When Apple introduced> its newest laptop last month, the company bragged about faster processors, dazzling graphics, new connectivity and a better camera. But all these improvements to a series of computers that was already by most accounts pretty good left some critics with a pointed question: Who really needs all that?
It's a question that nags the tech industry with almost every new advancement, but experts say the pitch for faster, more tricked-out technology has reached a new peak. Internet service seems sluggish? For another $10 per month, many providers now offer to make it faster; For another $10, faster still. Digital camera makers now promote point-and-shoots with 16 megapixels about twice the 8 megapixel models promoted three years ago, which can now be found in a high-end smartphone. And like Apple's new laptop, most computers desktop or laptop have more power and memory than all but the most avid gamers and developers will ever use. "It's the same as cars," says Michael Carnell, an independent technology consultant in Charleston, S.C. "Most of us never use the horsepower we have because we're sitting in traffic."
Gadget manufacturers hope these innovations and add-ons will inspire consumers to trade in and trade up more frequently, and so far, that seems to be working. The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that new TV technology like Internet connectivity and 3D could prompt consumers to replace their sets as often as every three to four years, half the current average. Meanwhile, the average consumer now keeps a smartphone just 18 months, down from 24 two years ago. All that points to growing spending on gadgets: $186.4 billion this year, up nearly 4% from 2010.
It's not a hard sell, either. Consumers tend to see technology as an extension of themselves, says Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills. A flip phone makes us look ancient, a chunky laptop screams "behind the times." And with technology changing so rapidly, customers know that "anything we buy could be obsolete tomorrow, so we buy the best we can to stave off that obsolescence," says Rosen. Salespeople really don't have far to push.
But for consumers, the allure of added features and speed can be costly. For example, Sony's new digital camera takes 3D photos and it's twice as expensive as its next cheapest point-and-shoot. A 50" TV with 3D capabilities can cost $600 or more than a 2D model. And the new iPad 2 costs $150 more than a basic laptop, with a fraction of the latter's capabilities.
That's not to say that cheaper is always better. For aficionados, top-of-the-line devices may be worth the premium. A high-resolution HDTV really makes the most of a connected Blu-ray player and HD channel cable capabilities. And brands often use materials of varying quality, and different manufacturing facilities for television models at different ends of their lineup, says David Berman, director of training at Home Technology Specialists of America, an industry group. Here, in four categories, exactly what you need and what you don't.
Most Internet providers now offer different levels of high-speed connectivity (measured in megabits per second, or Mbps), often pitched as fast, faster and faster still. In New York, for example, a new Verizon subscriber has a choice of four high-speed internet plans, ranging from $20 to $50 per month. But for one or two people checking email and shopping online, "basic" is plenty fast -- even dial-up could suffice, Carnell says. (Equipment that's older than five years can't take handle anything much faster than basic broadband, anyway.) If you want to stream TV shows or movies, play games, or download big files, you may need more juice. Ditto if you have an entire household that's trying to get online after dinner.
Before you call your provider to change plans, make sure you're actually getting the speed that your provider promised. You can assess the speed of your current connection via a free test site such as Speakeasy.net or Speedtest.net. "There can be a substantial difference between what's advertised and the average," says Mike Apgar, the founder of Ookla, which operates SpeedTest.net. "Make sure you're getting what you're subscribed to." Switching providers? "Start low, but make sure when you sign the contract that you can bump up the speed without paying a penalty," Carnell says.
It's tough to find a basic point-and-shoot with fewer than 10 megapixels and 3-4x optical zoom these days and that's more than enough to make poster-size prints, says Bradley Dever Treadaway, a digital media coordinator for the International Center of Photography. So in addition to pushing megapixels, camera-makers have shifted their focus to new features, including zoom, HD video, 3D image capture and touch-screens that let you edit photos on the camera. To get most of those features in a Sony Cyber-Shot, consumers will pay around $170 or about 70% more than a model with almost all the megapixels and plenty of zoom. In fact, infrequent or recreational snappers may not need a standalone camera at all, with the right cellphone, says Ross Rubin, executive director of industry analysis for market research firm NPD Group. The HTC Droid Incredible has an 8-megapixel camera with autofocus and a flash. "It's certainly tremendous overkill for sharing on Facebook," he says. But if it's video you want, HD video is one extra that may be worth it, if it's good enough to eliminate the need for a separate camcorder, says Treadway.
Many buying guides recommend adding memory to a basic computer typically for another $200 or so at purchase. But even a basic computer these days has enough storage space and processing power to satisfy the average user, says Carnell. Someone with a hefty collection of 7,000 MP3s, 6,150 digital photos and 1,500 e-books is still using just 40GB, or a quarter of the hard drive capacity of a $230 Gateway netbook. The only consumers who might need space or power are avid gamers and those working with memory-intensive software such as AutoCAD. Not sure where you fall? Windows users can check the properties of your hard drive in "My Computer" to see how much space you've used relative to its capacity. Mac users can make a similar assessment through the Finder. Then review the suggested system requirements for any software you want on the new machine. Trade up only if the basic model you're considering falls short on speed or storage, he says.
Manufacturers have begun focusing more on higher-resolution models, says Berman, with an additional push on models that have Internet connectivity. But high-definition cable content has yet to catch up to what TVs are capable of, so shelling out for a 1080p set is still future-proofing to some extent. "You can actually be very happy with [720p] performance," he says. Trade up only if you watch movies via Blu-ray, get some 1080p content through a Fios or satellite subscription service, or have an HD camcorder that records in 1080p. An Internet-connected model may also be worth the extra money to stream movies and TV shows and browse online, if you don't already have a connected Blu-ray player or video game system. "It's designed to operate like a computer," he says, and has access to a broader range of online content than that Blu-ray player or Xbox 360 would.
And although screens continue to expand -- Mitsubishi has a 92-inch set out this year -- you might not need as big a set as you think, either. The ideal size depends on how far away you plan to sit; too far or too close and the picture won't look good, Berman says. (Ideal viewing distance is somewhere between 1.5 to 3 times the screen size, he says, so roughly 6 to 12 feet away for a 50-inch set.) Check the manufacturer's recommended viewing range, and your credit card limit. Scaling back from a 59-inch, 1080p plasma Samsung ($1,710 at Sears (SHLD)) a 51-inch model saves $540. Drop down to 720p and save another $370.