Doing A Cost Benefit Analysis On Computers and Post-PC Devices

tablets-ipad-kindle-samsung-nexusWorking with computers has become a staple of modern life. Over the past two decades, they have simply become more and more pervasive, to the point now where we carry them around in our pockets in the form of smartphones. There’s no getting around them, but at the same time, they do offer incredible benefits in terms of productivity and efficiency. Used correctly, computers and mobile devices can help us achieve more out of every day than what we otherwise would.

However, with the advent of mobile devices in particular, the big tech giants in Silicon Valley have relentlessly pursued faster update cycles. Tablets and smartphones seem to be on 1-2 year lifecycles these days. This may not be such a bad thing if they weren’t so expensive, particularly in the case of the iPhone and iPad, with the latter approaching, and in some cases exceeding, the cost of a decent Windows laptop.

The tech giants may want us to keep upgrading each time they release a device, but does that mean that you have to? Does a 1-2 year old device become obsolete when the next generation is unveiled? It comes down to doing a cost benefit analysis on the devices you want to use and what you think is good value. And at the end of the day, a lot of these devices are still actually very useful beyond the time that they can no longer accept software and operating system updates.

Before looking at mobile devices, I thought I might talk about my iMac as a comparison. I bought it back in 2008 for around $2,500. This was more expensive than the Windows computers I had in the past, but then, I figured that given the durability and reliability of Macs, that initial upfront cost might be more cost effective over the long term. And it’s turned out to be right. The iMac is still working as well as the day I bought it over five years later. So far it’s cost me less than $500 a year to have it, and I don’t envisage replacing it for several more years. If I’m lucky to get to 10 years with this machine, it would have only cost me around $250 a year. Of course, it’s more than that when you factor in software upgrades, but still, you would do that with a Windows machine as well. But even factoring in a cost of $500 a year, this was great value to me. I may have been able to get an equivalent Windows desktop machine in 2008 for $1,500 but given my two decade long experience with Windows machines up until that point, it would have only lasted me around 2 years before I would have had to spend more money on serious upgrades, or even repairs. It also would have offered a less cohesive and responsive experience, especially after the first year of use. And as for the iMac, I could run Windows on it as well, which means I had two computers in one. It was a bargain all round, especially considering the iMac has now gone through four big operating system upgrades without any hiccups.

My Macbook Pro also serves as a good example of how this type of cost-benefit analysis can work. I bought this machine in 2011 for around $1,800. Now, that’s a lot of money for a laptop, especially when an equivalent Windows laptop would cost around $1,000 – $1,200. However, my experience with Windows laptops has meant that I could only get 2 years at most out of it before it broke down in some serious way (my last HP laptop got 2+ years before the screen unexpectedly died and it cost $1,300). Now it’s still early days but the MacBook Pro is purring along just nicely more than 2 years later, and I figure that even if I get 5 years out of it, it will only cost me $300 a year to have. And I can run Windows on it which means I can have 2 computers in one, with a superior hardware experience.

So what’s my point here? I figure if a computer costs me somewhere around $300-$500 a year to have, it’s a good deal. In the end I’ve switched to Macs because they provide an all round better experience for the same or similar cost to a Windows PC. That’s not to say I don’t like the Windows environment; I actually still use it every day on my Mac and find it crucial for several key tasks, but the hardware from the PC world just doesn’t compare.

Let’s move on to mobile devices. For me, smartphones are the critical mobile device in the line-up. At the end of the day, most of us need a phone, and if you combine that with a powerful mobile computer, then you have an important device that you can carry around with you at all times that can help you achieve many important tasks. Now given how much they can be used, you can forgive the tech giants (maybe) for pushing us in to a 2 year lifecycle with these devices. However, since I can give an old smartphone to someone else (usually a family member) to use for a few years, then I know that I can get at least four years out of these devices. I’ve done this with my iPhone 4; after my two year contract was up, I passed it on and when my iPhone 5 contract is up in two years’ time, I’ll hand that on (and so on). I still believe I’ll be able to use these old devices even after that. The iPhone 4 could be used as a decent iPod and Apple TV remote when it outlives its usefulness as a phone. In this respect, I don’t think I have a problem with the lifecycle of this product. And since the cost of the phone is subsidised by the carrier, I figure it will only cost me about $100-$200 over a 5-6 year period (minus the carrier contract fee which you would pay anyway); not too bad I think.

Tablets, and iPads in particular, are another story. Although tablets can be useful, you don’t really need one, at least not yet. Steve and I discussed this in one of our previous episodes, 143: Reflections on Podcasting, that although we are on the cusp of being in a Post-PC world, we are still not at the stage where tablets will completely replace PCs. Until they do, they are a companion device. And I know with my iPad, that’s exactly how it functions for me. From a productivity standpoint, it enhances my experience, but it doesn’t replace it. And of course, it’s an excellent consumption device and excels in areas where the small smartphone screen can’t compare, particularly in reading, and watching and sharing photos and videos.

Now, my third generation iPad cost me around $800 for the 64GB model in early 2012. Using the smartphone cost-benefit analysis, I figured I should be able to use this device for around 5-6 years before getting a new version. However, Apple would have us update this thing every 12-24 months, especially in the case of software. The hardware may last longer, but operating system upgrades tend to cripple or severely slow down these device after 2-3 years (just ask anyone with an iPhone 4 or iPad 2 who upgraded to iOS 7).

I don’t envisage my third generation iPad making it to iOS 8 (at least not smoothly), and perhaps it doesn’t need to. As long as it can perform all the tasks I need it to do, then it will still be useful to me long after it can’t accept operating system upgrades. I guess I could do the hand-me-down option that I do with my iPhones, but given it’s still not a critical, must-have-the-latest-generation device yet, I don’t see the point, especially when I know I could probably just use it myself for several more years. And maybe it’s just the principal of the thing; I didn’t buy an iPad so it could last for two years. I bought it to last for at least five.

I haven’t spoken about Windows or Android tablets because I don’t own any, nor have I used them extensively. However, the same theory should still apply. Decent tablets running these systems are expensive. Microsoft Surface devices aim to be a tablet/PC hybrid meaning they cost more, while Samsung’s Galaxy tablets are still expensive, if not as expensive as Apple’s iPads. I’m naming these in particular because they are comparable devices to the iPad in terms of functionality and performance. There’s a lot to admire in all of these devices, but at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself how much money you are willing to spend on them and how much value you get out of them in day to day to use. And you have to make sure you don’t drink the Kool-Aid being offered by all these tech giants that you have to keep upgrading the hardware every year or two. As a side bar, it’s not worth mentioning cheaper tablets or task-specific tablets like the Amazon Kindle Fire here given they don’t offer the same experience, although the Kindle Fire looks intriguing for content consumption.

Computers and mobile devices are fantastic. They are useful and fun, enhancing many everyday tasks and allowing us to achieve more out of every day when used properly. Just make sure though that you do a cost-benefit analysis when purchasing them. You may find you can get a lot more use out of your computers and mobile devices for a longer period than you might realise.

Watch FiST Chat 145: Lifecycles of Post-PC Devices for more on this topic.

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