Choosing to Skip the Upgrade and Care for the Gadget You’ve Got

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Lucille Barrett
Lucille Barrett
Future teen idol. Hardcore tv lover. Social media guru. Zombie aficionado. Travel scholar. Biker, shiba-inu lover, audiophile, Mad Men fan and proud pixelpusher. Working at the junction of minimalism and elegance to answer design problems with honest solutions. I'm fueled by craft beer, hip-hop and tortilla chips.

Vincent Lai was working at a recycling facility in New York and sorting through a bin of used cell phones a few years ago when he dug up a Palm Treo, a discontinued smartphone last decade.

Mr. Lai, 49, tested the Treo and found it still worked. So he took the device home and made it his everyday mobile companion, much as one would adopt an abandoned animal on its way to being euthanized.


“That’s how I think about a lot of my tech stuff: candidates for 11th-hour pet rescue,” said Mr. Lai, adding that he was fired from the recycling facility in 2010 after continuing to take home unwanted gadgets, against the wishes of his boss. Now he works for the Fixers Collective, a social club in New York that repairs aging devices to extend their lives.

Many tech companies are trying to train people to constantly upgrade their gadgets — part ways with a device, the argument goes, as soon as something newer and faster comes along. Companies like Apple, AT&T, and T-Mobile USA now offer early upgrade plans that allow consumers to buy a new cellphone every year. Philip W. Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president for worldwide marketing, said at a product event last month that it was “regrettable” that more than 600 million computers in use today are more than five years old.

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Mr. Lai’s behavior might be extreme, but his experience with the Palm Treo illustrates there is another way: If you simply put some maintenance into electronics as you would a car, you can stay happy with your gadgets for years.

It is part of a movement of anti-consumerism or the notion of cherishing what you have rather than incessantly buying new stuff. This philosophy’s signs are spreading: Industry data suggests that consumers are waiting longer to upgrade to new phones than they have in the past.

So in observation of Earth Day on Friday, Mr. Lai and Kyle Wiens, the chief executive of iFixit, a company that provides instruction manuals and components for repairing devices, offered their advice on getting the most mileage out of a smartphone, tablet, and computer.

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Mobile Device Maintenance

When smartphones and tablets were fairly sluggish and limited in abilities compared with computers, there was a compelling reason to buy a new mobile device every few years. But now the mobile gadgets have become so fast and capable that you can easily keep them much longer.

“A five-year-old computer is still excellent now,” Mr. Wiens said. “We’re starting to hit that same plateau with phones now.”

Maintaining smartphones and tablets is fairly easy. Just two critical features require attention: data storage and battery capacity. If a device is close to running out of storage, the operating system may slow to a crawl. And if the battery is near the end of its life cycle, the device will run out of juice more quickly than it once did.

So how do you free space? For Android phones and tablets, Mr. Lai recommends storing personal data like photos, movies, and downloaded files on a removable memory card. That will open up room on the device’s internal storage, allowing the Android system to run more quickly.

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