There is a far-reaching popular perception that smartphones are not built to last. In some quarters, this even morphs into the opinion that manufacturers purposefully design smartphones to have a short shelf life as part of a cynical ploy to make us buy new models more often – a concept known as planned obsolescence.
This viewpoint is wheeled out from time to time as an argument against buying used or refurbished phones. If smartphones are made to last only a couple of years tops, buying a pre-owned phone is a false economy even at a significant discount on new device prices, surely? It will inevitably fail on you sooner rather than later, so you’ll just have to spend your money all over again.
However, this line of thinking doesn’t really stand up to close scrutiny. For one, there’s no real objective evidence that a) smartphone manufacturers do purposefully make devices so they will need to be replaced in a couple of years or b) that the average brand new smartphone does need replacing within such a short space of time.
Second, there are plenty of used and refurbished phones available on the market that are much older than two years. Clearly, if they were already in a less-than-optimum working condition when people bought them, the used phone market would quickly fall apart.
The fact that so many people happily buy three, four, or five year old handsets and are satisfied enough with the product to buy used or refurbished again tells us that the lifespan of a mobile phone must be much longer than is sometimes made out.
So how long is it, and how long can you expect to get out of a pre-owned phone?
Habits are hard to break
Let’s start by tackling where the two-to-three year lifespan perception comes from. It’s likely that people are confusing smartphone purchasing habits with the intrinsic quality and durability of a device. Because of the standard 24-month phone contract which dominated the first decade of smartphone retail at least, people got used to upgrading to a new handset when their contract renewal came around – largely because they were offered one!
This is not to say that the device they already owned didn’t have years of use left in it, or that it was on the verge of becoming technologically obsolete because of the giant leaps forward made by the latest models. It was simply a consumer habit driven by an aggressive manufacturer/network provider sales and marketing model.
The idea that the facts around smartphone longevity are often clouded by perception and habit is supported by a study that found that the biggest single factor that affects how long phones remain in use is brand – not technical performance, not size of memory, not build quality.
What this study found was that people are happier to keep Apple and Samsung devices for longer and buy older models simply because they were Apple and Samsung – nothing to do with how the phone is actually performing.
What all of this tells us is that it is difficult to pin down the genuine lifespan of any smartphone, brand new or used/refurbished, because they are often traded in well before they actually break down and stop performing. And of course, longevity is very much dependent on things like how well you look after your handset, how good a case you keep it in, how heavily it is used, whether you use suitable anti-virus and update firmware etc etc.
One final thing to say about the lifespan of used and refurbished phones. When you buy a pre-owned handset from a proper trader, you are not buying the device as it has come straight out the pocket of the former owner. Before it is sold again, the phone will have been tested and refurbished, with new cases, screens etc to fix any physical damage to the exterior, and factory resets and software upgrades to make sure it works ‘as new’.
If you are used to changing your phone every two to three years anyway, a used or refurbished phone will easily meet that expectation just as well as a brand new phone in the majority of cases.