Smartphones are a bad deal – let's hope laptops don't go the same way
Imagine buying a new laptop, only to find that three years later Microsoft/Apple stopped offering software updates for it, effectively forcing you to upgrade in order to ensure you had a machine that was secure and ran smoothly.
And imagine that, during those three years, each software upgrade your laptop did get felt like it was purposefully designed to slow down the device, again nudging you towards upgrading.
With this imaginary laptop, you were unable to install any other operating system on it (perhaps in a bid to continue to get security updates) without voiding the warranty. You couldn’t download and install programs that hadn’t been vetted by the OS maker, and you were unable to open it up and replace or upgrade certain things, like the battery or hard drive.
Then, imagine that the new version of the laptop you’re being encouraged to upgrade to comes with fewer ports than the model you currently own – so your current peripherals won’t work with it.
Sounds awful, doesn’t it? But that’s what’s basically happening in the smartphone world at the moment. Take the original Google Pixel. Launched in 2016, it was a very good smartphone (I should know, I owned one), and in 2020 it should still be a good smartphone.
The problem is, Google announced in 2019 – a mere three years after the Pixel launched – that it was no longer providing essential security updates for the phone.
Meanwhile, following the launch of the iPhone SE 2020, and with iOS 14 coming later this year, it’s expected that the iPhone 7 – launched in 2016 – will no longer be supported with updates from Apple.
While we seem to have come to accept that kind of behavior from smartphone makers, the thought of a laptop no longer being supported after only a few years is (at the moment, at least) ludicrous.
Sure, Microsoft stopped supporting Windows 7 this year – but that’s 11 years after the OS still launched. And laptops running that old operating system were encouraged to upgrade to Windows 10, so machines didn’t suddenly become useless once Windows 7 reached its End of Life phase on January 14, 2020.
Yes, I’m actually painting Microsoft in a good light here. And, while I’m not a fan of what Apple does with its phones, when it comes to supporting older Macs and MacBooks, its reputation is a lot better; there’s a reason, after all, why you meet people who boast about still using a 10-year-old MacBook, but no one who still uses the original iPhone, for example.
However, both Microsoft and Apple are bringing elements of smartphone design into their laptops, and it’s something I’m beginning to worry about.
One of the most annoying things about most modern phones is the fact that they have non-replaceable batteries. Over time, batteries hold less and less of their charge, and back in the day you could simply whip out the old battery and put in a new one – but if the battery is non-replaceable, it means either getting the manufacturer to install a new battery, or replacing the whole device.
Both Apple and Microsoft have been taken to task for including non-replaceable batteries, and for soldering and gluing in components, in their MacBook and Surface devices respectively. By preventing users from easily upgrading or fixing their laptops, they're sailing dangerously close to introducing the forced obsolescence that I feel is plaguing the smartphone market.
The fact that this kind of behavior isn’t the norm – and that the idea of a laptop no longer being supported a mere three years after its launch seems so far fetched – gives me hope that the laptop market isn’t picking up too many bad habits from smartphones – for now.
But why do we accept this when it comes to phones? Many smartphones are just as expensive – if not more so – than laptops.
In my view, we shouldn’t. I’ve got a Samsung Galaxy Note 9 – a brilliant smartphone that I’d be happy to use for years. However, I’m very aware that Samsung – and my cellphone network – wouldn’t want me to do that. They would want me to toss aside this perfectly good phone in a few short years, and upgrade to the latest version.
It’s a sorry state of affairs – and it isn’t just a bad deal for consumers, who feel the need to spend big money on a new phone, or be locked into contracts where they pay off the handset (plus interest) over several years.
It’s also a bad deal for the environment. If we keep on treating perfectly good electronics as useless piles of junk after only a few years, the environmental impact will be severe. In these trying times, continuing to use our existing tech – or finding new uses for it (like turning an old Android smartphone into a system monitor for a gaming PC) – is the ethical way forward.
If you are looking for a new smartphone, and you're concerned about getting a bad deal, there are at least some things you can do. There are some brilliant mid-range phone deals out there – so if your phone is only going to last you a few years at least you won't have spent a fortune on it – and well as SIM-only deals that give you more freedom when it comes to how long you get to use your phone for before being pestered to upgrade.
But let's home laptop manufacturers resist the temptation to follow phone makers any further down the path of enforced obsolescence – for the sake of both our wallets, and our planet.
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