The problem with ‘next-gen’ gadgets

Gadgets, since time immemorial, have worked in a certain way.

You, a company, issue one. It’s good, but it’s not perfect. No gadget is perfect! So you do market research and focus groups. Find out who is buying. You find out what they like and what they don’t like. You refine. You solve problems.

The next year, you release a version of that device that is objectively, substantively better. This is the next-gen tool, Tool 2.0. You call this device an “upgrade”. You ask your customers to recycle device 1.0 and replace it with device 2.0. Some of them do. “Should you upgrade?” Tech bloggers write counting the pros and cons of doing so.

I know, I know, it is huge An oversimplification of how consumer technology actually works. I just want to illustrate that most of us who follow the gadget space share an assumption about the way products work: that products improve over the years. That next-gen gadgets are better than the gadgets they’re replacing.

But not all technology works that way anymore. And it’s time for all of us – companies and consumers alike – to stop acting like this.

The “upgrade” mentality made a lot of sense for new categories of products looking to research what customers want. The smart home space in the mid-2010s was a good example – it wasn’t clear how people would use Alexa, Google Assistant, and the various hardware that included them, and as the market learned more, there were software and speakers and such. Refined to better suit those use cases. Google Homes got a bigger sound and functionality without losing much in the exchange.

But many well-known gadget categories – especially smartphones, laptops and TVs – are now firmly out of that space. These mature markets are filled with established players and products that already work very well. And that makes “upgrading” in the traditional sense, a difficult task.

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One need only look at this year’s laptop market to see how this is playing out. There were very, very few laptop releases that were strictly better than the predecessors they replaced. The examples I can think of are all in gaming, where some rigs saw a meaningful jump in graphics quality from both hardware and software improvements.

But almost every “next-gen” device I’ve reviewed from the consumer computing space isn’t what I’d call an “upgrade” from the previous generation. They were an upgrade in some ways and a downgrade in others. Across the board, they were just different.

Some were quite different in both design and function. Take Dell’s XPS 13 2-in-1, for example. Since 2017, the device has been a fairly standard convertible — that is, a regular-looking laptop that’s capable of folding 360 degrees. This year, however, Dell abandoned that design for a Surface Pro-esque form factor instead. This year’s 2-in-1, while still marketed as The The XPS 13 2-in-1, and Dell’s older replacement in store, is essentially a Windows tablet with a magnetic keyboard case. That form factor isn’t necessarily better or worse, but it’s hard to conceptualize it as an “upgrade” from the previous form factor. It is ideal for different use cases, and it is targeting different customers. It’s just different.

But there are also next-gen laptop models that didn’t see many (if any) design updates but still ended up targeting an entirely new customer. That has to do with the choices Intel made about its 12th Gen processor lineup. Intel has long been the world’s largest semiconductor manufacturer and has operated without much meaningful competition for the past few decades. Only in recent years have AMD and Apple burst onto the scene with threatening, core-crammed competitors.

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Whereas Intel could once get away with incremental performance bumps every year, lately it’s had to make bigger and riskier moves. The company made big strides in raw power this year, and its Alder Lake chips rivaled (and even surpassed) Apple’s Arm chips in many metrics. But those chips were more power-hungry than the 11th Gen series, and the battery life of many Intel-powered 2022 laptops suffered as a result.

And so we had, across the board, a year full of Windows laptops that were more powerful than their similar-looking predecessors but didn’t last nearly as long on a charge. Seriously, you can click on any next-gen laptop review I’ve written this year. I can almost guarantee you that I admired the performance but complained about the battery life. These were not upgrades, although parts of them were improved. They were different devices, aimed at users for whom power was a priority and battery life was not. They weren’t – though there was overlap – strictly targeting shoppers who owned previous versions of those devices.

It’s not just for the laptop market though. Check out the iPhone 14. It’s the iPhone 13, but is there a new camera sensor? I know very few people who have actually bought this new iPhone – that I know a lot People who choose to buy the 13 because they feel that it is good value for their money.

Acer Chromebook Spin 714 open on table displaying purple ribbon desktop background.

The Acer Chromebook Spin 714 was a markedly different device from the Spin 713, mainly because of its battery life.
Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

I want to be clear that I don’t mean to knock next-gen gadgets or argue that they should go away. They clearly serve an important purpose in the technological landscape. But if they’re not upgrades, what are they? Hear me out: they’re sequels.

Entertainment has been doing it differently for decades. When a film’s sequel is released, we don’t think that the film’s sequel will be an improvement. Same goes for the remake. I think we can all be thankful that the 2004 Nicole Kidman version The Stepford Wives 1975 Katharine Ross Untitled – Two different films with different tones and target audiences, despite sharing the entire premise and plot. A sequel is sometimes (often, actually) worse than its prequel, and that’s okay, not a sign of a colossal failure or a doomed studio.

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Obviously, there are countless differences between consumer technology and Hollywood’s business models. Movies cannot and cannot be broken (although their elements – their special effects, their costumes and hairstyles, their settings and elements of their stories – date them over time). Gadgets need to be replaced in a way that movies don’t show.

Still, I think parts of the entertainment business model can offer both consumers and manufacturers an alternative way to think about consumer technology. (There are, of course, tech products outside the gadget space that are already widely viewed this way—cars are one example.)

Some categories are as good as they’re going to get

I’m imagining a world where if my XPS 13 breaks, I can easily replace it with another 10th Gen XPS 13 — even if the 12th Gen model is on the shelf. In this world, chip makers don’t need to release a new generation every year; They update when they have something important to share. Companies don’t replace their gadgets with new versions of those gadgets, but sell both ends with clear descriptions of who each one is and isn’t for. And reviewers evaluate new units on their own, unique qualities rather than comparing them spec-for-spec with their predecessors.

I am not suggesting that this world is even possible. We’re talking about companies that have a profit incentive to keep us buying new things and customers that love shiny new toys. I’m just saying it’s a world I vibe with.


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