2 min read

Getting off the technology upgrade hamster wheel

Apple’s first iPhone appeared in 2007. Since then it has been through 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 follow their lead.

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 technology upgrades

Sometimes there are real productivity benefits. More often an upgrade is far from essential.  Some changes are little more than cosmetic. It can be as straightforward as offering a product in a different colour case.

Other changes are incremental: More pixels here, a little faster there, more storage elsewhere.

In most cases the extra features are merely “nice to have”. And often the productivity improvements come from updated software. In many cases you can update the software on your existing device to get 90 per cent 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 at least 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 15 year-old laser printer. I only got rid of it when I could no longer buy replacement toner cartridges.

That 15-year lifespan is unrealistic for phones, tablets or PCs. It makes sense to update phones every few years. It’s no accident mobile plans, which include a new handset, last for 24 months. You don't have to stick to that schedule.

Damaged goods

Heavily used handheld devices tend to run into problems from about two years.  They can get knocked about.

Tablets and laptops should last longer, say a minimum of three years. Desktop PCs can go on for many more years if you’re willing to upgrade internal components.

There are times when upgrading to a new device 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.