Careful Tech 112: The joy of not caring TOO much about your gadgets


Holding onto that iPhone box

I’m not a pack rat by nature. I don’t often keep items “just in case;” I’m more likely to trash them, even if I may regret it later.

There’s a notable exception to this minimalist streak, though: technology packaging. In our shed, I have the original boxes for nearly every tech device we own: two laptops, two iPads, two Kindles, AirPods, two Magic Keyboards, an Apple Pencil, and more. My rule of thumb? “Keep the box if there’s any chance you’ll resell this someday.”

That strategy may not be logical. Sure, buyers sometimes pay more for a device in its original box. Oddly, however, many reseller sites don’t actually care whether you have the original packaging; they’ll pay the same amount, either way.

Still, I’ll keep squirreling away the boxes, regardless of the financial return. There’s an intangible benefit: the mild satisfaction of sealing an iPhone in its original cardboard coffin. I feel like I’ve fulfilled my duty, stewarding my device from its shrink-wrapped birth to its day of departure. ◾

(These items have sold since this tweet!)

Skipping the iPad Pro

I just can’t justify buying the new iPad Pro.

Don’t get me wrong; Apple’s new tablets are gorgeous. I’m impressed by the edge-to-edge display, the Braun-inspired squared edges, and the overall thinness. And the new Apple Pencil fixes all of my biggest complaints: the cylindrical (roll-prone) profile, the fiddly end cap, and the awkward charging method. Overall, the iPad Pro looks like an incredible upgrade.

But it’s also incredibly expensive. Jaw-droppingly expensive. Prohibitively expensive (at least for me). Not only Apple raise the cost of entry by $150, they also tacked $20–30 onto the price of each accessory. All told, even if I bought even the cheapest model,1 an Apple Pencil, and the new Smart Keyboard Folio, I’d be dropping just shy of $1,200.

That’s some serious cash—enough to buy a beefy Windows PC, ski passes for the whole family, a passable mountain bike, or a long weekend at the beach, steak dinners included.

If I honestly believed that I would use an iPad Pro, I might be been able to justify its exorbitant price tag. Unfortunately, the evidence is stacked against me. I’ve purchased three iPads in the past, and each one ended up gathering dust. I’ve just never found a great use case for an iPad; my Kindle is better for reading, my laptop is better for writing, and my phone is better for everything else. There was nothing in today’s keynote that makes me think this iPad would be different. (You know, like external touchscreen support?)

The iPad Pro is great for drawing, of course. And I do occasionally doodle. But why plunk down $1,200 when a $15 drawing pad works just as well?

So I’m sitting out this Apple launch, despite a gnawing gadget envy. I’m bummed that I can’t take another crack at the “iPad lifestyle,” but I’m excited to save that money for something I’ll almost certainly enjoy more. ■

  1. I’d get along fine with 64 gigs of storage, but it’s lame that only the 1TB models have 6GB of RAM. ↩︎


Never not connected: tracking gadget usage all day (and all night)

Last week, I compared my own media habits to those of the “average American.” As I tallied the hours, I was struck by how much of my waking life is spent using gadgets. Here’s my average weekday, with the devices italicized:

  • 4 AM: alarm goes off. I immediately reach for my iPhone. I spend 30–45 minutes (sometimes as long as an hour) catching up on Twitter via Tweetbot.
  • 5 AM: morning restroom visit; I typically weigh myself and record the result using Vekt on my Apple Watch.
  • 5:05 AM: meditation practice; I time my mindfulness sessions using Headspace or Insight Timer on my iPhone.
  • 5:30 AM: writing. I typically draft my posts in Sublime Text 3 on my HP ZBook Studio laptop, then queue up each article in WordPress.
  • 6:30 AM: exercising (if writing doesn’t consume the extra time). I track my workouts on the Apple Watch, and I usually listen to podcasts using Overcast on my iPhone (since podcasts on the Apple Watch are a no-go).
  • 7:30 AM: shower and prep for work. This is one of the few gadgetless reprieves in my day, although I have taken to wearing my water-resistant Apple Watch in the shower lately. It’s helpful to know how long I have before I need to punch the clock.
  • 8:00 AM: workday. I work in communications for a commercial real estate firm). My typical day at the office involves writing, light graphics editing, and layout, all of which keep me tied to my HP laptop. I dock the unit and connect it to the three external Dell monitors that ring my makeshift treadmill desk.
  • 12:00 PM: lunch. I often listen to podcasts on my iPhone while I cook, then browse Tweetbot as I eat. When I can squeeze it in, I’ll record the daily Careful Tech podcast using my laptop during this lunch break, too.
  • 1:00 PM: work, round two. More laptop use.
  • 5:00 PM: dinner prep and family time. This is the only stretch of the day when I truly set aside my gadgets. We may play some music on the Amazon Echo in the kitchen (my daughter is currently enamored with the song “Monster Mash”) or snap a few photos. For the most part, though, we aim to be present to each other during these pre-bedtime hours.
  • 7:00 PM: with our toddler in bed, my wife and I collapse in front of our TCL Roku TV to enjoy an episode or two of our favorite shows. Programs we’ve recently binge-watched include Stranger Things, The Great British Bake-off, Silicon Valley, and Star Trek: Discovery. When one of us is away for the evening, we have our own personal favorites (I’ve recently gotten into Halt and Catch Fire). Regardless of what’s on the TV, our primary attention is directed to our phones; my wife gravitates to Instagram and Facebook; I prefer Twitter.
  • 8:30 PM: evening bathroom routine. Yes, I often brush my teeth while scrolling through Tweetbot on my phone. Honestly, the main reason I hate flossing is that I need both hands to do it—and that means I have to set the phone down.
  • 9:00 PM: bedtime. It only takes a few minutes of Twitter-browsing on the iPhone in bed before I start to nod off.
  • 9:15 PM: sleep. I’ve taken to wearing my Apple Watch at night for sleep-tracking purposes. Autosleep uses the wearable device’s accelerometer to record how much rest I get each night. I don’t use this data for much of anything, but it’s fun to track.

In summary, I spend my entire day (and night!) using one device or another in one way or another.

That realization is sobering. So much of my life is tied to gadgets! In particular, I’m troubled by the fact that Twitter has become my default way to kill time. It’s the first thing I do when I wake up. It’s the last thing I do before falling asleep. I turn to it at the slightest sign of boredom. At least some of that time could be better spent—even if it just meant I was more present with my own thoughts.

On the other hand, just because my entire day involves gadgets doesn’t mean it revolves around gadgets. We use these devices for everything now; they can empower intentional, productive activity just as much as they can enable pointless or self-destructive behavior. For example, my (iPhone-led) meditation sessions are certainly beneficial, as is the sleep- and exercise-tracking made possible by my Apple Watch. And I don’t feel guilty that my work life requires constant connectivity; that’s the norm for most knowledge workers these days. ■


A watch watcher reviews the Apple Watch Series 3

Benjamin Clymer of Hodinkee reviews the Apple Watch Series 3.

As he writes,

One of the most amusing things about doing what I do for a living – writing about and working with mechanical watches – is the reaction that other watch guys expect me, or really any other reasonable watch person, to have about the Apple Watch. They think we should hate it. I don’t hate the Apple Watch, nor should anyone else. If anything, the build quality versus price ratio on the Apple Watch is so embarrassing for the Swiss that I genuinely think it will push mechanical watchmakers to be better.

Even this small insight, this peek into the world of Swiss manufacturing and watch aficionados, is worth the click.

Clymer’s review adds something unique to the online conversation about the Series 3 Watch. Tech blog reviews too often follow the same boring pattern; I can only read about watchOS 4’s new workout app so many times before my eyes glaze over. As a mechanical watch expert, however, Clymer deftly surfaces a new, thought-provoking set of expectations, delights, and complaints.<!–[1]–>

For example, the reviewer discusses the “incredible tolerances and smooth corners” on the packaging for the Apple Watch Edition, then compares it to boxes from the luxury watchmakers. He also weighs the Watch Edition’s ceramic case against similar materials on far more expensive mechanical watches. Clymer’s able to provide context that the average tech expert just can’t.

Even his less esoteric thoughts prove fascinating; he lists his daily carry items in the wake of acquiring the Series 3: the Watch, a wallet, house keys, and a single AirPod (!). That last detail took me by surprise, as a gadget nerd (“What about stereo music?!”). But it’s a great example of how different priorities (e.g. valuing fashion over technological utility) lead to a different way of using a digital device.

We need more tech reviews like this! Give me a iPhone X review from a doctor doing her rounds. A HomePod review from a concert violinist. An Apple Watch review from a professional athlete in off-season training. An Amazon Echo review from an elderly retiree. As Clymer’s article proves, getting outside the tech bubble could help us view our gadgets in an entirely new light. ■

  1. One quibble: Clymer confuses the first-generation Watch (the “Series 0”) with the 2016 Series 1. It’s a mistake that an expert in smart wearables probably wouldn’t make. But why be pedantic? Clymer’s review is fascinating not because of what he doesn’t know, but because of what he does.<!– ↩–>

technology Uncategorized

How often should you upgrade your gadgets?

Michael Rockwell outlines his “Hardware Acquisition Strategy:”

What I’ve come up with, though — being the systematic guy that I am — is a hardware acquisition plan. It should easily take me through the next four years and as long as something doesn’t drastically change, I’ll likely be able to repeat the cycle to maintain a steady stream of new hardware for even longer.

The acquisition strategy spans across four years and allows for regular upgrades of my most important gadgets.

A few years back, my wife and I adopted a budgeting method that encouraged us to think more intentionally about long-term expenses. Rather than scrape together last-minute cash—or worse, take on credit card debt—we plan ahead. First, we estimate the total cost of any sizeable future purchase. Next, we pinpoint the date we’d like to pull the trigger. Finally, we start saving—splitting the cost across the number of months remaining until the buy date.

For example, we’re hoping to buy new iPhones next September. Assuming we pay full retail, that’ll cost us about $1500—$650 for each phone, plus taxes and new accessories. As of October 2015, we’ve already squirreled away $620; that leaves $880 to go. Divide that cost by the eleven budget months left till the iPhone 7 release date, and we’re left with our monthly savings target: $80 per month. If all goes well, we’ll have the cash ready to burn for the purchase come September. No credit card debt, no monthly installment contract.

Michael’s thinking even further ahead. He breaks down his purchase plan as follows:

  • Year 1: New iPhone and Apple Watch
  • Year 2: Mac Repair or Upgrade
  • Year 3: New iPhone and Apple Watch
  • Year 4: New iPad

That’s a reasonable timeline. Smartphone batteries start crapping out after two years or so, so a biennial iPhone upgrade cadence makes sense. The Watch would probably suffer the same fate, given its daily charge / discharge cycle. As for the Mac, Michael might be able to eke out a fifth year, but RAM and storage ceilings could make that extra wait unpleasant.

My only real question centers around the iPad. Given that product’s continuing sales decline, I worry about long-term support from both developers and Apple. The upcoming release of the iPad Pro may help, but will that high-end SKU appeal to enough users to actually grow the market? By the time Michael upgrades his iPad in 2018–19, will it still make sense to own a super-sized iPhone, a Mac, and a tablet? I’m not sure.

Fortunately, he’s not committed to spending that money on the iPad. If Apple’s tablet line has petered out three years from now, Michael could always reallocate that cash for something else. Better to anticipate the potential purchase, then beg off, than to scramble last-minute to find the money.

All that said, here’s my “hardware upgrade cycle”:

  • Every year (?): new iPhone. Next year, we’ll escape from beneath our last two-year contract just before the iPhone 7’s likely release date. I’ve been crunching the numbers (you should see my spreadsheets!), and you pay a surprisingly small penalty for upgrading every year, versus upgrading every two. The key here? Year-old iPhones typically sell for around $400 on eBay, whereas two-year-old models fetch as little as $150. That steep depreciation makes a yearly upgrade more viable.
  • Every four years: new PC or Mac. This category remains theoretical for me. As long as my employer provides a laptop, I can’t justify buying another, separate machine for home use. Yes, I’d prefer to firewall my work computing from my personal computing. For now, though, I’ve resigned myself to a single device, dedicated to work most of the time, but available for personal use otherwise.
  • Every two years: new iPad. I haven’t given up on the iPad yet. Recently, I’ve enjoyed writing blog posts (including this one) on Apple’s tablet, using a Bluetooth keyboard. Apps like Byword provide a distraction-free, minimalist writing environment. Plus, the iPad’s svelte form factor puts my monolithic Dell workstation to shame. Still, I can’t justify a yearly upgrade for a glorified typewriter. In fact, I couldn’t have upgraded this year, anyways; Apple didn’t refresh the iPad Air 2.[1]

  1. I could consider upgrading to the iPad Pro. But I’d rather wait and see whether that device’s new features—stylus support and its nifty keyboard case—filter down to the (more portable) iPad Air next year.  ↩
books culture sports Uncategorized

Kindles at camp?

Camps have traditionally banned gadgets. In the woods, iPods and cell phones are illegal contraband, banished along with fireworks and drugs. Life at camp, many argue, should hearken back to a simpler time: when a game of “Angry Birds” involved dodging bird poop and “conversation” meant a fireside face-to-face rather than thumbed pseudowords at 140 characters or less.

Camps therefore confiscate kids’ electronics. But books have always been welcome. Counselors praise the kid who spends his rest hour nose-deep in a novel. Camp brochures highlight the iconic image of a teenager flopped beneath a tree, flipping through a book. Sure, Harry Potter can distract from camp life just as surely as a Gameboy, but only the gizmo gets the boot.

But the line between books and gadgets continues to blur as digital reading goes mainstream. Last summer, Amazon sold more eBooks than hardcovers for the very first time. Low prices have contributed to this growth; eBooks cost less than their print counterparts, and the Kindle’s price may hit $0 by year’s end.

Within a decade or two, devices like the Kindle and the iPad seem destined to dethrone the printed book for good. If eReaders become ubiquitous, can camp directors realistically demand that kids leave them at home? How can camps encourage literacy while still offering a sanctuary from digital distraction?

technology Uncategorized

How little hardware flaws drive me crazy.

Stuff breaks. Every so often, something I buy conks out, goes on the fritz, or just plain stops working.

Blessed warranties to the rescue! Apple replaced my iPod touch at least twice: once for a stuck power button and again for a temperamental headphone jack. And Lenovo (after a month-long, maddening back-and-forth) fixed a blown-out GPU, a burned-up logic board, and an under-insulated processor.

On each of these occasions, the problem was obvious, and I sought out service ASAP. But every so often, I run into less conspicuous hardware flaws. These easily-to-miss defects bring out the OCD in me.

  • I agonized over whether my iPod’s Home button was too loose.
  • I tried to convince my wife that my iPod’s screen was inferior to hers. (She remains convinced that the difference was in my head.)
  • My iPhone rattles when I set it down. I don’t think iPhones are supposed to rattle.
  • Where did these bruises and scratches on my Thinkpad’s screen come from?
  • I am haunted by squeaks, rattles, and bumps in our recently-purchased car.

Why do I let such trivialities bug me? Two reasons. First, I paid good money for these baubles, and I hate getting a raw deal. Second, warranties only last so long. If I put off filing a complaint, I might miss out on a free replacement.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve noticed an almost-undetectable flaw in my phone. Time to obsess!