In her book Cheap, the high cost of discount culture, Ellen Ruppel Shell observes the increasing polarisation of products. Globalisation is driving most of us towards the Poundland end of the market, with stuff that is cheap, absurdly cheap compared to earlier times, and a very few people who are either fanatics or have a lot of money towards the high end. As a result, the quality and reliability of a lot of products is, quite frankly, crap, though their functionality is pretty good. Nowhere is this more apparent than in electronics. Digitalisation, higher integration of components and Chinese manufacturing have all made it a lot easier to do many things in electronics, in particular adding features and functions. These are pushed relentlessly by marketing departments, and we often fall for it. The entire history of the iPhone is an example of featureitis gone mad. Just as well this makes the product cycle so short. The vacuum tube kitchen radio my mother had in the 1960s operated from 1960 to 1976 ISTR. None of the replacements have lasted 16 years. There’s no point in making an iPhone last more than 5 years, it will be hopelessly naff by then in the eyes of consumers.
One of the advantages of taking an axe to consumerism is I get off some of this hamster wheel. The recent launch of the iPhone 5 left me as cold as the previous four launches. However, I still have the problem that stuff breaks down, and it seems that this is much more likely for newer stuff than kit I’ve had for a while. It makes me loath to replace something with a more modern replacement if it can be avoided, because capitalism seems to have hollowed out the middle ground. I either end up with cheap rubbish that fails me in my hour of need or top-end products that are often too fancy and too pricey for my requirements.
Demise of a faithful friend
This was brought home to me when my 10-year old Iriver IMP-250 mp3 cd player died. I don’t have an iPod because I don’t do portable music on the move, it’s kind of hazardous as a cyclist, and when I had my car it had a perfectly serviceable CD player 😉 However, the iRiver CD player was nice for the outdoor parties because a MP3 CD would run for several hours, and being a CD player meant we could take other people’s music too. Ipods seem unreliable in this kind of service as well as being a closed box without a computer- I constructed a switchbox to select different people’s iPods but the big problem seems to be iPod battery life plummets as it gets colder when the sun goes down, I will have to run a USB hub from the main battery in future to counteract this.
All portable audio devices live on borrowed time, due to the hard life they lead and the inevitable drop-tests. Nowadays, to make manufacturing cheaper the connectors are mounted on the main circuit boards, which is a really bad idea. Pretty much anything I make myself uses connectors mounted on the case with wires to the circuit board, because the connectors take a lot of mechanical stress. Fixing the connector to the case stabilises it, and the wires to the board take out any residual strain. However, this is a very pre-1980s constructional style.
Transmitting the mechanical strain to the circuit board flexes the solder joints, which causes micro cracks and ratty intermittent connections. It’s why you should always try and use right-angled audio jacks on portable gear. Presumably Apple provide straight plugs so you break the iPod faster and have to get a new one, leastways the earbuds I observed on people’s iPods all had straight audio jacks.
This 10 year old iRiver was just dead. That sort of fault is good, the ones I hate are the intermittent ones where you never really know if you’ve nutted the problem. I took it to pieces and was faced with this
In previous lives like at the BBC I’d fault find to individual components but that’s not going to happen with this, no circuit diagram and no service manual. You used to get one in the handbook of most consumer electronics until the mid 1970s when people expected to repair things if they went wrong.
Even if I had these there’s no fun in trying to unsolder parts here. That involves magnifying glasses, tweezers, lots of bad language and a fair chance of knackering some other part in the process. These things are assembled in the Far East by automatic pick-and-place robots, though an awful lot of module level assembly still seems to involve humans even on the iPhone 5.
However, there’s a good win in faulting consumer electronics by knowing that 90% of problems are to be found in connectors or the power supply. Power supply problems are usually associated with smoke and visible damage. Connectors, however, aren’t so obliging. Probing on the circuit boards showed battery power wasn’t getting to the player, and nor was external power, and the problem was traced to the DC jack which switched the battery to the player when the DC jack wasn’t inserted. Or not, in this case. So I unsoldered it, cleaned out the microscopic switch contacts and reassembled the part, and the player came back to life, both on external and battery power.
Now I could have bought a current replacement for about £30 at Argos or a little media player secondhand from Computer Exchange for £20-ish. I had been on a previous reccy for that sort of thing but come away empty handed. I have to admit that I hat been tempted by a secondhand DJ CD mixer that looked like it could run off 12V, but then sense prevailed. Not only was I setting myself up for an audio earth loop fail, but in the end I don’t really want to be a live DJ. I want to talk to people at parties and maybe get hammered, not do a Paris Hilton 😉
The price of freedom from consumerism is still eternal vigilance. There is still somewhere in the back of my mind the ad-man’s meme ‘if you just buy this product, your problems will be solved and life will be wonderful‘. No. All I want is what I had before, thanks, it’s worked well enough for five parties outside, and if I’m going to spend money then I should change the old hi-fi speakers, which are clapped out from being a) overdriven and b) far too small for the job of running outside, which is why they’ve been pushed too hard 😉
Although the repair was effectively paying below minimum wage, I just didn’t want to add to the mountain of e-waste without trying at least to inquire what had caused this faithful old middle-range CD player(it cost about £120 in the early 2000s ISTR) to give up the ghost. Plus I know that once started, it will keep running outdoors past the 11 p.m point where dew starts to accumulate on metal surfaces, because the self-heating of the circuit boards stops the dew forming. It had been a surprise to me that dew forms in late evening and the small hours of the night, I’d always thought it was an early morning thing.
More digital casualties in the pipeline
The digital camera seems to be another terribly unreliable electronic gizmo in the modern world, particularly the point and shoot digicam. Digital SLRs seem okay, I even managed to keep one in good working order until I sold it to a colleague. Digicams, however, are a whole different world of hurt.
I learned photography with film, and one of the great advances in photography in the early 1980s was the autofocus lens. Manually focusing was fraught even with some visual aids and just one more thing to slow you down in capturing the moment. In the 1990s manufacturers made automatic exposure work properly most of the time, and then came digital, which after some early issues sorted many of the residual problems, in particular the running costs and latency of seeing the results. Digital SLR cameras reached a point in the late 2000s where for the vast majority of people the main improvements were to be had behind the camera, not in front of it or inside it; a rotten photographer will take poor shots no matter how expensive the gear.
My old Canon AE-1P from the 1970s that I bought second hand in the late 1980s is still serviceable, as are the lenses. I’ve had five digicams fail on me with lens jam failures, a Fuji 1700, Canon Ixus 80, an Ixus 950, a Nikon 995, and I will have to take my Panasonic digicam to pieces to remove dust from the sensor which makes the camera useless at high f-stops (in bright light). That’s four down permanently and one fiddly repair job, in the course of ten years. I look at the cost of a digicam more as a two year rental, rather than as a capital investment. One of the advantages of digital was supposed to be you don’t have film costs any more. Looks like you still have the same costs, however, just in a different form as the gear falls apart in your hands as you use it. Money still has to made somewhere 😉
You can make a digicam last if you keep it in a box and only haul it out for birthdays, but the whole point of a camera is you take it to interesting places and put it in front of new vistas. Every time you switch the damn thing on and the lens comes out, it sucks in a little bit of dust and fluff, which eventually gums up the lens mechanism (Canon) or gets dust into the sensor (Panasonic). On a film camera that dust only affected one frame because it was advanced with the film. On a digicam you get this after a while.
The manufacturing effort seems to go in features rather than fundamentals. What’s so hard about making a digicam that doesn’t suck dust into the camera? It’s so much easier for Panasonic to say hey, this camera has got Face Tracking, than for them to say this camera won’t suck dust into the works so your pictures won’t gets spots after a year or so.
What the hell does anybody need face tracking for? If you are so drunk that you need the camera to find the face in the shot for you, then either you aren’t close enough or you don’t need to take that picture for uploading to Facebook because a) it might not be the right face and b) they’re probably as drunk as you are.
It’s hard to deny the sneaking suspicion of advanced decadence in Western capitalism here. Faced with the choice of making this kind of shot easier, or keeping the dust out of the sky, the obvious choice is sod the dust, help the Facebookers out even if they are a few sheets to the wind. Bless…
It isn’t just the digicams, either. I have a Canon 18-75 IS zoom lens which has developed a stock fault after 5 years. This was something that cost about £350 new ISTR, and I had expected to be a decent middle ground product. Those old Canon FD lenses for the AE1 are still going fine, forty years after they were made… There’s no point in sending off the lens to be fixed if this is a stock fault, it will only happen again. Just how common it is was brought home to me in that the replacement part was only £2 on ebay, however the process of taking the lens to pieces and changing the ribbon cable is fraught and likely as not to break something else. For £2 it’s worth a go, and I’ve become happier with dismantling ribbon cables that seem to be widespread in small gadgets after learning from some videos on Youtube and experience gained with the iRiver repair. If I screw up I guess I just have to take the £600 hit on the 15-85 replacement. Or take an extra £200 hit and go with the 2.8 aperture 17-55 and get closer to the subject at the long end. I was more often short of light than of reach in using the old lens 😉
I really miss the middle ground in many products. The AE-1P was a middle ground camera – it worked well and lasted, but that part of the market is evaporating fast. As a result I end up buying rubbish, just because I don’t think it will stay working. Tools seem to be another case in point – you can get a set of 50 spanners for a tenner. Just don’t expect a 13mm spanner to stay a 13mm spanner after you’ve used it a few times. Fortunately I still have my old ones from the 1990s, before the Chinese got in on the act 😉 I want a pillar drill. The whole point of a pillar drill is precision, and I know if I buy something for £90 then mechanical precision is not what I’m going to get. However, I don’t need a 1kW three-phase pillar drill for a thousand pounds either. Something in between, say 800W for about £300 would match my usage, but it’s not to be had locally.
Bring back those mid-range products. Not everything is life is black-and-white where you need either something disposable or the very best. Often something well-built but less capable than the best is good enough. I don’t want to be endlessly buying junk, and throwing it out after a few uses. There’s got to be a place between the Trabant and the Rolls-Royce. As Ellen Ruppel Shell asked in Cheap
Why was there such a scarcity of things reasonably priced? It seemed that all coonsumer goods were cheap, like the Chinese boots, or extravagant, like the Italian boots. Where, I wondered, was the solid middle ground that offered safe footing not so many years ago?