You Don’t Have to Ride the Tech Upgrade Treadmill

BlackBerry Curve 9300 - 2010

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My wife uses her iPhone, her MacBook Air and her Kindle a lot. While nobody would describe her as a rabid techie, she’s no Luddite, either. She’s open to new things.

But she politely yet firmly declines to upgrade any of her three main devices to the latest models. She likes the size of her 2013 iPhone 5s just fine, and has no interest in its successor’s larger screen, or its faster processor and other hardware benefits. Her mid-2011 laptop runs plenty fast enough for her, and still has ample free storage. And her 2010 Kindle with the physical keyboard fits neatly into her handbag, doesn’t shine a light in her face when she’s reading at night, and has nice, long battery life.

Plus, she keeps the software on all these up to date, which not only helps with security but gives her new features, some of which she embraces.

And even though I personally own newer models of all these things, I think she’s right. The key rule in evaluating the flood of new hardware and software that’s constantly being hawked at you is this: If you’re happy with what you already use, if it works well for you, don’t upgrade.

Yes, the tech industry employs a massive marketing machine to get you on the upgrade treadmill and keep you there, but you don’t have to do so. Resistance isn’t futile.

Even savvy tech reporters know this. When one of my Re/code colleagues heard that I was planning this essay, he wrote: “Writing on a MacBook Pro I bought in 2009,” and said he had spent $400 to replace the hard drive and battery rather than $2,200 for a newer model.

Others of my colleagues are still using older Android phones and iPads.

And many other people still cling to older, out-of-fashion products. TV personality Kim Kardashian West says she has an iPhone, but prefers typing on an old BlackBerry so much that she buys them on eBay.

Perhaps the most famous example of refusal to upgrade is the long, long time that many companies and some consumers spent nursing along Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system, which was designed in 1999 and launched in 2001. It took a total cutoff of all support — even security updates — last April to begin to nudge the most diehard XP lovers to buy newer versions of Windows.

Windows XP desktop

Microsoft Windows XP desktop

So, aren’t we tech journalists hypocritical for reporting on, and reviewing, the latest stuff? Maybe, but it’s our job. Tech is a fast-moving beast, and so the latest gadgets, software and services are often newsworthy.

Also, there’s a substantial constituency of our readers that is interested in them, and in how well they work. Some may be the kind of folks who simply must have the latest thing. Others are people whose existing gear is on its last legs and who have been waiting for the next generation. Finally, some are just interested in what’s latest to discern trends, for their own businesses or for investing. We serve all of these audiences.

Even so, we try and point out when a new model isn’t a big enough leap to justify an upgrade. For instance, in my othewise positive review of the latest iPad, the Air 2, I wrote that people with the prior year’s model shouldn’t upgrade; and in fact, those with older models, who might benefit from an upgrade, should consider getting the year-old model instead, because it was plenty thin and light but now cost $100 less.

My colleague Bonnie Cha, reviewing Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4, said it wasn’t a radical improvement over its predecessor, and wasn’t worth the upgrade unless you were a Note lover whose carrier plan upgrade date was approaching. “If you’re not due for an upgrade,” she wrote, “I don’t see much reason to pay full price for the Galaxy Note 4.”

Just because we or other writers say “this is the best iPhone yet” doesn’t mean you need to run out and get it. It may indeed be the best, and yet not worth it for you.

Some tech products just don’t benefit dramatically from upgrades, depending on how you use them. I personally believe that’s one reason why the upgrade cycle has stretched out for laptops, and seems to be longer than once imagined for tablets. Newer models are certainly better than older ones, but not so much better that they justify spending more money.

Software matters here, as well. Plenty of people are happy with older versions of Microsoft Office, or even free competitors like Google Docs. And even if you admire that sleek new Windows laptop on the store shelf, you may dislike the Windows 8 operating system that’s preloaded on it. Also, if a new iPhone operating system slows things down, or reduces battery life, when installed on an older generation of hardware, it’s not worth even the free upgrade.

What’s more, some of the touted features of new software won’t work on older hardware, even if it’s generally compatible.

So, standing your ground on tech is good. But there’s a caveat: if you resist upgrading too long, you can find yourself trapped in a backwater where your files and photos and music become incompatible with new industry standards. Or you can miss out on important hardware developments like longer battery life.

Tech does evolve fast, so the question of when to stick to your guns and when to move on is a tricky one.

For instance, people who stuck with Windows XP years and years after it had been superseded were less secure from malware, even though Microsoft was still supplying them with security updates. People whose laptops are still using the first version of Wi-Fi can never benefit from the faster speeds being offered today.

Each product differs, but as a rule of thumb, I’d begin to think hard about upgrading tech gear you love after about five years.

So, don’t get trapped. But, more importantly, don’t get stampeded. In most cases, with most products, you can leave frequent upgrades to the enthusiasts.

 

 

 

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