The average smartphone lasts about two to three years, after which most cellphones end up either traded in (hopefully) or shoved in that miscellany drawer of electronics (come on, we all have one!). Some companies are trying to do better, with more sustainably built smartphones coming to market that have a longer life, are designed with circular economy principles in mind, and that emit less radiation than earlier models.
Below, you’ll find our picks for the best eco-friendly, energy efficient, and low radiation cellphones. I’ll also offer some tips on how to extend your phone’s battery life and keep the operating system in good condition, as well as some tips on recycling once your phone truly is dead and destined for scrap. Curious about how we rate products? Click here to view our methodology, which at its core, is about voting with our dollars to fight climate change.
Already settled on getting a low radiation cellphone? Click here to jump to our top picks.
Highlights: With a SAR of 0.17, the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 with dualism is arguably the lowest radiation smartphone available today in the US.
How to Extend the Life of Your Phone
The average smartphone lasts about two to three years, with signs of the device slowing down starting to show a little before that. If thing have started to get a little buggy, with apps crashing and battery life draining unexpectedly fast, there are things you can do to extend the life of your device.
To keep a phone battery in good condition, try to keep the device at a moderate temperature. This means not leaving it in the blazing hot sunshine or outside in the cold. It’s also best to avoid draining the battery completely, i.e. don’t wait for it to die before charging it up.
It’s also smart to keep your operating system up to date. This makes for a less buggy experience and can prevent serious software failures. Also, be careful which apps you download. While viruses are pretty rare for iOS and Android, they do exist, and making sure you only download reputable apps is a good way to minimize the risk of your phone getting infected.
Closing apps when you’re not using them also helps to prevent bugginess in the operating system. This also helps preserve battery life.
Finally, a shattered screen doesn’t always mean you have to buy a new phone. Most often, repairing the screen is cheaper (not to mention more eco-friendly) than ditching the whole device. That said, if the screen is shattered and there are problems with the audio, microphone, or camera, it might be time to trade in your device.
And, if you’re anything like me, a good screen protector and waterproof, bomb-proof case is a must. I dropped a hammer on my last phone (not intentionally) and when I went to get the phone screen replaced the sales clerk had no trouble selling me a case he assured me is literally bomb-proof. Naturally, nerd/sceptic I am, I’ve been tempted to test this ever since (but have managed to restrain myself thus far).
Phones with the Best Battery Life for 2021
Smartphone battery life has been getting better and better for many years now, with the average phone lasting up to 10 hours without needing a recharge. Sadly, I can’t afford to buy every phone on the market and run my own tests, but Toms Guide carries out testing each year to determine which phones have the longest lasting battery life. They have the phones browse the internet over LTE or 5G until they run out of power and then declare the winners.
This year, the list includes phones from Samsung and LG that boast huge 5,000 mAh batteries that can easily last all day. One phone managed more than 16 hours on a single charge.
|Make and Model||Battery Life While Surfing the Internet||Where to Buy|
|Moto G Power||16 hours and 10 mins||View Price on Amazon|
|Moto G7 Power||15 hrs 35 mins||View Price on Amazon|
|Asus ZenFone 7||15 hrs 01 mins||View Price on Amazon|
|Samsung Galaxy A20||13 hrs 46 mins||View Price on Amazon|
|LG V60 ThinQ 5G||12 hrs 46 mins||View Price on Amazon|
|Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus||12 hrs 35 mins||View Price on Amazon|
|Moto G Fast||12 hrs 17 mins||View Price on Amazon|
|Moto G Stylus||12 hrs 13 mins||View Price on Amazon|
|Motorola Edge||12 hrs 12 mins||View Price on Amazon|
|Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra||11 hrs 58 mins||View Price on Amazon|
|iPhone 11 Pro Max||11 hrs 54 mins||View Price on Amazon|
|LG G8X ThinQ Dual Screen||11 hrs 46 mins||View Price on Amazon|
|Moto Z4||11 hrs 31 mins||View Price on Amazon|
|iPhone 11||11 hrs 16 mins||View Price on Amazon|
|OnePlus 8 Pro||11 hrs 05 mins||View Price on Amazon|
Makes and Models of Low Radiation Phones
The SAR is a measure of the amount of radio frequency energy absorbed by your body when you use the handset. Phones vary widely for SARs, but it’s actually very simple to find out the SAR for the phone you’re quite likely reading this article on right now.
The BfS listings for 2020 show a range of satellite phones and phones only for sale in Europe topping the rankings for the lowest SAR. There are, however, quite a few Samsung phones too. Looking specifically at radiation measured when the phone is held to the ear (rather than the body), the following phones emit the least radiation and are available at the time of writing. Most are only available in Europe and some are satellite phones, but some are cellphones sold in North America:
|Make||Model||SAR||Where to Buy|
|Globalstar||GSP-1700||0.01||View Price on Globalstar|
|Samsung||Galaxy Note 8 DUOS (SM-N950 / DS)||0.17||View Price on Amazon|
|Samsung||Galaxy Note 8 (SM-N950)||0.17||View Price on Amazon|
|Samsung||Galaxy Note 10+ (SM-N975)||0.19||View Price on Amazon|
|Samsung||Galaxy Note 10+ 5G (SM-N976B)||0.19||View Price on Amazon|
|Silent Circle||Blackphone 2||0.2||View Price on Amazon|
|Samsung||Galaxy Note 10 (SM-N970)||0.21||View Price on Amazon|
|Samsung||Galaxy A80 (SM-A805) Dual SIM||0.22||View Price on Amazon|
|LG||LG G7 ThinQ (LM-G710EM)||0.24||View Price on Amazon|
|Samsung||Galaxy A8 (SM-A530)||0.24||View Price on Amazon|
|Samsung||Galaxy M20 (2019) / SM-M205 / DS) Dual SIM||0.26||View Price on Amazon|
|Samsung||Galaxy S8+ DUOS (SM-G955)||0.26||View Price on Amazon|
|Samsung||Galaxy S7 Edge (SM-G935)||0.26||View Price on Amazon|
Sadly, many discontinued models actually performed rather better than the current offerings, so if you see one of these for sale refurbished, consider snapping it up:
- Samsung – Gear 2 (SM-R380) – SAR 0.09
- Samsung – SGH-Z560 – SAR 0.01
- Samsung – Gear 2 Neo (SM-R381) – SAR 0.11
- Motorola – MPx 200 – SAR 0.12
- Philips – 362 / CT 3621 – SAR 0.12
- Samsung – Galaxy Note II (GT-N7100T) – SAR 0.12
- Samsung – SGH-X830 – SAR 0.12
The Most Sustainable Smartphones
Phone Recycling and Repair
Even major phone companies like Apple and Samsung have had to admit in recent years that they deliberately design their phones to stop working after a few years. And both Apple and Samsung have gone to great lengths to stop people from repairing their devices, with warranties invalidated if any unauthorized repairs are carried out. Like most phone companies, Apple solders their battery into the handset, meaning it is almost impossible to replace or recycle.
It’s great that companies like Fairphone and Teracube are bucking this trend by creating phones that are DIY repairable and where repairing the phone yourself, or getting help, doesn’t invalidate the warranty. Keeping phones out of landfill is an absolute must. These devices are hazardous waste, as classified in many countries and in states such as California. They leach a variety of toxic chemicals from landfill into groundwater, polluting rivers, streams, and soil. Apple iPhone cables have also been found to contain phthalates, contravening California’s Proposition 65 which requires a warning label on such products.
Most phone companies make little if any effort to be good corporate citizens. Some pay lip service to corporate social responsibility, and others have taken minor steps towards reducing their environmental impact. All in all, it’s not possible in 2020 to buy an ethical phone in North America, though Teracube comes pretty close (more on this below).
More Sustainable Phones
In Europe, Fairphone has long led the way, and I have been waiting for years for the company to launch in North America. The latest iteration is the Fairphone 3, which comprises easily removed modules, a case, and a battery and has an at-ear SAR of 0.39 according to BfS. You can buy all of these parts separately through Fairphone, meaning there’s no need to dump the whole phone if one part stops working properly. The screen and battery are easy enough for any user to replace, given enough time and effort. Another major plus is that the phones are made using fair materials, and 80% of these materials are recycled. Fairphone also believes in fairness for workers.
As for the phone itself, the Fairphone 3 is similar to a Google Pixel 3a XL in terms of specifications. It comes with Android 9 or 10 pre-installed, has a microSD slot for increased storage and a headphone jack. Fairphone doesn’t send you unnecessary cables, chargers, or headphones, unless you ask them (chances are you’ve got a drawer full of these). But they do send you a handy screwdriver, so you’re all set to fix your phone if anything goes awry.
Other options for more sustainable smartphones also exist in Europe, such as German manufacturer Shift. These phones are modular, repairable, and made with more ethical and sustainable materials. The company also offers repair guides and disassembling or generally tinkering with your Shift phone doesn’t necessarily void your warranty. When you buy a phone from Shift you pay a refundable deposit, which you get back when you return the phone for an upgrade or recycling. Alas, Shift is unavailable in the US and doesn’t seem like it would work on North American networks even if you snagged one in Europe.
According to its 2019 Sustainability Report, Samsung established its first e-waste take-back and recycling centre in 1998 and started building sustainability into its design process in 2004. The company reduced its CO2 emission intensity by 59% from 2008 to 2013 and plans to source renewable energy for 100% of the energy used by its factories, office buildings and operational facilities by next year.
Teracube 2e – the Most Sustainable Phone in the US
Teracube could be a gamechanger for sustainable smartphones in North America and beyond. Launched as a Kickstarter campaign in 2019, the first Teracube phones were shipped in January 2020 and are building a loyal following. These phones come with an impressive four-year warranty, including battery replacement midway through, and parts, labor, and shipping. The idea behind Teracube is to offer a better phone that will last longer.
Switching to Indiegogo for their latest offering, Teracube 2e just wrapped up their pre-order, so we’ll update this when they’re on regular sale through Teracube’s website.
- Replaceable 4000 mAh battery
- DIY repairable
- Made from some recycled materials (25% polycarbonate)
- Sturdy biodegradable case
- Eco-friendly packaging (recycled paper and soy ink)
- Standard headphone jack (no need for new headphones!)
- Spare batteries available for just $29 (currently)
- Expanded 4-year premium care warranty
- Battery lasts 2 days on a full charge
- For every phone sold, Teracube plants a tree
- 50% less packaging than most smartphones
- Compatible with almost all USB-C chargers and cables
The Teracube 2e is currently offered with an expanded 4-year premium care warranty with free shipping (for repair or replacement) to the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Poland and Singapore in addition to the US and Canada.
The company has a clear goal to “keep pushing the envelope in this direction by building more environment-friendly products with modular designs, eco-friendly components, and fair-trade practices.” And that spare battery option is perfect for camping if you don’t have a solar charger!
Unlike most smartphone companies, Teracube don’t put their phones together using glue. Instead, like Fairphone, they use small screws and replaceable components making it easy to do simple repairs and replacements yourself.
Having learned from their initial offering, Teracube 2e doesn’t come with any unnecessary chargers or headphones, unless you actually need these. This helps reduce resources and carbon emissions associated with shipping. The biodegradable case is made of wheat starch and biodegradable polymers but looks like pretty much every other plastic phone case and offers the same protection.
If you’re wary of crowdfunding a phone, fair enough. Know, though, that Teracube shipped on time for their first offering and are getting good reviews from customers. And they have a robust community forum where you can ask and answer questions (the men behind the company are also active on the forums, which is great to see!), meet fellow Teracube fans, and even buy and sell Teracube parts, which is pretty remarkable (possibly exceptional!) in the industry.
The main downside to Teracube is their relatively high SAR, compared to the lowest radiation cellphones. Still, the body rating is far lower than for iPhones and most other common cellphones. The company just got their test results back and told me via email that the maximum reported 1 g SAR (W/kg) was:
- Head: 1.167
- Body: 0.712
- Hotspot: 0.742
All in all, the SAR isn’t terrible, but it could be better. And if that’s your major concern, you can always get a case that helps reduce radiation exposure, or use a headset or speaker phone as much as possible.
They are also facing some delays with production for this latest offering, likely because of the pandemic and supply chains.
Full Specifications for Teracube 2e
|Operating System||Android 10.0 with Google Play Store|
|Processor||MediaTek Helio A25 Octa-core processor 1.8Ghz|
|Memory||4GB RAM with 64GB storage|
|Screen||6.1” HD+ IPS Display (720X1560)|
|Battery||4000mAh replaceable lithium-ion polymer battery|
|Security||PIN, pattern, fingerprint, face unlock|
|Connectivity||WiFi A/B/G/N/AC, Bluetooth 5.0, NFC (Supports Google Pay)|
|GPS||GPS (AGPS), GLONASS, Galileo|
|Ports||Headphone Jack, USB-C port, Dedicated Dual SIM with separate Micro SD slot|
|Size||155.2mm x 73.3mm x 10.1mm|
|LTE(4G)||1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 12, 17, 20|
|GSM||850, 900, 1800, 1900|
|3G||1, 2, 4, 5, 8|
|Warranty||4 Year Premium Care with Flat Fee Repairs|
Final Thoughts on the Best Smartphones for 2021
Choosing a new phone is, like many things, a highly personal decision. Whether you prize sustainability, low radiation, or battery life, there’s a phone out there for you. If you’re looking for all three, the Teracube 2e is probably your best bet, with a 4000 mAh battery, and a SAR of , not to mention winning easily on sustainability.
The Samsung Galaxy A20 is a great second choice, however. This smartphone has a battery life of 13 hours and 46 minutes, is made by a company that makes at least some efforts in the direction of sustainability, and has a low SAR of just 0.389, which is far lower than most phones available today.