Why it’s better to wait a few years before buying the latest smartphone upgrade
Brian X Chen is a self-proclaimed late adopter to new tech, and he couldn’t be happier
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 $200 (£166).
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, starting next month, we enter the end-of-the-year tech frenzy. That’s when companies like Apple, Samsung and Google will try to woo us with hot new gadgets, including premium smartphones, tablets and wearable computers.
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,” says 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 the US telecommunications company AT&T $600 (£498) 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 $200 (£166) 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 until 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 $1,000 (£831) 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 says. “If you like the iPhone X, wait a year or two and see what happens.”
The next year, Apple released the $750 (£623) 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, says 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 says. “Your smartphone from two years ago still works great and will continue to work for a while.”
Psst, want to buy an old watch? Sure!
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 $330 (£274). This year, retailers like Amazon and Best Buy slashed the price to $200 (£166). Apple sells the newest version of the watch, Series 4, for $400 (£332), 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 says. 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 says. “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.
What to look out for this autumn
The question that I, as a tech reviewer, hear most often from friends and colleagues is whether they should buy the new (insert gadget name here). But using the approach I’ve described, you can develop an intuition for when it’s a smart time to upgrade – and when it’s risky.
Let’s say that in the coming weeks, Apple releases a new entry-level iPhone and Google releases a new Pixel smartphone.
Since Apple did its last big redesign of the iPhone in 2017, the next one is likely to be an incremental update. As for Google, its Pixel phones are usually modest upgrades that focus on software enhancements.
If your current iPhone or Google Pixel is on the fritz, this year may be a good time to upgrade, assuming the new phones get positive reviews. (Or, if you’re like me, you could consider last year’s models when their prices drop after the new ones come out this year.)
In contrast, a brand new Samsung phone coming out in September screams, “Buyer, beware”. That is the Galaxy Fold, which is the first smartphone that can be folded and unfolded like a book to decrease or increase its screen size. Samsung postponed the release after early samples broke in reviewers’ hands in April.
Samsung said it had since improved the Fold’s design and construction. But with a tarnished reputation and a nearly $2,000 (£1,663) price, it is likely to become a hallmark example of a risky bet for early adopters.
The wisest thing we can do is pay attention to foldable screens and how they may benefit us in a few years – but probably not tomorrow.