charging port isn't sturdy enough, so I'm really counting on the build quality.

If you want a smaller device, there's an array of phones to choose from.
posted by theora55 at 7:38 AM on June 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

The iPhone 12 Mini supports 5G, has a smaller form factor, and will likely receive security updates until 2025 or later.

4G should remain widely available for the life of any phone you buy today. A CNET article states that even by the year 2025, 44 percent of smartphones in North America are expected to still use 4G. So a 4G phone purchased today will probably receive network support for at least another 6 or 7 years.

Apple builds their PR partly around their commitment to the environment.

I currently use the second generation iPhone SE that came out in 2020. It has a smaller form factor and should be supported until 2025 or later. I know at least five people that use this model and they’re all happy with it. So if you’d like an environmentally friendly phone that is less expensive than the iPhone 12 Mini, I would suggest the iPhone SE 2020 model.
posted by mundo at 7:58 AM on June 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

I have smaller hands, and I like the iPhone 12 mini enough that I passed up the Pro models that were available to me at no extra cost in favor of the smaller form factor. You may be interested in the environmental impact report Apple published for the iPhone 12 (obviously written to put the most positive possible spin on things, but there is some good stuff they are doing)
posted by btfreek at 7:59 AM on June 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

No other smartphone manufacturer supports a device for more than 2 years

I don't think this is true anymore - while they don't come close to Apple's 5 years, some Samsung, Nokia, and Pixel phones (and possibly others) have 3 years of updates, and sometimes longer for security updates. Also, models that are supported by roms like LineageOS have the potential to be updated for a longer time, but I don't think there's any guarantee there beyond the fact that the most popular models are the most likely to be supported for a long time.

I think if I specifically wanted an Android phone in the US I'd get a Pixel, because of the relatively long update period and the popularity that means it's likely to be updated by third parties for a long time. But that's probably also true for some other top-of-the-line models by Samsung and a few others.
posted by trig at 8:11 AM on June 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

My wrist is so small, I wear children's watches. The Sonim XP5 fits in my hand and is available used online for cheap. It's quite heavy, and it's not a smartphone. It uses a modified Android and has basic things like music playing and radio. It has a camera, the camera is not amazing, but it's quite adequate except for close-ups. It uses t9 for texting. You can play soccer with it, there's a youtube review online somewhere. Works great in North America.

This phone has the best sound quality of any cell phone I have ever used in my life. It is designed to work even on a helicopter. The sound quality is as good as landline phones.
posted by aniola at 8:50 AM on June 19, 2021

In general, purchasing a refurbished or second hand phone of any type would probably be the best for e-waste, as those would likely otherwise be thrown away eventually. Something like a pixel 3a or last generation samsung would probably be perfect, and those are not very expensive phones at this point
posted by JZig at 8:51 AM on June 19, 2021 [5 favorites]

Sonim XP5s are available used. I think it might be the sort of phone where organizations buy a bunch and then get a newer model every few years.
posted by aniola at 8:52 AM on June 19, 2021

It technically has a browser, but it would have to be an internet emergency to be worth bothering to internet from this phone.
posted by aniola at 8:55 AM on June 19, 2021

They also do smartphones, but it looks like those are wider.
posted by aniola at 8:55 AM on June 19, 2021

I ran an iPhone 6s for a little over 4 years, and now my kid uses it like a tiny iPad. It’s on its 3rd battery and second screen.

Part of the sustainability is that it can be repaired at a neighbourhood shop and it takes OS upgrades 5 years after I bought it. Build quality is good.

I have an 11pro now that I expect to run even longer. It is thicker and heavier than the 6s, and is water resistant, which I expect will help extend the lifetime.
posted by thenormshow at 9:03 AM on June 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

Was going to report i have two iPhone 6s phones that each work perfectly and are still supported at 6 years on. I replaced the first with a refurb that had a new battery for $130 and only because the battery was dying on the first one. Otherwise they are in perfect shape, work fine, and are being supported through at least another OS version. Camera is decent enough. I kept for the actual headphone jack. A new battery is like $100 or less installed, same for a screen (but I never had to) or you can buy refurbed with some battery juice left for $100. They now live a second life as security cameras. I loved that phone.
posted by spitbull at 10:22 AM on June 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the specific model recommendations! This thread has also helped me clarify what I want a bit: I think that keeping my next phone for about five years is a high priority (so: battery longevity or support for easy replacement(*), and OS/security updates), as is getting another Android phone (too much other stuff going on for me right now to sort out transferring my music and all of my open browser tabs to a totally new format, as well as learning a significantly different interface). Does that change anyone's recommendations? It's looking like the Pixel might be best for me, except for the price tag in Canada. So if there's an alternative that would also work for my needs for CA$100-200 less, that would be handy.

(* I have a battery replacement kit for my current phone that I ordered from iFixit that is in some pile somewhere. It would take 30-45 minutes, once I found it again, but I haven't gotten around to it in over a year now. So although a screen replacement kit is also available, I'm quite unlikely to have time to do that repair on the current phone either. Which means that realistically, I'd be looking at non-diy battery replacements on future phones anyways.)
posted by eviemath at 1:52 PM on June 19, 2021

My Pixel 2's 4 years old, and got its last software update at the end of 2020. It's still working fine, with the battery continuing to last all day, so I'm expecting to replace it with a Pixel 6 or maybe a Pixel Fold whenever those ship.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 3:14 PM on June 19, 2021

I bought a pixel 3a just over 3 years ago, and it still gets regular OS updates and I have no complaints about it - I do expect it to last another couple years. I have a Pela case for it, which is backyard compostable. I think the 3a was actually made with a worse build quality than other pixel phones, and it's easily the nicest phone I've ever had (I usually have bought sony phones) so I suspect it would be worth it to buy a flagship pixel as far as longevity (since you want 5G I can't recommend the 3a itself.) I know you'd like to spend a little less, but in my experience cheaper phones really are made worse.

Google also has made some actual sustainability goals which aren't amazing or anything as all big tech companies are not great, but at least they're something. You can also return your phone to them at the end of it's life with a free shipping label and they will reuse the materials/recycle it.

Walmart sells refurbished pixels sometimes (I don't shop at walmart as a rule, but I suppose might for a refurbished product)

If you want to go another way, my husband has only ever had samsung phones and they're quite easy to get repaired at small phone repair shops - they usually have the parts in stock, etc, as they're one of the most popular brands (at least in canada).

Also I'm talking out my butt here a bit because I don't know much about doing this, but in theory if your device stops receiving OS updates and gets annoying you should be able to root it and install a 3rd party android OS. I've never done it, but I have a couple friends who have kept very old phones running this way.
posted by euphoria066 at 4:53 PM on June 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

I think the Pixel 5 or Pixel 4a with 5G are the Android phones that come the closest to meeting your requirements. They don't meet one of your major requirements, as they will only receive updates until October/November 2023 (about 2 years and 4 months.) Samsung seems to offer security updates for longer periods on newer devices but will only offer quarterly or biannual security updates for older devices.

LineageOS allows one to have an Android phone with longer security update periods and more privacy but it only works on certain models of Android phones and requires some patience and technology expertise to setup.

I sometimes forget the privilege that comes with living the U.S. and the access to lower prices for technology. Changing ecosystems from Google to Apple can definitely be an endeavor. I think I should mention the iPhone SE appears to be less expensive than the Pixel in Canada and comes with the added benefit of providing security updates for 5 years (approximately double the length of the Pixel.)
posted by mundo at 4:57 PM on June 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

I switched from a Samsung S4 Mini (bought in 2014) to an iPhone 12 mini about a month ago.

During the course of the iPhone setup, it instructed me to download a "transfer Android to iPhone" app onto my old Samsung to transfer over apps, photos, text messages, etc., which I did. It worked (except for a few apps that didn't exist any more or didn't exist for iPhone). I did not have music saved on my phone so I can't report on that.

I got the phone through my Canadian wireless carrier, with the cost prorated onto my monthly bill over 2 years, which came with a $15 per month bill credit as a sort of bribe to stay with the same carrier for the next 2 years (which implies that my regular bill contains a substantial amount of "padding"...). This reduces the overall cost of the phone by like a third, which blew my mind. So it may be very worth your while to buy your new phone through your wireless provider.
posted by heatherlogan at 7:38 PM on June 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: "I will ask Metafilter for advice, so that I don't spend all weekend researching phones!" Still spends all weekend researching phones. Sigh. At least I could do so in the same room as the sick cat, whose emergency vet trip indirectly led to the current shattered screen on old phone dilemma.

So if I take repairability out of the picture but worry about length of software updates, it looks like the Samsung A52 5G is a better deal than the Pixel 4a 5G? In splurges, I'd be looking at the Pixel 5 or the Samsung S21 (just the base model, not the + or ultra). Any thoughts or notes on the likely effective lifespan or environmental considerations of any of those phones? Can one send a phone with a dying battery back to Samsung for a battery replacement, or do they just send you an entirely new phone when the battery dies? (I haven't looked up any Samsung teardown videos yet.)
posted by eviemath at 6:16 AM on June 20, 2021

I don't know what Samsung does for customers, but for what it's worth my experience has been that because it's probably the most popular phone maker in my country, finding small shops able to repair or replace parts for Samsung phones has been much easier than finding places that can deal with less common phones. (Pretty much every place here is set up to deal with Samsungs.) So even if Samsung itself doesn't do battery replacements, it's extremely likely that your local phone repair place will. You might call one up now just to make sure they support the model you want, that they also support older models, and what kind of prices they charge for a battery replacement.
posted by trig at 9:54 AM on June 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

I just remembered one unfortunate thing about Samsung phones that may or may not bother you: apparently they've started putting ads in their own (Samsung) apps. That sounds like it doesn't have to be a big problem (you can mostly use non-Samsung apps, as you've probably been doing all along, and you can turn some ads off) but just so you know.
posted by trig at 12:38 PM on June 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

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