The best smartphone is the one you already own

apple iphone manufacturing
Now that Apple has disappointed early adopters with a mere incremental iPhone upgrade, and Samsung has done even worse by releasing exploding Galaxy Note 7s, the preposterous futility of the smartphone wars should be coming apparent. Those people who are trading in perfectly usable phones for the latest models are the suckers.

A brand new smartphone is anything but a status symbol.  It simply means you’ve been fooled into valuing a shiny new object over its impact on labor, the environment, or even your own time. And it’s not entirely your own fault.

After all, our Twitter streams are filled with comments about Apple’s latest product launch and links to Medium posts and unboxing videos by those delighted or vanquished by their new purchases. It’s hard not to want the button, the two-lens camera, or iris-recognition security. Such innovations make a single lens or thumbprint security feel, well, so last quarter.

Yet the gadgets truly in need of glorification in our Instagram feeds are those battered, bruised, and still-ticking devices that don’t demand their own replacement every 365 days.

Hidden costs

The less-told stories here, and the ones deserving our attention, are the human and climate cost of all these new and unnecessary devices – costs brilliantly externalized by the aesthetic and marketing of tech products.

The lion’s share of processing activity – and energy consumption – is actually occurring on servers.

The Bauhaus elegance of an iPhone, for example, makes it feel as if the device’s primary functions are really occurring inside its new, water-resistant case. The battery is for your screen, and little else. The lion’s share of processing activity – and energy consumption – is actually occurring on servers streaming all those videos and making all the harder calculations and analyses. Siri is not in your phone, she’s on a bunch of HP servers in the cloud. That energy consumption is immense, particularly in comparison with that of recharging our phones every night. Watching an hour of video on your smartphone every week for a year actually uses two refrigerators’ worth of electric power.

And all that electricity only accounts for around 20 percent of the electricity a smart phone will use in its lifetime, once you factor in the energy used for production and distribution of the phone itself. If the phone materials were actually recycled, there would be additional energy costs – but at least those would have been well spent. As it is, most e-waste is just dumped in huge piles in developing nations, forming small mountains of toxic trash on which impoverished families scavenge for sellable parts. E-waste is estimated to reach 60 million tons next year.

apple iphone manufacturing

Finally, every new smartphone contains several grams of rare earth metals and “conflict” minerals including gold, tin, tungsten, and tantalum. These are mined for, at gunpoint, by child slaves in the Congo. That’s right: Your purchase of a new smartphone requires a kid to go into a cave for minerals, and empowers the people and companies who are exploiting him. (To be fair, most smartphone manufacturers feel really bad about this, and wish they could come up with a way of supplying you with a new phone every year that didn’t depend on raping and killing children.)

Why do you need that phone again?

Companies have an excuse. Corporate activity has almost always depended on slave labor and environmental destruction. Meanwhile, shareholders demand quarter-over-quarter growth from the companies they own – particularly when they’re technology companies. When Apple sells fewer iPhones than it did the year before, the company’s valuation decreases by billions of dollars.

What’s our excuse? Is a wireless headphone port or wraparound screen really worth the social and environmental cost? How many socially conscious tweets would it take to compensate for the damage caused by a single smartphone purchase?

It’s time we technology consumers began demanding something different from our manufacturers: longevity.

No, the only real response – the true techie’s response – is to learn how to make one’s phone last as many years as possible. Instead of buying our way out of obsolescence, we program, adapt, and workaround. What makes a phone great is not how new it is, but how long it lasts.

That’s why the person who wins my admiration at a party or conference is not the guy with the latest model smartphone or laptop, but the woman sporting an iPhone 3 and a 2009 MacBook Pro. And not because she’s a luddite, but because she’s the one with user mojo capable of participating at high efficiency in any essential digital activity with the same technology that less savvy consumers would have to consider obsolete.

I once had a guitar teacher who tried to make me feel better about the fact that all the other kids in the music school had expensive Martins while I had a used no-name. He said that in his experience, people’s ability to play was inversely proportional to the cost of their instruments. Willie Nelson’s guitar – holes and all – is testament to the sort of materialism that values the world’s existing objects more than those that have yet to be sourced and assembled.

What’s old is cool again

It’s time we technology consumers began demanding something different from our manufacturers: longevity. That’s a big ask. Even when our phones don’t wear out, they are nonetheless obsolesced by OS upgrades and network changes that seem designed to do little more than force new hardware purchases. App developers can be wiped out by a single iPhone update, and are often forced to choose between serving those on the “old” OS or those who have moved to the new one.

And the more of us stick with the phones we have, the more pressure we will exert on developers to maintain true backwards compatibility – the same way committed Windows 3.1 users forced Netscape and Internet Explorer to remain compatible with them if they wanted to gain market share in the browser wars of the late ‘90s.

Our numbers matter. If we flocked to the new phones, we support a technology landscape that favors change for change’s sake over stability, ease of use, open development, environmental sustainability, and basic human rights.

Love the phone you’re with.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.


Will high-res radar make tomorrow’s cars safer?

Modern cars have sensors designed to make driving safer. The problem? They don’t work well. A combination of radar, lidar, and cameras is a solution, but we aren’t there yet.
Emerging Tech

New sustainable plan to mitigate climate change involves… a hot dog cooker?

Chemists have demonstrated a new, energy-efficient method of pulling carbon dioxide directly from the air. The secret ingredients? An air humidifier and a solar-powered hot dog cooker.

Find out how Apple's new iPhones measure up to the most bezel-less designs

As the smartphone industry marches toward a bezel-less future, we compare the shrinking bezels on the latest and greatest devices. Find out which manufacturers have the smallest bezels on their smartphone as we measure them side by side.
Product Review

Oculus Touch buoys the Rift, but there's still work to be done

Oculus inspired the new generation of virtual reality headsets with its incredibly successful Kickstarter. Is the original the standard, or have its imitators surpassed it? Let's take a look at how the Rift stacks up.
Home Theater

Why I still won’t wear wireless headphones

Wireless headphones promise liberation from cords, tangles, and snags, but there’s just one issue holding them back: battery life. And until manufacturers figure it out, sales numbers prove consumers aren’t yet biting.
Home Theater

We all cut cable, and now we’re just as screwed on streaming

As live TV streaming services like Sling TV and PlayStation Vue raise prices in tandem, it raises questions about whether these services were ever a viable alternative to cable in the first place.
Home Theater

AT&T wants to make HBO more like Netflix, and it could be a disaster

After acquiring HBO parent company Time Warner, AT&T is pushing HBO to become more like Netflix, but for all of Netflix’s success, this plan might not be great for either HBO or its customers.
Virtual Reality

HTC says ‘it takes time to launch a new technology,’ claims lead in VR revenue

HTC posted a response to a Digital Trends editorial charting VR headset sales on Amazon. The company said "it takes time to launch a new technology," and posted data showing it makes the most revenue among its peers.

What’s the point of the Note’s S Pen? Samsung needs to find one or kill it

The Galaxy Note 9’s announcement will bring with it another S Pen stylus, a feature only the artistic will get excited about. Samsung should be embarrassed about its lack of use, and we’re hoping the Note 9’s stylus includes new…

No, blue light from your cell phone won’t make you blind

A new study from the University of Toledo reveals the process by which blue light impacts the photoreceptors in our eyes and leads to macular degeneration, an incurable eye disease that causes blindness later in life. The fact that blue…

Nvidia’s new GPUs look amazing, but that doesn’t mean you should buy one

Nvidia's GeForce 2080 is a powerful graphics card that supports ray tracing to deliver real-time cinematic renderings of shadows, light, and reflection in games, but unless you were already planning on upgrading, you'll probably want to…

New Wear OS smartwatches have arrived! Here’s why you shouldn’t buy them

The likes of Skagen and Diesel have unveiled new Wear OS smartwatches at IFA 2018. You shouldn't buy them, because they're utilizing an old processor. Qualcomm is expected to announce a new wearable processor next month.
Home Theater

8K is the next big thing in TVs. Get over it

8K is the next big thing in TV. At least, that’s how LG, Samsung, Sony, and Sharp would have it. At IFA 2018, Samsung announced it would begin shipping its gorgeous Q900R series series 8K TVs this year. LG arrived with a glorious 88-inch…
Movies & TV

Bored with Netflix? As it goes global, the selection is about to explode

Netflix is going global. And even if you never leave step foot outside America, you should be excited. More subscribers abroad means more original, diverse content, and plenty to watch when House of Cards gets stale.