Car tech. The average cost of a new car topped $31,000 this year, but car experts point out that if you stripped out the new electronic offerings, like in-car entertainment, car prices would actually be declining. When you buy a new car, consider the cost of the add-ons, and the real value of things like a $1,000 to $2,000 CD player system – especially since CDs are being replaced by cheaper systems that let you plug in your music device, says The Car Connection, which reviews and researches car features. There are other pricey tech options that you might not need that add $1,000 plus each: in-car video systems (just bring an iPad on board for the kids), voice command controls, power assist doors and smartphone systems.
Device overload. People are hanging onto their landlines when they own mobile phones, and they are snapping up new smartphones and devices that duplicate what they already own. Data shows that young consumers tend to pack more services onto their smartphones and are giving up landlines – but not their parents. Pew Research Center says the number of people who own more than one device went from just 4 percent in 2010 to 20 percent in 2012. Devices do different things, of course. But according to research firm NPD, the number of Internet-connected devices has reached 5.7 per household. Some of that hardware is probably duplicating what others do, and Enderle says older consumers buy more useless devices. They have extra time and consume an awful lot of ads for "bargain" tech products – devices that can be hard for them to use and end up collecting dust on a shelf.
Streaming music. Streaming music services like Spotify and Pandora are great bargains – mostly free until you upgrade. But they use a lot of your data capacity, the bandwidth you pay for, and can lead to higher Internet charges. Spotify concedes the point on its own website, saying, "Spotify uses the Internet in a clever way to deliver music instantly, without buffering. Because of this, Spotify uses up bandwidth."
Apps. The explosion of apps also brings lots of choices and costs as well, even if they are free. Abhinav Pathak, a researcher at Purdue University, says apps were developed in an "energy oblivious manner" and can suck the life out device batteries quickly. His research shows that the advertising component of free apps uses much of that power. They also pack in a lot of personal data tracking, warns the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection. Of course, many of those free apps want to become paid apps, so watch for the charges. More hidden from view, and especially important for kids using apps, are "in-app" purchase options that sometimes allow young users to click-purchase more sophisticated software and devices that can cost hundreds of dollars.
Old technology. "There is a ton of stuff we pay for in a PC that we don't actually use or care for," Enderle says. He lists useless former wonders like infrared signals for connecting devices, optical disks, serial and parallel ports and Bluetooth, which has many applications elsewhere but is "rarely used for computers." The cost of such bundling is hard to estimate, but those features suggest the computer may be outmoded and a waste of money.
Security and privacy software. Computer makers are packing security into products more often than in the past, Enderle says, and adding more can just be a waste. "A lot of the security software being sold is just a placebo," he says. Fear of being tracked over the Internet has led to a surge in new privacy software sales. Most have limited value, Enderle says: "There are ways around the privacy software and anonymizers for those who want your data." Privacy expert Bruce Schneier, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, says your own browser may be the best way to protect yourself from snoops. "Private browsing means that what you do remains on your own computer drive," he says. Security and privacy software packages can cost up to $100 for a single computer. Even free versions come with a price: Geekwire blogger Frank Catalano writes about using a free network security software application that changed his PC settings, costing him "hours of time, uncertainty and frustration."