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Circuit Breaker

How long should a $999 iPhone last?

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I usually spend about $1,300 on a new computer, and I usually expect it to stay in good shape for about four years — if not more. So if I’m spending over $1,000 on an iPhone, how long should I expect to use it for?

Smartphones have never had the longevity that modern computers have, often staying current for only two or so years. There are a good number of reasons why: For one, smartphones are historically cheaper, so it makes sense that companies would expect them to be replaced a bit sooner. But more importantly, smartphones are evolving at such a rapid pace that there’s frequently a good reason to buy a new phone every couple of years.

Sometimes, this is a good thing: in the last two years, many phones have added second cameras, much better image processing, HDR displays, and the increasingly universal USB-C connection standard — all reasons you might want to buy one. But other times, the continued improvements lead to big issues for people who’d rather not upgrade so often: after a couple of years, apps just tend to get slow. And often, unusably slow.

Like other smartphone features, processors are improving at an incredible pace — sometimes dramatically from year to year. And with developers routinely targeting the latest and great smartphones in order to make their apps capable of doing more than ever, people who don’t keep buying new smartphones may be left with a sluggish experience after only a couple of years.

The situation hasn’t gotten that much better. My iPhone 4S was getting hard to use after just two years. And while my iPhone 5S was still in relatively good shape after two years, its age was starting to show as I loaded up newer versions of iOS. This problem isn’t exclusive to iPhones either — my current phone, a Nexus 5X made by Google and LG, has become painfully slow when taking photos less than two years on. I haven’t owned newer iPhones, but I’m told they still start to see the same battery life and sluggishness issues past the two year mark. That’s not a huge surprise: we put a ton of wear and tear on these things, while technology is racing ahead.

So will the iPhone X buck all of that and last buyers longer into the future? I’m not so sure that it will. The iPhone X uses the same processor that’s inside of the iPhone 8, and there’s no doubt that Apple will release a new phone next year with an even faster processor, and same with the year after that. Even though the iPhone X has more advanced cameras and a future-facing design, the processor is going to age just as fast as every other iPhone.

There’s almost an implication here that the iPhone X isn’t built to last. At $999, this is a phone for tech enthusiasts and people with large amounts of disposable income, who will buy this in part to have the flashiest phone they can get — its distinctions are not meant to help pros who need more technical capabilities, after all; they’re largely aesthetic improvements and entertaining flourishes. If Apple releases an X2 next year (or maybe an XI?) and the X is no longer cutting edge, I suspect this same group of people will consider buying yet another iPhone.

For a more typical smartphone customer, who might like the idea of splurging on an iPhone X but doesn’t replace their phone every year, that isn’t a tenable proposition. And the idea that a $999 phone might age just as fast as a $699 phone — the price of the iPhone 8 — is to me, at least, quite frustrating. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect such an expensive device to last more than a couple of years.

This rapid aging wasn’t as much of an issue back when we were all (in the US, at least) locked into two-year contracts with our phone carriers, and most of the price of a new smartphone was hidden away — it just made sense to upgrade if you had the means.

In fact, you used to be discouraged from holding onto a phone for longer than two years. Phone carriers like Verizon and AT&T hid a device fee inside their monthly bills, which covered the cost of the subsidized phones they gave out. Keeping a phone for longer than your contract period meant you’d be paying for a new device even as you were using an old one. (This also means that slow upgraders may well have already paid more than $1,000 for a phone, simply by losing the money to hidden fees.)

But carriers have stopped doing that, and you’re now given a clear choice of how much to spend and how often. If you decide to go with an iPhone X, you may be looking at $1,000 every couple years. As long as phones are improving this quickly, it might make sense to spend less and upgrade just as frequently.

Of course, not everyone will see the need to upgrade after just two years. If you add a battery pack, battery life issues go away. If you don’t use a ton of apps, performance issues may not matter as much. And Apple doesn’t actually introduce groundbreaking features all that often. If you haven’t purchased a phone since the iPhone 5S, the biggest features you’d have missed out on were bigger screens, mobile payments, and an optional second camera. I guess you could throw 3D Touch in there, but I’m not convinced that feature has sold a single phone.

From that perspective, iPhones — and smartphones in general — may have a longer lifespan than many of us absorbed in the tech world would let on. I know plenty of people who hang onto phones for far longer than two years, even though I tend to grow impatient with my own two-year-old phones. Chances are, the iPhone X won’t grow dated through the introduction of revolutionary new features within the next two or three years. But that doesn’t guarantee it’ll remain a snappy performer with all-day battery life that far down the road.

And that’s really the problem I worry about. Even if you want to hang onto an iPhone X for three or four years, I think there’s an open question of how well it’ll run at that point. Every phone and computer has to slow down eventually, but when you invest more into one, you usually expect it to hang on somewhat longer. The iPhone X will likely age as quickly as any other iPhone — it’ll just look better while doing it.