Your electronics buying guide


My MP3 player died recently. It died a valiant death after a good seven years of use. Actually, it was closer to a decade, since I bought it used. And while I was sad, I can’t say that I didn’t get my money’s worth out of it. It was time to move on.

Rest in peace, oh mighty music player.
Rest in peace, oh mighty music player.

You are cooler than your gadget

I believe that we replace our electronics far too often. Computer running slow? Don’t get it fixed, just buy a new one. MP3 player looks not as sexy looking as what’s being advertised these days? Well, time to throw it in the drawer with the others. Your TV doesn’t have access to your $20/month Netflix account, so clearly it’s worth spending $1000 on a new TV. And let’s not even talk about cell phones.

Don’t get me wrong, I really like gadgets. I went to CES one year, and had a ball looking at crazy things like $3,000/ft speaker cable. But I feel like something happened to technology at some point, maybe around the dot-com boom. It became more about how it looked than what it could do. Tech started to become about fashion and marketing. No one bought an IBM PC because they wanted to look and feel cool. But I can think of quite a lot of people who recently decided to buy a Mac because they felt they were “artists”, and since “that’s just what artists use,” it was important for them to look the part. Now there’s some great marketing for you.

With portable electronics, it’s even worse, since they have become effectively a fashion accessory. The gadget in your pocket “says” something about you, much in the same way that your car “says” something about you. (Or do they?) And this causes people to buy technology not because of how well they work, but because of how they look, and how they feel when they are holding it.

It should be obvious, but if we’re not careful, we can blow a ton of money trying to look cool with your electronics. You may think this is much ado about nothing, but there’s a important warning here that goes beyond technology. If you buy new things because the old thing you have doesn’t look as nice as it used to, you will come to believe that spending money will be the answer to how you feel about yourself. If you chase after what looks cool today, you will only look uncool tomorrow. When cool causes you to spend money, you are playing into the hands of the consumerist system. They want you to feel cool, so you’ll buy more. As a bonus, you are playing into a system that wastes natural resources, and makes you dependent on others for your self-worth. Don’t do this!

(Factoid: If you bought a new iPod every three years since they came out, you would have spent somewhere in the ballpark of $1,000 by now.)

How to maximize your enjoyment of gadgets

So here are some suggestions on how to handle technology purchases, with the goal of getting the most of your money, and standing up to the marketers and their psychological traps.

  • Buy used. There is almost nothing that just came out that’s anything more than a revision of something that’s already been released. Let other people spend the money on the new shiny toy. When it’s no longer the cool thing to have, you can get it for pennies on the dollar. And it will still work just as well. And because it’s not on the cutting edge, and will likely be already out of style, you won’t need to worry about it going out of style, because it already happened.
  • Be a late adopter. This is related to the above, but slightly different. Wait to purchase technology until you are sure that the market is relatively mature. Ask anyone who purchased an HD-DVD player (or, if you’re older, a Betamax) if you need convincing. The last thing you want is to have a gadget where even its own company has disowned it.
  • Fix it when it breaks. Tech breaks, and older tech breaks more often. But too often, it’s easy to rationalize the purchase of the newer and shinier when something you have breaks. And while companies are trying really hard to prevent you from doing this, there are still ways you can squeeze more life of your device. If your gadget doesn’t hold a charge anymore, then buy a new battery on Ebay. Find a friend to put it in for you if you don’t want to do it yourself. A dead battery doesn’t mean a dead device. That’s just what they want you to think.
  • Keep it until it dies. There will come a point where it just won’t turn on anymore. When that happens, give it a eulogy for a job well done, and go get something else.

Now, don’t get me wrong, if you want to buy the latest most-expensive and coolest looking gadget, I won’t be mad. Sometimes it actually is worth it. But please ask yourself about your motivations for your purchase. Is it just an updated version of something you already have that still works? And can you really afford it? Only you can decide for yourself what the right move is.

I recently got my new MP3 player in the mail.  It runs Rockbox, an alternative operating system that extends the functionality of the original device. Its manufacture date was 2008, so it was over four years old by the time I got it. And it cost me less than $40. I love it.

So cool, it's on fire.
So uncool, it’s on fire.

But enough about me. Have you ever bought any tech because of how it made you look (or feel)?


  1. Dan Erickson

    Cool, it looks a lot like an iPod classic, but costs waaaaay less.

    • Mike

      Hi Dan. Thanks for stopping by! It’s actually even smaller than that, closer to the 3rd gen iPod Nano. I’m sure I could have found one of those in the same price range, but I wanted to run Rockbox, and Apple is well-known for locking down their hardware, so I stayed away.

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