Some Tech Gadgets Waste Your Money – and Your Time
Ask yourself: Does the gizmo fit your primary activities and passions?
Come in, draw closer. I’m going to whisper a secret: The tech columnists and reviewers of the world drool over the latest gizmos and gadgets because they love gizmos and gadgets.
Really, you should skip most smart tech, which brutally consumes your time and money. Consider the San Diego home of tech entrepreneur Adam Corey, the founder of workplace podcast platform Podable.
Corey owns outdoor smart lights (“The porch lights go off at midnight, and I don’t know why.”), indoor smart light bulbs (“Two work on a different schedule than I believe they should, and I have no way of troubleshooting because I’m not sure why.”), a Ring doorbell, a smart front gate lock (“It only works on Apple.”), a Nest thermostat, many smart plugs, a Samsung Frame TV (“It has absolutely every streaming service you could imagine, and I pay for them all.”), various Alexa and Google Home devices, a Wi-Fi enabled crock pot (“It turns out that I will never be flying across the country and need to change the setting on my slow cooker.”), a smart sous-vide machine, a Peloton bike, Sonos speakers (“They work beautifully.”), an Ikea Symfonisk remote for those speakers (“It has worked exactly three times.”), a refrigerator (“It’s connected to the internet, maybe to tell me in the future if it gets too warm or something? I don’t know.”), an iPad, phone, laptop, wireless printer, and a scale that connects to Apple Health (“It tells me much body fat I’ve gained. It’s never muscle.”).
Ask him which of these devices he loves, and he pauses, and then names just three: the Peloton, the sous vide machine, and the wireless printer. “I am all in on the wireless printer! I stand behind the wireless printer 100%. I can print from my phone.”
The intrepid reader will note that Corey is sincerely enthusiastic about the trio of gadgets that are specific to his daily life as an athletic, amateur chef who works from home. The others? Take ‘em or leave ‘em. “Things don’t work the way you think they’re going to, or they break, or you run into some compatibility issue. A lot of devices tend to go that way.”
The message here is that you’ll save yourself thousands of dollars and numerous hours of tech angst by purchasing only smart gear that fits your primary activities and passions. Jotting down a short self-description (or description of the buyer) helps.
For example, my mother is a dog lover with multiple sclerosis who adores TV. I’m a work-from-home journalist who loves reading and exercising. Will the smartest TVs and blinds and lights have high utility value for my mother? Yep. For me? Nope.
Beyond Corey’s living room, there are many indicators that feature-heavy gadgets have jumped the shark. Burton Kelso owns Integral, a Kansas City-based tech repair company. He gets the calls when gadgets inevitably don’t work. His typical setup visits cost $300. “When a technician comes out, there are always things that customers have on the back burner that they’ve always wanted to figure out, so we’ll get inundated with trying to support all those devices as well.”
Many of Kelso’s clients are, actually, tech savvy. “People need to understand that unless you’re in the business of installing those tech devices, you’re never going to have the knowledge to quickly set them up,” he says.
This is because most smart home products involve a number of systems: a smart lock requires successfully booting and learning how to operate the lock, launching the related app on your phone, connecting the lock to a home device network (Z-wave, Wink) and probably a voice-activated assistant (Alexa, Google Home), plus linking into robust Wi-Fi. Focus on this next sentence: No, your techie niece or neighbor does not know either.
Kelso says that if you do buy smart tech for an “immediate need,” you should first scan consumer reviews for setup difficulties. His appointments come from customers who failed to do so. “That’s the case in all instances. People just see the product, they get it, and then they’re calling for help. The company’s goal is to sell consumer electronics, not necessarily to make products that any consumer can set up.”
Wi-Fi is the top residential problem encountered by Brady Helkenn, owner of San Francisco tech service provider BH Tech Connection. Typically, a customer has bought, say, a $200 smart doorbell, discovered that his Wi-Fi signal doesn’t reach the doorstep, and then purchased a $50 network extender. He’s now $250 and five hours in.
“The extender will say that it’s connected, and it actually won’t be connected. It’s not very intuitive,” he says. Addressing this situation will cost the customer $100 an hour and two more hours of his life that he can never get back. Total cost: $400+ and a full day.
Yet smart home product sales are surging. A new book, “The Innovation Delusion,” makes the intellectual argument for bypassing this situation: the endless fresh models and new features render consumers unable to discern genuine innovation. The authors, two academics, call for a return to DIY repair culture — which requires DIYable products — and appreciation for older systems that run smoothly.
Corey was recently rocked by the loss of one of his three beloved smart devices. His sous vide cooker, Mellow, recently began charging a $6 monthly fee to continue using all features, a bait-and-switch move common of smaller, financially struggling internet-of-things companies. (Pro tip: Stick with large, financially stable manufacturers.)
“I actually loved that sous vide. It was my most favorite thing up until a few months ago. That’s a regret right there, because now something that I thought I could have for a long time is holding me ransom.” You don’t need this kind of heartbreak in your life. Stick with the basics.