Longitudinal Tech Reviews

The true utility of tech products is demonstrated over longer time periods than are usually discussed.

Tech · 3789 words · 19 min read · 114 views

Marketers have long known that it is not the steak you sell but the sizzle. The appeal of a given product comes not from some inherent property of the product itself but rather in anticipating the experiences that you could have with the product. I am as subject to marketing as anyone, which is evidenced by the quantity of toys I own or have previously owned: cars, cameras and tech gear, and outdoor gear.

Think back to the first time you acquired a product in a given category: your first car, your first computer, your first smartphone. Those first purchases were quite exciting, presenting new opportunities that were previously impossible, like the ability to drive anywhere according to your own schedule, not having to share a computer with your siblings, or having email in your pocket. With an increase in age and means, you have likely upgraded such category-opener products with newer, more capable versions: a more modern car, a faster computer, a better smartphone.

The pace of this upgrading-and-retiring cycle is especially relentless in tech. How often have you dropped a pile of cash on a new gadget only to watch the following year’s iteration outperform it in many ways, made even sourer by superlative-laden marketing rhetoric like “This is the best iPhone we have ever made”? How heartbreaking is it to watch a valuable gadget inevitably decline into a slower, parodied shell of its former glory?

Fall is a busy time for tech companies. Starting in October—“Techtober”—and leading up to the start of the holiday shopping season on Black Friday, many companies announce major updates to their product lines. We’ve seen new iPhones from Apple, new processors from Intel, and new graphics cards from AMD and Nvidia. Many of these announcements are live-streamed, with members of the media and public alike at fever pitch to get their hands on these newest and shiniest gadgets.

Too often, I find, the discussion around cutting-edge gadgets focuses on the stats and numbers of said devices and how they outshine their predecessors. It’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, that, within reason, gadgets are meant to delight us and provide quality-of-life improvements such as connecting us with others, improving our health, entertaining us, or offering creative tools.

Such benefits become clearer over time. Instead of this tunnel vision on tech’s latest offerings, where anything older than a year seems laughably ancient, I would like to examine how certain gadgets provide utility—or not—over a much longer time period.

In healthcare, longitudinal studies can be performed on patient populations over many years, even decades. In order to be considered truly effective, a given treatment must withstand the test of time. Certain treatments, for example, lobotomies, and arthritis-painkiller drug Vioxx, were actually discovered to be devastatingly harmful in the long run despite initial promise, demonstrating the issue with short-sighted thinking in cost-benefit analysis.

Let’s see what happens when similar logic is applied to gadget ownership. How often does short-term appeal translate into long-term gain?

PCs

Almost everyone seems to agree that Windows-based computers age terribly. In just two years of providing IT support for a small organization predominantly running Windows laptops, I have seen my share of hardware carnage: liquid damage, loose display ribbon cables, and unresponsive track-pads. While outside the scope of this article, it has been suggested that running Macs in enterprise can actually provide better long-term value for organizations despite their higher up-front costs, owing to their generally better software and hardware reliability. All this points toward an unsurprisingly bleak outlook for PC ownership when a longitudinal lens is applied.

On a personal level, however, I have found a notable exception to this rule. I have run a mid– to low–range desktop PC in various iterations for the past fifteen or more years. The last truly major upgrade was a new CPU, motherboard, and RAM combo, purchased in January 2013 (Intel Core i5-3570K, MSI Z77A-GD65, 16 GB DDR3 RAM, $499, all amounts CAD), followed by minor upgrades to the boot SSD and GPU in April 2020 (500 GB SanDisk SSD, used AMD Radeon RX 580, $100), and a WiFI card ($40). What was a mid-range system ten years ago can still hold its own today: the PC can handle light gaming and play full-screen 4K YouTube videos, tasks that lower-end, newer systems have choked on. Newer CPUs haven’t gotten tremendously faster anyhow, mostly more power efficient.

I’m not a heavy gamer and thus don’t need cutting-edge performance, but this PC has satisfied my nerd’s urge to tinker for well over a decade without ever spending more than $500 at a time on infrequent upgrades. Using this project PC, I learned about the various parts of computers (CPU, RAM, GPU, power supply, etc.), how RAID works (and had a hard-drive fail thus justifying my RAID setup), and how to overclock the CPU (from 3.8 GHz to 4.2 GHz) with an aftermarket cooler. Some of this knowledge has turned out to be fundamental to my career.

As my 2013 hardware will not run Windows 11, there may be an upgrade in the near future. At the time of this writing, a platform upgrade to something current but on the low end, like an Intel Core i3-12100F, a new motherboard, and RAM, can be had for under $400. If I hold out for a 13th-gen Intel CPU, that would be an even 10-generation upgrade. (Side note: is it weird that the feature I am most anticipating in Windows 11 is running Linux GUI apps within Windows?) The old hardware is not completely obsolete either: it could be donated or sold for a few dollars, or turned into a Linux box (I also have an old Thinkpad running Ubuntu that I hardly use—not sure that I need another dedicated Linux machine).

The message here is that if you are willing to fiddle, desktop PCs are that rare category of gadget that can be both relatively cheap and have surprising longevity. While cheap PC laptops will start to show their age at the four-to-five year mark, desktops, can be upgraded, maintained, and enjoyed, over eight to ten years or more.

AirPods

Now let’s venture into the Apple ecosystem. I ordered a set of first-generation AirPods on credit card points in the spring of 2017, which were delayed by high demand at the time. I was intrigued by the notion of truly wireless earbuds. There was some undeniably clever engineering required to make AirPods a reality—to fit a battery, speaker, and wireless chip into something so tiny seemed well ahead of its time.

Initially, my AirPods offered the unexpected delight Apple has so perfected. Gym workouts without headphone wires were magical. Paired with an Apple Watch—more on that in a minute—I could go for runs without my phone and still listen to podcasts. The high praise for AirPods did not lack merit—they were a truly brilliant product.

Expectedly, subsequent generations of AirPods have been unveiled, and, also expectedly, I have not upgraded. One of my AirPods started having battery issues that multiple resets did not cure, which was worsened by Canada’s cold climate (it will work for only a few minutes outside now). Far outside of the warranty period, my options are to either spend an estimated $65 for battery service (which seems of dubious value to repair half of a set of an old product), upgrade to a current set of AirPods ($179, $229, or $329, depending on the tier), or purchase some cheaper non-Apple wireless earbuds as this segment has gotten much more competitive. It seems that AirPods only last about three to five years, after which, to keep the wireless enchantment going, you must upgrade.

Alternatively, I could use my $20 wired earbuds for years to come and no longer worry about battery issues (assuming we don’t lose the Lightning port on iPhones). Given that I technically didn’t even pay for my AirPods, I think you already know which option I’ve chosen.

iPad

I abstained from iPad ownership for many years. My reasoning was simple: between an iPhone and a MacBook Pro, a tablet provided almost no additional functionality but came with the additional overhead of needing charging and software updates. Too many devices can lead to tech overload, so I was a very late adopter when it came to tablets.

Since working as a front-end developer, I bought a used iPad in October 2020 (iPad Air 2, originally released in 2014, $300) for website testing. It’s hard to optimize web apps for tablets without seeing them on an actual tablet, a task that this used iPad has been effective at.

Despite the iPad lineup’s ever-increasing capability—now certain models ship with the same M2 processor as MacBook Airs and Pros—it is one category of gadget I am quite happy to be more than a few generations behind on. Outside of website testing, I use mine almost exclusively for reading. From a longitudinal perspective, anything that promotes reading will score high from me (see The Pendulum Swings); however, it begs the question that, if all I really use a tablet for is reading, why not just get a much cheaper dedicated e-reader?

iPads can be fun gadgets, but the longitudinal benefits are dubious enough that I likely won’t purchase another.

Apple Watch

In the early, uncertain stages of the COVID pandemic (April 2020), I bought my first Apple Watch (Series 5, no cellular, $504 refurbished). Given the impending travel ban, I figured that it was time to double down on local activities and make a proper attempt at running. I’ve always been quite active but could never get excited about running in the face of more fun alternatives like biking and ski touring. Bribing myself with a new gadget would hopefully provide incentive to lace up and hit the pavement (I lived in Calgary at the time).

After some initial uncertainty about its raison d’être—remember the $10k USD Apple Watch Edition?—the Apple Watch has firmly established itself as a fitness tracker. This was precisely my reason for purchasing one. I considered other alternatives like Garmin, but given my Apple ecosystem lock-in, the Apple Watch was the obvious choice.

Starting out by running three to five kilometers at a time, I worked my way up to running 10 kilometers without stopping. After a few months I achieved my fastest-ever 10k at a pace of 4:57/km. Modest, but strong enough for a lifelong non-runner.

The Apple Watch can estimate your VO2 max. At the height of my city running, my estimated VO2 max was 50.3 [mL/(kg•minute)]. Since moving to Revelstoke, it has hovered around 46–48, but that may be due to changing motivations (see Equilibrium). At times, I have obsessed over this number, feeling crushed when it drops unexpectedly, like a rookie stock trader lacking emotional control as their trade goes against them. Now I check it infrequently.

As previously mentioned, I could connect my AirPods and listen to podcasts directly from my Apple Watch, all without my phone. In practice, though, watch-based podcasts did not work as well as I’d hoped. I gave up on podcast syncing after starting a few runs only to find that the episode I’d hoped to listen to was not in fact downloaded.

In time my Apple Watch battery capacity has decreased: it now has 86% of its original capacity. Despite having disabled the always-on display and rarely leaving the watch on its charger at 100%, its small size makes it especially vulnerable to battery decline. The other issue that has arisen is a screen flicker: mildly annoying but not a reason for replacement.

On the plus side is the excellent customizability of the Apple Watch. Bored of how your watch looks?—change the face. Bored of all the faces?—wait for new ones with a watchOS update. Switch out the strap for a different physical look and feel, similar to how I alternate my phone cases to give a new experience without changing devices.

One neat feature of the Apple Watch is having a map on your wrist, via the WorkOutDoors app. While navigating on a run, ski, or hike, it saves time to look at a map on your wrist instead of getting out your phone, fighting Face ID through polarized sunglasses, then opening your GPS app. It’s a nice convenience, but remember that people somehow survived for centuries without GPS. Over-reliance on technology can on occasion be deadly—see Disaster in the Alps.

Eventually this watch will need upgrading. Of all the gadgets on this list, the Apple Watch is the hardest one for me to evaluate the long-term value of. I could upgrade to something like the modestly priced Apple Watch SE for $329, but, I’d likely only get three years out of that too. If the Apple Watch is truly effective as a training tool, the ongoing cost of ownership is a worthwhile investment (and cheaper than most gym memberships or coaching). And yet, high-performing athletes have reached extraordinary levels of fitness without reliance on electronic gizmos.

Unlike every other device here with—or without—a clear long-term value proposition, Apple Watch is the most ambiguous. I enjoy my current watch and will likely upgrade when it croaks, but I may do so somewhat begrudgingly.

Cameras

I have found cameras to depreciate noticeably slower than more mainstream tech like phones. This is a double-edged sword: camera gear—lenses especially—will retain its value for longer, yet it also means that the used market isn’t the same source of screaming deals as in other tech products.

I haven’t purchased any camera gear in years now but have been quite happy with my recent results (for example, see my 2023 Calendar). Photographers are notorious for obsessing over camera specs, but there is no substitute for going outside and, you know, actually taking photos.

Photography has provided tremendous utility in my life. For me, no other technology so perfectly epitomizes Steve Job’s reflection that “Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.” The combination of technology—camera settings and post-processing software—combined with the creativity of composition make digital photography another standout example of this piece’s theme of longitudinal technology. To have learned photography, to have practiced it in wild places across our planet, generating gorgeous, uniquely personal keepsakes that can inspire others, has been one of the most rewarding pursuits in my life.

Another recent thought that came to me about cameras is that they are fairly difficult to misuse. Phones, tablets, computers, and televisions can too easily foster addiction, yet cameras carry no such risk. There is perhaps the indirect risk of gear-acquisition syndrome and clutter, and, in extreme cases, the use of photographic equipment to take inappropriate photos, but it would be hard not to conclude that cameras are indeed wholesome gadgets.

In a related piece, Behind the Curve, I proposed the idea of relative upgrades, the concept of upgrading an older device to something relatively newer but not cutting edge. Unfortunately, such a notion does not apply to cameras as much as I’d hoped. It’d be nice to upgrade to a full-frame camera at some point, but I’ve been less than thrilled with the price of five-plus-year-old used full-frame bodies.

Despite their high price, quality lenses will last many years. Buy a basic digital camera with a 35 mm or 50 mm prime lens, and, with practice, you’ll get better results than any smartphone.

iPhone

As longitudinal tech goes, the smartphone has become indispensable to our lives, and I cannot think of anyone without one. The long-term value proposition of smartphones is sound (my pun for the article), so the question becomes seeing how few dollars you can spend on smartphone ownership.

My strategy has been to pair a used or refurbished phone with a pre-paid plan, which has averaged $20.85/month for over six years now (see How to Minimize Your Phone Bill), excluding device costs. Much as I have tried, there probably aren’t any drastically cheaper options.

I have owned three generations of iPhones: the iPhone 4 (bought in 2010), the iPhone 6 (bought in 2014), and the iPhone XR (bought in 2019). I seem to have reached a fairly stable five-year upgrade cycle, with the only real incentive to buy a newer phone being dropped iOS software support on old hardware. Given my photographic equipment, I’d never upgrade on account of camera improvements. About the only feature I could see myself wanting in a new iPhone would be Emergency SOS via satellite, given how much time I spend outside. Meanwhile, I will continue with my iPhone XR for another few years.

MacBook Pro

As I work in tech, my laptop is my workhorse. I am particular about my computers and thus have always provided my own no-compromises, high-end MacBook Pro rather than using company machines. I have always paid a pretty penny for such high-spec machines, but the longitudinal benefit is correspondingly sizable: on my laptop, I build websites, edit photos, and write these essays. A MacBook Pro has always been my preferred tool for such tasks. I could likely have accomplished such results with cheaper computers; however, I am vulnerable to slick marketing. As superficial as it sounds, when you’re psyched about your computer, you do better work on it, like spending time on creative pursuits rather than battling Windows quirks.

I bought my first MacBook Pro in 2007 (15-inch, dual-core Intel Core 2 Duo, $2000, defective GPU replaced under warranty), my second in 2013 (15-inch, quad-core Intel Core i7, $2603, swollen battery replaced in 2020 for $272), and my third in 2020 (16-inch, eight-core Intel Core i9, $3650 refurbished). I was able to sell the first two MacBook Pros for about a third of their original values after seven years—try doing that with a seven-year-old Windows laptop.

My one complaint about MacBook Pro ownership is poor timing on my part with the transition to Apple silicon. Had I held out one more generation, I could have purchased a fully loaded M1 MacBook Pro, which would far outlive my last-gen Intel machine. The silver lining here is that, given how powerful Apple Silicon is, I could likely get away with a lower-spec machine once I do switch to Apple Silicon. No longer would I need a money-is-no-object device to complete my personal and professional tasks—save those for the video editors.

Miscellaneous

Notably absent from this list of common household gadgets is a television: this is because I don’t own one. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not one of those all TV is bad cynics—I just don’t feel the need for a dedicated TV. My computers are connected to a 27-inch 4K LG Display, purchased in 2016 for $550. It is more than large enough for watching the occasional movie while also providing a decent amount of screen space for coding (if not ultrawide excess). I have tried multiple-4K-monitor setups at work but always go back to using just one in addition to the internal screen on my MacBook Pro. I find this to be the sweet spot for productivity, whereas additional screens get distracting, require more window management, and take up too much desk space. My LG 4K monitor has been flawless for six years and likely has many more to go, doing double duty as a productivity enhancer as well as a TV when I occasionally need to vegetate. It is another clear winner in terms of longitudinal tech.

External monitor offerings haven’t substantially improved in the last six years either: Apple’s 5K and 6K external displays are $1999 and $6299, respectively. Decent 4K monitors (make sure to get an IPS panel) can be found for $350 now, giving you most of the performance at an 80–95% discount (350/1999 or 350/6299) compared to Apple’s egregiously overpriced offerings. Oh, and if you want a stand for your $6k 6K display, that will be an extra $1299. Apple rightfully deserves the flak they got for this folly.

I am now going to break my rule of discussing only time-worn gadgets to mention a promising recent acquisition. A few months ago, I purchased a smart light-bulb at $29 for my bedroom. This Nanoleaf Essentials bulb can display almost any colour of the visible spectrum at any brightness, while being controlled by either the light switch (on or off), or any Apple device (i.e. the bulb can be turned off wirelessly while the power switch is still on).

Despite alluring marketing photos of impeccable, purple-lighted kitchens, the actual benefits of such a smart bulb are more subtle. You can have a bright white light during the day, then dim to a warm, yellow, incandescent-like temperature for reading at night. You can even turn off the light without leaving your bed. Furthermore, you can schedule the light to automatically turn on in the morning—a terrific way to ease into dark fall and winter days. While more advanced HomeKit automation requires a dedicated base station like an Apple TV or HomePod, I bypassed this by making an iPhone Shortcut to turn the light on every morning. If this smart-bulb can outlast a pair of AirPods, we will have another longitudinal tech success. A delightful gadget at a delightful price. (Also, be warned about over-concentrating smart-bulbs. Dozens in close proximity as at a restaurant may cause interference with WiFi/Bluetooth.)


Over the course of a decade, many gadgets will require upgrading due to outdated performance or breakdown. To be, say, an iPhone user for ten years means changing devices one or more times throughout that decade. As with other such gadgets, the long-term experience isn’t so much about buying a single device as it is about buying into a platform, knowing that the lifespan of one particular device will be well less than ten years. It’s somewhat of a pity that upgradable, configurable gadgets like desktop PCs that blur the device-platform divide aren’t more prevalent.

Conceivably, I could devise some kind of metric to quantify the cost of gadget/platform ownership over ten years, but, as I cautioned in the introduction, numbers can be distracting. To a point, specs don’t really matter, despite everyone’s fixation on them. Rather than getting caught up in marketing and specs, instead consider how device ownership over a ten-year period might look.

While it’s the sizzle and smell of barbecuing steak that cause our mouths to water, it is nonetheless the proteins within the steak that nourish and sustain us. Gadgets are tools that, if used wisely, can provide interesting and fun benefits. Taking things to extremes, however—remember people clapping outside Apple stores as the proud new owners of the very first iPhones exited?—perpetuates keeping-up-with-the-Joneses attitudes and similar nonsense. This is usually where I quote Fight Club: “the things you own end up owning you.”

The trend among winning longitudinal tech products in this piece has been generally affordable, long-lasting devices that offer unique benefits. Time thus demonstrates the true value of a given piece of technology. Let’s not lose sight of this when it comes to the hyperbole-laden discussion of premium-priced new gadgets.

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