Smartphones can now last 7 years. Here’s how to make them work.

Every smartphone has an expiration date. That day comes when the software updates stop coming and you start missing new apps and security measures. With most phones this happened after about three years.

But things are finally starting to change. The new number is seven.

I first noticed this shift when I tested Google’s $700 Pixel 8 smartphone in October. Google told me it had committed to providing software updates for the phone for seven years, compared to three years for the previous Pixels, because it was the right thing to do.

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I was skeptical that this would become a trend. But this year, Samsung, the most profitable Android phone maker, set a similar software timeline for its $800 Galaxy S24. Then Google said it would do the same for its $500 Pixel 8A, the budget version of the Pixel 8, which arrived in stores this week.

Both companies said they had expanded their software support to make their phones last longer. This is a change from the way companies used to talk about phones. Not long ago, tech giants unveiled new devices that encouraged people to upgrade every two years. But in recent years, smartphone sales have slowed globally as improvements have become more marginal. Nowadays, people want their phones to last a long time.

Samsung and Google, the two most influential makers of Android devices, are playing catch-up to Apple, which has traditionally provided software updates for iPhones for about seven years. These measures ensure that phones last much longer and give people more flexibility in deciding when it is time to upgrade.

Google said in a statement that it had expanded its software commitments for the Pixel 8A because it wanted customers to have confidence in Pixel phones. And Samsung said it would deliver seven years of software updates from now on, boosting security and reliability, for all its Galaxy flagship phones.

Here’s what you need to know about why this happens and what you can do to make your phone last longer.

Why does this happen?

In the past, Android phone manufacturers said the technical process of delivering software updates was complicated, so in order to stay profitable, they stopped supporting them after a few years. But tech companies are now under intense external pressure to invest in making their devices last longer.

In 2021, the Federal Trade Commission announced it would step up enforcement against tech companies that made it difficult to repair and maintain their products. That accelerated the “right to repair” movement, a bill that required companies to provide parts, tools and software to extend the life of their products. In recent years, states such as California, New York, Minnesota and Oregon have passed such legislation.

Google announced its new commitment to smartphones after it was pressured to make a similar move for its laptops.

In September, the company agreed to extend software support for its Chromebook from eight to 10 years, in response to a grassroots campaign highlighting how short-lived Google laptops created budget crises in schools.

Nathan Proctor, executive director of US PIRG, a nonprofit largely funded by small donors that led the Chromebook campaign, said the new standard of seven years of smartphone support would have a profound effect.

“It’s a huge win for the environment,” he said. “I want to see more of it.”

What else should I do?

Software updates are a big part of what keeps a phone running smoothly, but there are other steps to extend the life of a smartphone, similar to maintaining a car. They contain:

Replace the phone battery every two years

The lithium-ion batteries in telephones have a limited lifespan. After about two years, the amount of charge they can hold decreases and it is wise to replace the battery.

Replacing a smartphone battery is not easy, so it is best to seek the help of a professional. To find repair shops that service Pixel and Galaxy phones, you can contact Google and Samsung on their websites. You can also look up a reputable store nearby with a review site like Yelp or Google Reviews. It typically costs about $100 to replace a battery.

For iPhones, customers can make an appointment for a battery replacement at an Apple store via the company’s website. But in my experience, repair centers at Apple Stores are a gamble.

I recently made an appointment to replace the battery on my iPhone 14 at the Apple Store in Emeryville, California. When I arrived, the employee said the battery was out of stock and the nearest store that sold the battery was 40 minutes away.

This was frustratingly inefficient; the Apple site should not have let me make an appointment at a store that didn’t have the battery.

Apple said in a statement that when a part needed for repair was unavailable, a store associate would locate the nearest store to make the repair or order the replacement part and make the repair when the part arrived.

Instead, I made an appointment at a local repair shop.

Protect it

Smartphones are still largely made of glass, so to make a phone last seven years, it’s wise to invest in a high-quality case. A screen protector is an added safeguard, although many won’t like how it distorts the screen’s image quality. The New York Times’ sister product review site, Wirecutter, recommends cases from brands like Smartish, Spigen, and Mujjo, or cases from the phone manufacturers themselves.

Unless you are very accident prone, I would not recommend purchasing extended warranties as their cost may exceed the cost of a repair.

clean it

Smartphones have few moving parts, so we don’t have to do much to physically maintain them. But most of us neglect cleaning the parts we rarely look at: charging ports and speaker holes.

Over time, those holes become clogged with dirt, pocket lint, and makeup. That accumulated dirt can make a phone take longer to charge or make a phone call harder to hear.

“It’s the belly button lint of cell phones,” says Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, a site that publishes instructions and sells parts to repair electronics.

Fortunately, he added, you don’t need any fancy tools. Just use a toothpick to dig out the gunk.

Should this change the way I buy phones?

I always recommend buying a product based on the here and now: what it can do for you today, as opposed to what companies say it will do in the future. Based on this principle, you should continue to buy a phone.

Many people will choose to upgrade sooner for other reasons, such as getting a new feature like a better camera or a longer-lasting battery.

But those who just want to buy a phone that will last as long as possible should choose one that is affordable to repair if something breaks. Wiens said Google’s Pixel phones, whose components are affordable, meet this criterion. Owners of these phones will now have longer-lived software to keep up with the hardware.

c.2024 The New York Times Company

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