The Case for Last Year’s Model

So Apple had their product release and it was real cool. Apple Watch — cool. iPhone 6 and 6 Plus? Very cool. Bigger slimmer faster, thumbprint magic, Apple Pay, new motion coprocessor, and now with Focus Pixels. Definitely cool. In typical good form the Onion had a great little time with it.

As I’ve said before, I’m no Apple-hater. I’ve loved all the Macs I’ve ever owned. Apple is just a great case study in a larger trend:

The pushing of fantastic new technology as reasonable and necessary. Even when last year’s tech was already enough. Actually, last year’s tech was already more than most users ever knew what to do with.

LG G3, arguably the current king of the Android world. Among others.

I’m currently on the Android side myself. Last week I handled my friend’s new LG G3. It is a magic-feeling device, like a divine hand-sized tablet from the future. It even has lasers. I’m serious. Predictably I started wanting one immediately.

And then as I lazily started checking prices, I thought Hmm what do I actually intend to do with this thing again?

You may think I’m talking about whether the hardware is adequate for my needs or not. Yeah, that’s one part of my point today:

Smartphones have emerged on somewhat of a commoditization plateau.

This means all the Android flagships out there basically have equivalent performance. Or if not equivalent, you at least can’t tell the difference between them. More importantly, you probably can’t tell the difference in speed between this year’s model versus last year’s. This is probably true in both the Android and iPhone universes.

For some hard facts, compare LG’s G2 and G3, which are the 2013 and 2014 “flagship” models respectively, and were released about 8 months apart from each other. What do you see? The internals are basically the same, with some slight boosts and buffs here and there. But the horsepower hasn’t really changed much. The real differences are in the software — which is easily upgrade on either of them — and on other auxiliaries like fit and finish, ergonomics, screen resolution, and of course, those all-important lasers.

The bottom line there is: unless you’re totally addicted to the latest and fastest technology, last year’s best phone is 90% likely to knock your socks off. If you pay for this year’s phone, you’re likely mostly paying for markup. The other improvements you’re buying will deliver diminishing returns to you.

So that’s one point for today — year-over-year technology improvements likely won’t make much difference to you, unless you’re a total junkie for this stuff. And if you’re a junkie, maybe you’re compensating for something deeper in your life; I don’t know, figure it out.

The other point for today is a little more global. Actually it applies to all consumer goods, not just smartphones.

Otterbox Defender case, perfect for the neurotic hoarder in your life.

When I asked myself Hmm what am I going to do with this hypothetical G3?, what I really meant was … Do I think I’m going to keep it in one of those hyper-protective cases like an Otterbox?

The answer is no. I hate those things. The whole point of buying a slim phone is to enjoy using a slim phone. Why buy a svelte little device, only to wrap a castle around it? I don’t want to carry around a castle in my pocket. If I wanted that, why not just pay less for a larger more rugged device? Am I right?

This creates a certain dissonance though. If I refuse to add a thick protective layer to my phone, it will eventually get worn and damaged, at least in small ways. It will start to look and feel used, regardless of how careful I am with it. Because you touch this thing with your hands all day long, every day. And sometimes hands are dirty. Fact of life.

Bow down to the chamfered edge.

But Apple doesn’t want you to consider this. I mean, no manufacturer really wants you to think about this, but I think Apple is a foremost offender … albeit among a crowd of offenders. Remember Jony Ive’s diamond-cut chamfered edge on the iPhone 5? Watch the video again if you’ve forgotten. It’s fun and engrossing. Jony’s British. He’ll lull you into wanting to buy one again.

But there are only two things that can happen to those gorgeous chamfered edges, once the iPhone rides around in your pocket for a few months:

  1. They get nicked and oiled, lose their uniformity and sheen, or
  2. They get covered immediately by a plastic case, never to be seen again.

In either case, they are of no real benefit to you over the long haul. The main benefit they convey is to Apple themselves, because they motivate you to part with your money and buy the damn thing.

This here is the kernel of the other point. Smartphone industrial design has gotten so sophisticated that you’d think you’re buying a new BMW roadster, or else a piece of fancy Euro living room furniture. Indeed, Apple amps up this feeling to an extreme degree, and the Android contenders are following suit. Look at this G3 commercial. God that’s hot. Now you can finally memorialize the exploding tomatoes in your life. But seriously.

Again, the primary benefit of this slick design is to the vendors, because they alone are the ones that can show off a brand new, pristine device in their stores. This is what gets the units moving into your hands. And once they’re in your hands, they lose that pristine finish. This is the exact same reason that a new car loses value so quickly after you drive it off the lot. A good chunk of what you were paying for is not anything at all except the newness of it.

And also, the depreciation ramp for smartphones is 10x worse than cars. Last year’s G2 had about the same MSRP of this year’s G3 — about $600 unlocked. But the G2 is already about a year old. Today, you can get an excellent-condition used G2 for about $180 on Craigslist, even though it is still awesome for most people that will use it.

That is crazy, people. 70% of the phone’s value dropped off in about 1 year. For a device that is ~90% as good as this year’s model.

My well-worn companion, the now-humble Nexus 4.

To wrap this up, let’s look at where I’m at. I have a little old Google Nexus 4, released almost 2 years ago. It was a powerful, affordable phone when it came out. But even though the tech specs were just barely top of the line in 2012, to this day in late 2014 I have never really done anything with it that stresses the hardware. And my wife knows, I use this thing all.the.time.

So if I were to upgrade, here are the reasons why:

  1. Bigger screen. The Nexus 4 is a fairly good size, but when I use it for long periods it would be nice to get a little more real estate. This is just a quibble though really.
  2. More storage. My Nexus 4 is the 8GB variety, which means I can’t keep much on it in the way of podcasts, music, photos, or saved Pocket articles. This is more than just a quibble.
  3. Better camera. The Nexus 4 camera was never much fun to use. Auto-focus is super slow and unreliable. This produces lame pictures 50% of the time or more. If I had a phone with a better camera, I would take a lot more pictures, and I think I would be thankful to have more of a record of my happy memories in life, and so on. This is probably the #1 reason I might consider upgrading.

Even after all that, it would still take a lot to get me to move on this. I am considering last year’s G2 for that bargain price of $180 … but only lazily.

Why is this?

Because right now I have a good thing going in my relationship with my Nexus 4: it does not own me.

The other day I took a muddy run through the greenbelt to Sculpture Falls. Decided to bring my phone and bluetooth headphones. Enjoyed it. Was able to use the phone to snap a mediocre picture of the falls, and share to Facebook #subtlebrag. To do this, I stuffed my Nexus 4 into the back zipper pocket of my stretchy trail shorts. These became sweaty with the run. And eventually, soaked from jumping in the falls. No problem. I put the Nexus 4 back in the same (damp) pocket for the return jog.

My point is, this phone is by now so well-used that I don’t have any huge concern for its well-being. I am its owner. It is not my owner. I rather like this arrangement. You should too.

When electronics producers convince you to buy consumer goods because they appear to be works of art, you end up losing. You pay a huge premium* for the new pristine state of that device, but you don’t get to enjoy it. It loses the sheen and the sparkle after a few weeks or months. In the meantime, depending on your temperament, you might fuss and worry over protecting your new toy. Until you accept the aging of your device, you are not its true owner.

Or to put it more simply: the great joy of owning things is not in having them, but in using them. So buy a device that you’ll be happy to use. Not one that’s impressive to look at.


*Addendum: some of you will succeed regularly in acquiring the latest and greatest devices without paying a premium, using clever combinations of trade-in values, switching carriers, contract pricing, and so on. To you I say, kudos. You have dodged the cruel blade of the mouse trap, and still get to enjoy the finest of artisan cheese. Or at very least, you have convinced yourself that you’ve dodged the blade, by amortizing the expense of it, and so on. So my blanket pronouncement doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone.
But I still privately think you’re a sucker. Because no matter what kind of deal you got, last year’s generation would still be cheaper, and would still be wowzers.
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