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The art of maintenance

The Telegraph offers wisdom on smartphone repair, much like we do for cars

Brian X. Chen   |   Published 21.11.22, 06:44 AM

A smartphone is not all that different from a car. When parents deem their children old and responsible enough, they may let them get one. There are several ways to pay for it: buying outright, financing or leasing. And like cars, phone models have become nearly indistinguishable from one year to the next.

Yet there’s one major difference between cars and phones, or at least in how people treat them. Car owners take their vehicles to a shop for service and repairs. But when something as basic as a phone’s battery begins to degrade, people generally replace the entire device.

“Everyone knows tires wear out and you need to replace them,” said Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, which publishes instructions for repairing electronics. “There’s a psychological delusion around not having to do maintenance on electronics like we do with cars.”

The average time people own a car before replacing it, about eight years, dwarfs the length of time before a phone upgrade, about 3 1/2 years. But with care, the life of a good phone can be stretched to six years.

Replacing phones often is costly, more so for the environment. The manufacturing of a phone, composed of at least 70 materials, is energy intensive and often takes place in countries where electricity production results in high carbon emissions.

Some elements, such as the high cost of doing some repairs, are out of our control. But a big reason is purely behavioural. A 2021 study by the Delft University of Technology, Netherlands, surveyed 617 people who had recently replaced their phones.

The most common reason given for replacing was a loss in performance, such as slower software or a degraded battery. Only 30 per cent of those who said they had a partly malfunctioning phone said they had considered repairing it.

The second most common reason: simply feeling it was time to buy a new one.

Ruth Mugge, a design professor at Delft and an author of the study, said there was a misperception that 3 1/2 years was as long as a phone could last — even among those whose phones were still working.

This belief, she said, is shaped by an environment that triggers an urge to upgrade. One is the marketing push from phone carriers, which send emails reminding you to trade in your old phone for credit toward a new one. Another is peer pressure, as friends and colleagues replace their phones every few years.

“If you keep it for a long time, people might find you a bit strange,” Mugge said.

The other driver toward upgrades is tougher to grapple with: there are few incentives for people to do repairs. That’s because phones, tightly sealed up with glue and tiny screws, are difficult for the average person to fix, and parts can be expensive.

A study by Consumer Reports found that people want to fix their phones but face obstacles. Among people who said their phone had started breaking down, 25 per cent tried to get it fixed but ended up replacing it, while only 16 per cent had it repaired. The rest kept using the phone without trying to repair it or just replaced it.

So what to do? For starters, you can treat your phone as if it were like your car. If your phone is still mostly working, you can take care of it by doing basic maintenance.

Another motivator may be doing the maths. For about $70, you can replace your phone’s battery. Let’s say in two years, you trade in your $800 phone for $300 in credit toward the new $800 model. That’s spending $500 on a phone every two years; over eight years, you will have spent $2,800 on phones. In contrast, if you hold on to an $800 phone and replace two batteries for $70 each, you will spend $940 in the same period.

You can also remind yourself to practice self-restraint when new phone ads play on TV, said Lee Vinsel, an author of The Innovation Delusion, a book about how our obsession with the new has killed the art of maintenance. That also includes resisting the urge to judge others who don’t have the newest gadgets.

“A cultural shift needs to happen,” Vinsel said. “We need to stop being seduced by the hype and just think about the larger picture, including the environment.”


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