Reassessing Smartphone Upgrade Recommendations

Brian X. Chen, New York Times:

Year after year, the formula was this: I tested the most important new features of Apple’s latest smartphone and assessed whether they were useful. Assuming the newest iPhone worked well, my advice was generally the same — I recommended upgrading if you had owned your existing smartphone for two years.

But with this review of the iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max — the newest models that Apple unveiled last week and which will become available this Friday — I’m encouraging a different approach. The bottom line? It’s time to reset our upgrade criteria.

I think this is a wise approach with purchasing anything: you should figure out if a newer version of the product will meaningfully advance how you use it, and whether those improvements are worth the cost to you based on their importance. Here’s where Chen lost me:

So here’s what I ultimately suggest: You should definitely upgrade if your current device is at least five years old. The iPhone 11 models are all a significant step up from those introduced in 2014. But for everyone else with smartphones from 2015 or later, there is no rush to buy. Instead, there is more mileage and value to be had out of the excellent smartphone you already own.

Chen has clarified that the improvements in the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro models are “nice to have, but [not] must have[s]” for owners of, say, an iPhone 6S. I think there are plenty of instances where one could have made a judgement like that, but this year seems like the worst possible one. To be fair, I have not used these phones. But every review I’ve read has extolled extraordinary advancements to camera quality — particularly in low-light situations &mdash and battery life in the 11 and 11 Pro. Those are two of the biggest things that people care about in a smartphone, along with having more storage.1

To be clear, I think Chen’s advice is generally sound. If you’re an iPhone user, Apple is making it completely viable to make your device last four or five years with its latest versions of iOS. But I think Chen undersells the advantages of having a battery that lasts far longer than even a brand new iPhone 6S, and far better photos in non-daylight conditions. I’m not convincing you to upgrade, especially since I haven’t used these devices, but I’m suggesting that these are massive improvements for any 6S owner that wants to take pictures in restaurants or in the evening, and doesn’t like having their phone die.

  1. The iPhone 6S came in 16, 32, 64, and 128 GB configurations, while the iPhone 11 starts at 64 GB — so 6S owners are also likely getting a storage upgrade too. ↥︎