Opinion: I own one pair of boots. They're great boots. I know they'll last me a decade, if I take care of them. I also own a backpack -- a very expensive backpack -- with a lifetime guarantee that I'm sure I'll never have to use, because it's built to last. I'm not really so sure that I can say the same for most of the technology that I own, though.
I've been using the Samsung Galaxy S5 since last week, and I can see myself keeping it for a while. It's definitely more sturdy than the Galaxy S4, and the waterproofing has already come in handy, keeping the phone usable and when I went for a rainy Saturday bike ride. The S5's screen in particular is excellent -- my favourite feature by far. This is a phone that should last a long time, just like my backpack.
But I said the same about the Galaxy S3 when it was released way back in 2012. And without a firmware update, my Galaxy S3 would be dead by now. I'm also the unfortunate owner of an iPhone 4, rendered slow and unresponsive after Apple's shiny iOS 7 patch. I don't use the iPhone for much more than the occasional audio recording now -- for me, it was killed off by a simple software update. Galaxy Nexus owners must feel the same pain.
What happens if (or when) my Galaxy S5 breaks? When will that be?
The tagline on Reddit's /r/BuyItForLife subreddit is 'Durable, Quality, Practical'. It's quite telling that not a lot of technology products rate a regular mention, although there are plenty of threads with buyers asking for advice on things like an Apple Lightning cable or microUSB car charger. Occasionally a pair of Sony MDR-7506s or Logitech's MX518 mouse is mentioned, but as a general rule, technology products are not lifetime purchases.
Australian philosopher Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton and professor of applied ethics at University of Melbourne, has a year-old opinion piece: the "moral shortcomings of conspicuous consumption." He makes the example of Ukranian foreign ministers wearing $30,000 watches, laughing at a Polish diplomat's $165 quartz timepiece. The cheap watch in this scenario is simpler, more reliable, cheaper, and more versatile. Why would you buy an expensive watch, especially if it won't last? There's a technology analogue here: if two smartphones are both going to be effectively obsolete in two years, why would you buy the more expensive one?
Smartphones seem by far the most susceptible to this revolving door of planned and unplanned obsolescence, but they're not the only devices affected by the ongoing march of hardware and software advancement. Upgraded to Windows 7 in 2009? Your old HP printer wasn't supported. Upgraded to Windows 8 in 2012? Your old Dell printer wasn't supported.
A couple of months ago, I bought this. It's a Kensington Expert Mouse trackball, built in 2003, used for ten years by some random American, returned to Kensington, refurbished, and then sold again (to me). It has nearly 1000 reviews on Amazon stretching back to its launch, and more than half of them are overwhelmingly positive. Seven out of 10 reviews give the trackball a rating of 80 per cent or higher. This Expert Mouse has probably survived the last ten years by virtue of its simplicity -- it's just a smooth rolling ball above a tiny optical sensor, hardly the Hubble Telescope -- but it's a testament to the fact that some pieces of technology can last a long time.
I'm reasonably sure that I could pass this Expert Mouse on to my children, and to my children's children. The Filco keyboard I wrote this article on is similarly sturdy. But the MSI GT70 the keyboard and mouse are connected to? I'm not so sure. I mean, you can't even buy Photoshop outright any more, only rent it.
AMD's new Radeon R295X2, which I'm currently benchmarking for a Gizmodo review later this week, is a hugely powerful graphics card. But there's something about a brand new, high-end graphics card that feels transitory -- like it's part of an endless upgrade cycle, wringing dollars and cents on a regular basis out of customers conditioned to buy the latest and greatest. This is understandable -- we all want our big-budget gaming titles to look good -- but it's certainly not in keeping with the long-term reliability ethos of, say, a traditional watchmaker.
The everyday GPU in my desktop machine at home, when it's not benchmarking $2000 500-Watt monsters, is a GeForce GTX 670 -- pretty competitive back in mid-2012 when it was released, but starting to become a little long in the tooth. It can just about handle running Tomb Raider at ultra quality at a steady 30 FPS on my Samsung Series 8 monitor, but I'm not holding out too much hope for Watch Dogs or The Division.
There's obviously a limit to the practical lifespan of most technology products. Batteries stop holding a full charge, LEDs and OLED backlights lose their brightness, wear and tear kills the shutter mechanisms of digital SLRs. But beyond keyboards, mice and (some) headphones, it strikes me that there really aren't that many devices that I expect to last more than a couple of years of daily use.
I'd just like to own a smartphone that lasts as long as a pair of boots. Is it even possible? Probably not.
Are there any pieces of technology you own, or want to own, that you genuinely think will last a decade?