By Benj Edwards | Sunday, February 7, 2010 at 11:39 pm
You saved and you saved until you could finally buy that shiny new $1000 gadget that promised you everything under the stars. When it came time to plug it in, you found your joy being subsumed by abject horror. Your stomach plunged deep into your gut and you (yes, mortal non-designer you) recognized a fundamental flaw in your flashy gizmo so obvious that it made you want to pick up the device and smash it over the designer’s head.
Even the best designers make mistakes…but this article isn’t about them. We’re about to, ahem, celebrate the worst consumer electronics designers through the lens of their faulty creations. Since I’m far from an all-knowing technology god, I’ve limited our survey to fifteen design problems that have not only bugged me through the years, but that are widespread enough to have bugged many of you too. These problems aren’t limited to current technology, but they all fall into the nebulous realm known as “consumer electronics.” You know: TVs, telephones, VCRs, DVD players, MP3 players, and more.
Device(s): TVs, DVRs, Receivers, Game Consoles, and more
Sing it with me:
TVs do it, Wiis do it
Even silly PS3s do it
Let’s do it. Let’s never turn off
The little red “off light,” common in most modern entertainment center equipment, serves as a constant reminder that your electronic gear never stops doing its job. It’s always sippin’ on outlet juice, even if you don’t want it to. If said equipment happens to be located in your bedroom, the off light also provides a laserlike beam of photons to tickle your eyeballs into unnecessary alertness.
It seems that most TVs, cable boxes, and even video game systems made after 2003 or so provide some sort of active glowing indicator that they’re “not running” — that is to say that they’re not actively doing what you want them to be doing. By definition, then, the indicator is completely redundant and pointless. (In the case of video game consoles, your electronic gadgets could be doing what you don’t want them to be doing: downloading random updates from the Internet.)
Remember when LED power indicators only glowed when a unit was turned on? It was helpful in cases when the device wasn’t behaving properly; the little power light let you know that the unit was receiving power. Then you could commence troubleshooting — perhaps you plugged the video connector into the audio connector?– and so on.
That was handy. But an off light?
What Were They Thinking? (Benj’s Theory)
It’s 2002 and you’re designing a new TV set. When it comes time to pick the power LED, you notice these nifty new bicolor or tricolor LEDs that combine two or three different colors into a single component. They’re cheap and plentiful, so why not use them? Then you can show everyone that your device works properly–even when it’s not working.
There is one small functional purpose for some “off lights,” albeit one that I still believe is completely unnecessary: in some devices, the power LED doubles as a diagnostic light for software problems. (For the last decade or more, people have been building software-controlled microcontrollers into everything, so if the programming is off, things don’t work. It’s not just an hardware design problem anymore.)
Sometimes power LEDs blink when the unit is “warming up” (booting, initializing, etc.) to let you know that, yes, something’s happening — you’re not just sitting there staring at a blank TV for 10 seconds right after you turned it on. If there’s an error, the LED can blink a certain pattern as well, letting a phone technician in India know that you just wasted $600.
There’s still no good excuse to have a light shine when your unit is powered off. I’m sure some will challenge that assertion, but TVs worked fine for 50 years without red LED off lights, so I know they’re useless.
Device(s): Video Cassette Recorders
Who hasn’t owned a VCR that blinks? (OK, people under 20: put your hands down.) Almost every VCR ever manufactured shipped with an electronic digital numeric display somewhere on the unit. Its primary purpose was to show running time while playing a tape to assist in viewing, fast-forwarding, or rewinding a recorded program.
That display also had another important reason for being there. When electronics companies introduced VCRs in the 1970s, they marketed the devices as a way to record and time-shift broadcast TV shows, and let owners program them to begin recording at a certain date and time as guided by an internal clock. So it only made sense that the VCR displayed the current time on the front of the unit (even when it was off–you know, just in case you didn’t already have a timepiece).
So what’s the problem? When the VCR lost power, either through being unplugged from the wall, or when your house would experience a momentary power dropout, the unit would lose its internal memory settings. That’s because the VCR’s clock information was stored in a chip that required constant power to keep the clock active and running. Many digital clocks work around power outages by allowing you to install a separate backup battery to retain power to the clock memory while the main power is off. And most didn’t have battery backups.
And here’s the second problem: VCRs were notoriously difficult to program or set to the correct time. It usually involved weird buttons and hard to navigate on-screen menus (on later models). Even if you figured out how to program it, what’s the point of doing it if it’s just going to reset again?
That’s why VCR designers got away with the blinking clock syndrome: people were too lazy to program, so they didn’t care that their VCR could be programmed, so they didn’t demand VCRs with clock batteries. VCRs ended up being mostly used to play pre-recorded bought or rented movies, rendering the time-shifting functionality mostly an afterthought.
Ultimately, many VCRs did ship with auto-setting internal clocks that set themselves based on a broadcast time signature. Unfortunately, by the time this feature became widespread, VCRs were quickly being supplanted by DVD players and the “difficult VCR” stereotype was already firmly entrenched in the public consciousness.
What Were They Thinking?
The display flashes to indicate that the internal clock’s settings have been lost. It’s supposed to be helpful. It’s also cheaper to build VCRs that don’t require clock backup batteries.
Device(s): DVDs, DVD Players
Today, it’s easy to forget that DVDs were designed to have undefeatable copy protection. After all, it was already a decade ago that a group of intrepid tinkerers defeated the DVD format’s “Content Scramble System” (CSS) and released what they’d learned onto the Internet.
Today, DVD encryption is such a joke that legitimate commercial applications openly integrate DVD ripping tools into their feature sets (although major software vendors shy away from it for fear of legal repercussions).
By extension, this design mistake goes for other forms of video copy protection as well: HDCP in HDMI connections causes hassles when it shouldn’t, and Bl-Ray’s DRM has already been cracked. Silly rabbits, DRM is for kids.
What Were They Thinking?
Adding a form of DRM to DVD media not only prevented the casual copy of DVD movie discs, but perhaps more importantly ensured that manufacturers of DVD players had to legally acquire a license to incorporate DVD decoding electronics into their designs.
In that second regard, CSS is not a design mistake. But it’s a mistake with regard to the legal and technical hassle it causes to DVD customers who have a legitimate fair use reason to copy their movies onto another medium.
In some ways, it’s also a mistake that people broke the encryption so easily– although that’s the best mistake on this list.