THE BLOG

When Is it One Gadget Too Many?

02/14/2014 12:52 pm ET | Updated Apr 16, 2014

How many tech gadgets do you own? Chances are, you have a PC, Mac or Windows, desktop or laptop and a smartphone. Maybe you both kinds of PCs, a desktop workstation and a portable laptop. Maybe you have a tablet -- large or small? You might also have a Kindle e-reader. And what about that phone, is it friendly to one-handed use, or is it so big that you need two hands to do anything with it? And is that a GPS in your car? And an iPod in your pocket?

Maybe you even have all or most of the above. But even if you only have a reasonablecombination of these devices, ask yourself, are there any that get neglected? Is there at least one that, despite how cool it might be, simply becomes, well, redundant?

If you have a desktop computer and a laptop and an iPad and a smartphone, do you really need the desktop as well as the laptop? Can’t the iPad handle your on-the-go computing needs? Or maybe the iPad is redundant to the laptop and the smartphone. You don’t need the iPad in this case, because all of its functionality can be covered by the laptop and the phone. If the phone’s display is 5“ or bigger (like a "phablet"), the distinction between it and the iPad blurs even further. If that iPad is an iPad mini, further still.

Or perhaps it’s the laptop that’s the tablet’s real rival. I’m writing this on my iPad, because it’s the device I tend to have with me when I’m thinking creatively. But it’s unquestionable that it would be easier to write this on my old MacBook Air. If it wasn’t upstairs and attached to a hundred cords, maybe I would be. Zal Bilimoria recently got a lot of attention for a piece he wrote at Re/code about what he sees as the end of the very-brief tablet era, and while I think a some of it is a little overblown, he makes this good point:

It comes down to size. The vast majority of the hundreds of millions of people who use tech every day are just fine with having two primary computing devices: One for your pocket and one for your desk. Tablets are trying (and failing) to be portable enough to go everywhere, yet large enough to be multipurpose. Despite all the keyboard origami and elaborate ways to make your tablet into a laptop, it isn't one.

And it’s true, as capable as an iPad is, it’s still not a laptop. I have argued, and continue to believe, that it’s not the point of a tablet to replace a laptop, but to be a kind of device-of-choice, the computing gadget you use when you don’t have to work on your PC or fiddle with your phone, for when you have things you want to do, as opposed to the things you have to do.

But a sleek, light, eternally-batteried MacBook Air can make that a tougher sell. So, too, a large-displayed phone can feel just as “liesurely” as a tablet. Assuming we don’t want to burn money on every type of gadget possible, where does a tablet fit?

Another example: I own a Kindle Paperwhite, and it’s great. It’s light, the battery is fantastic, and the magically illuminated screen is gentle and easy to read on. I haven’t used it in ages, though. Because I also have a 5“ phone (a Nexus 5) and a full-size tablet (iPad Air). During my leisure time, I usually have that iPad in my hands, so that’s what I’m going to read off of. And for when I’m in bed, the 5” screen of the Nexus 5 is nearly the same size as the Kindle, plus it’s lighter, and the resolution is so crisp as to make text look even better than it does on a dedicated reading device.

I have a pang of principle that tells me that an e-ink reader is the superior device for reading, and this was certainly true when Kindles first came about, pre-Retina/1080p displays. But now that the pixels-per-inch on LCD displays have gone through the roof on almost all mobile devices, the Kindle’s superior battery and non-backlit display cease to be trump cards. Tablets and phones have caught up enough. And so my Kindle sits forlornly (I imagine) on my nightstand as I cradle my Nexus 5, needing only one hand, as I read a Neal Stephenson novel.

Or, to go back to the tablet as the prime leisure device. If that Kindle Paperwhite were even slightly more functional, if it could handle email, light web browsing, and maybe Twitter and Instapeper clients, then the iPad could (once again) be rendered redundant. The e-ink Kindle would be the chilling-out device, and the computing and apps would be left to the phone and the PC, the two devices you “have” to use.

We as consumers are being pushed a lot of expensive electronics that are marketed as wholly necessary for their specific niche. The phone you need for your mobile computing and communication, the PC you need for your serious work and storage, the Kindle you need for long-form reading, the tablet you need for creativity and leisure (or, as the recent iPad commercial would have it, to contribute your “verse”).

I’m a huge tech enthusiast, so I indulge in all these categories, given the chance and the funds (which is how I eliminate one big redundancy -- I can’t afford a desktop PC, so the center of my computing life is a 2.5-year-old 11“ MacBook Air, not exactly a workhorse machine). But even a fanboy like me has to take a step back and take stock of what objects I truly need in my life, and which ones I can do without, and that goes for all ”stuff," be it electronic or no. I can certainly make use of all of them, even if some, like the Kindle, get mostly ignored. I’ll almost certainly use it from time to time.

Importantly, we all have our own requirements for our devices. If I edited video for work or as a hobby, my MacBook Air wouldn’t cut it. But if I then got myself a desktop machine, I would have trouble justifying holding on to the laptop, since I have other objects that pick up most of its slack.

Many of these devices are relatively new. iPads have been around for only four years, Kindles and smartphones (the ones that aren’t awful), only seven. But in that short time, they’ve matured quite a bit, and now the contours of what they’re all actually for is just beginning to become clear. What I’m trying to figure out, as a gadget-obsessed tech enthusiast with very limited funds, is which of these things I genuinely need, which ones are just nice to have if I can square it, and which ones should find themselves in an eBay listing. As fun as all of them are, simply possessing an array of tech toys can be a source of stress – deciding which to use, and feeling guilt for having spent money on things that aren’t getting used.

It may be that merely by divesting oneself of one or some of the electronic devices (or any objects, really) whose purpose is already filled by other devices, perhaps one can achieve a level of simplicity that Jony Ive would appreciate -- even if one of those divestments is of an object of his own design.