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How to Decide When to Upgrade Your Hardware

Jeffrey M Allen and Ashley Hallene


  • Sometimes a manufacturer will radically revise a device to create something significantly different.
  • Look at your usage and the changes made by the manufacturer to determine if those changes will materially impact your workflow.
  • Don’t let brand loyalty blind you to the fact that sometimes you help yourself by changing brands.
How to Decide When to Upgrade Your Hardware
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Every year or so, the manufacturers of the hardware we rely on try to figure out how to improve their products (or make us think they have) enough to induce us to replace our devices with new ones. Each time they offer a new and improved version of the devices we depend on, we need to decide whether to keep our current device or invest in the newer, presumably better model. As a general rule, you can count on the fact that the newer iteration of the device will have a better this or a fancier that. The improved this or that may make a real difference in the functionality of the device, but most of the time, the difference will prove relatively incidental. Sometimes (although not too often), a manufacturer will radically revise a device to create something significantly different. While this does not mean you really need to upgrade, it makes the decision to upgrade somewhat easier than it is with an incrementally improved iteration.

As this problem faces all of us on a regular and continually recurring basis, we thought that we should use this article to answer many of the questions we receive from friends, colleagues, and readers at this time of year relating to whether they should upgrade their [insert the name of your device].

Most of our devices tend toward the expensive to acquire. In truth, they may not prove so expensive when you consider the time they can save us and the services they provide to us, but if you upgrade every time the manufacturer improves the product, you will end up spending an incredible amount of money on hardware. For example, if you buy a $1,000 mobile phone and keep it for three years, it costs you about $300 a year (you can probably trade it in for about $100 at the end of the three years). If you upgrade to a new $1,000 phone each year, it will probably cost around $700 a year (you can probably get around $300 for a one-year-old model in good condition). You can sometimes get special pricing for some devices by using discount programs through providers that tie you to long-term service contracts. You can also find some special financing arrangements from manufacturers such as Apple and Samsung (both of which also offer the ability to trade in certain older devices). While all of that is interesting, it begs the real question: Do you really need to upgrade or not?

Notice that we used the term “need” and not “want.” Wanting to upgrade often has little or no relationship to actual need. We make no attempt to account for your personal proclivities, your desire to have the newest and the best of whatever device is under consideration, or your belief that at the end of the day, the person with the most and best toys wins.

While we admit that at various times in our history we have adopted those beliefs, we recognize that they have no functional validity. Accordingly, we disregard those propensities in this article and focus on the bottom line. Accordingly, we ignore the maxims “if it’s new, I need it!” and “it’s tax deductible, so the government pays for part of it.” Instead, we focus on the maxims relevant to this analysis, including “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” and “If it still works well, why replace it?”

So, how do we decide when to upgrade hardware?

Tip 1. There Is No “One Size Fits All” Rule

Different people have different needs, and the user’s individual needs should serve as the primary focus in the analysis. Depending on how you use the device and what changes the manufacturer made, it may prove advisable for you to upgrade to the new model, while the person down the hall has no need to do so. Look at your usage of the device and the changes made by the manufacturer and determine if those changes will materially impact its utility to you and your workflow.

Tip 2. There Is No Single Standard for Any Hardware, Let Alone for All Hardware

Different devices often have different life expectancies, and additionally, the utility to you may vary over time for each device and different devices. While a telephone or a computer may still charge up or turn on, that does not mean it functions as you need it to function. In fact, you can get most electronic devices to “work” after they have lost functional utility. For example, if the manufacturer no longer supports the device with software updates, we think you should consider the device unsuitable and get rid of it, even if it still turns on and functions at some level. In the “for whatever it might be worth” department, we have generally felt that cell phones should get replaced every two to four years, tablets every three to four years, and computers every three to five years. Those do not represent hard-and-fast rules, simply guidelines that we have found more or less appropriate. Factors bearing on the actual longevity of the device should include the heaviness of the use it has had, the demands the user places on it, and the nature and significance of the upgrades for the newer iteration.

Tip 3. Consider the Cost

Even though we can deduct most of our electronics as business expenses, we still have to lay out money to get them. We should base our decisions on a reasonable business analysis. What will the device cost us, and what benefit will it provide (return on investment, or ROI). If we cannot justify the cost, we should not make the acquisition.

Tip 4. Decide How to Handle the Disposition of Your Older Devices

You have options. Depending on how you acquired it and how long you have had it, you may be able to get enough for it in trade to justify going that route. If you feel the trade-in value does not justify that approach, you can donate it (schools can often put older technology to good use). If you donate the device, make sure you have securely wiped all your information off of it. Over the years, we have often given older technology that no longer suited us professionally to our spouse, children, and grandchildren, for whom it worked admirably for some time. Their needs and uses proved sufficiently less demanding that the older technology proved excellent for them.

Tip 5. Look Around Before You Buy

Brand loyalty has some advantages, including the fact that consistency often means less time learning a new system and can facilitate the transfer of your information to the new device. But do not let brand loyalty blind you to the fact that sometimes you help yourself by changing brands because another manufacturer has developed a better product or one that has features that resonate more closely with your needs.