Tue 30 April 2019


The High Cost of the Early Adopter Tax

I used to be an early adopter. Having always loved technological advancements in computing, and I was consistently among the first to adopt the latest hardware and software.

But being an early adopter has had a terribly high cost. Not a fiscal cost (although that also often applies), but expensive in terms of time and frustration.

I know people who have upgraded to the latest annual iOS release and ended up with bricked devices that had to be physically replaced. Others tried to upgrade to the latest macOS release, got irrecoverably hung, and only narrowly escaped unscathed back to the previous version of the operating system.

While I have been lucky enough to avoid scenarios like those, my early adopter tendencies have certainly resulted in my fair share of problems.

Hardware Guinea Pig Woes

When the iPhone 4 was announced, I stayed up late and pre-ordered it. I was amazed when it arrived, having been shipped directly from the Shenzen factory to my doorstep. In the days and weeks that followed, I was chagrined to find build quality issues and problems with antenna-related reception. In the weeks that followed, Apple almost certainly mitigated these manufacturing issues — silently — and folks who bought the same phone a month or so later were blissfully unaware of the problems I faced.

Slow to learn my lesson, I pre-ordered the iPhone 6s on launch day as well. Less than a year later, I began experiencing sudden shutdowns, usually in cooler weather, even though the battery still showed a 50% charge. To its credit, Apple acknowledged the problem and replaced the battery, even out of warranty for those affected. And who was affected? Folks who ordered their phones on launch day — like me. Had I waited for the kinks to get worked out, that would likely have been another headache avoided.

When the new 13” MacBook Pro with Touch Bar was announced in 2016, I had been nursing along my 2011 11” MacBook Air for years and was beyond ready to upgrade to a high-resolution Retina display. Rationalizing away concerns about the unnecessarily low-travel keyboard and questionable Touch Bar utility, I ordered the new MacBook Pro on launch day. After it arrived, I experienced sticking keys, wake-from-sleep problems, and video glitches. Thankfully, everything except the keyboard was resolved in subsequent software updates, but I still had to endure those frustrating problems for the first few months I owned the computer.

Most recently, there have been issues with AirPods Pro, with any made before October 2020 eligible for the AirPods Pro Service Program for Sound Issues. I could on and on, but by this point I think you get the idea.

With software upgrades, at least you have a reasonable chance of a subsequent version fixing whatever problem was created by prematurely upgrading. That’s one of the nice things about software. With hardware, the manufacturer may or may not fix the problem due to the cost and scale involved. So being a hardware early adopter can carry a particularly high cost.

New Strategy

With few exceptions, I don’t buy hardware on launch day any longer. I wait for a month or two for the proverbial dust to settle. In addition to waiting for any manufacturing issues to be sorted out, the extra time also allows me to read post-launch reviews and affords me the benefit of making clearer-headed, better-informed purchase decisions.

Another recent change in habit is that I am more inclined to buy a proven, battle-tested design. When the iPhone 8 and X were announced, I waited for a few months… and then bought the iPhone 8. While the iPhone X’s new screen, Face ID, and other shiny features had their appeal, I ultimately decided these first-generation components would be less likely to provide me with a reliable and trouble-free experience than Touch ID and the other more-proven iPhone 8 design choices.

On the software side, I wait for at least several months before upgrading to the latest annual macOS release. In that time period, hundreds and hundreds of annoying bugs will be fixed, none of which will ever affect me. Plus, I use a variety of plugins and other custom extensions, and it takes time for them to be updated for compatibility with major macOS upgrades. And over time my upgrade latency has been increasing — I run Mojave on one Mac and High Sierra on another, and for the first time in the three decades I have been using Mac computers, I will skip an OS release entirely (Catalina). I have little incentive to upgrade either of my Macs to Big Sur, given the considerable number of potential pitfalls involved.

Similarly, I hold off on major iOS upgrades until at least the subsequent x.1, x.2, or even x.3 releases. I would probably wait even longer, if it weren’t for security updates that aren’t backported to previous iOS versions. Not to mention the fact that iOS upgrades are a one-way trip with no way to revert, or that Apple virtually mandates that you upgrade via aggressive nag dialogs. But those are topics for another day.

So remember, folks… Choose boring technology and radical simplicity. And when tempted to buy or upgrade on launch day, consider the high cost of being the guinea pig. Your wallet and sanity will thank you.