Monday, October 4, 2010


Gadgets may seem like a lot of fun, and once in a while, they may actually be useful.  But more often then not, they squandering your money.  Think hard before you buy another toy.

Gadgets!  They are so much fun - for a while a least.  You get the box home, unpack all the Styrofoam packing, remove the desiccant gel packs (don't eat them!), toss the warranty card and instructions, and plug in that good old wall-pack transformer and you are in business!

Of course, the "high" from buying a gadget wears off quickly.  It turns out the device does a lot less than you thought, or that the feature you want is part of an "upgrade" you have to pay extra for.  And while you thought that buying the device would change your life forever, it turns out to be more of a nuisance and time-bandit than anything else.  Within a few days, months, or years, the item is sitting in a drawer somewhere, unused.  Eventually, it ends up in a landfill.

And gadgets can comprise a lot of stuff, not just electrical toys as shown above.  Over the years we have bought a lot of this crap - they should name a town in China after us!  And most of it is just plastic junk that breaks after a short while, or doesn't quite work as advertised.

The premise of the gadget is that it will make your life easier - or that it will change your life forever.  You will look at your life as two phases - the dark, primitive period before you bought the gadget, where you suffered and got by with bygone technology from days past, and the bright futuristic happy times after you bought the gadget, when all was sweetness and light.

It may take you a few decades before you figure out that this premise is basically a lie - that owning any "thing" really doesn't make you happy or even more productive.  People like to think that these gadgets do, but in many cases, they simply give the appearance of productivity - for example, texting.

And that is why most gadgets are aimed at the 15-35 year old market.  Older people realize, after decades of experience, that gadgets do not make them happy - they just empty their wallet.  Yes you might "need" some gadgets to get by and others you might enjoy.  But they are not an end in and of themselves, and you discover, over time, that most are just junk.

Here is a short list of some gadgets I have bought or friends have bought, and how they worked out before they were sent off to the landfill.

1.  The Swiffer:  We actually bought more than one of these things - and actually different brands of them (Clorox makes one as well).  They are metal and plastic floor cleaning wands, with a bottle of juice that attaches and squirts on the floor, and a special static pad that picks up dirt.  On the TeeVee, they show it making light work of daily housework - and making your house cleaner as a result!  Once you remove all that dirt (see my posting on Understanding Dust) you tear off the special cleaning cloth and toss it in the trash.

It worked as advertised - for a while.  The problem was, you have to buy the special cleaning cloths and the bottles of special juice to replenish the system.  And like most "subscription" model devices, this is where the manufacturer makes out on the sales.  The device is given away for below cost, with the idea that they make up for it on the back-end selling re-fill cartridges and cloths.

As a result, the device is rather flimsy - an aluminum sectioned pole with plastic fittings.  So unlike a regular mop, you put any pressure on it and it snaps in two - as two of them did while in service.  On the Clorox version, the spray bottle would fall out and the sprayer fell off the head continually.  Did it clean "better" than a regular mop?  Perhaps - it is hard to tell.  Was it less effort?  Not really, as you had to dick around with all this special equipment.  Was it cheaper?  No, not at all.

Off to the landfill they all went.  Money down the drain, with no apparent purpose or use.

Note also that these types of devices often change formats.  So after you invest in one model, they change the design and your model is no longer available.  The razor companies are particularly good at this!

2.  The CamCorder:  What could be more fun than videotaping all your adventures and vacations!  Well, for starters, having all you teeth extracted without anesthesia.   The camcorder promised to capture hours of endless footage that in later years, we'd all want to look back at and marvel over.  In reality, it just kept us from actually enjoying the present at the time.

These devices are not cheap, and they change formats regularly. We bought an 8mm one, and after a year, it broke.  I bought another one on "closeout" for half-price.  Guess what?  It broke, too.  So I have maybe a dozen hours of video tape from the 1990's on 8mm format that I cannot play back on anything.

Today, they have DVD camcorders, and even solid state devices are starting to become popular.  Making funny videos and putting them on YouTube could be fun, I suppose.  If you are a budding film maker, perhaps one of these devices could be useful.

But for most of us, a camcorder is one sure way to ruin a vacation.  As I get older, I am less interested in "recording" my life, either on video or still pictures, than I am in experiencing it.

For some reason, I kept the broken camcorder for nearly a decade.  I just tossed it the other day while cleaning house. It was too expensive to throw away back when it broke.  But broke is broke, and when a gadget breaks, it is time to toss it, wall-pack transformer and all!

3.  The Roomba:  I have never bought one of these, but some friends have bought them or received them as gifts.  They often appear on sale at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, or as "refurbished" (returned) on Woot!  The promise of these devices was great - taking one of the most onerous chores around the house and automating it.  But in reality they fall far short of the promise.

The problem with Roombas is that they are more small carpet sweepers than real vacuum cleaners.  If they cost $1000 or more, they could be sufficiently robust to actually clean - and heavy enough to cross over from carpet to hardwood, etc. and smart enough to find their way around.  Instead, they are a lightweight frisbee-sized disc that moves around in a semi-random pattern, sweeping the carpet.

While some folks reported that they worked OK, in almost every instance they use them for a few weeks or months and then...stop using them.  For one reason or another, people get tired of dicking around with them and go back to the good old vacuum cleaner.

Perhaps someday, an improved Roomba will hit the market and really automate the chore of vacuuming the house.  If the Roomba really worked as advertised, everyone would own one by now.  But traditional vacuums still outsell it by a factor of more than 10 to 1, and I think even the Roomba people recognize that their device is not a substitute for a traditional vacuum,  but an augmentation to one.

Until this device really replaces the vacuum cleaner, I'd take a pass.

4.  Bluetooth Headset:  I bought one of these with my last cell phone.  The salesman said this was the next big thing, and it was cheap enough - like $99 or so.  The premise is, you put this RF headset in your ear, looking like one of the Borg Drones, and then you can answer all of your phone calls without having to put the phone next to your head.

The problem with the headset, other than I looked like a dork wearing it, was that it stuck in your ear and thus was uncomfortable after a while.  Also, you have to wear it all the time (looking like a dork).  If you tried to "put it on" once the cell phone rang, the phone would bounce to voicemail before you could answer it.

And the battery life was not very long.  So if you left it on your head (and in the "on" mode) it would run the battery dry before you got a call.  And leaving a headset on your head on the premise that you "might" get a phone call is, of course, idiotic.

And of course, we've all seen the people talking on these things, looking like wild homeless people hearing voices.  Are they crazy, or just on the cell phone?  Hard to tell - maybe both!

The thing fell out of my ear and landed on the pavement and cracked.  I glued it back together and it worked OK, but I stopped using it and that is the deathknell for NiCad Batteries.  Within a few months, it stopped taking a charge.  Off to the landfill it goes!

Bluetooth has other applications, of course.  I have a bluetooth adaptor in my car, so it will do "hands-free" cell phone talking while you drive (the law here in NY and elsewhere).  But I always end up shouting at the ceiling of the car as a result.  And you know what?  Talking "hands free" is just as distracting as talking into a headset.  Turns out that it is talking on the phone, period, that causes distraction, not just the headset.

Bluetooth may be useful as an RF wireless data path.  But the hands free headsets are dorky and not very useful.  If you are on the phone all day long, get a wired headset - they are cheaper, more reliable, need no recharging, and be put on and taken off easily, and also eliminate a source of RF radiation near your brain.

5.  The Presto Fry Daddy:  Every appliance store has a small fryer that you can use to deep fry things.  Presto makes one, but so do a whole host of others.  We just sold one at our garage sale.  It was slimy with stale grease.

Do they work?  Well, sort of.  When you go to a deep-fry restaurant, they have a huge deep fat fryer that is at a bazillion degrees Fahrenheit and instantly immolates anything put in it.  It holds a dozen gallons of oil and runs all day long, which is possible to do when you are running a busy restaurant.

For home use, it is difficult to replicate this experience.  Smaller fryers take a long time to heat up, and often do not heat as hot as in a commercial kitchen.  They are also small, so they cannot handle much food at one time, so you end up frying in batches, with the earliest batches going cold by the time you've fried enough chicken for the whole family.

Once you're done, cleanup is anything but a breeze.  You can toss out a half-gallon of barely used fryer oil, or let it congeal and go rancid in the machine.  Either way, you are stuck.  And the device itself takes on a permanent layer of grease splatter that never goes away.  And your counter-top will be greasy as well.

And disposing of fryer oil - even a half-gallon of it - is tricky.  There is a reason restaurants hire companies to do this.  If you pour it hot in your trash can, it will melt through the plastic.  If you wait for it to cool, you will have to scoop out the congealed mass.  Washing the device uses a ton of soap and it never gets really clean.

Like most of these sorts of appliances, it will end up on a shelf somewhere, when you get tired of cleaning it and dicking around with it.  Eventually, you will toss it or sell it in a garage sale.

And eventually, you will go back to frying things in, of all things, a frying pan, on the premise that the frying machine is "too much hassle" to get out, load with oil (and who has a half-gallon of oil to waste on a single meal?) and wait to heat up.

And of course, eating fried foods is not exactly healthy, either.  So in the long run, you may find yourself not wanting to eat deep-fried foods, if you want to lose weight or be healthy.

So it goes to the landfill eventually.  Why did we buy this in the first place?   I really can't tell you.

By the way, ditto on this for other esoteric kitchen appliances, including cappuccino makers, juicers, and the like.  If you end up shoving it back in a shelf somewhere, chances are, it was a bad purchase.

6. The Cordless Phone:  The cordless phone promised to free us all up from the imagined burden of the cord.  I must have owned a half-dozen of these things over time, and all of them are in the trash, usually the victim of dead or dying NiCad batteries.

They work sort of OK, when you don't have RF interference or your neighbor isn't listening in to your phone conversations (as in the old days with analog devices).  But they suffer from a number of problems.

To begin with, like the cell phone, when they ring, you end up running around going "where is the phone?" and it bounces to voicemail before you can answer it.  A corded wall phone, well, you know where those always are.

Second, they don't last long.  You can go to BJ's wholesale and buy a 4-phone set for like $99, but within a year or two, you'll be tossing the whole set in the trash as the NiCad batteries dry up.  These batteries can only last so long and eventually they won't hold a charge.

And it's always fun to have your phone crap out in the middle of a phone call due to battery failure.  Cordless phones are all the fun of a cell phone, without the portability.

Spending $99 every other year to buy new phones is a waste of money, considering that good old fashioned wired phones can last decades or more (I have some 1950's dial phones that still work!).

I'd buy a cordless phone if it didn't have RF interference, if it lasted longer than a few years, and if the battery life wasn't so short.  Unfortunately, they don't make these just yet.

7.  The Garden Weasel:  This device, advertised heavily on TeeVee, promised to weed your garden with less effort and in less time.  It sort of worked, until it broke into a million pieces and was tossed in the trash.

The interlocking tines would work sort of as advertised, however, long roots and vines would wrap around the tines, which forced you to stop and untangle the thing.

The tines were made of cheap cast material, and eventually, when they hit rocks, they snapped off and the whole thing was trashed.

I have a four-tined forged hoe rake that I have had for over a decade, and it is still in service.  Probably a 100-year-old design, but it works.  The garden weasel, in contrast, barely lasted a year.

A lot of stuff they sell in garden centers is just junk.  Those little carts you are supposed to be able to sit on to work in your garden?  The wheels get stuck, or fall off.  Most of this stuff is cheaply made Chinese crapola.  Fancy new shears that break or go dull.  Junk.

The items that survive are time-tested and simple, with few moving parts - the shovel, the rake (metal, not plastic) the hoe, the shears, etc.

You can spend a lot of dough on fancy "time saving" garden equipment.  But if "saving time in the garden" is your goal, maybe a  better idea is to re-think the size of your garden, as gardening should be enjoyable.  If it turns into a chore, then it is likely you have too much garden for your lifestyle.

8.  The Home Air Purifier:  The premise behind these devices is that they will remove pollen and dust from the air.  Most have a box with a fan in it, and a filter.  You can remove and wash the filter, but most require that you buy a new "filter pack" over time, which of course is the real source of revenue for the makers.  Others use "ionization" or the like to purify the air, and some folks claim that these don't work at all, or work very well.

My general take on these is that while the filters do have dirt in them over time, so does your furnace filter.  Whether it is removing a significant source of dust or not is debatable.  Any box with a fan in in that sucks in air will accumulate dust - open up the cabinet on your computer sometime (actually this is a good idea, to clean it out periodically to prevent overheating).

But whether the handful (or less, usually far less) of dust these devices accumulate really makes a big difference in your allergies is somewhat debatable.  During allergy season, I still get allergies, regardless of this filter running.

And if your cat pees on one, well, don't expect the air to smell good in your house.

We still have two of these after a decade or more.  Since all they are is a fan in a box with a filter, there is not much to break down.  I suspect, however, that eventually the fan motor will break, and they will go to the trash, without being replaced.

The only reason they have not died before now is that they sit, unused, in a corner for most of the year.  The only reason we don't toss them is the old "It's still good" and "I paid money for that!" excuses, which are lame at best.

* * * 

The list could go on and on, and I am sure you can add more - from the kitchen counter, to telecommunications, computing, housecleaning, home and garden, car gadgets, etc.  And I will update this list from time to time as I remember more bad gadget purchases from the past.

The point is, much of this stuff is utter crap.  You buy it thinking it is a capital investment, when in fact it is just a cheaply made consumer product that you may own for a couple of years before it is broken, obsolete, or simply unused.

And if you add up the cost of all these devices over a lifetime, they easily total thousands of dollars - which in turn equate to tens of thousands at retirement.  Each gadget purchased represents hours of labor of work, largely squandered.

And in most cases you don't "need" these things and in most cases, they are just a hassle to dick around with and after the initial excitement of owning them wears off, they migrate to a desk drawer or corner or closet, attic or basement.

Less is more.  Owning things is not an end in and of itself.  It is better to DO THINGS than to OWN THINGS, period.

Visiting the Grand Canyon is fun.  Visiting it with a camcorder is less fun.  It is as simple as that!