Why It's Safer Than Ever To Buy First-Generation Hardware
Used to be, diving into a whole new product line was something only for the crazy ones, those who live dangerously, the mavericks. "Wise men wait to buy" was the refrain that rang through the web, with fear of hardware defects and half-baked features tempering the go! go! buy! buy! fever of a new product announcement. But things are different now.Manufacturing is Getting Really Good Whether it's a unibody carved out of a single block of aluminum or a smaller, more efficient and reliable die for a game-console processor, manufacturing is getting better. Across the board. Mark Kotkin, the head of survey research at Consumer Reports, says that on the whole, reliability is higher and frequency of repairs is lower than they ever have been for the major brands. In the repair department, two of the least problematic major electronics are LCD and plasma flat screens, a shocker given the fact that they are two of the newest product types at the store. Put simply, companies have tons of incentive to make their manufacturing process better, incentives that aren't directly related to making customers happy. If manufacturing is simpler and has more quality control, more product gets out the door, reducing throwaways and padding the bottom line with less cost (ergo more profit). That's nothing shocking-manufacturing gets better as tech gets more advanced. But because there's a built-in financial incentive for this to happen, it's a factor that won't be ignored, even—or especially—when cashflow is tight. Software Updates Are More Powerful Than Ever Gone are the days when every piece of home electronics comes with a different set of core parts. Today, our gear is more defined by the software that's running inside. And while no amount of firmware patching or OS upgrading will affect a melted solder point on a GPU or a warped laptop lid that won't close evenly, software updates bring serious enhancements down the pipe. Even gadget novices know enough to stick flash drives into their TVs to get improved HDMI performance when the situation arises, or anxiously pounce on new updates for game consoles with the hope of a fix or a free new feature. Apple may control updates to the Nvidia GPUs in the new MacBooks, but knowing they are officially upgradeable via software—to allow for all kinds of goodies, like 8GB of RAM, dynamic dual-GPU cycling, and the like—is a buying incentive. Some phones have it even easier, getting updated over the air. The G1 wasn't even fully released yet when we caught wind of the first OTA update coming down the pipe, and within a few hours of going open source, bugs were already being filed and fixed in the main Android stack by outside developers. And back when we said wait on the iPhone? We were proven 100% right, as we watched it come fully into its own, at long last, with the 2.1 software. But because it was a free firmware update for all iPhones including the first-gen EDGE models, early adopters who didn't heed our warning still benefited from the massive revamp. Microsoft showed similar goodwill by letting its major Zune updates trickle down the entire line, the latest update giving it a song recommendation engine that bests the iPod's. Software upgrades are not always advantageous—recent iPhone and PlayStation firmware releases are crowning examples. But what's broken in software can be fixed in software, and when the breaks are egregious, the fixes usually come fast. Internet Bitching is a Powerful Force It's hard to make over a million of something and not have a few duds slip through QA-that fact will never change. Even though Apple claims that the Brick process is so simple that they "can get it right every single time," there will always be anomalies. (Humans, after all, are still involved.) A quick scan of Apple Discussions right now shows people complaining about slightly tilted function keys—the solution offered? pull up on the sunken end slightly with a prying tool. This level of minutiae is there because now, complaining about product defects on the Internet actually gets results, and major companies are shifting their strategies because of that. Not previously known for warm fuzzy customer relations, Dell was forced to take action after increasing unreliability (and the company's tight-lipped or non-existent response) threatened to bring the whole ship down. The reaction? They created the Direct2Dell blog and IdeaStorm feedback site. Now only days after a story with unaddressed hardware issues hits Digg's front page (bad battery life, 3G reception, and on), a recall notice or firmware update goes public. Companies are learning a fundamental lesson: Having thousands of angry product owners unite on Digg to flame your defective hardware is not good. My favorite example was Creative's unfortunate suppression of an unofficial driver—written by a totally random guy in Brazil—that gave the company's sound cards the Vista-friendly capabilities Creative itself was too lazy or distracted to publish itself. After nearly 2500 diggs later and plenty of posts from us and others, Creative finally realized it was being foolish. That's the power of internet bitching. Even When You Wait, You Can Still Get Screwed The first point here was unsurprising—tech manufacturing is more reliable than ever. But maybe you were thinking, "That sure wasn't the case with Nvidia's massive GPU recall." True, but the weird thing about that was that the product had been in production a long time before the defect was discovered. It affected everything from Dell laptops to MacBook Pros, many products that had already stood the test of time. In these cases, when a widely used component is at fault, even waiting for a product refresh wouldn't have saved you any trouble. Reputations Are Important You can also greatly increase your chances with a first-gen product by being smart about who you buy it from. While this theorem could be pretty safely applied to new products from Dell and Apple, for instance, buying a brand new form factor from someone with a less than stellar repair record—Consumer Reports' latest survey ranks Gateway worst for desktops and HP at the bottom for notebooks—may be something to think twice about. Just because a company is huge and does not mean it is immune to reliability issue. (Red Ring of Death, anyone?) Final Thoughts Don't take this is a blanket excuse for not giving a second thought to buying brand-new hardware models; while all the trends here are valid, designing and manufacturing complex CE gear never will be a foolproof process. Prices will go down, and reliability in the future will be better than today, so waiting is still wiser, even if it's perhaps just not as necessary. This argument doesn't factor in another more complex and in some ways unrelated fact about electronic: Planned obsolescence. Companies have a separate financial incentive to weighing disposability over long-term reliability. Gone are the days where you can be satisfied with the same television for 20 years-advancements move faster now, sure, but manufacturers now make sure to leave off some future-proofed hardware—or charge a lot more for it—to ensure that your TV won't last too long. Which is a sad, but different, issue. When the scope is limited to more contemporary times, these trends can be taken as a sign that things are improving, bettering your odds of not getting screwed compared to a few years back. Which is refreshing news for everyone: Getting screwed less in the gadget world = good.