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The principles of buying tech that lasts, according to an expert

You should buy gadgets and tech devices less frequently, argues technology writer Whitson Gordon. Here’s how.
When buying new tech, factor in upgrades, repairs, upgraded specs and long-term software updates.
When buying new tech, factor in upgrades, repairs, upgraded specs and long-term software updates.TheRabbitHolePictures / Getty Images

Buying eco-friendly tech is about more than seeking out recycled or renewable materials, low power consumption and sustainability promises. One of the best ways to lessen your impact on the environment is to keep your gadgets longer so new ones don’t have to be manufactured at such a quick-fire rate — in other words, it’s better for the planet when you buy new tech less frequently. Reducing and reusing is the most important part of the aspirational circular economy.

For the past decade, I’ve been reviewing electronics for a living — and writing guides on how to make the most of them — at sites like Lifehacker, NBC News, PCMag, and iFixit (who rate electronics based on longevity and repairability, among other factors). In that time, there are a few principles I’ve picked up that might help guide your next tech purchase and keep your gadgets lasting as long as possible.

In this article

  1. Buy tech with upgraded or lasting specs
  2. Factor in upgrades and repairs
  3. Plan for long-term software updates
  4. Buy tech with physical durability

Buy tech with specs for the future, not just for now

As a bit of a cheapskate, I understand the allure of low-cost tech. A $200 Windows laptop may seem enticing, but what feels “just a little slow” now is going to feel unbearably slow much sooner than a well-specced model will. If you aim to save money, buy a refurbished model with higher specs — especially for devices you can’t upgrade like phones, tablets and increasingly thin laptops.

Apple iPad Air 256GB

The iPad is still the best tablet you can buy, and the midrange iPad Air will provide enough processing power to last you a good, long while. The base model only comes with 64GB, however, which is a little low these days. Between movies, music, games and other storage-hungry stuff, I recommend stepping up to 256GB — that’s enough to ensure you won’t be short on space anytime soon. Also consider a similar and refurbished iPad Air model.

That said, it’s also wise to keep from overbuying for specs you won’t really use. An iPad Pro, for example, is probably overkill if you’re just using it for eBooks (or audiobooks) — but give yourself enough wiggle room to stave off upgrade-itis later on.

Factor in tech upgrades and repairs

Whenever possible, I recommend buying a product that you can upgrade down the line. Laptops are a prime case: Thinner, lighter models often sacrifice the ability to upgrade RAM and, in some cases, storage. That means you’ll be stuck buying a new machine later on when all you’ll really need is a $50 memory upgrade. You sacrifice a bit in portability, but if long-lasting tech is your primary concern, that may be a sacrifice you have to make.

Lenovo ThinkPad T490

ThinkPads may not be the sexiest laptops around, but don’t discount them as boring business machines. Not only do they have incredibly well-built trackpads and keyboards, but the T series is extremely repairable: With a simple screwdriver, you can: replace an aging battery, upgrade the RAM and hard drive or even replace the entire keyboard.

You’ll also want to take the availability of replacement parts into account. Buying from a known brand like Dell, Lenovo or HP is usually a good bet for this reason since they’re popular. You can often buy spare parts by calling the manufacturer or finding a reputable third-party seller.

Plan for long-term software updates

Longevity isn’t just about the physical components. Keeping your software up to date is also important since it keeps your system secure, not to mention it keeps your system compatible with the latest apps. This usually isn’t so much a problem on laptops — phones are another story.

Apple iPhone 11

Apple is great about keeping old phones updated — you can still use the current iOS 13 on the almost-five-year-old iPhone 6s, for example. Couple that with screens and batteries that are relatively easy to replace and you’ve got a phone that’ll last a good long while, if you let it. Also consider this similar and refurbished iPhone 11.

Google Pixel 4

Most Android phones don’t get software updates for as long as iPhones do, but if you prefer Google’s ecosystem of software and apps — like I do — the Pixel line is a great bet, since it gets quick updates straight from Google. The original Pixel got those updates for about three years, which is pretty solid for a phone. Also consider this similar and refurbished Google Pixel 4 Smartphone.

Buy new tech with an eye toward physical durability

Finally, buy products that won’t fall apart on you. You don’t have to buy the most ruggedized tech meant for hardcore job sites, of course. The ThinkPad above is a great example of a product that’s designed to take everyday beatings while maintaining decent portability. Moving parts, like the hinge on a laptop, are prime failure points. You want to make sure they feel sturdy enough to last before you buy.

Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Headphones

The ATH-M50x is well-loved for a reason: It sounds great, it’s affordable and it’s very well-built, especially for the price. Its moving parts swivel smoothly, for example, without creaking or feeling flimsy. And unlike wireless headphones, they don’t have a battery that will degrade over time.

When gadgets just aren’t designed to be extra durable — like a lot of modern smartphones — invest in a good case and screen protector to keep them safe. It’s a lot cheaper than having to replace the screen after a fall.

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