We've all been there: Life is going great, more or less, when suddenly, without warning, bam! A new version of your smartphone is released. You might fight the urge to upgrade, but the new one is shiny and cool and you can feel yourself falling in love. Plus you’re surrounded by commercials and billboards and targeted ads, and your friend who always has the latest tech upgraded, too. Will you let yourself be seduced? How often should you upgrade your phone? Every year?
If you listen to fine folks at Apple, Samsung, and other phone giants, the answer is an emphatic yes. But what do the experts say? According to a study done by Consumer Affairs, nearly 12% of Americans upgrade their phone annually, and almost 5% buy a new phone every six months. (Some folks get bored quickly.) Most people, however, wait to upgrade their device every two to three years.
Why upgrade: the tech
Who doesn't like new things? That's precisely what you get when you swap your current phone for the newest model. The screen is usually brighter and sometimes even bigger. Even if the screen is exactly the same dimension-wise, it usually sports a more resistant glass that will protect your new shiny toy.
When Apple unveiled its iPhone 15 lineup, the upgrade that had people talking was adding a USB-C charging port, which the company (begrudgingly) added due to E.U. regulations. For me, the decisive factor was weight: Apple's upgrade from stainless steel to titanium meant the 15 weighed 19 whole grams less than my iPhone 14 Pro Max! (That’s like one medium apple.) As soon as I felt the difference, I had no doubt I’d made the right decision.
Battery life is almost always improved every year, and some folks might need it. iPhone 14 and 14 Pro users complained about their battery health dropping 10% in less than a year—ouch! Add in the faster processor to boot, and taking the yearly upgrade could seem like a no-brainer for power users. If, however, you rely on your phone for web browsing and social media scrolling—i.e., you’re not an avid gamer—paying for speed might not be in your best interest.
Why upgrade: the cost
The reality is that upgrading your phone yearly can save you money and cost you money. If you pay monthly for your phone, and you haven’t yet paid it off, an early upgrade might mean you're not getting the full value out of your original investment. Newer phones are usually more expensive, so if you upgrade yearly, you pay those extra charges depending on the model. For example, the 6.1-inch iPhone 14 has dropped to $699, while the iPhone 15 starts at $799.
Buying a smartphone outright, however, requires paying the full cost upfront, which can be prohibitively expensive for many people. Most Americans have $1,000 or less in personal savings, so shelling out $999.99 for the Galaxy S24 Plus might not be an option. That said, buying a phone outright avoids interest charges that may come with installment plans. Monthly payments, on the other hand, spread the cost over a period, making it easier to manage financially but potentially leading to higher overall costs due to interest or fees.
On the save-money side, some manufacturers and carriers offer significant trade-in deals for your old phone, which can reduce the cost of the new phone. For those concerned about electricity bills, newer phones usually use energy more efficiently, meaning less charging time, which can save on electricity costs over time.
Why upgrade: the environmental impact
Not to get dark here, but the most environmentally harmful part of smartphone ownership is not the use of the device but what goes into manufacturing it. The more frequently techies upgrade, the more units must be churned out. Extracting the rare-earth minerals needed for mobile phones—coltan, for example—takes a toll on the planet. And the people who make these devices are often exposed to hazardous work environments, which include exposure to dangerous chemicals. If the environment is top of mind for you, you’ll want to delay upgrading as long as possible.
Still wrestling with your decision? Here’s a quick checklist to help you make up your mind:
- Is your phone still functioning well? If so, hold on to your current device.
- Is your phone's battery life diminishing or not getting you through a day's run? If not, it's time to run to the virtual arms of another.
- Can you afford the upgrade without financial strain? No one knows what's in your wallet better than you. If things are tight, hold off.
- Are there any trade-in deals available that can significantly reduce the cost of the new phone? Taking advantage of a well-timed deal can make all the difference.
- Ultimately, does upgrading the phone upgrade your life? If you're a techie like me, the answer is YES! But short of that, you can skip the upgrade.