Appreciating Device Upgrades

Yesterday I upgraded my laptop to the latest version of its operating system, macOS Big Sur. Big Sur was released a month ago, but I waited because Descript — an app central to my podcasting workflow — wasn’t yet compatible. Descript released a supported update yesterday, so I thought the time was right. As usual, I backed up my computer before updating its OS. But I didn’t need to: the update was utterly problem-free. (Still, it’s best to be cautious: backing up only takes about an hour and saves many hours were something to go wrong.)

I love Big Sur so far. The system’s user interface changes make it a more coherent sibling to iOS and iPadOS, the other operating systems where I spend much of my time. There aren’t many new features, but many existing features (such as notifications and various system controls) have been refined. This is subjective, but my computer also feels faster.

I had a similar experience earlier this year when I updated my iPhone and iPad to their operating systems’ latest versions. In each case, the device gained new abilities and refinements that made it much better than when I bought them. My iPad, like my laptop, is a couple of years old. My iPhone is three years old. In tech terms, these aren’t new devices. And yet, every year they get better via these major software updates: all three devices have gained new features and become more pleasant to use over the years I’ve owned them.

In the case of the iPad and iPhone, the upgrades go beyond software. This year, I bought the Apple Magic Keyboard for the iPad Pro, which turns it into a more effective productivity device. (At least when using it as a laptop.) In the case of the iPhone, the “hardware” upgrade was a case: my old silicon one broke, so I treated myself to a new leather case. Between the hardware tweaks and the great new software, both “old” devices feel new and improved.

Of course, none of these products will last forever. Their useful life is constrained by their batteries, which wear out. (Still, I can have the batteries replaced for a fee.) Also, each new OS release introduces features better suited to the latest/greatest hardware. Over time, these features add up, and my devices will start to feel slow and incapable. But not yet. Now — several years into owning them — I’m still excited about my computers, both pocketable and otherwise.

Is this new? Not really. Early personal computers, such as the Apple II and the IBM PC (and its clones) were modular: you could add new capabilities over time if you had the money, time, and technical chops. But software upgrades were a different matter. Not that long ago, you had to pay for each OS upgrade, which came in sets of discs or floppies in shrink-wrapped boxes. The process was challenging, error-prone, and invariably made the computer feel slower. It was a hassle.

While our current devices aren’t as modular as early PCs, they’re still very extensible. And now the norm is for OS upgrades to be quick, easy, and free. Given less substantial year-over-year hardware improvements, our computing devices retain more of their value — and remain more useful — over time. It’s a great time to be a computer user.