Where have the decent, middle ground consumer products gone?

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.

The iPod doesn’t really like to party after sundown…

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

iRiver IMP250 innards. That’s a lot of small parts, as its about 13cm across

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.

the offending connector, black item on the left

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.

iRiver IMP 250 working again, once more into the breach at the Christmas party then…

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 😉

Paris Hilton DJ-ing. It didn’t go well, apparently

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.

dust on the sensor causing splodges in the sky

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.

after taking the camera apart and decoking the sensor. Face tracking is obviously more important than, say using the CPU space allocated to Face Tracking for something useful, like saving the dust pattern and removing it from future images, for instance.

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.

What face recognition is for. Hat tip to Glenys for sharing with the world

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?

21 thoughts on “Where have the decent, middle ground consumer products gone?”

  1. To some extent it’s the nature of technological change. Many electronic items will not be wanted for long since their capabilities will have become so poor in comparison with newer products (your usage is probably not typical). I have had 3 digicams in 11 years, each half the cost, half the weight and twice the resolution of its predecessor. The first cost £300 and still works perfectly, but there is no way I am ever going to use it again.

    When I left work I had around a hundred hard disks in my office, between 72 Gb and 500 Gb, which had been pulled out of storage racks to make way for 1 & 2 Tb models. They all worked perfectly too and I left them for my employer to find a suitable disposal route.

    At home, I am wondering what to do now with my venerable Quad FM4/34/306 mid-market hi-fi which is nearly 25 years old and still performs faultlessly. It will probably outlast me. Not sure if this legacy from my consumerist past was worth it.


  2. Impressive to see the CD player being repaired, not seen that sort of thing outside blogs from Malaysia and other overseas nations..

    However multimedia equipment and DJ kit is something I actually know a fair bit about, as I grew up in the heady days around the dotcom boom where we mistakenly thought there were going to be paying careers in the “middle ground” of the creative media, but in hindsight we were destroying the cashflow of that very middle ground by the “free for all media”!

    BTW the Grauniad article is hopelessly inaccurate about DJ’ing for anything other than a indie kids student disco, which probably makes sense given the sort of people who write arts stuff for them

    what is happening in reality is even the quality control of the high end kit is dwindling (not that it was much good in the dot com days, my former employer really did sell some overpriced rubbish and with poor customer service, I’m not surprised people buy cheap China stuff as it wasn’t even that unreliable in comparison!)

    the superclub DJ’s are as old as us now (40s/50s) and the smart ones like Armin Van Buuren are winding things down so they can have families etc (though he is investing a lot in new talent).

    The days of making that a long term paying career are “uit het raam” – especially with rampant piracy, so most DJ equipment is being pushed down the price and quality point, the brand names being the USP. That said, I’ve seen a film of Armin and Ørjan Nilsen playing a live set in a prestigious NL venue, only to find one of the Pioneer CDJs/midi controllers packs up in the middle of the set (at least they have 3 so they carry on)..

    getting back to Suffolk, there is actually a surfeit of DJ’s in this town as it was once a leader in the dance music scene but as its a scene once funded by laundered drugs money and linked to the sex industry, a variety of unpleasant incidents from 2006 onwards led to a zero tolerance policy to most dance music events (especially anything lasting beyond midnight) which remains to this day!

    So thats another massive loss of sales to companies selling pro AV equipment..

    as for cameras, what increasingly happens is the ambitious young girl with high hopes to be a meedja star finds that in her mid 20s, putting up pics on FB of her with her pants round her ankles is a career limiting move for most paying media jobs (i.e corporate writing, photography) and she can’t even make money from her looks as lads wanting salacious pics can find them on FB for free..

    so she ends up becoming a crazy cat lady with a quarter life crisis, and the DSLR her parents helps her get for uni ends up staying on the shelf and eventually reaching Ebay as the market for cute cat pics is also saturated (they are also labour intensive to photograph!!) but they need feeding!

    this is good for folk like you who look for bargains, and good for the kitties (you don’t see them around when the nights get colder now as they are being pampered in peoples flats…), but again is eating away at the market for higher quality goods.


  3. Chimes in with an essay I recently read in Idler 44 (http://idler.co.uk/shop/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=175),
    discussing similar themes. Don’t have the text in front of me but the gist that it’s Henry Ford’s fault(!). Once he perfected producing cheap but reliable cars, they fould that once everyone bought their first car that was it, demand crashed.

    So businesses invented the concept of built-in obsolesence to keep consumer demand going, introducing new colours and extra features, then different models and so on, employing psychologists and advertising experts to fool people in to thinking they needed to upgrade, whilst deliberately phasing releases of their products and making them impossible to fix.

    The author goes on to discuss e-waste as well. In the familiar mantra of ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ emphasis is almost always placed on recycling, as if its some kind of penitence to excessive consumersim – ‘it’s OK we can use it once you’ve finished with it; don’t worry about throwing it away’ type thing.

    Of course anyone with half a brain can see that the act of recycling itself requires more fossil fuels to be burnt, more facilities to be set up and staffed. In order to make recycling pay, these electronic gizmos are sent to third-world countries to be disassembled by hand, often in poorly regulated establishments. The result is a sweatshop environment where people are exposed to heavy elements and the other nasties that gizmos are made up of these days, with much of that stuff ending up leaching into the natural environment.

    No emphasis on ‘reducing’ of course as that would put people’s jobs at risk turning out cheap crap in the first place…

    Wandered off slightly, but your post struck a chord. It’s an excellent essay, but think its only available in that book form.


  4. @SG doesn’t rech innovation level out at some point though? Fair enough on your first digicam, but I’d say that by now the whole digicam problem has been largely solved, for most people’s requirements. Any half decent digicam has enough resolution and quality for the family and holiday snaps that most people want, I wouldn’t expect a digicam of 5 years hence to be that much better at this function. So it would be nice if it lasted some time. And the SLR lens failing after five years is outrageous.

    My hi-fi amplifiers are about 30 years old, because this was a passion at the time. They still serve me well, and are still serviceable, so like your Quad gear these are a case in point 😉

    @Alex take you point about Paris, it was a cheap shot 😉 We’re not overly young things in the parties…

    Like the cat lady story, hope their folks are getting the 15-85 zoom for the s/h ebay market 😉 Curiously enough I found the 25 mark a really horrible point in my career, really depressing, it seemed like everything was all shot up and I’d be in crummy bedsits for ever.

    @MarkyMark Crikey, £22 for the book, I see how Mr Idler gets to idle, he gets the rest fo us to pay for it 😉 The library has 42 but not 44. Adam Curtis made a similar pint in his Century of the Self series but the process seems to be speeding up. I have stuff from ten years ago and more that is still serviceable and fixable but more recent stuff just seems more ratty in construction. It’s not like I’ve deliberately gone downmarket either, one of the advantages of buying less Stuff is I want the Stuff I do get to be decent and last, and can afford to aim there. But the market’s not meeting me there, particularly with tools and photographic kit 😦


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