I can't decide whether to Pit or Praise cheap-ass consumer electronics

My Palm Tungsten E2 is absolutely necessary for my life. I have Pocket Medicine (quick reference medical facts) and ePocrates (a drug compendium), as well as a Pregnancy Wheel program (which I use constantly during my OB/Gyn rotation). I use Bluetooth to sync with my laptop. Not to mention my Bluetooth GPS and the Tomtom Navigator that works with it. And of course all of my calendar, my phone book, lists of memos of little things to learn and study when I get home, and pictures of the kids.

It is 4 months old; my mom bought my Tungsten E off of me 4 months ago cause she needed a Palm and I wanted Bluetooth. And of course today it broke. Not in a fatal way, but something is seriously wrong. The screen is in negative colors and it appears to be working really slow. No hard reset can touch it. The kind of break that is completely unknown to Google and the Palm knowledgebase. Palm want $130 to fix it because it is out of the 90 day warranty. 4 months ago it was new for $200, granted I spent less because I worked the deal with my mom. But still.

Let’s talk about iPods. I have a 3rd gen. I’m lucky in that I’ve never had to replace my battery, but the battery life is down to around 1.5 hours. It is 2 and a half years old. But a more typical story with iPods is my uncle, who has replaced his battery twice in two and a half years and needs to do it a third time. Or my cousin, who bought a 40 GB 4th gen and has sent it back to Apple 4 times, the latest being this week when the hard drive died. Good thing he sprung for AppleCare. But as anyone who has ever had an iPod can tell you, for a music lover, the thing is close to the perfect consumer electronic device that money can buy.

Or phones. Who among us hasn’t had a cellphone die within a year? Who among us hasn’t bought a really cool phone that they lusted after for 9 months until it died and then had to phone Cingular and beg for a free/cheap brick of a phone because you were SOL cause you dropped it on concrete/got it wet/sat on it/etc. etc.

I got a camcorder for Father’s Day 2004 to film my then 3 month old daughter. Well, it lasted till she was 15 months, then the CCD died and now it is dead and they want $150 to look at a $350 camcorder. Just stopped working after I let my father in law borrow it, and he would have replaced it if it was something he did consciously to screw it up. Nope, it just up at broke after a year. But a digital camcorder for $350, who’d a thunk a few years ago…

I always said I would never buy a smartphone or a ROKR because if I dropped it and it broke, I’d be out 2 or 3 devices instead of one. I’m glad on days like today my little theory is proven right.

Every time I get one of these things – my phone, my Palm, my iPod – I am dumbfounded by how far consumer electronics has come. My phrase is “alien technology.” About half of the time, a year later, I am cursing my clumsiness/bad QC/bad design and replacing it. This isn’t an Apple or Motorola or Samsung or Palm problem. Nor is it a particularly new problem – I remember my first Sony Discman breaking in 6 months after purchase.

As the starving student, now with 2 kids, they are the special once-a-year save-up-and-buy purchases. And it just stings when you shift your whole life around them and then they break. We have a saying in my family – Donkeys Must Suffer (DMS). When you are stubborn and refuse to change your errors, you will suffer again. And so DMS for me. But damn them for making the errors so tempting!

I think we’re looking at the same thing as “supersizing” here. Companies make what customers are more willing to buy, not what customers would rather have. (Please note that we will be ignoring the iPod for a moment.)

Most people, particularly Americans and Japanese, are always looking for the “sweet deal.” If you can get 80 ounces of meat for 2 cents (I have no idea how much an ounce is, so we will just assume that I wrote a large quantity there), then that is a deal and you must buy it regardless of what in the world you’re going to do with 80 ounces of cow. Similarly, you could have a device that does exactly what you want all in a seemless manner or you can make it so that everything is “extra.” I.e. bluetooth is an “extra” function as is GPS as is x, y, and z. Being able to get 80 of those all on there, even though you might not be able to think of any use for half of them, is still a “sweet deal” and you must buy it.

The problem with such devices being that since the quantity and the “newness” of features is what sells the device, the selling point is also a death sentence to as quickly obsolete the old devices as quickly as possible. And given that people expect the device to only be applicable for approximately one year (for instance from Christmas season '06 to '07), there is little need nor expectation for the maker to design the device to be able to last any longer than this.

The other problem is that instead of designing a device to serve a particular function, they have to be designed to be able to do anything you could ever plug into it. You have to put in a full OS, have some sort of GUI running on it so you can have a program menu, have to have individual programs for each function that’s been enabled, etc. So even if the hardware has been designed to last, the software that runs all the hardware functionality will have to be more complicated than it would be if they were going for a minimal, goal-oriented design. Which all has to be made to run and tested.

Now, getting back to iPod which is instead a simple, functional device–their problem is simply that Apple has no option but to work with hardware companies who are used to designing all of their miniature sized hardware for devices which only last a year and then are trashed. Plus then that Japan seems to not be releasing most of their best hardware for small devices to the US for who knows what reason–or at least Apple isn’t using it.

Followup is that the Tungsten E2 is morally, ethic’lly, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably Dead this morning after a sync and a charge. This apparently is the “black screen of death” deal in Tungsten E2, and is a relatively known and common problem. I’m a little reluctant to run out and buy a new one, but it is either this one or one that’s $100 more. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, I depend on this thing every day.


I’m pretty sure that Apple does their own hardware design. If your iPod fails and you didn’t mistreat it, it’s Apple’s fault, not the fault of some nameless “cheapo electronics design firm.”

Components I mean.