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Friday, May 24, 2024

Smartphones Can Now Last 7 Years. Here’s How to Keep Them Working.

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Every smartphone has an expiration date. That day arrives when the software updates stop coming and you start missing out on new apps and security protections. With most phones, this used to happen after about only three years.

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

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

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 smartphone. 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 how companies used to talk about phones. Not long ago, tech giants unveiled new devices that encouraged people to upgrade every two years. But in the last few years, smartphone sales have slowed down worldwide as their improvements have become more marginal. Nowadays, people want their phones to endure.

Samsung and Google, the two most influential Android device makers, are playing catch-up with Apple, which has traditionally provided software updates for iPhones for roughly seven years. These moves will make phones last much longer and give people more flexibility to decide when it’s time to upgrade.

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

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

In the past, Android phone makers said the technical process of providing software updates was very complicated, so to stay profitable, they dropped support 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 that it would ramp up law enforcement against tech companies that made it difficult to fix and maintain their products. That accelerated the “right to repair” movement, a piece of proposed legislation that required companies to provide the parts, tools and software to extend the lives of their products. In the last few years, states including California, New York, Minnesota and Oregon have enacted such legislation.

Google announced its new commitment for smartphones after it was pressured to make a similar move for its laptops. In September, the company agreed to expand software support for its Chromebook to 10 years, up from eight years, in response to a grass-roots campaign that highlighted how short-lived Google laptops were causing budget crunches in schools.

Nathan Proctor, a director at U.S. PIRG, a nonprofit largely funded by small donors that led the Chromebook campaign, said the new standard of seven years of support for smartphones would have a profound effect.

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

Software updates are one big part of what keeps a phone working well, but there are other steps to lengthen smartphone lives, similar to maintaining a car. They include:

The lithium-ion batteries in phones have a finite life. After about two years, the amount of charge they can hold diminishes, and it’s wise to replace the battery.

Replacing a smartphone battery isn’t easy, so it’s best to get help from a professional. To find repair shops that service Pixel and Galaxy phones, you can contact Google and Samsung on their websites. You could also look up a reputable shop nearby with a review site like Yelp or Google Reviews. It typically costs about $100 to replace a battery.

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

I recently booked an appointment to replace my iPhone 14’s battery at the Apple Store in Emeryville, Calif. When I arrived, the employee said the battery was out of stock, and the nearest store that carried it was a 40-minute drive away.

This was frustratingly inefficient — the Apple site should not have let me book an appointment at a store that didn’t have the battery. Apple said in a statement that when a part needed for repair was not available, a retail employee would find the nearest store to complete the repair or order the replacement part and do the repair when the part arrived.

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

Smartphones are still mostly 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 extra safeguard, though many won’t enjoy how it distorts the picture quality of the screen. Our sister site that reviews products, Wirecutter, recommends cases from brands like Smartish, Spigen and Mujjo, or cases from the phone makers themselves.

Unless you’re very accident prone, I recommend against buying extended warranties because their costs can exceed the cost of a repair.

Smartphones have very few moving parts, so there’s little we have to do to physically maintain them. But most of us neglect cleaning the parts that we rarely look at: charging ports and speaker holes.

Over time, those holes are clogged up with dirt, pocket lint and makeup. That built-up debris can make a phone take longer to charge or a phone call more difficult to hear.

“It’s the belly button lint of cellphones,” said Kyle Wiens, the chief executive of iFixit, a site that publishes instructions and sells parts to repair electronics.

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

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. You should continue to buy a phone based on this principle.

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

But those who just want to buy a phone that lasts as long as possible should pick one that will be economical to repair when things break. Mr. Wiens said Google’s Pixel phones, whose parts are affordable, fit this criterion. Owners of those phones will now have longer-lasting software to keep up with the hardware.

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