Consumer Electronics! We must be Crazy!!

On August 18, 2003, in Opinion, by Bruce Black

(What’s the real price of cheap consumer electronics?)

“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

I was going to write about something else, but a recent experience made a little bell go off in my head. Yep, I was searching for something to write about, and after what happened to me on a Sunday evening a few weeks back, I knew I had a better topic. I had spent my day doing some serious bicycling, and had finished by consuming an entire pizza and watching some of my favorite X-Files episodes, via the wonders of DVD technology. (Don’t you non-bicycle people wish you were one of us? Then you could put away the food the way we do, and still wear the Levi’s from ten years ago. Wink-Wink.)

It was getting late, so I decided to pack it in and hit the hay, as the following Monday was going to be a busy one. I turned off my flat-screen TV, and went to eject the DVD with the remote control. And nothing happened. OK, no problem, just try it again. No, nothing. The display reads “OPEN”, but nothing happens. No opening DVD tray, no sound of a small electric motor humming, nothing. So, I tried the button on the front of the unit. No, same thing. At this point, I am concerned. That DVD is part of a set, and not sold individually. My next action was pretty basic: I unplugged the DVD / VCR player, disconnected all the cables, and examined the entire unit, hoping for a small manual release lever, but knowing I would not find one. Soon enough, my suspicions were confirmed, as there was no manual release lever to be found anywhere. “Rats” I thought. (Please substitute the proper street slang word of your choice.) As final action, I dug out the receipt from where I bought the player, and as I expected, the unit was fifteen months old, and beyond the warranty period. That was it for me for the night. I decided to give it a rest, and consult some of my esteemed coworkers the next morning.

At lunch the next day, I related my minor tale of woe to a man with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. (I work with a lot of them, and some are pretty cool people.) His suggested course of action was what I thought it would be: Take the cover off the unit, remove the DVD module, and retrieve your DVD. Don’t even think about getting the damn thing repaired. And that is exactly what I did, when I returned to my apartment later in the day. The cover came off the unit easily enough, but removing the DVD module itself posed “an interesting problem in logic” as Mister Data might say. Three large screws, and four very large, nasty-looking plastic tabs held the module in. These taps were apparently designed for insertion in one direction only. Some other things about the innards of this DVD / VCR player were of interest, mostly how cheaply everything appeared to be made. There were numerous printed circuit cards, all with surface-mount components. The entire innards of the unit smacked of “cheap”.

Well, I managed to get the DVD module out, by breaking off the plastic tabs. Lo and behold! There, on the bottom of the module, was a plastic lever. I examined the action and gears this was attached to, then I moved it the entire length of its travel. And guess what? It did just what I thought it would do: the spindle that was holding the DVD released, and entire drawer slid open. I removed my DVD, and put it back in the case. Ultimately, I bought a new DVD / VCR, player and I am wondering how long this one will last.

Now for some questions, and what I really want to talk about.

How difficult would it have been, to design in an access slot right below the DVD module, so a consumer could insert a small screwdriver and use that manual release lever, in the event the DVD won’t eject? I can understand where such a thing would be impossible where VHS tapes are concerned. There’s the tape head itself, and all the capstans and guide wheels that the tape is wrapped around, making a manual-eject pretty impossible. But for the DVD? No, no reason a safe, manual-eject system can’t be put in for a back up. I mentioned what I thought to my Ph.D. coworker, and he just shook his head, saying, “cost, cost, cost”. This, plus when anyone starts talking about “access holes and screwdrivers”, lawyers get very antsy.
And he’s right. All of our consumer electronics products, from DVD players, to microwave ovens, to TV sets, have to be made as cheaply as possible. Of course, this is necessary, so that they can be sold at places such as Best Buy, for $89.95, or whatever.
(Note that I am excluding computers from “consumer electronics” for this discussion.)

It’s a great time for consumers, when it comes to pricing. Today, you can buy a top-of-the-line DVD player for under a hundred bucks. Yee-Hah! But, when it breaks, as it surely will, forget about getting it fixed. The products are not designed for service or repair. And as I have learned, even attempting to get a consumer electronics product repaired will be a waste of time. So, I have to wonder, what are we all really paying?

Think about it for a bit. There was a time when people kept televisions, radios, and even phonographs for years. (And I know a lot you remember phonographs. Don’t pretend you don’t.) TV sets were especially built for servicing, with huge cabinets and replaceable parts. And today? Well, I’m not sure, but it seems a lot of discarded TV sets are ending up in landfills, and many are less than five years old.

The quest for cheap consumer electronics has lead to the near demise of a once thriving industry, and that was the TV servicing and repair business. All baby boomers know what I’m talking about here. You remember when the family television would go on the fritz, and dad would call the local neighborhood TV repair shop. The TV repairman would show up, driving a Ford van that proudly displayed his shops name on the side. Often, these guys wore cool uniforms. They’d go about their work right there in the living room, and frequently have that much-loved TV set working again, no problem. Often a “bad tube” was the culprit. If you were a young male, it was pretty cool to watch the TV repair guy work, as he had all kinds of neat looking tools and gadgets.

Today, it’s impossible to imagine such a thing. Independently owned electronics shops, such as the one depicted on the NBC program, “American Dreams”, have all but vanished from the landscape. It is difficult to attempt to get an electronic device repaired. Calling the “1-800″ numbers listed in the owners’ manuals that are supplied with products, is generally an exercise in futility, and will only lead to frustration. I suspect that if I had gone this route with my dead DVD player, it would have been months before I would have gotten it back, and my DVD would have been lost in the void, with no explanation or hope of retrieval.

I guess I must plead guilty. I love DVD technology. Heck, I’m a regular visitor to Digital Bits. And of course I was pleased to be able to replace my DVD / VCR player cheaply. (Like many, I have a large inventory of VHS tapes that I am not ready to part with just yet.) But I wonder what the real cost of cheap consumer electronics is. What once lasted years now lasts only a year or two, or possibly months.
The situation is getting more interesting. I’ve been told that most of the consumer electronics companies, Toshiba, Samsung, Sony, etc. frequently share the same assembly and production facilities, and thus, the same “guts” in their products. If anyone has any information on this, send it along to me. If this is true, does it matter what brand of DVD player you buy at all?

Time to watch The X-Files. I think I’ll pull out the one where the cable TV programs have hidden signals in them. (The episode is entitled “Wetwired”, all you fellow fans.) That’s a favorite of mine.


Bruce Black

 

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