How To Get Off The Upgrade Treadmill And Stop Wasting Money On New Tech

How To Get Off The Upgrade Treadmill And Stop Wasting Money On New Tech

Every year, hardware manufacturers release new iterations of their products. From Apple to Samsung to Nintendo, the upgrade treadmill never ends. So why do we feel the need to buy into it every year? We’ll show you why you get stuck on the upgrade treadmill and how to be happy with what you have.

Title image remixed from Diamond_Images (Shutterstock).

At Amazon’s recent press conference for the new Kindle Fire, CEO Jeff Bezos calls the phenomenon of constant new gadgets the “upgrade treadmill”:

We don’t need you to be on the upgrade treadmill. If we made our money when people bought the device, we’d be rolling out programs left and right to try to get you to upgrade. In fact, we’re happy that people are still using Kindle Ones that are five years old. They’re still reading on them, and every time they buy a book, that’s good for us. That’s alignment.

For Amazon, hardware doesn’t really matter, because it makes its money from content. But Bezos’s point still remains: that upgrade treadmill is something most of us are caught on. It’s not just tablets, it’s game systems, phones, TVs and appliances. When a new gadget comes, most of us turn into a precious-obsessed Gollum. Why do we do this? And how can we get off the treadmill and enjoy what we already own?

Why We Feel the Need to Upgrade


Regardless of how much willpower we have, most of us think at least briefly about getting the upgrade. According to financial weblog The Simple Dollar, this is partially because of the primacy and recency effect:

The primacy effect means that people tend to remember the first information presented about something better than information presented later.

For example, let’s say that your first awareness of a product was during a segment on a morning show, where they lauded how well the product worked. If you were paying attention, that information is more likely to stick in your head (“this product is good and does the job well”) than information you find out later on about the product.

However, there is something that trumps the primacy effect: the recency effect means that people tend to remember the most recent information presented about a product above all else.

What the Simple Dollar is saying is that we overvalue the new because it’s the last thing presented to us. We tend to forget the old information (that the old product is also great) and supplement it with the new (that the new product is “more great”). We also want new things because the brain likes getting the rush. Psychology Today explains how:

First, a quick neuroscience lesson: The brain balances the desire for shiny new things with their cost. Observing something to buy activates the brain’s “wanting system” that makes getting things feel good. But, the Rolling Stones reminded us that we can’t always get what we want. The brain reacts to prices by activating brain regions that make us feel pain. The information from the wanting and pain systems are relayed to the prefrontal cortex where a cost-benefit calculation is made to determine if you should buy that new pair of Valentino slide sandals for $US675 or keep your cash for some other use.

In a way, the cost-benefit calculation is supposed to keep your brain in check so you don’t make an unnecessary purchase. However, with the upgrade treadmill, and the hype that inevitably surrounds a new product, it’s really easy to get caught up in it and make a quick decision without thinking it through. Photo by David Fulmer.

Why Not Upgrade?


Holding that new shiny piece of equipment in your hand is a gadget geeks heaven, but it’s a fleeting feeling. After a week, you might have even stopped using the protective case, quit dusting it everyday, and barely even notice all the fingerprints on it.

Nowadays, the bulk of upgrades are incremental. While sometimes an upgrade will really change the course of a device, more often it’s a tiny sliver of a change that’s only exciting because the manufacturer tells us it’s exciting. The bulk of our technology hasn’t changed that much in the last few years — a four year old HDTV is thick, but has the same amount of pixels as a new one, an iPhone 4 is still a fantastic phone capable of running the same apps the new iPhone 5 can.

In most cases (not all, of course), an upgrade is a luxury, but not a requirement. More often than not, what you have will do the trick. Photo by Collin Anderson.

Make the Most of What You Have

Just because a company releases a new product doesn’t mean your old stuff is outdated. In fact, as we’ve shown time and time again, you can get most new features on the devices you already have by using already available software. Sure, your hardware might not be new, but your old stuff can perform nearly all the same functions a new one can.

For instance, a cheap camera can get an upgrade with a little hacking. Even your computer is easy to upgrade if you know which upgrades really matter. If your laptop is just sluggish, an extreme makeover takes no time at all. Photo by Mark Skipper.

Compare and Contrast What You Already Have with What You Want


It sounds simple, but a quick comparison chart between what you already own and what you want is a really easy way to get rid of the recency effect.

Before you start your comparison chart, take a look at the device you’re currently using. Ask yourself how you use it. I’ll give you the example of me and my iPad: 90 per cent of my time with my iPad is spent reading Kindle books. Should I upgrade to another iPad? Probably not, since it isn’t going to read those Kindle books any better than my current one (if anything, it’d make more sense to “downgrade” to a Kindle — but that would still cost money). How you think you’ll use a product when you first purchase it is often radically different than how you actually use it when it’s in your hands. Before blindly upgrading, ask yourself, “Have my needs changed? Does this upgrade fill that hole?”

When you’re really on the fence about an upgrade, or just need to talk yourself out of one, start writing a list. In one column, write what you don’t like about your old device. In the next column, write down what the upgrade has fixed. More often than not you’ll realise it’s not really worth it.

Of course, that’s not always the case. For instance, upgrading appliances can often save you money in the long term. Other times, minor upgrades, such as a significantly better battery life or screen, are enough to justify an upgrade for you personally. The point is that you think critically about upgrading as opposed to just doing it because you can. Photo by Zhao !.

Break Your Brand Loyalty and Decide What You Really Need


We’ve talked about brand loyalty before, and it’s an important factor to consider anytime you’re thinking about upgrading. More often than not, the first inclination to upgrade is all about the recency effect. A company you tend to like has a new product, you need said product. Part of the upgrade treadmill is getting locked into brand loyalty, blindly upgrading and refusing to look for other options. But do you really need their product? Or will another do?

Take Apple, for example. The reason it keeps its iPhones and iPads locked to iTunes isn’t just about controlling the product — it’s about controlling the infrastructure. To walk away from an iPhone, you have to abandon everything you’ve already invested in it. This makes an upgrade to another one of Apple’s devices feel like the logical solution.

Or at least that’s how it seems. With the exception of apps, walking away from Apple (or Android, or anything else) is made to seem complicated. But it’s often not as bad as we think. Provided you’re using third-party services that sync to the cloud, you can almost always migrate your data easily. Even switching from an iPhone to an Android isn’t that bad (or vice versa). Photo by Mike Lau.

The upgrade treadmill isn’t always a bad thing. Some devices and gadgets get major upgrades that appeal to you directly. Others are less interesting. The point is to stop and really think about what you need. Just because hardware manufacturers are on a schedule for upgrades doesn’t mean their upgrades are worth making. If your gear is still working for you, don’t let a company tell you when it’s time to upgrade.


  • “To walk away from an iPhone, you have to abandon everything you’ve already invested in it.”
    It amazes me how many iTunes users believe that they will not be able to use the music they bought outside the Apple ecosystem. If I was marketing competing products, I would give a lot of prominence to the fact that all your iTunes music will play on any device.

    I’ve never understood brand loyalty. Yes, I can understand that you can invest a lot of time and effort into learning a specific OS or whatever but, beyond that, I’ll always assess every product that I think might suit my needs.

    As for the upgrade treadmill, I’ve always been much more aware of it with software. I’m currently using a 4 year old version of 3DS Max which I reckon will probably work for me until I can no longer install it on a newer OS/PC. In fact, I reckon I could probably do 99% of the things I do effectively with a decade old version if I had to. I’m also still on Adobe CS4 and see no compelling reason to upgrade.

    I upgrade my PC very regularly, about every year lately, because I use it to earn about half my living. With my phone, I generally just work on my two year contract cycle. Other gadgets – kindle, music player, etc – usually don’t get replaced until they stop working.

        • I’m sure he was not being literal there, but i have spent a lot on apps, and have a lot of data invested in iOS apps, which makes the switch hard. I am either going Lumia, SGS3 or I may just keep the iPhone 4 for another 2 years but ill have to jailbrake it which I’m uneasy about doing (mainly due to lack of “this is what you lose/break when you jailbrake” documentation)

          • You don’t loose anything when you jailbreak…

            The only thing that is slightly annoying is you can’t do OTA upgrades, they’ll cause a reboot loop, but that’s the same as rooting a stock ROM on android.
            Your comment is awaiting moderation.

  • i just laughed when i seen the iPhone prices and was so pleased i will never be one of those people buying into all the hoo haa about iPhones.
    i see many more years of service coming from my Desire.

  • Want to break out from the upgrade treadmill? Stop reading lifehacker, or skip over the tech stories. Every time you read about the new and great X, your desire for X or something similar is stimulated. I have to keep reminding myself that in fact I don’t need a new smartphone, since there is nothing I need or really even want to do on a smartphone that my several iterations out of date phone does not do already.

  • One thing i have to disagree with is putting game systems in among the others as an upgrade. Most game systems arn’t upgrades like an iphone 4 to iphone 5 is different then a DS to a 3DS you are required to get the new device to play the new game all consoles are like this and with PC’s they tend to have the life expectancy of 2-3years max if you game or do any high end processing on them as graphics are just changing so drastically atm.

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