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Do I Need that New Tech Gadget?

Newton OMPIt’s impossible to ignore the hype surrounding the new iPad, and many who pre-ordered are already clutching one in their hands. When I heard the news, I almost made a beeline to the Apple store myself, but then I look at my perfectly functional first generation iPad. Will the new version change my life? Streamline the work process? How do we decide when a new tech gadget is really for us?

The tech industry, just like our own fluctuating academic environments, can quickly induce change fatigue. There’s always something new, whether it’s the next in a series of smartphones (after all, they go obsolete the same day they are purchased), a new tablet, or the Ultrabook laptops. As Jason B. Jones recently wrote about learning the basics of digital technology, not every device is going to be a success for you even after you give it a good try–but the learning experience might help you find the right tools for your workflow down the line.

Here’s the five things I ask myself before I contemplate any new tech purchase:

  1. Does it do something completely new? The iPad won over early adopters by being one of the most functionally designed and portable media-consumption devices in a long time. While some people couldn’t imagine it as part of their workflow, others leapt at the opportunity for a larger-screened device for dealing with email, reading, brainstorming, and playing the occasional game of Angry Birds. Now, the tablet model is steadily growing, and even Apple’s newest entry can’t seem totally radical in the market.
  2. Does it replace something broken? My laptop is on the verge of self-destruction: every day it boots, I’m relieved. Planned obsolescence is nothing new, and devices do hit an expiration date when something supernovas. This is even more true for highly contained electronics,  where it’s difficult for a user to reach in and fiddle with the hardware, than it is with desktop PCs that lend themselves more easily to the swapping of parts.
  3. Is the hype more impressive than the device? The bigger the marketing campaign, the more likely it is that the product is being sold more as a status symbol than a functional device. It’s impossible to completely isolate our perceptions of a new tech from the advertising around it, and Apple knows how to out-market most tech companies. But being an early adopter on a newly hyped product or feature (retina screen, anyone?) can amount to being part of an expensive opt-in beta test.
  4. Will it be obsolete within the year? (And will I care?) Many tech devices rerelease every year, while others disappear when their parent company goes under or switches market focus. Both of these can impact a new tech’s longevity. For instance: if you are concerned about Barnes & Noble’s odds of staying in business, don’t buy a nook. If you think Amazon’s bound to take a fall, a Kindle’s not the best investment. Devices that natively support a wide range of eBook types are more likely to outlast the single-marketplace competitors.
  5. Does it have something to offer my existing academic workflow? If you are on any side of academic life, it’s likely that most of your tech devices will need to be used for work. A device that can streamline conference packing by eliminating single-purpose devices, make it easier to review your research on the go, streamline your meeting notes, or otherwise simplify getting through your workload, can be worth a lot of saved time. Of course, sometimes that technology is a Moleskin notebook.

Are you already reading this on your new iPad 3? How do you decide when a gadget is worth the investment? Let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons Licensed Image by Flickr User Moparx]

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