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Thinking of upgrading your smartphone? Don’t. Wait a while instead

After testing hundreds of tech products over the past dozen years, one writer has come to the conclusion that it pays to be a late tech adopter.

Thinking of upgrading your smartphone? Don’t. Wait a while instead

Cutting-edge gadgets can invoke awe and temptation, but being an early adopter involves risk, and the downsides usually outweigh the benefits. (Illustration: Glenn Harvey)

The best gadget that I bought this year cost less than a week’s worth of groceries. After my smartphone, it’s my most frequently used piece of tech. It was also released four years ago.

Can you guess what it is?

The mystery gizmo is a used Kindle e-book reader from 2015, which I bought on eBay from a repair technician. It lacks frills that some new e-readers have, like waterproofing, but I’m not the type to read in the bathtub. So I decided to be a late adopter, and I couldn’t be happier: The dated Kindle does its job well, and if I ever break or lose it, I’ll be out 50 bucks and not US$200 (S$275).

I’m neither a Luddite nor a cheapskate. But after testing hundreds of tech products – and buying some along the way – over the past dozen years, I’ve come to a conclusion: People will almost always get more joy from technology the longer they wait for it to mature. Cutting-edge gadgets can invoke awe and temptation, but being an early adopter involves risk, and the downsides usually outweigh the benefits.

Keep this in mind when we enter the end-of-the-year tech frenzy. That’s when companies like Apple, Samsung and Google try to woo us with hot new gadgets, including premium smartphones, tablets and wearable computers.

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I will be reviewing some of these products and advising whether they are worthwhile purchases. But my default recommendation is to resist hitting the “buy” button and to wait unless you absolutely need to replace your older tech.

“New doesn’t always necessarily mean better, or better in ways that will matter,” said Nick Guy, a senior staff writer for Wirecutter, a New York Times company that tests products.

Here’s a look at when slow adoption was wise – and fast adoption a mistake – followed by a look ahead at brand-new tech to be cautious about.

HOW I LEARNED FROM THE PAIN OF BEING EARLY

In 2007, I caved and bought Apple’s original iPhone.

Having a fully functional web browser on a mobile device was too tempting, and as someone with a lousy sense of direction, I wanted the maps. So that winter, I paid AT&T US$600 for the iPhone with a two-year contract. For a while, I relished being among the privileged few to live in the future.

That special feeling faded about six months later when Apple released the second-generation iPhone. Not only did the new model connect with 3G, a much faster cellular technology at the time, but it started at just US$200 with a contract. Ouch.

I’ve gone through a handful of iPhones since. But that experience taught me a valuable lesson about the cost of early adoption. Nowadays, whenever Apple makes major changes to iPhones, I wait at least a year for it to iterate the tech and release the S version. (For example, instead of buying the iPhone 5 in 2012, I waited till 2013 to buy the iPhone 5S, which was faster and more durable.)

Wirecutter took a similarly cautious approach with the iPhone X, Apple’s first radically redesigned smartphone, with a US$1,000 price tag. When the device was released in 2017, Wirecutter gave it a positive review but encouraged people not to upgrade because Apple was likely to include the premium features in cheaper models the next year.

“We said everything seems to work well, but we don’t think it’s worth this price now,” Guy said. “If you like the iPhone X, wait a year or two and see what happens.”

The next year, Apple released the US$750 iPhone XR, which was just as capable as (and in some ways better than) the iPhone X.

Kyle Wiens, the chief executive of iFixit, which sells parts and publishes instructions on repairing devices, said people had previously upgraded to new phones every 18 months on average, but could now wait more than three years. That’s because smartphones have reached a point where their improvements aren’t as noticeable year after year.

“We’re in the golden age of smartphones,” he said. “Your smartphone from two years ago still works great and will continue to work for a while.”

PSST, WANT TO BUY AN OLD WATCH?

My waiting more than a decade to buy a Kindle is an extreme example of late adoption. There are other, newer examples highlighting the advantages to this approach.

My second-best gadget purchase this year was the Apple Watch Series 3. When Apple released that watch in 2017, it cost US$330. This year, retailers like Amazon and Best Buy slashed the price to US$200. Apple sells the newest version of the watch, Series 4, for US$400, and its main improvement is a bigger display – a feature I can live without because I don’t often look at the watch screen.

In other words, by waiting and opting for a previous-generation model, I get to enjoy a fast, long-lasting watch that tracks my workouts and shows my calendar notifications, among other perks, for a steep discount.

The late adopter approach goes beyond tech, Wiens said. In the automobile industry, carmakers occasionally revamp models with new driving technology and chassis designs. Then they build on that same design for several years.

“With cars you never want to buy the first car of a new generation,” Wiens said. “When they radically change it, there’s all kinds of issues.”

A case in point: When I shopped for a car in 2013, I bought a used Toyota Prius hybrid from 2011, the year after Toyota released a redesign of the Prius. This generation also came with a price cut, so I got what had previously been a luxury vehicle for a modest price.

By Brian X. Chen © 2019 The New York Times Company

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