How Disposable Are Your Gadgets?

I’ve been handling my iPhone 4 with kid gloves since I bought it in June.  Its shiny glass exterior  might go unscathed for a year or two, but sooner or later  I’m sure it’s going to scratch or break unless I  wrap it up  in a very heavy-duty case. Like most consumer gadgets,  the iPhone 4  just isn’t built to last.   We’re  living in an age of disposable gadgets  and I’m sad to say there isn’t a consumer gadget  I own that I’ll be using in five years.

Nick Bilton of The New York Times wrote an interesting blog post about his shattered iPhone 4 and how gadget designers are designing for short life spans. Anyone  that’s handled an iPhone 4 could probably tell you it won’t survive a moderate drop onto a hard surface.  But of course  the iPhone 4 isn’t the only disposable gadget out there. Most digital cameras  are made of fragile plastic and can’t survive a moderate fall. Affordable notebooks,  the kind that consumers buy it in droves,  are too fragile and wear out  sooner than anyone would like.  These notebooks  simply aren’t built with durability in mind.

One designer  summed it all up by saying:

“If you purchased a Leica camera a hundred years ago it would still work today. It was bulletproof. But electronics today are not built with permanence in mind.”

I hardly expect gadgets to last 100 years, but you have to wonder what’s been sacrificed when gadgets are sold with warranties that are only as long as a product cycle.Of course durability isn’t the only reason why  gadgets are disposable.   A lot of the gadgets we buy are obsolete by the time we break them in.

My first  HDTV, a 40″ Panasonic Viera 720p model, crapped out  after 20 months of  moderate usage.   Fortunately, I bought it from Costco, which graciously refunded the full purchase price of $2,000  when I wheeled it back into the warehouse.   Costco didn’t have a suitable replacement in stock,  so I drove over to Best Buy  and bought a 46″ Sharp Aquos 1080p LCD HDTV, a PS3 ($400 at the time)  and a couple of games and still had a couple of hundred bucks left over.  Fast forward two and a half years and I can buy a similar TV for about $800. Of  of course  I have no interest inviting a similar TV ever again, because LED and 3D HDTVs that refresh at 240MHz are all the rage.

By and large, as consumers, we want shiny and we want new. This isn’t the case however when it comes to business technology buyers. In the world of business computers and gadgets,  manufactures  understand that businesses will only buy products that will last at least as long as it takes to fully depreciate.  This means professional computers, printers, cameras and other gear are designed to last three, five or more years.  They might not be as sexy or shiny as consumer gadgets, but they are built to last.

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Take for example ThinkPad notebooks and tablets. When I venture out in Silicon Valley it’s pretty common to spot people using a T40 series ThinkPads. Some are thrifty entrepreneurs, using their ThinkPads from previous corporate gigs, others are professionals who refuse to let go of their beloved notebook, even though IT’s offered them newer models because they just work. I’ve seen several ThinkPads dropped off of desks and they  generally keep on ticking.

Another example is HP’s EliteBook notebooks. The HP EliteBook 2540p that I’m reviewing has a metal chassis and several durability features. It’s not a tank, like a fully rugged notebook, but it does have a spill-resistant keyboard and a special coating so that the letters on the keys don’t wear off.

On the other hand, many some consumer notebooks’ and netbooks’ keyboard letters are just stickers. A small splash of liquid will fry them, or at the very least cause enough damage to void their warranties. Interestingly, MacBook Pros are especially susceptible to liquid damage since they have zero spill protection, are difficult to dismantle and a keyboard pattern that doubles as a vent. Just because a gadget’s expensive doesn’t mean it’s designed with durability in mind.

I like shiny gadgets as much as the next guy, but I sure wish consumer gadget designers put more thought into longevity.

Consumers such as myself are likely part of the reason why gadget makers don’t care about making gadgets last forever. Except for my professional gear, I don’t view a lot of my gadgets as life time partners.

I’ll likely hang onto my HDTV until it breaks, but it may be relegated to the bedroom in favor of a newer model once the 3D dust settles and a clear standard is established. My iPhone 4 will likely be gone by this time next year in favor of Apple’s next iPhone, or an Android phone. I’ll likely buy a new notebook by next summer. My Nikon D700, my primary DSLR, will stick around until Nikon releases an equivalent model that’s capable of shooting video. My camera accessories, including my lenses, are here until I lose or break them. Some of my hard drives are becoming obsolete and of little use to me- what am I going to do with an 80GB portable drive when I have a couple of 1TB portable drives at my disposal?

Do you view your gadgets as disposable or do you think you’ll be able to hang on to them ‘forever’?

  

Comments

  1. Sumocat says

    I rarely dispose of anything. I try to repurpose as much as possible. My wife gets most of my hand-me-downs. We’ve given away (or practically given away) other items. And now that mobile tech plays a major role in my life, I’m thinking about displaying a couple of old devices as trophies, such as my first Tablet PC.

    • Xavier Lanier says

      Good point Sumocat- I do sell off some unused items, give away others. But too much of my gear just breaks. For example, my Nikon D70 had several problems and became unusable after about two years.
      My Dad used his Nikon, which he used to show me the basics of photography, for over 20 years.
      My current D700 is much more durable than the lower-end Nikon DSLR’s, but there are some components that clearly won’t last for 20 years.
      In terms of Trophy devices- that’s a great idea.

  2. Mike says

    As well as being driven by marketing (obviously) the desire for the newer, shinier device (http://www.theonion.com/articles/new-device-desirable-old-device-undesirable,2862/) a lot of the motivation to upgrade comes from the desire to push the devices to do work of incrementally greater quantity or quality.

    At the moment I’m choosing a new smartphone (had been borrowing an iPhone 3GS) and am keenly aware of this problem. Based on costs and what I’ll be using it for, I’ve narrowed my choices down to another 3GS (don’t need/want the 4) or a Desire running Android. While both are concerning in terms of longevity (the already 12-month old 3GS vs the 6-month old Desire), if I were interested in using either with just the OS that comes with them and not upgrading, I’d feasibly get at least the 2 years’ of warranty supported life out of them. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? The temptation to just squeeze that little bit more out of the phone is so great…

  3. Ben says

    I think it’s important to remember that some of this is consumer driven, because the average person will sacrifice build-quality to save a few dollars or to get the shiny. While expensive doesn’t necessarily mean tough, as you pointed out, there is certainly a strong correlation. So some blame can be placed on consumers who don’t demand durability.

    I also think that electronics manufacturers have encouraged a pattern in consumers of always desiring the latest and greatest when their current devices work just fine. Naturally, these companies want to sell as much as they can, and sales drive improvements in technology, but if they can get people to buy the new thing in a year, why put the extra resources to making a product that’ll last 5 or 10 years?

    I have usually been buying computers and getting about 5 years of life from them before I decide the advantages of getting a new one outweigh the cost. If I get a $2000 computer and use it for 5 years, that’s a cost of only $400 a year… basically one new netbook a year, except of course that my computer is way better than a netbook would ever be. Even after that, I have been giving my old computers to people in my family who could use an upgrade.

  4. Stuart says

    I expect the gadgets I buy to last far longer than the warranty. If something I buy only lasts 1 year and starts to have problems, then I’ll never buy from that company again. I use them for a long time and hand them all down. I really can’t see throwing something that works away. My kids, relatives, friends, charities can all get gadgets that I’ve replaced before I throw them away. Upgradability is something I look for when purchasing. Can I upgrade the hard drive or use removable storage? Do accessories extend the life of usefulness of an item? I hope people just don’t throw away when they can repair, repurpose, or recycle.

  5. TateJ says

    My smart phones get replaced every 2 years when my contract is up. I usually want the newest smart phone. Old smart phones are given away.

    Laptops, and desktops computers usually get replaced when there is a need. I’m on my 4th year with my current desktop and my previous desktop gave me 6 years and then an additonal 2 years as a backup server at my wife’s business.

    My trusty Motion M1400 tablet is just about on its last legs. I’ll use it until it dies and then find a good used LE 1700.

  6. Sharon says

    I think the term is planned obsolescence. They want to sell you another one, so they can make more money, so they plan for yours to break soon after the warranty expires. Too many things are built this way today! A friend actually had to replace a two year old high tech refrigerator because a computer board controlling the temp fried out. They said they couldn’t put in a new one! My fridge is 25 and going strong!

    On the plus side, my much maligned Dell XT has been dropped a million times. Some paint has peeled off the bottom, and some of the rubber bumpers are gone, but the hinge is still pretty solid and it works as well as it ever did.

    • Xavier Lanier says

      Exactly- business notebooks and older stuff are built to a much higher standard.
      I believe it’s more of a ‘race to the bottom’ than planned obsolescence when it comes to the lack of durability in consumer products.

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