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Why newer might not be better

11 June 2021

It is generally accepted that the new version of a tried and trusted product will be better than the one that went before it.

The latest iPhone has to be better than last year's one and the latest game console is bound to be faster and more fun than the last version you had... right?

Well normally this is indeed the case but recently it seems, things are not as simple as they once were.

It could be that the next release of your favourite bit of electronic equipment might actually be worse, for a very simple reason.

That reason is the current lack of supply within the semiconductor industry.

Manufacturers are suffering huge problems in sourcing parts for many of their existing product lines and it seems that their response to this problem is, at least in a few cases, to redesign the product around more readily available components.

Such redesigns are probably the only way forward for products that are reliant on a few hard-to-get chips that might represent only a tiny fraction of the total sticker price. An example of this would be the car industry.

If you're a car-maker who can't finish your $40K vehicle for the lack of a $1 microcontroller, what do you do?

You either sit around with a growing inventory of "incomplete" and therefore unsellable vehicles, patiently waiting for that 52-week lead time to expire -- or you redesign the parts of that vehicle that are reliant on those hard-to-get parts.

Obviously the second option is the most practical. Nobody will want your "last year's" model of those cars even when the parts do come back into stock and you can finally roll them out to dealers' showrooms. Those cars must ship ASAP or they'll represent a huge blot of red ink on your accounts.

For this reason, I think we can expect to see a generation of vehicles and consumer electronics that may not be as good as the one before -- simply because compromises have been made in terms of using the "best" designs solely in order to ship something; anything!

I'm seeing this already in the drone industry. A number of crucial electronic subsystems have been out of stock for a long time now and we're starting to see "new" versions launched with some weird component choices. These choices are obviously based on what is actually available rather than what's best for the job.

Sure, these things will probably work... but will they work as well as the versions that went before them? The jury's out on that until we have more real-world data.

There is speculation that DJI's latest product release, the DJI Mini SE, is in fact just a slight redesign of the original DJI Mini with the changes being made with an eye on simply being able to keep making them rather than making any improvements in specification or performance. Fortunately the company has been honest enough to cut the price, perhaps to reflect the fact that the "guts" is perhaps not as good as the previous edition?

So right now I'd be very cautious of any product changes you see coming down the pipeline. Are those changes designed to make the product better -- or to simply allow the manufacturer to keep shipping stuff, perhaps even if the performance and reliability is somewhat reduced?

Caveat Emptor is the order of the day. Take no marketing hype as gospel, do your research and bring a healthy dose of skepticism to the table, with an awareness that a lot of the "key components" (such as STM32 microcontrollers) are now either unavailable or more than ten times the price they were a year ago.

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