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Do Americans still long for the latest tech devices? According to recent research, our desire for new gadgets may be dwindling.
Americans are holding onto their smartphones for longer periods, becoming less likely to purchase more recent iterations. Simultaneously, fewer people are buying computers, and tablet sales have softened. Has the public grown tired of frequent upgrades, preferring to prolong the life of their current devices?
We set out to find out, surveying 1,018 individuals about how long they've held onto various devices. We analyzed their reasons for resisting or embracing upgrades and studied the value they derive from their current models. How do your tech upgrade tendencies compare to the attitudes of the average American? Read on to learn how long people plan to keep their current devices and what might cause them to upgrade instead.
Rates of Replacement
Most respondents hoped to use their gadgets for quite a while before getting a newer model, planning to upgrade after three years, on average. Yet, expectations varied widely by device, with users holding on to certain types of tech for much longer periods.
Laptops, for example, enjoyed distinct longevity, with respondents hoping to keep them for an average of nearly five years. Video game consoles were similarly durable: Their owners typically wished to keep them for over four years. This replacement cadence reflects gaming industry patterns. Manufacturers typically release new consoles in distinct "generations" several years after their previous iterations.
Conversely, respondents replaced smartwatches and wireless headphones more regularly, with nearly a third of owners reporting they upgraded annually. Upgrading often may be more affordable in these categories: Many recently released Bluetooth headphones, for example, cost less than $100.
In the smartphone category, however, just 14% of respondents reported upgrading every year. This trend has hurt sales figures from the likes of Apple and Samsung, which roll out new versions of their flagship phones annually. But more than a quarter of respondents said they were enrolled in smartphone upgrade plans, with Apple's iPhone upgrade program being the most popular. It seems the option to upgrade remains attractive to smart phone users even if they choose to stick with their current devices.
Expense vs. Endurance
We studied how much Americans paid for each device and how long they planned to use it, reaching a calculation of annual cost over the life of each gadget. Seen in this light, smartphones were the most expensive device, by far, costing an average of $684 for just three years of use. In recent years, smartphone prices have edged ever higher, as manufacturers introduce new and costly features. Even other powerful devices, such as laptops and tablets, offered better value on a yearly basis.
To be fair, however, certain age groups stretched the value of their smartphones much further. While baby boomers enjoy their devices nearly as much as younger Americans, they managed to have significantly lower annual smartphone costs. By contrast, millennials incurred the highest cost for each year of smartphone use, spending $238 annually on average. For a generation notoriously strapped for cash, that's an eye-catching expense.
Additionally, annual costs differed greatly by manufacturer. Apple devotees spent much more than Android users, forking $281 for each year of use, on average. Of course, Apple proponents argue that the cost of new iPhones reflects their versatility: When a device offers so many features, they claim, its price tag naturally rises.
Which issues would justify upgrading a device, as opposed to paying for a repair or making due? Battery life seemed to be a crucial consideration: Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they would opt for a newer model if their current device could not hold a charge, while 47% said they'd replace a device with a broken charging port. Although certain charging techniques can extend the life of a device's battery, most gadgets eventually degrade in this regard. iPhones, for example, typically offer 400 to 500 charge cycles.
Interestingly, significant physical damage didn't necessarily prompt an upgrade: Just 41% said they'd get a new device due to a cracked screen or broken camera. Furthermore, only 1 in 10 respondents said they'd upgrade due to a scratch on a gadget's housing.
This reluctance to upgrade could reflect a preference to repair devices instead. On average, Apple customers were willing to pay a maximum of $131 on repairs before buying a new device, while Android users would spend $98. Naturally, repairs were most attractive to those who purchased devices at high prices. Owners of the iPhone 11, for example, would pay an average of $141 for repairs.
The subject of fixing gadgets can be controversial, however, with some objecting to manufacturers' attempts to streamline the repair process. Many companies, for example, refuse to sell parts to independent repair shops or void warranties if repairs are performed by unauthorized establishments.
Among our respondents, most valued the right to take charge of device repairs. Eighty-six percent felt they should be allowed to perform their own repairs, and 92% said they should be allowed to choose any repair service they desire. Similarly, around a third felt manufacturers should be able to turn away customers who had gotten repairs from another repair service.
State of Smartphones
Most respondents reported their current smartphones were in good or excellent condition, even when they'd had them for years. In fact, among users whose smartphones were 4 or more years old, just 5% said they were in poor condition. Given that drops damage roughly 95 million smartphones annually, we can assume that most respondents repair serious damage to their phones promptly – or adjust their definition of "good" condition to include a few cracks.
Interestingly, respondents were quite divided in terms of their approach to upgrading decisions. Among millennials, Gen Xers, and baby boomers, a slim majority felt getting value from their current gadget was more important than the perks a new device might offer. Among Gen Zers, however, the opposite dynamic emerged. Perhaps for an age group defined by its reliance on smartphones, new features do represent irresistible value.
One forthcoming advance might persuade more customers: Most respondents said they were at least somewhat likely to upgrade to enjoy 5G, a new and improved standard for wireless networks. Interestingly, AT&T customers were the least likely to upgrade for this reason. The company has already rolled out its own "5G E" system, although some critics believe the name intentionally overstates the network's speeds.
Price vs. Projected Life
Within each device category, price points can vary considerably. Do people who spend more on a given device expect to keep them for longer periods, seeing their larger investment as a smart, long-term move?
For certain gadgets, this was clearly the case: With smartwatches and wireless headphones, people who spent more expected to upgrade less often. Prices can differ substantially in these categories, tempering expectations of longevity. While Americans have warmed to inexpensive smartwatches, for example, they may not expect them to last as long as a more expensive smartwatch would.
In other tech categories, however, the opposite phenomenon was evident. Among laptop, tablet, and smartphone owners, people who spent the most money on their devices also planned to replace them most quickly. These findings could reflect the mindset of a specific subset of shoppers. People who are drawn to expensive devices – and have the means to buy them – may be the most eager to ditch those very gadgets for newer versions.
The holiday season prompts plenty of spending, and tech is one of the most robust gift categories. Among our respondents, however, 57% said they did not plan to make any big tech purchases.
Nineteen percent did say they planned to buy a new smartphone, although certain manufacturers would certainly like that number to be higher. Some experts project that users will resist the iPhone and other top smartphones this holiday season, waiting for the arrival of 5G versions soon. Additionally, 14% of respondents planned to purchase a laptop, despite recent data suggesting that PC sales are declining worldwide.
Some compelling differences emerged between generations, however. Baby boomers, for example, were the age group least inclined to buy most tech devices but most likely to have their eyes on a new tablet. By contrast, millennials had a particular affection for smartwatches relative to other generations: Some research indicates that this age group is especially predisposed to wearable tech.
Quality Over Novelty
Our findings suggest that most Americans are strategic in evaluating tech upgrades, making practical decisions about buying something new or making do with their current model. And though a considerable minority upgrade their gadgets annually, a majority seek to maintain their devices for multiple years. Even when a device's performance suffers, repairs are often the preferred option.
This dynamic may ultimately benefit people, forcing tech companies to pursue real innovation. Shoppers won't be moved simply by a device's novelty: They'll upgrade when a new gadget's advantages are too great to ignore. And if customers want tech to endure for years to come, they'll seek devices of serious underlying quality, not to be distracted by a few bells and whistles.
For those who have been holding on to their PC for a while, it might be time to consider an upgrade. On January 14, 2020, Microsoft will end support for its Windows 7 operating system, forcing many users to upgrade to Windows 10. Unfortunately, some older devices won't meet the technical specifications required to run the newer operating system. Even if aging machines are up to the challenge, a new Windows 10 license will need to be purchased – something that comes standard on any new computer.
At Office Depot, we're here to assist discerning shoppers to find the devices they need. Whether you're looking for the latest model or simply the greatest deal, we've got you covered with products and services. Change might be tough, but our services can help make it simpler. With our experienced technicians you can say goodbye to your old computer and say hello to your new one. Secure data transfer for important files. Turn on your new computer and your accounts are set up. Explore our selection and services today, and take a savvy approach to tech shopping.
On November 11, 2019, we surveyed 1,018 people who currently owned a smartphone device. Respondents were then asked questions about their perceptions and experiences with upgrading different personal electronics.
Fifty-one percent of our respondents identified as male, 48% identified as female, and less than 1% identified as a gender not listed on our survey. Respondents ranged in age from 18 to 82 with a mean of 34 and a standard deviation of 12.4.
Twenty-one percent of our respondents identified as Generation Z, 47% as Millennials, 24% as Generation X, 8% as Baby Boomers, and less than 1% as another generation.
Results were based on self report and are subject to selective memory or exaggeration. No statistical testing was performed and as such, the results are based on means alone.
It is possible that with a greater sample of respondents from each generation, we could have gained additional insight into these populations.
Fair Use Statement
Know someone who's been holding onto an aging device? This project might encourage them to upgrade. If you do decide to share this project, we have two simple requests. First, please use this content exclusively for noncommercial purposes. Second, please link back to this page whenever you share this project so that others can access all our research.