With a year full of pressures on our wallets, comfort and climate, technology took a back seat in 2022. But change for the better is slowly happening as big tech firms wake up to the demands of consumers wanting better, longer-lasting and more sustainable devices.
Trends established in the last couple of years continued to gain pace. Recycled material has become mainstream. Devices containing at least some recycled plastic, metal or minerals are available in almost every category. The range of materials being reused is increasing – an important step towards a circular economy even if it is a very long way away from being fully realised.
One side effect of the tightening economy was the acceleration of the trend for the reuse of devices. Trade-ins for new purchases exploded in availability as manufacturers and retailers sought to encourage sales, frequently offering deep discounts in exchange for old devices that would then be refurbished, resold or recycled to recoup any residual value.
Changes in design to aid repair
Ensuring devices remain in use for as long as possible is the best option for the planet and wallet alike. People are holding on to their phones for an average of 4.2 years, according to data from CCS Insight, making access to affordable and effective repair options crucial.
Apple made a surprising move in the right direction this year. The outside of this year’s iPhone 14 looked identical to previous models, but a new internal design enables it to be opened from either the screen or backside. That makes common repairs such as replacing the smashed back glass or the battery quicker, easier and cheaper.
It is not quite the ideal of modular, user-repairable design demonstrated by the Fairphone 4 in 2021. But the shift from Apple is a big deal because the iPhone sells in greater numbers than any other phone and typically where it goes, industry follows.
Apple also expanded its DIY repair program to the UK and Europe in December. Taking apart an iPhone or Mac is not recommended for novices, but the move provides easier access to genuine replacement parts and repair manuals for technicians. Apple is still using digital lockdowns to hamper unauthorized repairs, so there is more work to be done.
Other manufacturers also made changes to aid repairs this year. Among them, Microsoft promised to provide service guides and spare parts for its Surface laptops and tablets, and made some user parts upgradable such as the solid state drive (SSD). Valve provided easy access to authorized and DIY repairs for its handheld gaming PC the Steam Deck, including spare parts, instruction manuals and tools. Meanwhile, France’s repairability index continued to force the release of more official repair documentation from reluctant manufacturers.
One of the highlights of the year was the Framework Laptop, which actually delivered on its promise of a notebook PC that you could take apart to not only repair but upgrade yourself. Not only was the first version a surprisingly good laptop, the company kept its promise and made available components to upgrade its 11th-gen Intel chips to the latest 12th-gen models. Long may it continue.
True wireless earbuds continue to be a low point, however. Many are excellent products that are extremely convenient, durable and last a long time. But very, very few are repairable, making replacement of their consumable batteries impossible and making them ultimately disposable. It is particularly disappointing given the volume in which they sell, with more than 252m sold last year and 170m in the first nine months of 2022, according to data from International Data Corporation’s (IDC) device tracker.
While hardware typically lasts longer – provided you do not drop it – batteries still typically only maintain 80% of their original capacity for about 500 charge cycles. That is why your phone’s battery life gets shorter towards the end of its second year.
Improving efficiency so that you do not have to charge the battery as often is one way of making it last longer. But changing the construction of the battery and implementing systems to preserve its health during charging can stave off degradation for longer, too. OnePlus put a battery in the recent 10T that can hold at least 80% charge for 1,600 full cycles, effectively making the phone last at least 6.5 years.
Sadly the firm only supports the 10T with four years of Android updates from release meaning that, while the hardware may be capable of working for longer, the phone should not be used after August 2026 due to potential security problems.
Software support remains a particular problem for phones. While Apple, Google and Samsung provide at least five years of security updates for their high-end and mid-range phones, there are many more that cap out at as little as two years, which is pitiful. The longer a phone receives software support the longer it can stay in circulation even if that means with a second or third owner.
More efficient for the planet and wallet
The drive to improve battery life of portable devices has had a knock-on effect on the efficiency of plugged-in devices, too, as they typically use similar chips and technology.
Tasks that used to be demanding and require power-hungry processors can now be performed by cheaper, low-power chips. That generally means more modern devices are more efficient and cost less to run. Sky’s new satellite-free Stream TV box is a good example, consuming a third of the electricity of its satellite-fed Sky Q box when watching television.
With the cost of living crisis throwing a spotlight on energy usage, this is a positive trend that is only going to continue.