I used to be a big sucker for new electronics. I liked to own the latest and greatest, and got excited to watch new product announcements. This time of year is especially trying, as the new iPhone and Google phones are announced. New features, new design, all the glitter!

Following the launch of a new smartphone, you’ll quickly hear the hoop-da-la about the latest and greatest features. It has a better screen! It can charge wirelessly! It’s in super high definition! But everybody fails to mention that most of the features that are packed into these new devices are also found in the previous versions.

The Marginal Utility of New

The marginal utility of a new device, or the useful gains in getting the new version of a product, are usually fairly small. From a daily use stand point, almost everything a new phone does, the previous version does as well. The marginal increase in utility is not significant. The main difference, is the cost.

When you break down how you use a piece of technology like a smartphone, you’ll quickly find that you likely have set number of use cases. Calling, texting, and using a handful of apps is typical for most people. The requirements for doing those tasks is often basic, and found on most phones that were made in the past 2-4 years.  The impact of new features for most products is more about marketing, than it is about bettering your life. 

When to Upgrade Your Gadgets

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating that you live like a hermit in the stone age. There are real benefits to using new technologies. Our quality of life is improved when we communicate with friends, share memories, and have access to productive tools. So there is a time and place for upgrading your gadgets.

The concept of marginal utility is based on the margin, or the changes on the very edge of product development. Meaning, the changes in brand new products, over the most recent previous version. This is the place where you tend to have the least increase in benefits, at the highest level of cost.

However, if you look further down the product line, jumping from 3-4 versions back, to a newer version, you can begin to have more significant increases in utility. At this level, you are no longer working on marginal changes, but compounded improvements overtime.

The time cycle of when changes become significant is dependent on a few factors:

  1. The Innovation Speed of the Product
  2. Your Personal Use Cases
  3. Your Budget to Purchase Items

Products like smartphones tend to have notable changes on a 2-4 year horizon. Whereas automobiles tend to have more of a 7-10 year significant change cycle. Examining how you use your products, as well as doing research can help you determine when you are going to upgrade.

38 Comments

  1. Scott Allen
    October 22, 2017

    We just consciously made this decision ourselves we had cell phones that were a couple years old but instead of upgrading to the iPhone 8 we went to the iPhone 7 because the price was significantly different and there wasn’t much difference in speed or capabilities.

    Reply
    • James
      October 24, 2017

      That’s a great point Scott! Even when you deem it time for an upgrade, you can usually save some cash by getting “last years” model.

      Reply
  2. Fred Weist
    October 28, 2017

    Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely agree with getting the 7 instead of the 8 or the X. But please don’t be that person that has a 6 year old phone that goes on and on about it.

    Reply
    • James
      October 28, 2017

      I completely agree Fred! Not good to be preachy about anything in your life unless somebody solicits your opinion.

      Reply
  3. Kaitlyn Vandermolen
    October 28, 2017

    I agree with the point of this article and was going to share it with a friend, but upon reading it found enough typos that I was distracted from the topic, and would honestly be a bit embarrassed to share it. The general ideas and facts are good, but please remember that grammar and spelling are still important, even when most people skim read.

    Reply
    • Brooks
      October 28, 2017

      I copied the article and ran it through the Word spelling and grammar checker. There were a couple misplaced commas, “stone age” should have been capitalized and one case of “is” should have been “are”. That’s about it. You really missed the point and may be OCD. Surprised you would be reading these type of articles with that mindset.

      Reply
    • SANDRE MAXWELL
      October 28, 2017

      I COMPLETELY AGREE: GRAMMAR IS BECOMING SUCH A FERTILE BATTLEGROUND. I AM AMAZED AT THE CLARIFYING ERROR I SPOT ON SITES YOU WOULD THINK WOULD NEVER MAKE SILLY MISTAKES.. SAD COMMENTARY ON TODAY’S LAX COMMUNICATION.

      Reply
    • Janet
      October 29, 2017

      Seriously?!

      Reply
    • Susan Kester
      October 29, 2017

      I noticed that too, Kaitlyn. Spellcheck and grammar check do not replace a human brain, and for many of us it is expected to have a well-written article before sharing. And no, it is not a mindset (as Brooks suggests), but attention to detail and basics of written communication. Other than that, I’ll be hanging on to my older phone version!

      Reply
  4. Gina
    October 28, 2017

    I hate that I will have to change my iPad mini because it’s 5 years old and doesn’t have enough memory – it keeps “reloading” over and over again the stupidest things in the middle of my reading or watching them. I only use it for reading emails and newsletters and even that is too much apparently!

    Reply
    • KB
      October 28, 2017

      I have a 2012-era Mini and had good luck with a total factory reset and then implementing some easy performance improvement suggestions from forums I found by searching around Google. Turns out turning off a few unnecessary new features in the new software upgrade improved my old iPad’s speed and abilities significantly. Maybe this could help you, too!

      Reply
      • Terri Bee
        November 1, 2017

        Very interested in your comments about your iPad mini and improving the performance. question though? How do you know what features are on the new software update and how do you go about deleting the extra ones that you don’t need?

        Reply
  5. RussianMonk
    October 28, 2017

    Awesome article, gives a great perspective! Are you able to setup an RSS feed for your articles? I’d love to stay up to date with them.

    Reply
  6. Gregor
    October 28, 2017

    A new phone has a sufficiently good camera that I can now ditch (or not buy) a standalone camera. Buying a new phone just for the sake of a new model release is clearly not the right approach but if doing so creates value in some other way, I don’t see a problem with it.

    Reply
    • James
      October 29, 2017

      I agree Gregor. Used correctly, I think a smartphone is a great tool for simple living. The last time I actually upgraded my iPhone was right before my daughter was born. I knew I’d want to capture many moments on camera, and the upgrade in camera quality was significant enough.

      Reply
  7. Stoneage Hermit
    October 28, 2017

    Can you believe I still have a basic landline and use a Trac phone for long distance?!?!?

    It’s not that I don’t want to join the 21st century but rather because where I live, our cell service is unreliable…like the time I had to call 911 but could not access. Believe me, it made me re-evaluate my priorities in a big way.

    In some ways it is annoying to not have instant access to what has become a necessity of life, but in most ways it’s enjoyable to not be controlled by beautiful, slim objects. (Of course I could never survive without the internet)

    Reply
    • James
      October 29, 2017

      Found the stone age hermit!

      Reply
  8. Anno Bell
    October 28, 2017

    This article makes a lot of sense to me as someone who uses technology for the basics instead of all the gadgetry. An additional concern with our societal urge to upgrade constantly is the environmental issue. Where do all the old phones go to die? Some end up passed to another user, who may be grateful to receive the gift (or less than grateful – depending on the age and entitlement level of the recipient). Most likely end up in drawers unused along with all of their requisite cases, cords, and accessories, and eventually make their way to landfills. Imagine the cumulative impact of even 15 million users choosing to wait an extra year or two to upgrade? I think we are often so focused on having the latest and greatest that we don’t consider the greater implications of our choices.

    Reply
    • M
      October 29, 2017

      Totally agree

      Reply
    • Isaac Lee
      October 30, 2017

      I agree, many of use have become more addicted to these new touchscreen phones. How many of us waste money everyday just to get the brand new phone. Why not just stick with you current phone, because it is still a phone. Why do we need upgraded phones for what. Our current phones still work the way these new phones work.

      Reply
  9. Andrew
    October 28, 2017

    Thanks for this article. I went out to buy iWatch Series 3 and returned after 2 weeks because I realized that this gadget didn’t do anything more to enhance my life. I like technology when it makes life easier. For example my Amazon Echo is fantastic. It plays music, it plays news, it adds things to my shopping list all while I’m making dinner.

    Reply
    • James
      October 29, 2017

      Absolutely, technology can improve your life (making it simpler too). Out of curiosity, did you already have an Apple watch that you were upgrading from? Or was this your first?

      Reply
  10. Norm
    October 28, 2017

    I have a iPhone 6 mainly for calls texts and camera use when going out. But with minimal apps. At work I use an old Nokia (with iPhone on call forward) good for minimal distractions and not constantly using apps

    Reply
  11. Hannah
    October 28, 2017

    We replaced our mobiles recently and decided on one of the latest models, and you are absolutely right. The difference isn’t worth the price point! Apple won a case recently, stating that it only expected its products to last two years, and after that point, they offer no support. It’s amazing that technology is advancing so rapidly, but its such a waste at the same time!

    Reply
  12. Lilian
    October 29, 2017

    I agree. But manufacturers have a sneaky way of forcing you to upgrade even when you aren’t inclined to. Currently I have an iPhone 5 which I am told is probably going to be useless with some of the existing Apps because Apple won’t let me IOS anymore so I am stuck with 10…and as the Apps keep requiring a higher than IOS 10 to be functional, the phone becomes increasingly redundant. That’s what happened to my iPhone 4. So the happy compromise I have is that when my phone becomes defunct, I inherit one of the kid’s newer models and replace that with the latest model for them to use. Not ideal but it’s the next best thing for our family.

    Reply
    • James
      October 29, 2017

      There ya go – reusing! You bring up a good point about software compatibility. It seems like the sweet spot for iPhone upgrades tend to be the 3-4 year mark, for both hardware and software.

      Reply
  13. Sandra
    October 29, 2017

    Totally agree! I currently have an iPhone 4s which eventually I’ll upgrade to a 6. My middle school students laugh at my phone🤓 But it still functions fine for my needs.

    Reply
  14. Steve
    October 29, 2017

    Hi! Great article, James – thanks. You make the point nicely, and I agree wholeheartedly. I try to think in terms of outputs rather than inputs and think about what I am I trying to achieve: f a new phone is a means to an end, and the ends are effective, affordable communications with my personal and professional networks, then it gives me a ‘test’ for the decision about the kind of ‘phone to buy.

    Reply
    • James
      October 31, 2017

      Thats a good concept Steve. I also see a smartphone as a tool, and it’s effectiveness is matter of it’s capabilities and your own personal use.

      Reply
  15. Andrew
    October 30, 2017

    And much like everyone comparing features (and like phone makers themselves), you’re overlooking battery.

    The battery is what makes a phone mobile and its brings the most utility to the table as it can mean the difference between being reachable and … not. Any phone’s battery degrades significantly beyond 1 year of use. When you compare utility, you MUST add in battery life. You old phone’s battery life may be about 80% of the original (optimistically, if you’ve taken care of it), while the new phone’s … well … depends (since we’re not talking capacity, we’re talking actual life which is the product of how the new capacity works with the new software).

    Reply
    • Morghan
      October 31, 2017

      See, that’s my only concern with this new phone I got. It’s the first one I’ve ever owned that didn’t have a swappable battery and I’m kinda worried about how that is going to work out for me years from now.

      I usually get a new one about once every five years, but I pick up a new battery once or twice over the life of the device, having it built in seems like a liability that’s not necessarily a good trade off for having a waterproof phone.

      Reply
    • James
      October 31, 2017

      Remember when batteries were removable?!

      Reply
  16. Morghan
    October 31, 2017

    I don’t buy the reconditioned models anymore because I find that you never know how abused they were before you got your hands on them.

    I do, however, stretch my brand new high end device much longer than most seem to.

    I just picked up a Galaxy Note 8, but it was a replacement for a Galaxy Note 3, I think it was five years that I owned that phone before deciding to upgrade.

    Reply
    • James
      October 31, 2017

      I’ve had the same issues with refurbs as well. Depending on the brand, you can also usually buy one generation older than the latest, and get a decent discount as well. As you pointed out though, the real costs savings comes with how long you hold on to them.

      Reply
  17. Sophie
    October 31, 2017

    My phone is almost 10 years old and isn’t even a smartphone… Does that make me a laggard? I do love my good ol’ Nokia though…

    Reply
  18. Liz (eight acres)
    November 26, 2017

    Great article. I’ve bever understood upgrading for the sake of upgrading. I only get new gadgets when the old one no longer works and cannot be fixed….

    Reply

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