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Bill Bennett


Getting off the technology upgrade hamster wheel

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 products at least once a year. You don’t 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.

Unnecessary upgrades

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.

Save your money, save the planet

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.



7 thoughts on “Getting off the technology upgrade hamster wheel

  1. Luckily I’ve never been on the wheel. I’m a keen follower of tech but my wallet has never been able to accommodate and as such my computer’s lifetime is on average 6 years and my phones are 3 years.

    Solid common sense in this article but so many people get too caught up in the ‘new shiny’ that they forget to actually think if they need to spend or not.

    1. Thanks. I also wrote this because although I write a lot about new stuff that doesn’t mean I think everyone should be upgrading every five minutes…

  2. Still going strong with my 2010 iPhone 4 (although I am mighty tempted by the 6)!

    Was on the hamster wheel a lot more when I was in my young 20s – not so much anymore.

  3. A few points I think you’ve missed.

    1. The manufacturers are not relying on you upgrading. They want new customers just as much. I know of people who hold out purchasing such a device until certain features appear. My first iPod was the 4th generation because I didn’t see value in the feature list of the earlier ones.
    2. Don’t put a 1 (or even 2) year old smartphone in a drawer!!! Every time I’ve upgraded (typically every two years) I’ve sold my old one, usually for a good chunk of the price of the new one. iPhones, especially, have great resale value. I’m about to get around 25% of my new top of the line iPhone paid for by selling off my two year old one.
    3. The time to feel like you have to ditch that old phone is when the vendor no longer releases security patches. In this day and age, they are ticking timebombs after that.

    Otherwise, a well written article – by which I mean you’ve set the perfect tone. A reasoned discussion rather than a rant. 🙂

    1. @Allister

      1. You’re right. My information is probably out of date now, but a while ago I talked to some equipment makers who assumed customers would upgrade hardware on a three year cycle — I suspect smartphone cycles are shorter than that. Upgrades typically still count for a large slice – sometimes the majority – of sales when a new model comes along. There’s also the business of people switching brands when they upgrade.

      2. Again, you’re right. Although you’d be amazed at the number of people who do put old kit in the drawer rather than sell devices following an upgrade. We don’t see so many trade-in promotions here in New Zealand as overseas. Often hardware companies offer miserly trade-ins compared with what you can get selling something on an auction site, but the process is simpler.

      3. Yes, end of support should at least be a wake up call. In my experience phones don’t tend to last that long because they get too much of a physical battering.

      1. Of course, Bill, if you stick with an open source(ish) ecosystem, like Android, you can pretty much ride your hardware into the ground. When the original manufacturer discontinues support for a particular Android phone, for most of the decent models you can download an up-to-date community-supported ROM which is usually quite a lot better (with regard to performance and capability) than the OEM’s customised interface (see Samsung Sense). For instance, I’m running Cyanogen Mod 11 (Android 4.4.4) on my Samsung S3 – would never go back to Sense. This is faster and more capable.

  4. Interesting that you should talk about this because I did a cost per day breakdown of owning tech devices just last week on my blog: How much are those tech toys costing us?

    I’d have to say that upgrading a phone every two years is being very definitely ON the “wheel”. That’s ridiculous. Remember when your family got a landline phone? Remember it lasting for years and years? Why should we expect any different from our mobile devices? The only reason we expect so little of them is because they are created with built-in planned obsolescence, and designed to fail after short term usage. We expect little, so we’re provided with little.

    Re laptops and desktops, by installing Ubuntu and ignoring Windows licensed machines, you can easily get 4-6 years from a machine, often more. My daughter has a machine that is probably six years old (bought secondhand) and running smoothly. My mobile is 3 years old (S2) and showing no signs of failure because I have a flip case for it (to protect the screen) and I keep it in a handbag (as in, I protect it). My laptop, currently 3.5 years old, is currently running well on Windows but when it starts to show problems, I’ll strip off Windows and flip over to Ubuntu and get another 3 years or so from the machine.

    What I’m saying is, you don’t have to ride the hamster wheel.

    Only hamsters do that. Don’t be a hamster.

    You can buy a perfectly good smartphone for $50 and no plan from the Warehouse. And what’s a tablet but a laptop with all the useful stuff removed and fragility added? Why buy one of these ridiculous wastes of money in the first place apart from being suckered in by the marketing.

    It’s time consumers got smart. If they don’t, well, the upgrade cycle is basically a foolishness tax. If people get suckered in by the promise of something better every time, they really deserve little more than what they get.

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