If I tried to put a dollar figure on what it’s cost me, in hours and stress, to deal with various tech-related frustrations over the years, I would probably fail. I can’t count that high, for one thing. I’d arrive at a made-up number such as “seventy-twelve thousand dollars” and call it a day. This is why I don’t handle the finances in my family.
One thing tech enthusiasts learn through hard experience, though, is that some of the modern problems that plague us — slow computers, flaky Wi-Fi connections, quick-to-die cellphone batteries — can be remedied for less money than you might expect.
I like to get the most value out of the items I buy and get annoyed when I have to upgrade or replace a product that should be working fine. And, like a lot of you, I sometimes cling a little too long to old tech that has served me well; it’s often out of fear of the potential new problems introducing new tech into our house can bring.
But the lesson reaffirmed itself recently when my laptop, which is a few years old, was running out of hard drive space. I decided to add a solid-state drive (“SSD” for short) and move my most important files to it. It took some bravery to crack open the laptop and move things around, but the performance boost the SSD gave me — it’s a lot speedier than a traditional hard drive — was akin to buying a new, much-faster computer. It easily extended the life of my laptop by a few more years.
Why did I wait so long to make the (relatively inexpensive) upgrade? Fear and complacency.
In that spirit, here are a few ideas for fairly cheap ways you can upgrade or improve your tech, most for $100 or less. Think of these as small-time financial investments in your future sanity.
Do yourself a solid. As I mentioned, an SSD can vastly improve performance on a desktop or laptop computer by removing the bottleneck of slow hard drive access from your system. SSDs used to be crazy expensive, but prices have fallen quickly. For about $100, you can get a 120-gigabyte SSD and put your system files on it to make your computer fly. Installing it is no different from replacing or adding a traditional hard drive, but if you’re worried about opening your computer, have a tech shop install it for you.
Adding more RAM, the little memory sticks that work alongside the brains of your computer, can also drastically improve performance cheaply.
And if you’re overwhelmed by overlapping windows on your monitor, consider adding a second screen to your setup to broaden your view. A 22- or 24-inch monitor can be had for $100-$150 and will vastly increase your screen real estate and give your apps breathing room.
Address battery drain on your wallet. If you have lots of remote controls, game controllers and children’s toys in your house, you probably go through a lot of AA and AAA batteries. Consider buying a set of rechargeable batteries and a good charger to save yourself some money. Duracell and Energizer make a variety of chargers, but the device I’ve long recommended is the La Crosse BC1000 Alpha charger, which runs about $60. It charges AA and AAA batteries and can tell you their current charge status and even help revive rechargeables you thought were dead and gone.
Ask service providers about free or cheap upgrades. If you’ve owned a smartphone for two years or longer that you bought with a typical two-year service agreement (which subsidized the price of the device), you’re likely eligible for a free or cheap phone upgrade. You may even be able to trade in your old phone for a big discount on a faster, better phone as AT&T and Best Buy have been doing recently with the iPhone 5.
If dropped calls are a problem, a wireless provider may be able to install a “Microcell” in your home; basically it’s a tiny cell phone tower that supplements coverage.
Loyalty upgrades also apply for Internet, cable and satellite TV providers, who may be able to swap out older equipment, especially if you’re having problems with your service. When one of my DVRs started dying recently, I found out I could get two new, more capable DVRs for $99 from my satellite company, including installation if I signed on for another two years. On top of that, they credited my account for more than $200 for the trouble, making it even less likely I’d switch to a competitor.
Still unhappy? Switch things up. If you still get spotty cell service, pixelated HDTV channels or chronically slow Internet speeds after giving your provider a chance to fix the issue, consider switching to another provider. It may be a hassle, but you’re likely to reap the benefits of being a new customer and you may end up being happier in the long run.
Ask lots of questions about the term of your contract (or if it makes more financial sense, seek a contract-free service). Worried about moving your contacts and other data to a new phone? Ask a customer service rep to help you do it.
Stream stronger. As more people use devices like Roku or Apple TV to stream Internet video to their TVs, some find that their Wi-Fi network isn’t fast enough to stream high-def video that isn’t choppy or slow to load. One thing you could try is adding a set of “powerline” adapters to your network. This uses your home’s electrical outlets to transmit data from a router (which in my case is way on the other side of the house from my TVs) to create a faux-wired network. You can get a set of these for as little as $40 and they’re faster than most Wi-Fi networks.
If you hate dealing with wires, consider either a faster router (especially if yours is older than the currently popular “Wireless-N” standard) or using a wireless extender (also known as a “repeater”) to extend the range of your Wi-Fi. Extenders can also be found for as little as $40-$50.
Juice up. If your phone chronically runs out of battery life, one solution short of getting a new phone or cracking open the phone to switch batteries is to get an external charger. I have a few that I bought for $5; they’re cheap and tiny and if I lose one, it’s not the end of the world. If you need something more robust, you can find chargers that can power up multiple devices including tablets for about $50-$70. If you travel a lot or have long work hours, they’re great to have around.
Check memory card speeds. Got a new digital camera? Make sure you upgrade your memory card as well, especially if you’re using one that’s more than a few years old. SD memory cards, popular for still and video cameras, come in different speeds. For high-end SLR cameras and HD video, get a “Class 10” or at least a “Class 6” card. You’ll get faster shots for as little as $15-$25 for 16- and 32-GB memory cards.
Find technology news, reviews and more at Omar L. Gallaga’s blog, Digital Savant, at austin360.com/digitalsavant.