So Google has gone back to LG for their Nexus 5X. LG made the original Nexus 5, which two years ago was generally regarded as the best Android phone out there: pure Android experience for a low unlocked price, basically setting the model that Motorola would follow thereafter. It’s got a 1080P display, 2 GB of RAM, shoots 4K video from a 12 MP camera, and starts at $379.
Looking at the early comments on Gizmodo, though, there are already people wondering whether this is sufficiently future-proof and will be OK in two years – but complimenting the price point because $800 is too much to spend on a two-year device. And I’m starting to wonder how much longer the two-year model will hold for phones – it began as a function of contracts and now appears to be more a function of financing than anything else; all these new plans that offer monthly payments seem to be on an 18- or 20- or 24-month cycle (when they’re not offering to upgrade your iPhone every year). And this informs my own position, certainly. I’d much rather be on the S cycle than the integer one with iPhones. If I had to buy a new phone now, I’d pay for the unlocked iPhone 6S, because even though it’ll be $800 up front, I’ll more than make up the difference on a $30 or $45 prepaid plan rather than the exorbitant sums you pay for postpaid service. But I don’t have to buy one at all – I have my Moto X, and the wife will be freeing up her iPhone 5S shortly.
And that’s where things get interesting. Those are both phones from 2013, when (as I previously asserted) the smartphone crossed the finish line. Everything since has been bigger batteries, better cameras, added gimmicks like pressure-sensitive screens or fingerprint readers or NFC payment (and with an Apple Watch, you get all that with an iPhone 5S anyway). In the real world, a two year old cellphone is largely just fine – hell, my mother is still pushing an iPhone 4S (and I bet anything the battery is shot to hell, but still).
And then yesterday we saw announced the Fairphone 2: not a sealed device, not breathtakingly thin or breathtakingly light or breathtakingly hyperbolic, but something repairable for an estimated life of five years. Smashed screen? Replace it. Battery flat? Replace it. 100% user-repairable, and presumably upgradeable. It doesn’t have to be the Project Ara vaporware where you mix and match all the little modules on the fly, it just has to be a phone that you can keep up and keep running for a while. It’s not ridiculously sized – the peak thickness is comparable with that first-gen Moto X and thinner than the iPhone 3GS. And if you could somehow get the VAT refunded on purchase, it wouldn’t be that much more expensive than that Nexus 5X.
One of my biggest hopes going forward is that this will be an end of the automatic 2-year cycle. It has to be possible to buy the service and then upgrade the phone when you want/need to upgrade the phone, not because you have to do it in this window or else be screwed into paying full price. I’d like to have a phone that I can keep using for a while, and if I can somehow get another year out of that iPhone 5S…maybe. But the other side of the problem is software: the upgrades will do for your iPhone after 3 years, and your Android phone may never get an upgrade depending on what you got. So how long can you keep it viable? Is it reasonable to expect the same five years out of the phone that you can expect out of your home PC (battery replacement permitting, and knowing the last year will drag ass)?
Maybe the next project is to find out.