Long-term Device Use

It seems to me that Android phones have recently passed the stage where hardware advances are well ahead of software bloat. This is the point that desktop PCs passed about 15 years ago and laptops passed about 8 years ago. For just over 15 years I’ve been avoiding buying desktop PCs, the hardware that organisations I work for throw out is good enough that I don’t need to. For the last 8 years I’ve been avoiding buying new laptops, instead buying refurbished or second hand ones which are more than adequate for my needs. Now it seems that Android phones have reached the same stage of development.

3 years ago I purchased my last phone, a Nexus 6P [1]. Then 18 months ago I got a Huawei Mate 9 as a warranty replacement [2] (I had swapped phones with my wife so the phone I was using which broke was less than a year old). The Nexus 6P had been working quite well for me until it stopped booting, but I was happy to have something a little newer and faster to replace it at no extra cost.

Prior to the Nexus 6P I had a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 for 1 year 9 months which was a personal record for owning a phone and not wanting to replace it. I was quite happy with the Note 3 until the day I fell on top of it and cracked the screen (it would have been ok if I had just dropped it). While the Note 3 still has my personal record for continuous phone use, the Nexus 6P/Huawei Mate 9 have the record for going without paying for a new phone.

A few days ago when browsing the Kogan web site I saw a refurbished Mate 10 Pro on sale for about $380. That’s not much money (I usually have spent $500+ on each phone) and while the Mate 9 is still going strong the Mate 10 is a little faster and has more RAM. The extra RAM is important to me as I have problems with Android killing apps when I don’t want it to. Also the IP67 protection will be a handy feature. So that phone should be delivered to me soon.

Some phones are getting ridiculously expensive nowadays (who wants to walk around with a $1000+ Pixel?) but it seems that the slightly lower end models are more than adequate and the older versions are still good.

Cost Summary

If I can buy a refurbished or old model phone every 2 years for under $400 that will make using a phone cost about $0.50 per day. The Nexus 6P cost me $704 in June 2016 which means that for the past 3 years my phone cost was about $0.62 per day.

It seems that laptops tend to last me about 4 years [3], and I don’t need high-end models (I even used one from a rubbish pile for a while). The last laptops I bought cost me $289 for a Thinkpad X1 Carbon [4] and $306 for the Thinkpad T420 [5]. That makes laptops about $0.20 per day.

In May 2014 I bought a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 edition tablet for $579. That is still working very well for me today, apart from only having 32G of internal storage space and an OS update preventing Android apps from writing to the micro SD card (so I have to use USB to copy TV shows on to it) there’s nothing more than I need from a tablet. Strangely I even get good battery life out of it, I can use it for a couple of hours without the battery running out. Battery life isn’t nearly as good as when it was new, but it’s still OK for my needs. As Samsung stopped providing security updates I can’t use the tablet as a SSH client, but now that my primary laptop is a small and light model that’s less of an issue. Currently that tablet has cost me just over $0.30 per day and it’s still working well.

Currently it seems that my hardware expense for the forseeable future is likely to be about $1 per day. 20 cents for laptop, 30 cents for tablet, and 50 cents for phone. The overall expense is about $1.66 per month as I’m on a $20 per month pre-paid plan with Aldi Mobile.

Saving Money

A laptop is very important to me, the amounts of money that I’m spending don’t reflect that. But it seems that I don’t have any option for spending more on a laptop (the Thinkpad X1 Carbon I have now is just great and there’s no real option for getting more utility by spending more). I also don’t have any option to spend less on a tablet, 5 years is a great lifetime for a device that is practically impossible to repair (repair will cost a significant portion of the replacement cost).

I hope that the Mate 10 can last at least 2 years which will make it a new record for low cost of ownership of a phone for me. If app vendors can refrain from making their bloated software take 50% more RAM in the next 2 years that should be achievable.

The surprising thing I learned while writing this post is that my mobile phone expense is the largest of all my expenses related to mobile computing. Given that I want to get good reception in remote areas (needs to be Telstra or another company that uses their network) and that I need at least 3GB of data transfer per month it doesn’t seem that I have any options for reducing that cost.

4 comments to Long-term Device Use

  • I also owned a 6P that cost me well over $1K.

    I was expecting it to last 5 years. It’s battery died before 2 years. I wasn’t looking forward to replacing it because the phone was reputedly held together by glue. That turned out to be true but sourcing a genuine replacement was by far the greater challenge as it required literally days of research on the internet. While the battery replacement was a success Google then dropped software support, and not long after phone started running so slowly Android Auto starting timing out when connecting.

    Spending over $1K on something that evidently isn’t designed to last more than 24 months is a fools errand, and I had already proved myself to be a fool once. So this time I settled on a Nokia 8.1, which is an Android One phone that cost me a bit over $400 new. It proceed to show me just how foolish I was. Although only 2 and a bit years have elapsed and costing 1/3 the price the phone it literally better than the 6P in every way – faster, bigger screen yet smaller overall, battery lasts longer and so on.

    I now seen several different models of phone owned by myself and others slow down after few years. Factory resetting it doesn’t fix the problem, neither does unlocking phone, and reformatting the flash and re-imaging. I’ve never seen it happen with any other sort of computer, and it’s fascinating enough to spend hours trolling the internet looking for some manufacturers engineer to pop up and say “that because of X” – but I’ve never been lucky enough to discover one of those either. My guess is it’s caused the flash they use degrading somehow, mostly because the flash is one of the few things that could be technologically different from a desktop – but it’s just a wild guess.

    Regardless, such degradation is very common and infuriatingly the Android manufacturers stop supporting the software after 2 years, so I’m very leery of older phones (whereas I do buy 2nd hand desktop for home). Fortunately new phones are so cheap you don’t really need to purchase 2nd hand ones.

    As a side note, a lot of these problems will be fixed when we get off our collective arses and create a purely open source ecosystem for phones that is as good as the one we created for desktops (which I think is better than the commercial offerings now). Slow bloated software won’t be a problem, software updates will be reliable, we will finally find out the real real the bloody things slow down and so presumably we won’t have to throw away perfectly good hardware.

  • I was teased by @planetdebian because I’m myself interested in long-term device use (my current mobile phone is a Nokia 8910i from 2004 replacing my good old 3109c from 2008). However, I was disappointed. Not even two years as personal record is still a long way to go. If we don’t want to pile up mountains of electronic waste and leave something for future generations, five years of use should be the minimum. Devices should last longer than that and software support must cover this. The key to this can be Free Software, it would allow to maintain software if the vendor drops support. A smartphone which does not support alternative ROMs like LineageOS isn’t worth buying in the first place.

  • Russell: Sounds like you bought your Nexus 6P when it was still a new phone, I got mine when it had been out for about 9 months and was a bit cheaper.

    Interesting theory about flash getting slower, I’m not aware of any evidence of that in USB sticks, SSD, or NVMe though. I think it’s just apps getting more bloated.

    As for purely open source, my first Linux system in 1992 had 4M of RAM. In 1995 I ran a Linux server with 16M of RAM which performed nicely. In 2008 I could barely get Debian/Etch to boot with 13M of RAM and even that required non-default settings. It seems that the FOSS community is making things bloated too.

    Alexander: True, things aren’t as good as they should be, although the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 has been going strong for a while!

    As for Lineage, one of the key things about the IBM PC compatible market is that you could easily switch boot devices. If PCs were glued together such that no-one could change a hard drive without risking permanent damage then progress on free software probably would have been a lot slower.

  • r

    I am very keen on using hardware for the long run. I got a Motorola G 2nd generation almost 5 years ago, and I have used it for work and privately. Battery still lasts 24 hours after full load if I don’t do any fancy things. I also notice it getting slower, my guess is as well that the apps get more demanding on the hardware.
    Before that, I used a Nokia E71 for around 6 years, which I still consider a great device. Loved it, but obviously, it didn’t make it into the new reality of touching your gadgets.
    I hope, my motorola still lasts a while – I hope the replacement could be the purism phone then…