Stop Buying Cheap Tech


A hand tosses broken headphones into a trash can

Photo: Anton Watman (Shutterstock)

A lot of technology isn’t cheap. A new MacBook Air costs $1,000, as does an iPhone 13 Pro or Galaxy Z Flip3. Even devices that don’t cost a thousand dollars—like AirPods—are plenty expensive, and add up quickly. It’s no wonder that a ton of cheaper alternatives exist. And while I’m not telling you you need to buy top of the line gear every time, sometimes an item that looks like a deal is too good to be true. Yet paying less for something that seems like it’s just as good is enticing, even though these gadgets often happen to be utter garbage.

I’m not saying all lower-cost tech is crap; there are plenty of alternatives out there if you want to spend less. I’m talking about tech from brands no one has ever heard of: the products that live on the lowest shelf at your local store, or exist in dozens of variations on Amazon. The bottom of the barrel crap that—oh, wow, it’s only $10? Maybe I’ll order it.

No, don’t do it. It. Is. Not. Worth. It.

It seems great in the moment: you get a new product, without any of the guilt that usually comes with costly a tech purchase. Sure, the quality might not be as good, but you can live with that, seeing you’ll be saving money by an order of magnitude. Well, hold onto that moment for as long as you can, because it’ll be the last time you’re happy for quite a while.

Buying budget tech usually ends in disappointment. These items are not made with quality in mind, nor longevity; if you buy the cheapest headphones available, they will probably sound terrible—which is fine, because they will also only work for a week or two. Suddenly they don’t look like nearly as much of a bargain, and you have to feel guilty (or even guiltier) about all the associated environmental waste.

There is a reason some items are so much cheaper than comparable name brand devices on the market—companies can save a lot of money when they aren’t concerned with trivial things like using good materials or proper design, and are more focused on making a quick buck through planned obsolescence.

Not all “cheap” tech is the same

To be clear, I’m specifically talking about bargain basement tech, not mid-range or even budget tech. There’s a big difference there. If a quality company produces a product at a lower cost than its other devices, or other devices on the market, that doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad. Entire websites exist to recommend, say, a great $25 pair of true wireless earbuds.

A great example of this is Apple’s confusingly-named iPad (the ninth-generation iPad). The iPad simply called “iPad” is the company’s entry-level offering, and costs almost half the price of the iPad Air. At $329, it’s pretty damn cheap as far as iPads go. And it’s great! It’s not the fastest iPad Apple sells, and it doesn’t have the best display on the market, but it’s an iPad; it runs iPadOS 15, and works with Apple Pencil and other smart accessories. Unless you’re a power user or a professional, this iPad is likely all you really need to get things done.

Sure, you could call the iPad “cheap,” but it really doesn’t fit my definition of “cheap tech.” You can find examples of this from plenty of companies out there—a $50 Amazon Fire tablet isn’t the best, but it will definitely work, and work well; instead of spending $170 on a new pair of AirPods, you can spend $80 on a pair of Jabra Elite, or even the surprisingly impressive $40 model from SoundPEATS.

Take the time to figure out what’s worth buying

As with any tech purchase, if you’re not sure, do some research. Check out reviews online from multiple sources, making sure the reviewer isn’t sponsored by the product they’re covering (and don’t trust Amazon reviews). Considering a spectrum of opinions about that tech can help you make an informed decision, and keep you from buying a dud.

Comparisons are where it’s at; if the thing you want is way too expensive, source a reputable, budget-friendly option—and don’t just grab the first one you see that fits your ideal price point. Stacking products against each other is a great way to see what you’re giving up (if anything) by going with the cheaper alternative, and can help you make a better decision for your needs. Maybe you’ll find you’d rather wait and save up for the more expensive offering, or you’ll see the only reason one product costs so much more than another is brand recognition.

Remember this advice before tossing those “wow, they’re so cheap!” headphones from Target, or ordering a no-name tablet on Amazon for less than the price of a tank of gas. I’d rather see you with a device worth your money, rather than one destined for the landfill.