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The craze for expensive phones

· 8 min read

My current smartphone, a Moto G5S Plus, is five years and one week old.

At the time, on 2018-09-01, it cost me my employer €139.75 on Amazon.es. Not because that was the budget I was given, but because I chose that model (I could have easily asked for a more expensive phone). Back then I also bought a plastic case for it, and I think I have a film protecting the screen, too. I reckon I paid twenty euro or less for both accessories. That's a grand total of ~€160 for a phone that was quite good in 2018.

Let us ignore electricity consumption and carrier bills associated with it (those are practically a given, and there is little variance there in quality or price). The total cost of ownership (TCO) of my phone as of today is ~€32/year.

The phone is sturdy, and even more so with the case around it. I have clumsy hands, so I have dropped it on the floor multiple times, and banged it accidentally against other objects and furniture. I have taken it to hikes and runs, and to beaches. It got wet sometimes, and the case is scratched. After five years, I don't seem to be able to break it. If this phone is still in good condition one minute into 2024, its TCO will be ~€30/year.

An illustration for this post generated by Stable Diffusion

In January this year, a young relative of mine got an iPhone 14 (Pro?) as a present. I am not into phones (as you have probably guessed by now), so I couldn't believe it when somebody told me that that phone costs around one thousand euro. With that much money, one can buy seven phones like mine (and keep some change).

My first thoughts when I learnt about that price tag were:

Is that phone comparatively seven times better than mine was in 2018?

(I say “comparatively” to adjust for technological progress; of course it's several times better in absolute terms.)

And:

Is it going to last 7× as much as mine? ie, will it still be used by someone in 2058?

The answer to both questions being obviously “no”, let's look at concrete differences between those two types of gadgets.

Directly comparing my phone with this year's best iPhone wouldn't be useful, as there are two forces pushing both quality and price up: technological progress and inflation, respectively. About inflation, €140 of 2018 are approximately €163 today, so that's our “budget” for an inexpensive Android phone. As for quality, it seems that one of the best Android phones from a good brand that we can buy with that money in 2023 is the Moto G23 8/128: it's €154 on Amazon.es (and we still “save” €9) €144.40 on Amazon.es (and we still “save” €19) [the price decreased a bit after I took the screenshot below].

Screenshot of a Moto G23 phone on Amazon.es

OK, so we just adjusted for inflation, but we also picked an Android phone that costs a bit less than the money we had available for our comparison. It so happens that those two shifts cancelled each other, and the iPhone 14 is still 6.93× more expensive than the Moto G23.

Now let's see what you get when you pay 600% more to buy the best new iPhone instead of a decent inexpensive Android.

On the hardware side, more or less objective measures:

  • ✅ 70% more pixel density (+190 PPI)
  • ✅ 23% faster cores (+0.46 GHz)
  • ✅ A gadget that is 9% shorter (-15 mm)
  • ✅ 4% narrower (-3 mm)
  • ✅ 4% thinner (-0.3 mm)
  • ✅ Bluetooth 5.3 (instead of 5.1)
  • ✅ better cameras in almost every way
  • ✅ “Always-on” display
  • ✅ Emergency SOS via satellite
  • ✅ Wireless charging
  • ✅ 5G
  • ❌ 36% less battery capacity (-1,800 mAh)
  • ❌ 25% fewer CPU cores (-2)
  • ❌ 25% smaller RAM (-2 GB)
  • ❌ 12% heavier (+22 g)
  • ❌ 6% smaller screen (-0.4″)
  • ❌ No MicroSD slot
  • ❌ No audio jack
  • ❌ No FM radio

Software-wise (these are more debatable):

  • ✅ More stable and sleek OS
  • ✅ “Curated” app store
  • ✅ More consistent UX
  • ✅ Longer OS support; eg, security patches (?)
  • ✅ Loss of value with time is less steep; ie, it depreciates more slowly (?)
  • ❌ Closed, proprietary software; you can't inspect or tweak the OS
  • ❌ Can't replace the OS with a different one (not easily)
  • ❌ Can't use alternate app stores
  • ❌ Can't install apps that aren't approved by manufacturer

Note that the most salient gains that we can measure objectively (pixel density, and CPU speed) are only 70% and 23%, respectively. Not 600% — or even 100%. ie, in none of the dimensions we can quantify the iPhone 14 is even twice as good as the Moto G23.

Imagine you are going to buy a €30K car. For that money, it's probably a fairly good car. Would you pay €210K instead (7×) for a different car, just because that one can reach twice the speed, loads twice as much weight, or is half as noisy?

In any case (and in my opinion) many of the gains above cancel many of the losses, and so regardless of which one “wins” in the end, it's a close call.

I have to say that after five years I'm experiencing some of the issues of an old Android phone. For instance, I'm stuck with an old security patch level: neither Motorola nor my carrier bother to release an OTA for that any more. That impacts security, and it's the bit that annoys me the most, to be honest. (There are solutions for that in the form of different Android distros, but with an “old” model like mine, switching to any of them seems difficult and time-consuming.) Also, the UI gets sluggish sometimes now, as apps like Telegram keep on growing in size and adding more and more features and visual effects. This doesn't bother me that often, though. (Also: iPhones aren't immune to obsolescence, either.)

I know that some people will be reading this and thinking: “but… PRIVACY!!” Some people think that iOS is more secure and more private than a deGoogled Android such as LineageOS or CalyxOS. I have commented on that (as have others far more influential than I). To me, the key to that long debate lies in that verb: “think”. Some people think that Apple does E2EE, and does it well. They think that Apple collects little private information, and that they don't share or sell it. They think that security bugs are detected and patched promptly. But they have no way to know, except by extrapolating from public disclosures and from forensic analyses of iOS devices. On the other hand, it is possible to know for sure what AOSP is doing, because its source code is available. It's a comparison between an open system being audited and modified in public (flawed as it might be) and a black box with a label on it with the caption “VERY SECURE AND VERY PRIVATE”.

When I mentioned all this to some close friends (techies like me), the most convincing argument they gave me was that their phone is a tool for work. The logic goes: if I spend €1K or even €2K on a good laptop for work, why shouldn't I spend €1K on a work phone?

Still, I think that reasoning is flawed. Do you really work on your phone for long hours? What exactly is “work” for you?

If you are a salesperson, an entrepreneur or an executive and spend your days talking on the phone, any smartphone phone will do. If your “work” is mainly reading and sending e-mail, looking at images and videos, finding your way around, booking a cab and using IM apps, I have shocking news for you: that's what everybody else does all the time, all day — executives or not. I doubt you need the best phone for that.

If, on the other hand, you really, actually use your phone to work on presentations and documents, write computer code, study new topics, design products or features, read academic papers… well, I think you should probably try to avoid doing that in the first place! A mobile phone is a terrible tool for all that, using its screen in that way will damage your eyes and your hands and mess with your sleep patterns, and your output will be suboptimal compared to what you could achieve sitting quiet and comfortable in front a more powerful computer and a much larger screen.

I think most people should stop telling themselves that they buy quality or productivity when what they crave is signals of status or the ephemeral high of owning a sleek piece of technology.

And they could put the ~€850 they'll save to a much better use.

IP 

Steampunk smartphone image by Stable Diffusion & tripu