Apple’s first iPhone appeared in 2007. Since then there have been nine product cycles. Microsoft recently took the wraps off its third Surface Pro tablet in 18 months. Samsung’s Galaxy S5 is the fifth model since the Galaxy S i9000 appeared in 2010.
Technology giants like Apple, Samsung and Microsoft update their products at least once a year. That doesn’t mean you have to.
There are pressures to upgrade. Companies don’t spend a fortune launching and marketing their new products for nothing. They want to persuade you there are immediate benefits from upgrading. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype.
Sometimes there are real productivity benefits. More often the upgrade is far from essential. Some changes are little more than cosmetic. Others are just incremental: a few more pixels here, a little faster there, a bit more storage elsewhere.
In most cases the extra features are merely “nice to have”. And often the productivity improvements come from updated software. Often you can update the software on your existing device to get 90 percent of the advantage you’ll get from buying the newer device.
There’s a good financial argument against buying every upgrade: it’s expensive. Buying a new high-end smartphone once a year adds up to around NZ$100 a month. There’s something wasteful about sticking workable year-old smartphones in a drawer — especially when you consider many contain rare materials.
So when should you upgrade? If your device still works for you and does everything or most of what you need, then sit tight and save your money. If you are frustrated by shortcomings — be honest here — then it could be time to spend.
Remember also that devices will often go on what they could do on day one for many years. Until recently I had a laser printer that was getting on for 15 years old. I only got rid of it when I could no longer buy toner cartridges.
That’s unrealistic for phones, tablets or PCs. As a rule of thumb, it makes sense to update phones roughly every two years — it’s no accident mobile plans last for 24 months. And anyway, heavily used handheld devices tend to run into problems from about two years. Tablets and laptops should last a little longer, say three years. Desktop PCs can go on for many more years if you’re willing to upgrade internal components.
There are times when upgrading can save you money in the long-term and some physical upgrades are important to some people. If you’re on the move most of the day, then moving to a device with longer battery life is likely to make a real difference to the way you work. I found this when I move to a MacBook Air that can go all day on a single charge. Likewise, moving to a phone with a bigger screen has made me more productive.
The upgrade hamster wheel isn’t a bad thing. Competition between brands means they continue to throw good and bad ideas out to the market. The improvements may be incremental, but technology gets better year-by-year. The key to making it work for you is to move when you’re ready for a change and not to let the companies making devices dictate when you upgrade.