Always Be a Sort-of-Early Adopter

In defense of waiting for second-generation gadgets.

Photo illustration: A man looks down with an image of Apple Earpods superimposed on his ear.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images and Thinkstock.

If you were looking to buy a pair of AirPods, you may be better off waiting a few more months. Bloomberg reported Thursday that Apple is working on a second version of its popular AirPod in-ear headphones. The updated product will include an upgraded wireless chip for faster and more powerful on-board processing; a greater level of water resistance, in case you get caught in a downpour; and the addition of Hey Siri, the entirely voice-based version of Apple’s virtual assistant. The news is a good reminder: Second-generation products, particularly by Apple, are almost always vastly superior to the original.

Apple’s first stab at AirPods has not been a bad one, all things considered. The company’s $159 wireless in-ear buds have achieved a solid four-star review on Apple’s website, with most complaints stemming from their lack of interoperability with non-Apple products, lower-than-expected audio quality for the price, and performance reliability issues. But often a first-generation product ends up shipping before all of its anticipated features are ready, and AirPods are no exception. In this case, water resistance and hands-free access to Siri sound like things Apple may have hoped to include with the AirPods experience, but had to push back to the second generation model in because of timing and production constraints.

We’ve seen this situation before—and more drastically—with previous Apple launches. The first -generation Apple Watch, for example, could barely get a day’s battery life, wasn’t waterproof, and lacked GPS and cellular connectivity. What apps were available early on weren’t always compelling; they were, however, slow. Hop forward a year and Apple debuted the Apple Watch Series 2, a smartwatch with a dual-core processor, better battery life, water resistance up to 50 meters, GPS tracking, and a brighter display—all running on a much-improved watchOS software platform. The second iteration of the watch was the version we had all been hoping for when the product originally debuted. First generation models of laptops such as the Macbook Air and MacBook also suffered various issues, such as poor battery life or slow performance, that were solved in later hardware updates.

The HomePod, another first-generation product, also seems to suffer from first-generation product problems. Reviewers panned the smart speaker’s song identification capabilities and lack of native integration with non-Apple music sources. And shortly after its launch, some unsuspecting HomePod owners discovered it was leaving white marks on finished wood surfaces. The second-generation version will surely improve on the speaker’s various abilities, from audio performance and Siri functionality, to possibly even changing up the material used for its base—so it doesn’t damage wood countertops anymore.

Apple is far from the only company to suffer from this first-gen-itis, that’s just the way it goes: Shipping hardware is challenging, and your first stab at a new product category is going to suffer from unforeseen issues, no matter how diligently you try to prevent them. The second-gen iteration is then able to swoop in, fix those problems, and build on its predecessor. So as a consumer, it often pays to wait. If you’re comfortable without whatever that new product is for another year or two, you can enjoy a more fully featured version without the bugs and headaches that early adopters had to deal with. At the same time, second-gen buyers are dependent on early adopters: If no one purchased the first generation AirPods, for example, we might not get a second version at all, or realize every issue that ailed it.

But if you’re one of those that doesn’t have to have the latest and greatest the second it comes out, good for you: It’s a smart move for your wallet and for your sanity. And in the case of AirPods, we should see a reasonably good product get even better.