Opinion

Out of warranty, or is it – how long should tech last?

Technology

Asking how long should tech last is a little like asking how long is a piece of string? The answer, unfortunately, is no longer for a lifetime but more dependent on support and planned obsolescence.

Back in the good old days (Australia pre-internet and smartphones), you expected a fridge, TV, record player, vacuum cleaner to last decades – and they did.

But today, it is a very different picture with most low-cost tech expected to last for its warranty plus one day and even high-value tech, not all that much longer.

Choice has updated its lifespan report, and it is not a pretty picture with shorter warranties to match expected lifespans. But the one thing Choice could not cover was some of the support issues that equally limit the usable lifespan. We focus on how long should tech last – not the measly warranty it comes with.

Smartphones

There are two major limiting factors:

  • Cheaper smartphones (<$200) have 200-500 recharge cycle batteries. Assuming you charge daily (when there is still some juice in the tank), that is about a year or two before the battery won’t hold enough charge to get through a day. Battery replacements are generally about $100 for low-cost phones and are excluded from the warranty.
  • Operating system support and critical vulnerability patches are the second biggie. Cheaper smartphones may never receive an operating system upgrade or regular security patches, making them highly vulnerable to malware.

That is why we find it hard to recommend buying a second-hand or refurbished smartphone.

Apple has a four-year iOS upgrade and update policy. Samsung and OPPO lead the way in the Android world. That is why these phones retain more second-hand value.

But here is the biggie – Most manufacturers, including Apple and Samsung, have reduced standard Australian Consumer Law (ACL) warranty to 12-months regardless of whether it is a low-cost or a $2500 handset. They argue that users have ACL rights that they can exercise but that usually involves a lot of paperwork, angst, and time.  OPPO has a two-year warranty on most of its phones.

Choice suggests that Budget (<$500) should last three years, mid-range ($500-1000) five years and high-end ($1000+) six years. The hardware may last, but the support won’t.

Oh, and most 5G phones don’t support the 5G Low-band that Telstra, Optus and Vodafone are rolling out, limiting their useful lifespan.

Read our updated Best Android phones $100-1000 – most are now 5G (October 2021) for smartphone bargains.

TVs

TVs comprise three main components – the panel, power circuit and motherboard. Panels don’t generally fail, but they can start to show burn-in or missing pixels that are not under warranty. Power circuits are subject to electrical stress – surges, blackout, and brownout so use a surge protector power board. Motherboards rarely fail, but the cheaper the TV, the lower-tolerance components that are used.

In the good old days, an electrolytic capacitor would last 20,000 hours or more – that’s about 7-10 years of typical use. Now low-cost surface mount capacitors have a lifespan of 1000-5000 hours. That is one to two years of typical use. Turning the TV off at the wall does not help as there is considerable stress on the power circuit when powered on.

But we have other factors. Most TVs do not update their operating systems meaning the streaming apps you have are only those at purchase time. For example, most lower-cost TVs can’t get Kayo, Disney+ or any new streaming service. The exception is that Android TV (Google TV) has an app store, and LG and Samsung may not upgrade the OS but have apps stores that may contain later streaming services.

We explore the issue in Disposable TVs – the relentless feature stuffing to make TVs obsolete. The cure to operating system obsolesce is buying a low-cost Google TV dongle (Blaupunkt 4K BAT10 or Google TV 4K) and use the Google TV app store.

Soundbars, DVD, Blu-ray, headphones

Not to lump all these together, but the same applies to power circuits – leave them in standby mode. There is little to wear out in a soundbar – the amp circuit is usually a single integrated circuit, and the speakers are fabric cones. But speakers have a shelf life as the fabric and cardboard stiffens over time, and magnetic coils weaken.

Choice says budget soundbars are five years, mid-range ten years and high-end 16 years. But the Catch 22 is that whatever you buy – 2.0, 2.1, 3.1, 5.1, and Dolby Atmos 5.1.2, 7.1.4 or more is what you are stuck with. As more TVs have Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, look for soundbars that can handle these formats.

Bluetooth headphones and earphones have a limited number of battery recharges. Assume that most have 200 cycle batteries – a year or two. Sennheiser uses 800 cycle batteries, and most of its models have replaceable batteries.

Computers – laptop, PC, iPad and Mac

I have an HP Elitebook enterprise laptop circa 2010 that is still going strong. It was updated from Windows 7/8 to Windows 10 in 2015, but it is too old to handle Windows 11 (October 2021). In any case, Windows 10 support extends to October 2025. Windows 11 supports Intel chips from late 2016 and will likely support hardware made out to 2027.

So, Windows operating systems are not an issue if you are on Windows 10, but earlier versions don’t have protection from vulnerabilities and malware. They may no longer be able to access internet HTTPS sites. Regardless of the warranty left, you must keep the operating system and firmware up to date.

But we have seen the market broken up into entry-level (<$1000), mid-level ($1000-2000), and high-end ($2000+). Choice says to expect 4, 6, and 8 years, respectively. While I won’t argue the hardware life (laptops and PCs tend to have <2% failure rates), a three-year-old entry-level device simply can’t handle a modern OS (for maximum security), or an app needs 8GB RAM and fast Wi-Fi etc.

Some brands, particularly high-end models, provide spare parts like batteries, screens, keyboards, memory, and storage for several years. Dynabook, Dell, Lenovo lead the way with parts and online repair manuals for enterprise models.

Windows PCs are good old clunkers, and it is usual to get 10+ years out of them. They are often upgradeable to the limit of the PCI bus, or you can change motherboards and power supplies if the case is in good shape.

Monitors, like TVs, are pretty reliable and you can expect ten years from them. The only issue here is size, refresh rates and resolution. Where a 17-24” [email protected] was fine, more demand for larger 27-32” screens, visibly better 60Hz, 100% sRGB gamut and 4K will see these replaced before they wear out.

Apple has a four-year OS support policy (which may be much longer in practice), which means older Macs and iPads are stuck on older and more vulnerable operating systems.

But at least that is better than some Android tablets that never receive an OS upgrade or security patches. Before you buy, always look at the upgrade policy.

Note low-cost devices usually have decal lettering (that wears off) and membrane keyboards (with limited keystrokes). Warranty does not cover wear and tear. A new laptop keyboard often requires the replacement of the whole top deck/palm rest – you are looking at $200-300.

Printers

Inkjets heat ink to spray pico-drops onto paper. The delivery tubes and heads clog, and ink can dry out if left turned off or unused for a while. The Shelf-life of most inks is about two years. The exception is Epson with its later model heat-free Piezo heads and its specially formulated ink. Always leave an inkjet printer on.

Laser toners have a longer shelf life, and at worst, you can replace a toner pack if you get streaks from old toner. All printers have rubber rollers that perish over time, making paper and document feeders unreliable.

But the big issue here is security. Network printers (Wi-Fi or Ethernet) are infamous for vulnerabilities that allow hackers into the network. Only in the last few years have manufacturers started to ship new models with updatable firmware.

Household appliances – Robo vacs, Robo mops, Stick vacs and more

Choice estimates entry-level (<$500) have a four-year life, mid-range ($500-1000) have a six-year life, and high end ($1000+) have a 10-year life.

But robovacs and stick vacs have a rechargeable battery. Entry-level generally has a lower capacity 200 recharge cycle battery, three to four years at one use per week. When you notice that you cannot get as long a cleaning time, it is time to replace. Fortunately, eBay, Amazon, Alibaba and more marketplaces have generic replacements from under $50, and genuine replacements can cost $100-200.

Let’s not forget that you will need to replace filters, brushes and mop pads that can cost from $50-100 per annum.

Technology is changing fast, and improved mapping and collision avoidance systems may be the carrot to update.

Heaters and Air purifiers

Both are very simple – power circuit, motor, heater, fan, filters.

The Dyson range, however, is highly sophisticated. While they should last ten years or more only Dyson can repair them. I have found its prices, replacement filters ($99) and service excellent – it should be for the price.

Most purifiers have a 4000-hour HEP (or HEPA) filter, and some have an activated charcoal filter as well. While that sounds like a long time, it is only half a year if you use the device in constant filter mode (automatic). Generic filters range from $20 to $100, but the catch 22 is that you may not be able to get all brands/models a year or two after purchase. Stick with well-known brands and see if they have filters for older models.

And millions of used filters every month end up in landfills because they cannot be recycled due to hazardous materials they collect. The new challenge is to make air purifiers filterless.

IoT, security/baby cams, routers

IoT like thermostats, smart home monitors and speakers, lights etc., have relatively long lives. LED lights have up to 50,000 hours – 17 years of typical use. More of an issue is firmware updates, app updates and security patches to stop home network attacks. Most low-cost items are sell and forget so if you want a decent lifespan select a well-known brand that updates.

Battery operated security cameras have a defined number of activations per battery charge and a defined number of battery charge cycles. In low volume areas (a few activations per day), you may get 3-6 months between charges. In high volume, you may get a few weeks. Again, there is not a lot to go wrong (it either works or does not), but batteries wear out, so look for brands/models like Arlo that provides five years or more battery replacement sales.

Routers, security and baby cams are principal attack vectors for the bots roaming the internet. Out-of-date or never updated firmware may not stop them from working, but cybercriminals have the key to your home internet. If you don’t see updates for a few months, it is time to buy a new one. We have noticed that many low-cost routers don’t have firmware updates so stick to NETGEAR and D-Link.

Back to Australian Consumer Law (ACL) warranties

It is getting harder to use this excellent warranty protection for goods that don’t last as long as expected. If a $2.5K smartphone or a $5000 TV has a one-year warranty, then it is easy for the manufacturer to say that its design life is just that. Fortunately, the ACCC takes a different view and looks to Choice and other studies for a ‘reasonable’ expected lifespan.

But as this article shows, it is not always about the hardware but the availability of new firmware or consumables like batteries, filters etc. The ACCC does not have a lot of sway there.

If you feel the device does not live up to the value/ price/ lifespan equation, here are a few things you can do.

First, read the ACCC document Electrical and whitegoods: an industry guide to the Australian Consumer Law (a Word file that all electrical resellers must abide by). Apart from anything else, it may reduce your blood pressure and cause drowsiness. To be fair, it is to help vendors and, by inference, you to understand both parties rights.

Second, seek an independent and objective opinion from someone who should know – are your expectations too great?

Then document the issue – who, what, when, where, why, and your reasonable expected outcome – and send it to the company you bought it from because they are 100% responsible. You can also CC (carbon copy) it to the manufacturer’s service address. Never accept a brush off that the retailer does not process claims.

And the big one.

If you want to return a product with an alleged minor fault for repair or replacement, the shipping/postage costs both ways are at your expense, regardless if the cost is significant. This is more relevant where you collect a product from a store or warehouse.

If you want to return a product with an alleged major fault for a refund or replacement, you must cover the initial cost of shipping and/or posting the product back to you unless:

  • The product is not easy to return, and
  • There would be a significant cost to the consumer.

Examples of products where the retailer or manufacturer would need to pay the shipping costs both ways are larger and heavier items that were courier delivered like a wide-screen TV, washing machine, dishwasher or things that have to be installed or built-in.

If that does not work

Go to the Department of Fair Trading and seek advice

GadgetGuy’s take

ACL and consumer rights are excellent and the envy of many countries. Remember, they only apply to goods sold here – not from international or dodgy online merchants. What we have found is that how long should tech last and what its warranty or support covers is an ever-widening gap.

There is no doubt that tech lifespans are reducing. Our recent experience includes:

  • An expensive laptop circa 2019 retired due to heat-related reliability issues. The manufactuter refuses liability saying we should use it in airconditioned premises. I could argue that I have the same brand circa 2015 still going strong.
  • Expensive battery-operated earbuds circa early 2020 no longer hold a charge. Batteries not replacable and not coverd by warranty.
  • Reasonably expensive Stick vac circa 2019 no longer holds a charge and no replaceable battery. Distributor does not care.
  • A Robo vac under warranty circa 2020 cannot get replacement parts (partially COVID related but leaves the device unusable with no offer to extend the warranty)
  • An air purifier circa 2020 cannot get replacement filters (ditto to above)
  • An expensive smart LCD TV circa 2017 that can’t get Amazon Prime, Disney+ or any new streaming services (get a dongle)
  • An expensive smart watch ten days out of warranty and the manufacture claims the fault (water resistance) is due to extreme use (as a sexegenarian I don’t resemble that remark)
  • Smart lights that no longer have an app – they still function but smart capability has been lost and the importer does not care.

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  1. The waste and cost to consumers is disheartening and verges on almoct criminal irresponsibility by manufacturers.

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