Crappy Gadgets

It’s unbelievable how bad the average gadget is. Everything that does a little more than save data in flash memory is most likely flawed, sometimes to the point of being barely usable.

My MP3 player just died. I haven’t used it for a few months (but it wasn’t very old… maybe two years) ever since I bought a Sony W890i cellphone. But the (proprietary) connector of the phone broke – the phone side, so buying the a cable wouldn’t help – so I started using the old MP3 player again. It was fine for some time, until it stopped booting all the way up. Too bad, other than for the crampy 2GB space it was a great device, with good sound and an uncomplicated UI.

So I got a new one. I didn’t spend much time looking because I figured some player with 8GB and good reviews would be sufficient. I would have gotten an ipod, but it’s twice as expensive as other devices with similar capabilities yet I don’t get to transfer data without itunes. What I got was a player with mostly good reviews and the ability to play some formats other than mp3, like ogg and flac. It also plays videos and has a radio, but I don’t really care that much about these functions. Oh, and you can use a microSD card to get even more space.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, so far it works good enough – I’m not returning it (yet?). But I’m still disappointed. When I wanted to try out video playback (other then the one music video that came with the player), nothing worked. Okay, so ipod/psp-compatible mp4 won’t work – let’s feed those videos to the media converter that is supposed to squeeze them into a compatible format. The converter failed to load the videos. So I started looking on the internet and what do you know – it’s a known problem. The company doesn’t seem to care, because apparently it’s enough being able to play one video in order to advertise “plays back videos” and the converter software is mostly an alibi. Nobody really knows what kind of videos the player or the software accepts other than it’s AVI with some weird restrictions.

It’s obvious that this device was only made to be “good enough”, and only for its main function. Watching videos on such a tiny screen isn’t really something most users will do, but it probably helps sales – so they crammed it in and made it barely work. There were other issues as well – the voice recording function made the system freeze up. Obviously that’s another function they thought nobody would use. It worked better after a firmware upgrade, but it’s becoming clearer how this device could be so cheap.

What’s really sad is that few people seem to care (hence the good reviews). When I buy something, I expect it to work almost flawlessly. If there is some bug, it should better be fixed with the next firmware update. I know, there will always be some bugs left. But if you manage to find several the first day you are using it, it’s clear that the manufacturer does not really give a shit about testing. Interface design is also pretty horrible anywhere but in Apple products (where you pay a hefty price for it). And it’s not like there aren’t people out there who wouldn’t be glad to help! Just release the firmware as open source (you are not really selling the software anyway – the hardware is much more important than the crap it is made to run) so more competent programmers can take over. Or don’t even do that, just release the specs. There won’t be a good replacement for a while – open source projects usually don’t have (strict) deadlines – but ultimately the free version will come closer to perfection than the proprietary one. Because once you have sold a piece or hardware (or worse, have stopped producing it), there is no incentive for you to keep supporting it as a manufacturer. It’s sad, but that’s how it is. The “free market” is not going to solve this problem, because even brand-awareness doesn’t seem to impact the long-term memory of customers. My only hope is that some day there will be enough tech-savvy people to make free software an important factor even in gadgets. I know there are some attempts to make gadgets with open specifications, running open-source software, but right now this usually means expensive hardware and bulky, ugly design for some reason. I hope this will change soon.

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