The Art of Not Buying Phones

phone upgrade

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

In tech terms, my phone is ancient and by most standards, it’s a mess. I use an old Galaxy phone that I’ve had for almost three years. My headphone jack is broken after it took a fall into a passing ocean. The screen has a scratch or crack in it, I’m not sure which, and I’m afraid to pull off my screen protector to find out. I had to superglue the charging port cover back on. The battery rarely gets me through a whole day on one charge. But when I sat down to figure out which phone to get if I could scrounge up enough money to do so, I drew a blank. There are some great phone upgrade options out there, but I can’t bring myself to choose which one to go with. I refuse to believe that Samsung managed to make the perfect phone three years ago. Surely there’s a phone out there I’d rather have.

Here’s my dilemma: in spite of its defects, I like my phone a lot. Because it has a removable battery, I can carry a spare around in my wallet and get two charges, so the short battery life isn’t too bad. It used to be waterproof enough to survive a plunge in a lake and I’m sure it’s still good enough to withstand a good shower. It has near-field communication (NFC), so I can theoretically use it for mobile payments. It has expandable memory through an SD port, so I’ll never run out of storage space. The headphone jack is annoying, but I have a cheap Bluetooth adapter I picked up off of Amazon which lets me use headphones anyway. Unless I find something at least as awesome as the phone I’m typing this on, I don’t want to waste money on an “upgrade”.

Let’s look at two solid candidates for my next phone, starting with the Moto G. This little technical miracle is priced reasonable at under $200. It has my beloved waterproofing and SD slot. Its battery life is all-day and then some. But it’s missing two features I want in my life. The first is NFC, which allows mobile payments. I live in the future, and that means I want to buy things with my phone. Secondly, I want a fingerprint scanner. I’m paranoid, and a fingerprint scanner will let me encrypt my phone with a super intricate password without stopping me from unlocking it quickly. Again, I’m in the future here and I want to feel that way.

To get my dose of the future, I would have to go for the Nexus 6p, Google’s baby. This giant phone costs less than $500, but the design is superb. The fingerprint scanner is right on the back so your forefinger unlocks it without any effort when you pull the phone out of your pocket. It runs stock Android. The screen is big and gorgeous. It has a solid camera, which is pretty much a first for Google’s Nexus line. It ticks off all my required boxes, and I can almost forgive the fact that it misses out on some of my preferences. Almost. You see, I’d have to give up my replaceable battery, SD card expansion, and waterproofing. That means that this $500 upgrade makes me lose everything I like about my phone now for a fingerprint scanner and a headphone jack that’s attached to my phone.

There are other great options, but they’re all more expensive than the Nexus 6p without much added, and none of them have those three magic features that make my current phone great. It turns out that I can’t convince myself to part with my phone just yet, but it looks like the powers that be have some nice offerings for the near future.

Samsung and LG just announced their upcoming flagship phones. The new S7 keeps the gorgeous design language of last year’s S6, but brings back waterproofing and expandable SD storage while upping battery life significantly. If the price is right, this might be perfect for me.

Meanwhile, LG upped the ante with the G5, the next phone in their well-received flagship line. Their G5, when it hits shelves in a few months, will have what LG calls “Friends.” These are basically attachments, but two of them have a trick: you can actually pull off the bottom eighth or so of the phone and replace it. One of the replacements has an amplifier built in so that people with high-end audio equipment can take full advantage of high-quality audio from their phone. The other has some dedicated camera/video/zoom buttons and some spare power stored up for heavy-duty photography. Both attachments are attached to the phone’s battery, which is swappable, and the phone reboots in a matter of seconds after swapping out. This odd feature is a compelling new take on the smartphone, so it’ll be interesting to see how this phone is received. For me personally, I doubt I would be willing to spring for the attachments, but I would be able to keep my swappable battery and SD card expansion while getting my fingerprint reader and general spec boost.

I’m still waiting on my perfect smartphone replacement, but I have hope. Aside from the above announcements, a breakdown of last year’s iPhone showed that Apple had, without announcing it, put extra seals on the iPhone logic board to protect a major weak point for water damage. Maybe my dream of a truly waterproof iPhone will finally become reality this Thanksgiving and drag me over to the people who made my laptop for my smartphone needs.
But the interesting thing about this whole conundrum is that, for the first time since the first iPhone came out, I can honestly say that upgrading is optional. Technically it always was, but in reality smartphones were advancing so fast that a two year old phone could barely run new apps purely due to hardware limitations. Now I look at the best phones there are and I don’t want to give up my three year old fringe phone. This is great. Smartphones are expensive, and it’s good to know that the next one I get is likely to last me three or four years if I take good care of it. It’s a great time to be alive in the world of tiny computers in everyone’s pockets. In fact, since I wrote this, I managed to fix my headphone jack. Maybe I’ll hold onto my phone another year.

Featured image courtesy of Charles Kacir.

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