SHIFT: Is gadget lust causing you to buy before it's time?

One of my coworkers is celebrating a birthday this weekend. Not a birthday for a living person, but rather a birthday for his 100-year-old house. Granted, there are a few problems like small closet space and a basement that could stand for some updating, but the house is still livable and is in great condition for something that old. Can that be said about consumer electronics? I recently got rid of my seven-year-old Handspring, the PDA knockoff of the Palm Pilot developed back in 2000. It wasn't because I ran out and purchased a new one, but simply because I haven't needed to use it in six months.

When millions flocked to the Apple store to buy the iPhone, I wondered, "Are their old cell phones really that bad?" I'll let someone else open that can of worms, but it brings up the question of where do you draw the line between outdated and useless? There are five key questions to ask yourself when you need to decide if it's time to replace a gadget or piece of gear. Follow the link to check them out.

Question 1: Is the gadget broken beyond repair?
Long before Apple introduced the magnetic-release power plug, I tripped over my power cord causing my laptop to come crashing to the ground with a thud. When it wouldn't power up, and phone support didn't offer any solutions, I simply sent it in for repair. A quick three-day turnaround, and my laptop was back, good as new, and it cost me a fraction of going out and buying a new one.

I don't mind a scratch or two, and a simple ding isn't cause for replacing a piece of my tech inventory, but when the insides are hanging out and duct tape won't fix it, it's time for replacement. Such was the case when my precious third-generation iPod finally called it quits after one too many drops on the floor thanks to headphone wires that were too short. The cost of repair was slightly less than going out and buying a new MP3 player. In that case, it was easier to simply replace the device, especially when the next two questions were also answered.

Question 2: Does the new gadget or software offer a significant improvement over what I'm currently using?
There was a commercial that ran several years ago where a guy was driving down the street with a brand new computer in the backseat. He was pretty happy about his purchase, until he got to a stoplight and saw a billboard for an even newer computer. His mood suddenly changed when he realized his new toy wasn't the latest and greatest. In the case of my iPod replacement, a larger hard drive, longer battery life, color screen, and ability to play video were significant improvements over the broken player.

For me, the iPhone looks like a really great product, I would really like to have one to show off, but when I really sat down and thought about it, my current cell phone does everything I need it to do. It makes calls, I can take pictures, and I can even get the latest weather updates for the area I'm visiting. If I'm on the road, there's a good chance I've got my laptop with me, and answering e-mail and checking websites can be done much more easily on a notebook than with a handheld. Those considerations, plus the fact that my city isn't in AT&T's primary service area, were enough to turn the cold shower on my iPhone lust.

Question 3: Buy it now, or wait for the next version?
Questions two and three tie closely in with one another, but this one's more prominent when it's time to buy new software. A good friend of mine gave me some advice years ago when he said, "Only buy the latest release of the software if the improvements are significant enough to make your job easier, and never buy a version one of anything." Unfortunately, some companies release what they call a new release when it's nothing more than a series of bug fixes to problems that should have been addressed prior to the new version.

Question 4: Is upgrading your old component a possibility?
When I see the huge number of kids driving around in cars that are 10 years old that they've modified with spoilers, paint jobs, rims, and new tires, it reminds me that my computers can be modified too. Many people are surprised the computer I use for most of my Web surfing, downloading, and DVD playback is a seven-year-old Dell. Back in the day, it was perfect for rendering complex animations, doing speed comparisons against other systems, and other processor-intensive tasks.

Today, my laptop runs circles around that Dell as far as speed goes, but I've been able to keep the desktop in use by upgrading components. A new hard drive or two for more storage, a new DVD drive for burning discs, and even a graphics card to play HD content are enough to keep this computer active long after others would have pitched it in the garbage. These kinds of upgrades can be done for a few hundred dollars when compared to the potential thousands that might need to be spent for a computer system that screams.

Question 5: Does it have the Wow Factor?
Even after answering the above questions, a gadget should have the Wow Factor. I love the Canon XL-H1 high-definition video camera because it looks cool. Sure there are other HDV cameras that cost less and produce a pretty picture, but when it comes down to it, I'd go for the device that sets my heart a flutter. For millions of people, the iPhone certainly has a huge Wow Factor and more than likely weighed heavily in their decision to make the purchase.

By no means is this meant to be a strict method in making a purchase. My sister, the lawyer, would tell me there are all sorts of loopholes in my methods. I try to adhere to these rules whenever I purchase a new gadget; be it an HDTV or digital SLR camera, and so far they have worked in my favor. This is just the tip of the iceberg, and there are many methods people use in determining when it is time to upgrade. I want to know your rules. Use the comments section below to share the methods you use in determining when it is time to upgrade. I might even refer to some of them when iPhone 2.0 is released.