Every single year since the first Motorola Droid came out in 2007, I’ve bought a new phone. I’m a habitual upgrader, always wanting the latest and greatest in electronics. Every year before, that’s meant grabbing the newest phone at least once a year, and even going through three last year before settling on the iPhone 11. This year, the upgrades just aren’t enough to get me to upgrade.
Phones were the most exciting part of consumer tech to me for a while. Each year, especially on the Android side, phone hardware progressed at a rapid rate, adding better processors, memory, screens, and cameras each year. Each generation had massive upgrades over the past year’s model making it a compelling upgrade for better usability. I was posting pictures on social media often and wanted the best camera and speed I could get. I preferred the Android experience to iOS, and so mostly bounced around with phones there.
Over the last two or so years though, Android and iOS have matured and begun converging. The notifications I preferred on Android aren’t that different from those on iOS now. The spectacular camera the iPhone had for years was passed by the Pixel for about two years, but since the iPhone X, they’ve been pretty much on par. I even flirted with OnePlus phones with the 7 Pro last year and while the massive screen was impressive, it really wasn’t all that different from the iPhone. So last fall I moved to the iPhone 11 and expected to wait until the 12 this year to upgrade again.
Instead, after the iPhone 12 announcement, I realized there really wasn’t anything that was enough for it to be worth the nearly $1000 cost of upgrading. I’d get a trade in upgrade for $350, but that still meant a pretty major investment for a few small improvements. Then my wife’s phone died, so I figured I would give her my 11 and get the 12. However, even if I had done that, I’d still effectively be spending $200 (the cost of buying a new 12 minus the savings in not buying her an 11) and even that wasn’t worth it. So instead, I’ll be holding on to my iPhone 11 for another year until this one dies (I do tend to fall on it often on my trail runs), or the iPhone 13 comes along with a more compelling set of features.
In a COVID world, a phone is far less important to me. Before March, I was using my phone heavily each day to stay connected when away from home and in particular while commuting. Access to a good screen for Netflix and Youtube, being able to read my email and Slack messages, and messaging family members while away were very important. Taking the best picture possible while doing fun things out of the house was a major priority for me. Now, I find myself relying on my laptop and iPad far more often since I’m not moving around, and my phone has mostly become a notification screen – I then look into whatever email or message I got on my laptop instead. There aren’t many places to go, so I’m taking far fewer pictures. For everything I am doing, the iPhone 11 is still more than sufficient.
It helps that Apple chose to focus on areas that aren’t at all important to me this year. A huge focus of the new phone was 5G, and not only is there no coverage where I live in the mountains, but I do not expect to have any for years, and my service doesn’t currently even support it. Paying for this as a feature feels like throwing money away. The better screen would be useful to me if I were still using it extensively on the bus. But I’m not and at this point it’s not very clear if I will be on the bus at all before the iPhone 13 presumably comes out next fall. The faster processor is great on paper, but the iPhone 11 already felt faster than necessary and like there is plenty of headspace for another year. In the end, the most interesting parts of it to me are the new design which I think looks great, and the magnetic charging. However, since I’m stuck at home anyway, charging like I’ve been doing for years at night isn’t a problem at all. It may seem simple, but the best thing Apple could have done in my opinion was to put the same new fingerprint reader in the iPhone as the new iPad so that it’s easier to unlock with a mask.
It’s not just Apple though that hasn’t really improved much this year. The Pixel line hasn’t changed much in two years, and despite lower prices this year is still too expensive for what feels like a side project for Google to me. The quality issues my wife and I experienced across three separate phone models also keeps me away. The camera stopped improving after the 3 and Google doesn’t seem to be focusing on it at all now. OnePlus is doing interesting things by moving into the premium realm, but there still isn’t enough there to differentiate it from Pixels, iPhones, and Galaxy phones to me. While foldables seem interesting, they are nowhere near ready for primetime and the main benefit, getting a large screen in a smaller form factor isn’t all that useful when the only place I’m going is from the couch to the bedroom.
Another aspect is the environmental impact of upgrading a phone every year. While recycling and trade in programs have become more mainstream, and I have always found a way to either give or sell a phone rather than just chucking it away, there’s no denying there is a large environmental impact of going through another phone each year. I do give Apple credit for increasing their use of recycled products, improving manufacturing and mining processes, using sustainable energy, and of course removing the chargers we all have and making smaller boxes, but they still can’t make up for the cost of producing another new phone. So rather than waste the materials and cost of making yet another iPhone 12, I’ll hold on to mine a bit longer.
Maybe I’m just maturing a bit, becoming wiser as I get older and realizing I don’t need the newest phone every year. Nah, that can’t be it. In reality, I think we’ve just reached the point of maturation where the iterative improvements each year in phones simply aren’t worth getting that excited for. That’s a good thing. It means last year’s phone still works great and doesn’t immediately die when the latest OS comes out. It means fewer people dumping old phones and those phones ending up in landfills. It means even the tech-obsessed like me and focus elsewhere. And hopefully it means that next year’s update feels like a larger change that is actually worth getting excited for. However you slice it, it means I’ll hold on to my trusty phone for another year.