Obsolete technology

Why do so many appliances and technology products die so young?

Cathode Ray TV old technology

Tech doesn’t usually die because it breaks down. We often dump, junk or replace perfectly good products before their time because we think (or are persuaded) new is better.

Our latest survey of 15,123 TVs, computers, mobile phones, printers and wearables, found just 15% of products up to 10 years old became faulty. Only a quarter of the new tech products were bought as a replacement for a previous model that didn’t work anymore.

Designed-in obsolescence

It used to be you’d only get rid of your old tech because it’d clapped out or was superseded by a product with clearly superior performance. Think about when you replaced your bulky cathode ray tube TV with a flat, wall-mount plasma or LED screen. If the tube of your TV hadn’t already conked out (many did, all too frequently), the new LED TV was just so much better you weren’t going to wait for your CRT to fail.

At some point in the future, you’ll need to replace your current 4K HDR OLED TV. It might be because it’s broken. But more likely, it’ll be because there’s something new and marginally “better” available – such as a new screen technology promising an even sharper picture.

You might want to replace an existing tech product because the hardware can’t keep pace with the software it runs. After just a few years, many smartphones are unable to cope with the latest operating system without becoming too slow, and their hardware isn’t easily upgraded. We're written about that before, when one of our members found his 3-year-old Apple Watch stopped receiving upgrades to its operating system.

Similarly, electric cars that receive over-the-air updates will still need physical sensors to allow self-driving capability, even if software updates enable the function. In these examples, the product you own still works as well as it did when new – just not as well as the latest and greatest model.

This is a product’s design limiting its life. Many companies, either intentionally or through marginal economics, make design choices that cause their products to become obsolete too soon. Perhaps the most frustrating example in tech is failing batteries. In the iPhone “battery health” setting, Apple states:

"Phone batteries, like all rechargeable batteries, are consumable components that become less effective as they age."

Tech companies know the battery is a likely cause of device death, yet many choose not to make it easy to replace. It’s cheaper to build a product with a fixed battery, and more profitable to sell you a replacement.

Hard to repair

Back when CRT TVs were connected to VCRs and only an extra-long cord made a phone “mobile”, it was easier to get products repaired. Now, it’s not so easy to obtain spare parts. Repairs are also made more costly by companies insisting on a visit to an “authorised repairer”, rather than allowing independent outfits, or even consumers, to fix simple faults or upgrade parts. When you add in the high cost of spare parts, proprietary tools needed, and the scarcity of repair guides, you’d be forgiven for taking the easy option and just buying a new product instead.

Our survey says...

To find out how consumers feel about this, we asked our members about their attitudes to tech product life:

A third of TVs in our survey were more than five years old, with one in five seeing over seven years’ use. Overall 92% of TVs up to 10 years old were fault-free. Four percent of TVs in the survey had major faults – meaning they were unusable. More than half of faults attributed to power, the screen and remote control were major.

Age of TVs

Almost three-quarters of mobile phones were less than three years old. Overall 88% of mobile phones were fault-free, but they become significantly more problematic as they aged. While one in 10 phones under three years old had a fault, a fifth of those older than three years didn’t work as they did when new. The most common faults with phones are with batteries and charging: a third of owners reported batteries losing capacity or failing completely, while a further fifth said they had problems with charging. Forty-one percent of battery faults and 35% of charging problems were deemed major – they left the phone unusable.

Age of mobile phones

Veon - cheap sets

Ninety-eight percent of Veon TVs reported in our survey cost less than $1000, compared to a third of TVs from other brands. Veon owners have lower expectations for TV life and repairability:

  • More than twice as many Veon owners than average expect less than six years from their TV (19% vs 8%). While two-thirds of owners (68%) expect to be watching their Veon after nine years, the average for other brands is 82%.
  • If it goes wrong, 59% expect at least some faults in their Veon to be repairable. Owners of other brands are more demanding – three-quarters (76%) expect some faults to be repairable.

Half of all respondents (52%) bought a new TV because it had features their old one didn’t. Just 15% replaced a broken TV. Samsung, LG, Sony and Panasonic TV owners report similar behaviour, but Veon owners are different. They’re much more likely to buy a Veon as an additional TV (14% vs 5% average), or to replace a broken model (24%). Only 22% bought the Veon because it had new features their old model didn’t have.

Mobile upgrade

Half of smartphone owners expect their device to last for 5 to 7 years, almost a quarter don’t expect that much, all but 3% think at least 3 years is reasonable. Interestingly, owners of more expensive phones expect less life – 20% of owners of budget phones (<$600) will accept less than 5 years, compared to 28% of flagship phone owners (>$1000).

More than half of phone buyers got a replacement because it offered new features or because they “fancied a change”. Most old phones didn’t become e-waste: only a fifth (19%) were recycled, discarded in the rubbish or taken away by a retailer. More were either sold, donated or passed on to someone else (31%), while 48% kept hold of the old one (though there’s no telling if it remained in use).

Dead printers

For TVs, computers, mobile phones and wearables, between 12% and 20% of owners said their new purchase replaced an old model that didn’t work anymore. However, it was a different story for printers – 48% of 2879 new models replaced a broken one and a further 12% replaced one with outdated hardware. Unfortunately, a fifth of the old printers became landfill (even though 36% were dropped off to a recycling centre).

Deliberately limiting product life

Planned obsolescence is a strategy to ensure a product will become out of date or useless within a set period. No company will own up to planning the “death date” of its goods. However, some practices cause products to become “old” far too soon.

For example, some budget smartphones are sold with already outdated software, which limits their useful life – many cheaper models aren’t offered the latest updates. And while it used to be common to upgrade the hard drive or RAM in a laptop, many “consumer-level” machines have these parts soldered to the motherboard.

The lightbulb moment

Planned obsolescence was born in December 1924. That’s when the Phoebus cartel, including all major lightbulb manufacturers, agreed to fix the global lightbulb market. It assigned sales regions to its members and set production quotas. It also defined the life of a standard pear-shaped lightbulb to be 1000 hours – less than half the life that had previously been common.

Think about that ... these companies actively put research and development effort into making their products worse. They justified this by claiming their bulbs were higher quality, more efficient and brighter burning. It also meant they could sell lots more lightbulbs.

Read more about "The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy" or listen to the fascinating NPR Podcast.

Apple - Throttling back

As a battery loses capacity, it doesn’t work as well. In a phone, for example, running multiple processor-intensive operations or cold weather could cause a tired battery to shut down the device. In 2017, Apple controversially admitted it was throttling the performance of older phones to prevent shutdowns and extend their useful life. When discovered, it offered a discounted battery replacement as an apology.

Were Apple being disingenuous by throttling phone performance, encouraging owners to upgrade prematurely? Apple said it wasn’t – it just neglected to tell anyone. Throttling worked – it stopped older phones crashing (and no doubt caused more than a few owners to upgrade their iPhones). However, replacing the old battery did better, bringing phone performance back to its as-new level (though that solution undoubtedly wasn’t the most profitable one).

Sonos - Recycle mode

Wireless speaker company Sonos recently incentivised owners to throw away older models of its speakers to receive a 30% discount on new replacements. To access the 'deal', an owner needed to put a speaker into "recycle mode", effectively rendering it useless. Those speakers weren't collected and recycled by Sonos, the owner was just left with a "bricked" product to dispose of.

Sonos initially said the older speakers would no longer receive software updates and using them with newer models in a connected network would also prevent those new speakers from receiving updates. However, after considerable backlash from consumers and media (including our Tech Writer), they backtracked somewhat by promising that older models would still get bug fixes and security updates.

Buying refurbished

With so many people replacing perfectly functional devices with something new and “better”, there are lots of used, but still perfectly functional, devices available for consumers who aren’t fussed on having the very latest. If that sounds like you, you could save a bundle by buying a refurbished device.

At the time of writing, you can purchase an Apple iPhone 8 with 256GB storage, in “like new” condition, with a 12-month warranty for $699 from goodtech.co.nz. The same phone, but with only half the storage costs $969 new from Apple.

Apple also sells refurbished devices. On its website, for example, the latest generation refurbished iPad Pro 11” costs $1609, saving $290 on the new price. It comes with a new battery and outer shell, and the same warranty as the new model.

But before you buy a refurbished device such as a phone, though, do your homework. Here’s what you need to consider:

  • Not every company defines “refurbished” the same way. The bottom line is that you’re buying a used device, one that someone probably bought a year or two ago and traded in.
  • Refurbished devices don’t necessarily include new batteries. Ask the store for information on its restoration process, specifically if it includes battery replacement, the standard accessories, and parts supplied by the manufacturer.
  • Buying refurbished from a store in trade means you are covered by the Fair Trading and Consumer Guarantees Acts. However, your expectations of what’s reasonable may need to be amended to reflect the older product (for example, a refurbished two-year-old phone won’t receive software updates for as long as the latest model).
  • Regardless of the law, it’s worth checking the warranty offered on a refurbished product as an indication the store you’re buying from stands by its products. Also check the returns policy – if there’s a technical problem with the device, it may take time to show up.

Good experience

My family has bought two refurbished laptops and a phone in the past year. All came in excellent condition with used, but strong, batteries, all other accessories and 12-month warranties. We’ve had no problems with any of them so far and I estimate we’ve saved at least $1000 on tech this year:

  • The laptops, from pctraders.co.nz, are ex-lease models. For less than $389 and $279 I got two-year-old HP and Acer laptops with Intel processors, 11” touchscreens, and SSD storage suitable for my year seven and nine kids to take to school.
  • My daughter saved her pocket money for a $429 iPhone 7 with 128GB storage from goodtech.co.nz.

Member comments

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Barry P.
13 Feb 2020
Obsolesence or Jobs

Progress and evolution are often coupled with an economic need; whether that be jobs and employment, or manufacturing and profits. You cannot have one couplet without the other.

So on Page 20 of Consumer Feb/Mar 2020, DIY repairs are simply not part of most of our culture’s lifestyles. Certainly not when I was valve grinding and doing clutch repairs in my own driveway on 1950’s cars in 1970’s! The tooling up and knowledge base required these days is horrendous and restricted to manufacturers and limited dealers. It is not a case of forgiveness; economically over a great many industries and manufacturing processes, the easy, convenient option is the only option.