The iPhone X half a decade later: Are we entering the era of future-proof flagships?

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
The iPhone X half a decade later: Are we entering the era of future-proof flagships?
I believe the vast majority of people have at least one older smartphone left in a random cupboard drawer somewhere around the house, just in case. I am no different - when I finally decided to upgrade from my iPhone X after almost 5 years of trusty service, I simply saw no point in getting rid of the latter - not least because of the immense sentimental value that device had.

After playing around with my new iPhone 14 Pro, I quickly realized a couple of things. Yes, the new handset is very flashy, modern and industrial-looking. It is also undeniably faster than my previous iPhone X. But one thing kept bugging me. Namely, that the new device felt almost identical to my half-decade old handset.

This got me thinking - if the user's perception of a smartphone does not change across generations, how often should we really upgrade? Especially when we take into account the fact that the average price of high-end smartphones has skyrocketed over the past couple of years. Consequently, I started thinking about another rather controversial term in the tech community - future-proofing.

Essentially, how long are modern-day smartphones meant to last? Has the increase in prices translated into longer lifespans? Additionally, can someone get by with a smartphone from the last decade? These are just some of the questions I want to address in this article and which I tried to answer for myself by replacing the battery of my iPhone X and giving it a run in 2023.

The iPhone X in 2023: Just another iPhone?

I will begin with a couple of disclaimers. Firstly, this same experiment could have well been carried out with an Android flagship from 2017. Nevertheless, I have been an Apple user for a long time, and I am simply not equipped to adequately replicate this test with an Android handset. Additionally, the iPhone X was the device that normalized the $1000 flagship and, by extension, paved the way for the current status quo. This makes the iPhone X the perfect test subject.

Secondly, I want to explicitly mention that I am the opposite of a power user. I don’t dabble with multitasking, I use a handful of apps, and my screen time is spent on light activities such as web browsing.

I am very much aware that my findings will apply solely to users with a similar profile, and that a 5-year-smartphone lacks the power to handle most intensive tasks in 2023. Nevertheless, average users are the norm, not the exception in the smartphone world. So how does the iPhone X fare in 2023?

Surprisingly Capable, Eerily Familiar

I can confirm that, beyond an inferior battery life, there is not all that much of a difference between the iPhone X and my current daily driver. Yes, the user experience on the latter is much more enjoyable because of a number of reasons (everything is slightly faster, the 120Hz refresh rate etc.) but it is still, fundamentally, an iPhone - with all the pros and cons that entails.

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And there is some beauty in that. One of the things I love about Apple is just how consistent the Cupertino company is. You always know what you are getting, which limits any possible disappointment. That being said, I cannot help noticing that I spent $1000 on a smartphone that does not bring anything revolutionary to my user experience.

In fact, there are a couple of things that I miss. I still believe the iPhone X had the best dimensions out of any smartphone I have ever used. No other device (beside the iPhone 13 mini maybe) has given me a comparable amount of screen real estate, while preserving the pleasant feel in the hand. Did I forget to mention the curves? The newer iPhones look muck sleeker and polished, but that is at the expense of ergonomics.

Do not get me wrong - I do not regret in any way upgrading to the iPhone 14 Pro. After 5 years you simply get bored with a device, even if it can meet your daily needs. But as a person that prefers to stick to what they know and loathes changing any hardware I started thinking - when should we really upgrade?

Future-proofing: How long can a $1000+ flagship last?

Before I continue, I would like to assert that, in all likelihood, an older flagship could probably last more than 5 years if you really push it. Still, I would like to know how long a smartphone can remain functional and capable of serving as an average user’s daily driver.

In the past, I used to upgrade every couple of years before switching to the iPhone X. Now, I think that the average flagship is capable of at least three years of faithful service, if not more. This brings me to the next point - is the increase in average smartphone prices justified, at least to an extent? In my opinion, we should consider the cost-per-use of a device as well, not solely its price tag when answering said question.

If high-end smartphones used to cost, on average, about $500-600 a couple of years ago, this would have translated to about 75 cents per day of use, if you stuck with them for two years (which used to be the usual upgrade timeframe). Now, however, in the EU for example, flagship smartphones sometimes come with a three-year commercial warranty - this is the guaranteed minimum, not the theoretical maximum.

This is one of the reasons why I believe that we have now transitioned to a triennial and even a quadrennial upgrade cycle. Anything beyond that is not very likely because there always comes a point when a user simply wants to try something new, regardless if they are content with what they currently have. This means that, even if most flagships nowadays are indeed $800-1100, the price per day of use remains comparable with the one from the past.

Furthermore, especially when it comes to the iPhone, updates across generations have become somewhat incremental, with a single flagship generation hardly ever introducing enough meaningful updates to justify an annual upgrade. Lastly, even if users decide to buy a new smartphone prematurely, they have plenty of ways of getting a good amount of money for their older device,

Conclusion: Progress for the sake of progress

I firmly believe that most flagship smartphones are good enough as it is, and the fact that the next generation is better does not make the past one bad in any way. High-end handsets nowadays are expensive because they are built to last. This means that it is no longer a matter of when users have to upgrade, but rather when they want to do so.

I clearly remember just how in love I was with the iPhone X when I first bought it more than 5 years ago. It checked all boxes, except one - the ostentatious price tag. I never imagined spending that kind of money on a smartphone. Now, I can confirm it was worth it as even in 2023 the iPhone X proves its immense value.

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