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Your old phone is a badge of honor

Repeat after me: “I probably don’t need a new smartphone. I probably don’t need a new smartphone…”

If you follow tech news, or use Twitter, or read certain sections of those artists formerly known as newspapers, you likely heard that Apple released new iPhones the other day. As with every handset that company has made in the past 15 years, a parade of spokesfolk touted it as the best, fastest, most must-have-est piece of technology ever produced. 

And, you know, sure. Whether you’re on team Android or iOS, your phone is extremely important. It’s your primary device, on or near your person at all times. You use it to communicate, capture photos and videos, watch photos and videos, and get where you’re going. It helps you burn countless hours giggling at TikTok, and just as many moments basking in the addictive dread of the doomscroll. Hell, you’re probably reading this newsletter on your phone. Thanks, phones!

screencap: apple.com/apple-events/

But if you think you need to upgrade your mobile device whenever a new one comes out, you’ve bought Apple and Google’s shittiest marketing pitch. You do not need a new phone every year. You don’t even need a new one every other year. Modern mobiles are fast, powerful, and robust—and, like any other new computer, good for several years of service. You should take pride in using your cellphone for as long as possible.

In the deck of cheap, easy cards you can play to preserve the planet, using your mobile device until it drops is royalty. Make a bet with your friends to see who can use theirs longer. Then send them this choc-full-o-tips newsletter so it’s a fair contest.

A few years ago, I handed my phone to a pal. When she grabbed the device, she raised her eyebrows and said “Joe!” in surprise. It was an iPhone 6S, and she had just run her finger over that last clicky home button. This was 2017, by which time a lot of people were using iPhone 7s, 8s, and even 10s, all of which had capacitive Touch ID sensors or Face ID. 

It’s hard to blame my friend for her reaction. The tactile difference between that physical button and its smooth-glass descendants really did feel like a leap in a way that modern mobile evolution no longer does. And I felt a little embarrassed that, as a long-time tech journalist, my phone was such an outmode.

Now I’d like to reach back through time and high-five myself. That 6S was fine, and, by using it for more than three years instead of instantly upgrading, I was making a sustainable choice. (Even though I was really just choosing to spend all my spare cash on old motorcycles rather than new mobile devices.) 

According to my favorite website, Statista, the cellphone replacement cycle is headed in the wrong direction, down to 2.64 years in 2022 from a peak of 2.96 in 2019. Tech site Slashgear ran a survey that found around 12 percent of phone-owners get the newest device that comes out. While Slashgear’s audience and methodology almost certainly biased their results, that number doesn’t seem wild to me. 

Many of us are used to paying a monthly fee for our devices; and programs like Apple’s annual upgrade plan make it easy to keep that 40 bucks on your bill for life, rewarding you with a shiny new toy every autumn. To some, that may not seem like the worst arrangement. But it’s a bad deal for the planet.

Credit where it’s due, handset companies like Apple have made progress in recouping materials like copper, silver, gold, and aluminum from spent phones; but when it comes to the more exotic materials like lithium, indium, and neodymium, “we’re not really recovering them at scale,” says Kyle Wiens, CEO of the online tech repair community iFixit. “They’re used in such trace amounts, it’s just not economically viable to get them back out.” These elements are hard on the Earth when you extract them, and can be toxic as waste.

We’ve been over this before, but here are some salient stats:

  • If everyone in the U.S. kept their device for an additional 18 months, it would have a positive environmental impact similar to taking 700,000 cars off the road.

  • It takes 250 pounds of raw material to make a new smartphone.

  • According to Apple’s own data, 81 percent of an iPhone’s lifetime emissions come from its production, as compared to 16 percent from consumer use.

  • A new handset contains roughly 50 elements, only about 12 of which are readily recyclable. “The rest end up in the slag heap,” says Wiens.

How do you make your phone last as long as possible? I called Stan Horaczek, Executive Gear Editor of Popular Science and Popular Photography to get some tips. I’ve been pestering Stan with these kinds of questions for a decade, because not only is he a veteran smartphone reviewer, he’s an accomplished professional photographer as well. So before you start spouting that “I need the newest camera for my influencer business” nonsense, check it:

“There are very few people in the world who have smartphones from the past two or three years where the camera is what’s holding their photography back,” says Horaczek. “The hardware hasn’t improved that much.” If you find your photos lacking, he suggests wiping off your lens before you decide you need a new rig. If that doesn’t work, “spend a little more time composing your shots, maybe drop your image into a photo editor and give it some love.” 

Horaczek reckons a new high-end smartphone will last you 5 years, but the practical way to think about it is to use yours until you can’t. “If it does what you need it to do without inconveniencing your life, I don’t see a reason to move on to something else,” he says. “Keep it until it either doesn’t run the apps you want or it stops getting security updates.” 

Mind your battery

It’s easy to RIP your phone because it won’t hold a charge, but don’t be too hasty. “When your battery starts to suck, you don’t necessarily need a new phone; you might just need a new battery,” says Horaczek. 

That sleek mobile chassis doesn’t make it obvious, but most cellphone batteries are replaceable, and if you’re even the slightest bit handy, you can probably do it yourself.

If the idea of cracking open your cell quickens your heartbeat, there are pros who can help. If you have an iPhone, you can sidle up to the nearest Genius Bar; and no matter what phone you pack, “don’t be afraid to get something fixed at a reputable local shop,” says Horaczek. (I second that emotion: Support your local repair shop!)

You might be able to make your battery last as long as your phone, though. Don’t deplete it fully (or close) before charging, and “don’t just leave the thing plugged in all day,” says Horaczek. Overcharging can do a lot of damage, though newer mobile operating systems have some baked-in intelligence that guards against the worst harm.

Horaczek also cautions against charging—or even using—your device in really hot environments, where the phone will have to take measures to cool itself. If it’s over 95 degrees out, you could be putting your device at risk by plugging it in. 

Your cable matters

“If you’re feeding your phone in a bad way, it’s going to go badly,” says Horaczek. So an old or damaged or crappy gas-station cord could drive your phone’s internal temperature up by erratically stopping and starting its charge cycle. Keep an eye on your phone to make sure that kind of thing is not happening, because even though it could eventually top you off, “that’ll nuke your battery,” says Horaczek. It could also start a fire

The best practice is to buy good cables. The company that made your phone will sell you one, and Apple certifies third-party plugs as “made for iPhone.” You hate to further their commercial hammerlock, but this is an area where it makes sense to pay for the seal of approval. I’ve had good luck with Anker, as well as Amazon Basics.

Fix cracks ASAP

Everyone has shrugged off a cracked screen as no big deal, but Horaczek cautions that could be a risky attitude. “A modern phone is built to resist water and dust, but a new orifice in its largest surface will compromise that,” he says. You might not mind the busted screen, but it’s letting all sorts of pocket filth and humidity into your handset’s innards, potentially endangering the delicate processors and other bits. 

Also, “Glass’s strength comes from its uniformity. A broken screen can let your phone bend in ways it’s not designed to, potentially squashing the chips and boards inside,” says Horaczek.  

Don’t be a smartphone nudist

I would like to take a moment to implore the Apple people who read this email (👋 thanks for the subs!) to please make a phone that isn’t slipperier than a pumpkin seed. These devices are heavy, slick, and breakable; and unless you spend your days in a fully carpeted world, an un-cased phone will slip out of your grip and die before its time.

Advancements in ceramic-coated glass technology mean that handsets are definitely tougher than they used to be, but nothing will save your device if it falls in the right (wrong) way. “If your phone hits on its corner and you’re not using a case, the glass is probably toast,” says Horaczek. The world concurs. Cases help. 

“Unless you work in construction, you probably don’t need one of those heavy-duty Otterbox jobs,” says Horaczek. “Just get something basic, with a lip around the edge to keep your screen from getting too scratched up.” As far as screen protectors go, “you don’t really need one unless you’re going to put your phone in your pocket with your keys all the time.” Horaczek adds that if your screen protector cracks, it could mess up the glass underneath—so take a damaged one off immediately. 

Treat cases like bike helmets

“If your case takes a really hard hit, you should think about replacing it,” says Horaczek. Once the protective material absorbs a big impact, it might not be able to survive a drop in the same place again. And since new phones are so camera-heavy, they’ll probably land the same way—or close to it—every time. 

“If your case gets visibly damaged, it won’t be able to do its job. Pay attention to the corners,” he says.  

Treat your phone like it’s worth a thousand bucks

You see what I did there? Our devices are so omnipresent and familiar, it’s easy to forget how sophisticated and expensive they are. Most of us pay hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for our handsets, and then we toss them around like beanbags. “Ultimately, it’s just about giving your phone fewer opportunities to break,” says Horaczek. 

Giving your _____ fewer opportunities to break is a pretty excellent framework for navigating the world. You can apply it to your phone, your computer, your car—and, of course, your planet. I’m going to carry that around in my pocket. Forever.

Take care of yourselves—and the rest of us, too

Joe

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