How Long Can You Wait Before Upgrading Your Phone?

How Long Can You Wait Before Upgrading Your Phone?
Photo: Wachiwit, Shutterstock

When the first iPhone hit the market, I was deeply suspicious and mocked the very idea of a smartphone. When my friend showed off their shiny new phone, I wondered out loud why, exactly, I needed to be able to simulate drinking a beer on a (remarkably tiny) iPhone screen. Like everyone else, I long ago admitted how wrong I was about smartphones — they’ve become a necessity of modern life, and a very useful one. But getting on the smartphone train all those years ago also meant getting stuck on the upgrade grind — every two years or so, smartphone manufacturers would trot out their newest models and convince us that we absolutely must upgrade.

But must we? There was a time when buying a new phone meant taking a quantum leap forward in terms of technology and capability, but that era ended years ago. Today, it’s almost certainly not necessary for most people to upgrade their phones every two years, but then when should we? The answer isn’t as easy as it was a few years ago — today, it really comes down to your personal preference and needs.

How important is it to have 5G?

One of the main reasons people cite to justify upgrading their phone is the network it’s capable of using. With 5G rolling out and 3G shutting down, it might seem like you’d better take your iPhone 8 or Galaxy S9 to the store for a trade-in pronto or be left behind.

But the truth is, network upgrades take a long time. 3G shutting down seems ominous, but remember that the 3G network launched in 2002 — so it’s been operating for 20 years. 4G rolled out in 2010, so you’ve likely got at least several years before you have to worry about being on an obsolete network, and possibly as long as a decade. It’s true that 5G is potentially twice as fast as 4G, but ask yourself if you really need that speed. For most of us, 5G speeds will be “nice-to-have,” not “must-have.”

In general, a new network rollout isn’t an immediate reason to upgrade your phone unless some aspect of your digital existence legitimately requires those speeds. Otherwise, you can coast on your current phone for a few more years.

Consider how much the technology has really improved

Sure, every new generation of smartphones offers technological advances — but in recent years, those advances have been underwhelming. The upgrades found in the newest models of smartphones can best be described as “incremental” — a smaller notch, a slightly brighter display, and a marginally better camera is not exactly a camp-out-overnight inducement to buy a new phone.

And those incremental upgrades cost a small fortune. While there’s a broad range of smartphones at different price points, the top-of-the-line models now cost four figures. Considering what you get for that kind of money, it’s no longer worth it to splash out for a new phone just because it’s out there. So when considering a phone upgrade that you’ll pay full price for, ask yourself if there’s really a technological use case for the purchase.

On the other hand, if your carrier is offering you a free upgrade, or if your current phone has significant trade-in value, upgrading just for the thrill of it might make more sense.

Consider the environmental impact

Something else to consider when thinking about upgrading your phone is the environmental impact. We produce an enormous amount of e-waste every year — about 25 million tons worth. And that e-waste is difficult to deal with because of the toxic materials it contains. Hanging onto your existing phone as long as possible is one way to help reduce that waste.

How to know when it’s time to upgrade your smartphone

With all that considered, there are some clear indications that you should upgrade your phone:

  • Degrading experience: Smartphones are delicate pieces of technology, and they will eventually wear out. While I personally have a Galaxy S4 (that I use for a variety of minor tasks) that is still truckin’, odds are that a smartphone will start to kick up trouble after a few years. If your phone isn’t compatible with some newer apps, if the battery life is a problem, if the touchscreen is less responsive, it’s probably time to get a new one, assuming any cost of repair isn’t too far off from the cost of a new phone.
  • Updates and security concerns. Most phones purchased from carriers only get a few years of updates, and if your phone is running an older version of iOS or Android, you might no longer be receiving security updates — which is a huge concern.
  • Necessary capabilities. Only you can decide if you need the new capabilities offered by a new phone. Some folks use their phones in their professional lives and cannot afford to be on older versions of apps, or need that improved camera for their influencing or filmmaking work. Additionally, your current phone’s storage may be filling up, causing apps to load and work more sluggishly. You can always clear up room on your phone, but if deleting files and finding cloud storage space for your photos and videos is a challenge (or just a boring drag), a new phone might solve those problems.
  • Value. Finally, one thing to consider is the value of your current phone. Right now it might be worth a few hundred bucks as a trade-in or a sale — but that value is dropping. If you’re not sure if you want to upgrade your phone, check the value it represents against the cost of an upgrade. If it makes that cost significantly less — or even zero — that’s a compelling reason to upgrade, especially when you consider that its value will drop over time.

Upgrading your cell phone isn’t an automatic decision like it once was. These days it comes down to your specific needs and your current smartphone experience. The bottom line? If you’re not sure you need an upgrade, there’s almost no harm in waiting until you are. In the meantime, here are our suggestions for making your old smartphone feel new again.

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