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Why Do Gadgets Break? 554

Posted by Zonk
from the besides-entropy-mr.-smart-guy dept.
TurboTurnip writes "A post on the Crave blog at CNET asks: Why are modern consumer electronics so easily broken? It argues that the 21st Century is 'The Age of the Flimsy' where 'your gadgets will simply break within the year.' Post author Chris Stevens talks about how computers are fast enough for the average user, and the only way to make consumers upgrade is 'increasingly poor build quality ... Engineers have built obsolescence into mass-produced technology since the 1920s. There are two kinds of planned deterioration in a product: one is technical, the other is stylistic.' The writer compares the build quality of a 20 year-old IBM XT to the modern Motorola Razr phone and concludes that modern gadgets are 'delicate, beautiful supermodels that can't go the distance.'"
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Why Do Gadgets Break?

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  • by teiresias (101481) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:23PM (#17019088)
    Where can I pick up one of those delicate, beautiful supermodels gadgets everyone's talking about these days? At an Apple store?
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Mobius01 (1008677)
      Pretty much. Form over function is usually not the best way to go, but the manufacturer's don't care. They only want you to be trapped in a perpetual upgrade cycle, so even if you're happy with what you have, it breaks in a short time (and replacement parts are intentionally not available) and you end up left with no choice. It's only going to get worse.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by mblase (200735)
      I think Apple's got one here [apple.com].
  • Because (Score:5, Insightful)

    by atomicthumbs (824207) <atomicthumbs@gmail.YEATScom minus poet> on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:23PM (#17019090) Homepage
    People drop them, spill water on them, http://www.short-media.com/forum/showthread.php?t= 8764 [short-media.com] put them in the washing machine, etcetra. People are stupid and careless. In addition, capacitors and other parts DO have a limited lifetime.
    • Re:Because (Score:5, Insightful)

      by gurps_npc (621217) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:30PM (#17019232) Homepage
      Yes, they do that. And we expect them to survive. Your point is?

      How do you tell a good company from a bad company?

      The bad company tells their customers what to do with the stuff they buy, and yells at them when they complain.

      The good company pays attention to what their customers do with their purchases and upgrades so that the next version will be able to do it better. That does NOT only mean 'more memory'. It also means shock resistant case and water proofing, and batteries that don't wear out (or explode).

      • by everphilski (877346) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:56PM (#17019806) Journal
        The good company pays attention to what their customers do with their purchases and upgrades so that the next version will be able to do it better.

        A lot of products have a dropproof/waterproof/dustproof alternative, at an increase in cost. People opt for the cheap model. The consumer makes the choice in the end.
        • by shmlco (594907) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @02:07PM (#17020086) Homepage
          Ditto. People drive twenty miles to save five dollars on a $500 TV. As such, too many companies compete on price, and buy the cheapest possible components to do so.

          Or you have the WalMart effect, where they've beat their suppliers wholesale prices down to the point where the suppliers are forced to do the same thing, buying and building cheap just to stay in business.

          End result? You "saved" five dollars buying a flimsy POS, and you'll get the chance to do the same thing a year from now when it breaks down and dies.
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by soft_guy (534437)
            As the GPP said - you HAVE OTHER CHOICES. If you don't like the iPod, don't fucking buy one.
            • Except (Score:3, Insightful)

              by Mateorabi (108522)
              Except that other consumers' buying habbits (inattention to quality for small ++ in price) place me in the "long tail", where it's no longer worth ANY manufacurers time/effort to meet my demand. So I end up with 'crap' or 'nothing' because the manufactures who would have sold me a higher quality item for slightly more money went under last Tuesday.

              Markets aren't 100% efficient and only support a finite # of suppliers. They often can support fewer suppliers than there are permutations of consumer demand

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by BigBlockMopar (191202)

            Ditto. People drive twenty miles to save five dollars on a $500 TV. As such, too many companies compete on price, and buy the cheapest possible components to do so.

            Oh, completely.

            And consider the things we've lost as a result of that or "environmentalist" pressures to reduce consumption (which somehow completely ignores the consumption required by more frequent replacement thanks to shorter product lifespans):

            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by Eivind (15695)
              They don't build 'em like they used to.

              Thank God they don't !

              The thing is, most everything made 10, 25, 50 or 100 years ago was *also* crap. It's just that for obvious reasons people remember the item that still works 30 years later, but have forgotten about the item that died in its first year decades ago.

              In actual fact, the average modern car goes significantly further with significantly less service needed than cars did only a few decades ago. Yes, there where a few exceptions. A few cars built in

      • Re:Because (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Rorschach1 (174480) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @02:09PM (#17020112) Homepage
        Quality tends to be expensive - not only in materials, but also in increased design and testing costs. I can understand why in a hyper-competitive market like cell phones it'd be hard to justify the added costs.

        Fortunately the field I'm in is a little less competitive. For my latest products, I opted for powder-coated steel enclosures when most are using plastic or sometimes aluminum. Yeah, it's more expensive, but you can drive over one (which has happened to previous models) without harming it. But aside from that, it makes a big impact when I'm showing them off at a convention. People smile when they pick one up - it doesn't feel cheap or flimsy, and it's immediately obvious that quality is a major concern with the product. Same goes for the internals, with gold-finished PCBs and higher quality parts than are strictly necessary. It all adds up to an extra few bucks for a $65 product - more than worth it from my perspective.

        Besides, I can't afford to hire a tech support / rework staff - if it breaks, I'm the one who has to fix it. Now THAT is a real incentive for quality!
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          Quality tends to be expensive - not only in materials, but also in increased design and testing costs. I can understand why in a hyper-competitive market like cell phones it'd be hard to justify the added costs.
          That reminds me of a saying that was used a lot when I was studying product design in college:

          Quality, Affordability, Usability... Pick Two.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by triffid_98 (899609)
      People have always been stupid and careless. Capacitors (excepting electrolytics) won't be breaking in your lifetime. Even those are fairly durable, provided you aren't using one of these... [wikipedia.org] Feel free to take my comments with a grain of salt, but I'm typing this message on a 22 year old keyboard, while listening a 30 year old stereo with 20 year old speakers. In other news, my sister's 3 year old ipod won't hold a charge anymore.

      People are stupid and careless. In addition, capacitors and other parts DO

    • Re:Because (Score:5, Insightful)

      by bigman2003 (671309) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @02:34PM (#17020582) Homepage
      Some industries design things to break on purpose- but usually in a smart way.

      I used to own a print-shop, and with that came printing presses of course.

      Most manufacturers designed their printing presses with 4 or 5 'weak points'. These would be gears, cams, or other parts on the press that were made of aluminum, copper or some other weak metal that was sure to break. And break they did. In fact, a good 80% of the time when I needed to get a press repaired, it was one of these pieces that would break- frustrating the hell out of me.

      So the repair guy would come out and replace the part, charging me a few hundred dollars, and keeping us out of production for a few hours. Obviously I asked him, "Why the hell do they make these things out of aluminum, when all of the other pieces are made of steel?"

      I was ignorant, but his answer made perfect sense. The manufacturer would put these weak parts on the outermost parts of the press, where they could be easily accessed. Also, one of these parts would be part of each important system on the press. So, when something went wrong- a bad paper jam, or rollers stuck together, or something fell into the press (like a hand), then these weak points would break, and thereby protect the rest of the press. So instead of the repairman coming out and tearing apart the entire press; taking days and tens of thousands of dollars; he would come out and replace one simple part in just a matter of minutes.

      I wonder if there could ever be a similar way of engineering electronics.

      Replaceable batters on MP3 players would be a good start....

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by soft_guy (534437)
        Replaceable batters on MP3 players would be a good start....
        You can replace the batteries on an iPod easily and cheaply [newertech.com].
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by phasm42 (588479)

        So instead of the repairman coming out and tearing apart the entire press; taking days and tens of thousands of dollars; he would come out and replace one simple part in just a matter of minutes.

        I wonder if there could ever be a similar way of engineering electronics.

        Fuses and MOVs serve this purpose. Fuses open when too much current pass through them. A MOV will short when the voltage is too high, which in turn opens the fuse. A lot of electronics are cheap enough that the whole board/product gets repla

      • Re:Because (Score:5, Interesting)

        by ChrisMaple (607946) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @03:53PM (#17022438)
        To a certain extent, electronics can be engineered for extra durability. Use high quality parts from respected manufacturers. In some cases, use mil-spec parts. Don't run parts anywhere near their power, voltage, or current limits. Don't let parts run hot. Use sealed potentiometers. Use a manufacturing process that doesn't leave flux residue on the printed circuit board. Design so that variations (and in some cases, failures!) of individual parts don't cause degradation of performance or failure. Protect inputs and outputs from electrostatic discharge. And so forth.

        Some of this is just good practice, some means more money must be spent, some means a lot more money must be spent.

        In 1980, a new VCR cost $700 at a bargain store. It was heavy because it had a high quality machined cast-aluminum chassis. It was good until the heads wore out or the belts failed. Now, a new VCR costs $50 and has many more features. It's light because it's mostly plastic. Technology has advanced; what was transistorized in 1980 is now integrated. Recordings are better due to video processing tricks and better tape. The machine will last until the heads wear out or the belts fail.

        Designing electronics so that cheap, easily replaceable parts fail is generally not an option, with the exception of adding fuses and circuit breakers.

      • To have a gear or cam designed to break under mechanical overload is stupid. The proper way to provide a mechanical weak point is to use a shear pin. This is a plain cotter pin in an accessible drive shaft coupling, or in the hub of that gearwheel, that will shear under overload. It may be mild steel, or even aluminium in a light mechanism. Such a part is much cheaper to replace than a gearwheel, and can even be made by the user with basic workshop facilities rather than having to go back to the manufact
    • by WebCowboy (196209)
      People are stupid and careless. In addition, capacitors and other parts DO have a limited lifetime.

      Let me relate to you a story about my Rogers cellphone, and I'll ask where would you reasonably draw the line...

      I obtained a Motorola phone from Rogers Wireless a bit over a year ago, and almost from the start I found I could not get good signal strength on most occasions. I thought it was just crappy coverage from Rogers but then a friend of mine notices we got the exact same model of phone from the same pro
  • Cost savings? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by 192939495969798999 (58312) <info@devinm o o r e .com> on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:27PM (#17019178) Homepage Journal
    An original IBM PC cost thousands of dollars when they were new. An iPod costs 200 dollars new, approximately. Surely a 10-fold difference in price reflects more than advancements in technology, it also must reflect a decline in longevity/quality based on price? If you made a $2000 iPod and focused that money on making a lasting piece of equipment, it would probably come out significantly longer-lived than the $200 model.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Fly Swatter (30498)
      Comparing a stationary desktop computer to a portable device is apples and oranges, it would be better to compare an iPod to the 80's Walkman.
    • by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @02:15PM (#17020248)
      Adjust that for inflation as well and it's staggering. An IBM XT Model 5160 was $8000 for a full system in 1983 when it came around. Adjust that for inflation today and that's about $15,500. Turns out, you can get some pretty serious computer for 15 grand, one that will be pretty well built.

      However if you want a $400 computer from Dell, which would be about $200 in 1983, well don't be surprised if there's some compromises made and it doesn't last all that long.

      Also something people seem to forget is that the examples of old things around today that we see are the good ones by definition. Sure that XT that still works today is reliable, but what about the ones that failed? Well you don't see them because they are on the trash heap. Just because there's a few examples of old items that have survived doesn't mean they were all well made, may have just been some that were particularly lucky.
  • Keyboards (Score:5, Funny)

    by bmo (77928) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:27PM (#17019180)
    Keyboards these days are neither supermodels nor even remotely stylish. Yet they are exceedingly flimsy. If you bludgeon someone over the head with a keyboard these days, it simply shatters into dozens of pieces. The old XT keyboard, however, could have been used to dispatch Jimmy Hoffa.

    --
    BMO
  • You might not be able to just throw gadgets around with impunity, but be a little careful with them and they'll last for at least a few years.

    Examples:
    - Powerbook: 4+ years
    - Palm: 3 years, no problems
    - Cell phone: 2+ so far
    - iPod: almost 4 years. Battery is shot, but that's a physics issue, not a quality issue.
    • by oliverthered (187439) <oliverthered@hot ... minus herbivore> on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:33PM (#17019332) Journal
      - iPod: almost 4 years. Battery is shot, but that's a physics issue, not a quality issue.

      My mp3 player takes standard rechargable AAA battries, I can even replace the battery in my mobile. I think having the battery build in is a clasic quality issue ment to force people to upgrade their ipods every few years
      • by scd (541350)
        I wouldn't judge that a quality issue, but rather a marketing issue.

        If something fails in an unexpected manner, that's a quality issue. For instance, one expects a multi-hundred dollar TV to not die after 2 years. When there is a known, guaranteed bit of obsolescence (sp?), such as a rechargeable battery, the only quality issue is not if it fails at all (since it will), but if it fails before it is expected to.
      • by ceoyoyo (59147)
        As opposed to building it with AAAs where you can either buy new ones every few days or use rechargeable ones with lower voltages that claim to be dead every few hours?

        I LIKE built in batteries, so long as they're not just AAAs or AAs bundled with a proprietary connector. The lithium battery in an iPod is longer lived and faster to recharge than anything available in a standard size. And replacements are readily available when you need them.
    • by b0s0z0ku (752509) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:40PM (#17019498)
      iPod: almost 4 years. Battery is shot, but that's a physics issue, not a quality issue.

      If it used standard sized NiCd or LiIon batteries and the back was easily removable, any putz with a screwdriver would be able to replace them. Sealed devices are silly unless there's a compelling reason to seal them (water pressure resistance or something).

      -b.

    • by joto (134244) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:44PM (#17019570)

      I'm not shure what's most scary. The fact that a properly taken care of powerbook will only last 4 years, or the fact that you are happy with this. I have a pair of boots thats lasted me 4 years, used regularly for long hiking trips in rough terrain, wet terrain, rough and wet terrain, and so on... How many times can you jump on your powerbook? (Of course, the (modern) gore-tex liner lasted only a few months...)

      My mothers old washing machine lasted 26 years before giving up. When I went and bought a new washing machine for myself 5 years ago, I was expecting it to last for at least 10 years. It lasted 3! And I'm single, have no kids, etc...

      I've almost given up on cell-phones. Even if I buy one specifically marketed as sturdy (e.g. Nokia 514), it is almost guaranteed to fail within two years (usually within a year). I would be willing to pay a lot more to get a phone where I don't have to worry about random breakage any time I fall on it.

      The thing with gadgets is, I'm not interested in "being careful" with them. I'm interested in getting something that works. If I buy a mobile phone, it's because I want to bring it with me to become mobile, not to keep it inside original packaging with temperatures between 15-25 celcius and low air humidity. If I buy a washing machine, I want it to wash my clothes, not randomly fail. If I buy a car, I want it to keep driving, not require expensive maintenance, and having expensive parts fail all the time. And if I buy a laptop, it should survive a little rain, being dropped on concrete, being dropped in salt water, having someone fall on it, etc, all common things happening to transportable items.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by scd (541350)
        Bit of clarification. The Powerbook didn't die after 4 years. It's still going strong, and I rather expect it to indefinitely (except for maybe the HD).

        And please, don't compare boots to electronics. It doesn't make the slightest bit of sense.
      • by cerberusss (660701) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @02:09PM (#17020120) Homepage Journal
        If I buy a mobile phone, it's because I want to bring it with me to become mobile, not to keep it inside original packaging with temperatures between 15-25 celcius and low air humidity.
        Welcome to the real world. I wished for a chick with long legs and a tight pussy but instead I got an ostrich and a cat who lets me pay everything.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Lumpy (12016)
        And if I buy a laptop, it should survive a little rain, being dropped on concrete, being dropped in salt water, having someone fall on it, etc, all common things happening to transportable items.

        but you are not willing to pay for that, otherwise you would own a panasonic toughbook that CAN withstand all that.

        What?? you dont want to pay $4000.00 for your laptop? well then take this piece of crap fragile Dell for $1500 and shut up.

        Not being rude, but most of you that whine about it refuse to pay for the dur
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by poot_rootbeer (188613)
        The fact that a properly taken care of powerbook will only last 4 years, or the fact that you are happy with this.

        After 4 years, the new state of the art in mobile computing will be such that you won't WANT to use that old notebook computer anymore, even if it works as well as the day you bought it.

        My mothers old washing machine lasted 26 years before giving up.

        And for maybe half of that time, I'd bet she was wasting more energy (and therefore money) running the old machine instead of buying and using a new
      • by scheming daemons (101928) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @03:03PM (#17021304)
        I would be willing to pay a lot more to get a phone where I don't have to worry about random breakage any time I fall on it.

        Every time you fall on it?

        Man... that just sounds weird. Do you fall that much?

  • by BunnyClaws (753889) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:28PM (#17019194) Homepage
    The company has more incentive to make products that will break after 2 years of use so that you will be forced to purchase a new product from them. Why make a TV that will last 25 years when I can sell you a high end plasma that you will have to replace in 5 years? By making products that break it ensures that customers will continue to buy from the manufacturers.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by KermodeBear (738243)

      Why make a TV that will last 25 years when I can sell you a high end plasma that you will have to replace in 5 years?

      I see it this way. If I make a good product that lasts 20 years, and my competitors' products only last 5, then I'm going to market the hell out of that. I'll end up outselling my competitors because I simply have a MUCH better product. Less sales for them, more for me.

      Sure, I don't make as much money, but neither will they. All those people with my 20-year product aren't just not buying from

  • by Senjaz (188917) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:29PM (#17019216) Homepage
    Rubbish. The RAZR is the rebirth of a much older Motorola design, the Startac. This was the point where mobiles stopped being bricks and started being stylish. Even though the startac had to accommodate a credit-card sizes SIM card it was still only the same size as the RAZR. The Startac was a beautiful phone and easy to use. I paid over £300 for mine almost 10 years ago.

    Some phones I guess are like clothes, they come in and go out of fashion. RAZR is just a remake of the classic older design. The design of the Startac and the RAZR are timeless.
    • by Illbay (700081)
      I'm sorry, but "timeless?"

      The StarTAC came out in 1995! Isn't it a bit premature to declare as "timeless," something that has existed for only a decade?
  • by Jeremiah Cornelius (137) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:29PM (#17019220) Homepage Journal
    I will testify to their sturdiness! They are being used as blocks, to hold up my 1962 Jaguar XJ12 - itself another of those time-honored robust technologies, in contrast to today's delicate and tempermental flim-flams!
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by AntEater (16627)
      I worked as a tech in a shop which leased out XT systems as part of our product support in the early 90's we still had many customers who were using IBM XT's. Nothing killed them. We had hundreds out in use and I don't recall ever seeing one that came back dead. We had a significant number of "clone" systems which often had to be scrapped on return. The original IBM XT was amazingly overbuilt.
    • >to hold up my 1962 Jaguar XJ12

      Speaking of beautiful, but seriously flawed engineering... All 50's and 60's Jags and Triumphs seemed to conform to the motorcycle rule: drive them one hour, work on them two hours. (Don't know about MG's. I never owned one.)

  • Easy answer (Score:2, Insightful)

    by TonyXL (33244)
    Because that's what consumers demand. They'd rather have features than durability, probably because by the time the gadget breaks, there's a better, cheaper one available.

    Why does Walmart import tons of cheap Chinese goods? Because customers want them.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Why does Walmart import tons of cheap Chinese goods? Because customers want them.

      There is nothing intrinsic about something being Chinese that makes me want it.

      Walmart imports tons of Chinese goods because that's the country to where our manufacturing base has been transplanted by market forces for cheap labor. Customers do not buy Chinese goods because they are seeking them out. Even though I try to avoid Chinese stuff, most recently purchased stuff in my house was made in China because that's all they w

  • Oh yeah? (Score:5, Funny)

    by MillionthMonkey (240664) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:30PM (#17019236)
    I found my Razr after it was missing for three weeks. Somebody had buried it in the backyard.

    There was not a scratch on it, and it worked just fine after a recharge.

    This guy must be using one of the pink ones- those are sissy phones.
  • Huh? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Otter (3800) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:31PM (#17019256) Journal
    The writer compares the build quality of a 20 year-old IBM XT to the modern Motorola Razr phone...

    And if you compare my new washing machine to a 20 year-old umbrella, you'd reach the opposite conclusion. How about comparing the Razr to a Walkman or a Swatch, not to a cinderblock of a product from a mainframe maker?

    • Re:Huh? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by hey! (33014) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @02:39PM (#17020686) Homepage Journal

      And if you compare my new washing machine to a 20 year-old umbrella, you'd reach the opposite conclusion.


      Funny you should mention it. I have made several repairs on my five year old washing machine. I also have a double folding golf umbrella I purchased in London nearly twenty years ago from James Smith & Sons, Umbrella Makers (est. 1830). The umbrella is quite complex; it is nearly golf size when extended but it has extra joints to fold down very small. Given the extra complexity this involves, the ubrella ought to be somewhat prone to break down, but it's in perfect shape. As for being blown inside out, I'd probably fly off like Mary Poppins before that happened.

      The issue isn't a general decline in craftsmanship; its a decline in the willingness of people to pay a premium for well crafted items. I don't remember exactly, but I think I paid between £40-50 for mine, which in 2006 dollars would be aroun $150. Naturally, I expect a $150 umbrella to last longer than one I bought from a street hawker for $10 during a rain squall. On the other hand, I bought my wife an even more expensive Smith & Sons lady's umbrella, which I regretted because she left it on the subway a week later. But odds are somebody is still using it.

  • by NerveGas (168686) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:31PM (#17019280)

        When I bought my DVD player, I got a *really* good deal, and spent $400 on it. I don't even know HOW many years it's been (10 or 11 years, if I recall), and it still works just fine.

        These days, people spent $35 on one, and whine when it breaks in a year. C'est la vie.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      And 11 of those 35 dollar DVD players comes out to $385 dollars.

      They're up by 15 bucks, not counting for inflation.
  • by ArchieBunker (132337) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:31PM (#17019282) Homepage
    Is seeing how much older electronics are still around compared to new. I have tube amplifiers that are over 50 years old and still operate because the parts are easily servicable. IMHO most of the electronics that fail early are due to bad solder joints. Your average tv is probably assembled by children in an open air factory somewhere in the pacific. Parts are bought from different suppliers constantly to save a penny here or there. Remember the recent rash of motherboard failures due to leaking capacitors?
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by drinkypoo (153816)
      Remember the recent rash of motherboard failures due to leaking capacitors?

      yes, I do. It was caused by a typically reputable manufacturer stealing a [potentially deliberately] flawed recipe for capacitor electrolyte.

      no way one could have seen it coming. lots of people were already using their parts and simply got burned when the next load came in with faulty electrolyte.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by westlake (615356)
      I have tube amplifiers that are over 50 years old and still operate because the parts are easily servicable.

      and I have a stack of Popular Science magazines from the 40's and 50's.

      vacuum tube tech was easy to service because vacuum tube tech needed service often.

      even the smallest of towns could support a repair shop.

      in fifteen years I have replaced one ethernet card and a drive belt on a VCR. up next will be a DIY replacement for an aging hard drive. total labor cost $50.

  • Really? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by jandrese (485) <kensama@vt.edu> on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:31PM (#17019284) Homepage Journal
    I've dropped my share of gadgets and I have to say that it is exceedingly rare that they actually break. My cell phone (A Blackberry 7100t) has been through a considerable amount of abuse in the two years I've owned it (partially due to the badly designed belt clip for this phone, if you run or jump with it the phone will fly out). Other than some scratches on the screen, it's as good as the day I bought it.

    The only computer motherboards I've ever had die were an actual IBM motherboard (back before they even formed Aptiva), and a Soltek Socket A that fell victim to cap explosions (which were an epidemic at the time). Otherwise, my tech has all been replaced due to gross obsolescence rather than actual breakage (which is a shame when you're waiting for a Matrox G200 to die so you can upgrade your video card, and eventually just have to buy a Geforce 5900 because the new motherboard didn't support high voltage AGP).

    There is a caveat here: When I buy stuff I don't buy it if it feels flimsy or is a cheap knockoff made by a no-name company. Perhaps the lesson for the author is: Stop buying cheap crap and maybe it will last longer?
  • Modern devices quite intentionally are designed to fail.

    1. Design specifications intentionally limit durability
    2. Business decision to make the device fail. If I can't sell any more widgets, then how will I stay in business?
    3. No consumers want something to last for decades.

    Stories like this are an embarrassment of riches.
  • Weight? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by rickkas7 (983760) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:32PM (#17019306)
    An original IBM PC weighed 28 pounds [ibm.com] with two floppy disk drives. A cell phone (err... mobile [slashdot.org]?) with a heavy gauge steel case would probably be pretty durable, but I wouldn't want to carry one around.
  • Engines are the same. Get a factory rebuild block from ANY auto maker or even a engine rebuilder and you will get an engine that will only make it 100,000 miles.

    Proper rebuilding techniques like polishing the crank (Ok stop the snickering) and other things that are SUPPOSED to be done in engines when building them are not being done.

    Thus cars dont last very long or handle stress well and break easy.. same for gadgets. they are made as cheap as possible to get the highest profits possible.

    Almost nothing is
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by b0s0z0ku (752509)
      Engines are the same. Get a factory rebuild block from ANY auto maker or even a engine rebuilder and you will get an engine that will only make it 100,000 miles.

      Many engines that supposedly need a rebuild, actually don't, though, and taking the whole motor apart and "rebuilding" it can make things worse if the rebuilders isn't both skilled and obsessive. Case in point: 3 years ago, my Volvo 245 started making a clanking sound and running on 3 out of 4 cylinders. I took it to the mechanic: "probably thre

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Don853 (978535)
      I wasn't around to compare, but every older member of my family tells me that cars last much longer than they used to. Most modern cars last 150K+ miles easily, provided they're driven by someone who isn't constantly pushing the limits of the vehicle. The fact that no one will repair banged up sheet metal or broken plastic parts so hitting a deer runs you $5000 has roots in the same throwaway culture, but isn't caused by lack of initial quality.
      • by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @02:41PM (#17020742) Homepage Journal

        Actually everything but the body is much more durable, but auto body is much harder to repair today, at least in some ways. Back in the olden days people used to do metal finishing on cars, which means that there's no filler used whatsoever. This is still fairly common on show cars, but on nothing else. Basically any damaged metal is either beaten back into shape (stretching and shrinking as necessary) or cut out and a patch welded in. If the body man can't repair the damage with hammers, dollies, and a torch from that point, then if anything, lead is used to smooth out surfaces.

        The new way to repair auto body is to get it within 1/8 to 1/4" (hopefully closer to 1/8") and then use body filler. Depending on who you talk to the filler is either spread over bare metal or primer. Either way it seals itself to the body in a way that lead doesn't. Then you prime the hell out of it because any non-plastic filler (plastic filler is expensive) is hygroscopic and attracts water.

        Okay, so with all that said; modern automobiles are made of a much harder steel than old ones. I'm not sure when the first 100% high strength steel car was made, but I know Mercedes did it in 1981 if that's any help. Today basically every vehicle that is not a full size truck uses a unibody design consisting of 100% high strength steel. Besides its various other characteristics which are not very important right now, HSS is hard. The harder steel is, the harder it is to work, and the more brittle it is. It's also easier to push it past its elastic limit, which is the point at which deformation becomes permanent to some degree. This makes metal finishing of modern vehicles all but impossible which is why we have to use filler.

        But on top of that, they're all unibody vehicles. If you get a chance to inspect a modern vehicle which ran into something fairly straight at high speed, open up the trunk and lift up the carpet. Odds are you'll see deformations in the floor of the trunk area. When a unibody vehicle takes a serious impact, the force is spread throughout the vehicle. This is what makes a unibody car so much safer than a full-frame vehicle like, for example, a 1963 Lincoln Continental. Oh sure, that continental might weigh 5000 pounds, but it won't crumple when it hits a wall unlike a 2000 pound honda civic; furthermore, the stress is not distributed throughout the car. These two things combine to make it as if YOU had simply hit the wall, in comparison to being in a unibody vehicle with crumple zones. The unibody is so successful at transmitting force that up to 40% of the force of a front-end collision can be transmitted to the back of the car through the windshield.

        Anyway, repairing banged up sheet metal is literally twice as hard as it used to be, if not more. Repairing torn up plastic parts costs just as much as buying new ones - the plastic weld compound is quite spendy and you need to use a special primer to get anything to stick to a polyurethane part. This is not the problem. The reason it costs $5000 when you hit a deer is that the body shops are continually getting away with insurance fraud. For instance, I rear-ended someone (I know, I'm an idiot) with a silverado. I bent his bumper and the brackets. The body shop ordered a complete bumper kit instead of the bumper metal and the brackets. Because they bought all the plastic bits that weren't even damaged, this raised the price of the job by $400. They also charged four hours of work to replace a bumper. This is a job that would take me maybe half an hour.

        I took two years of auto body and paint classes from a body man who has been in the business long enough to have repaired cars with lead back when it was simply the way things were done...

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by guruevi (827432)
      That's why you get a good European or American luxury car and not a cheap Japanese or Japanese-rip-off city-driving gas-saving minicar.

      I have a Buick Park Avenue, 25-30mpg and a good 250.000 miles on the odometer. The only things I had to repair were the usual O2 sensors, lights and EGR valve and I am not an old-man's driver, I usually go 5-15mph over the speed limit for hours on end.

      Then you have those 50-60mpg Japanese cars with 3 cylinders being sold here in this area, that is just laughable. Even 4-cyli
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        That's why you get a good European or American luxury car and not a cheap Japanese or Japanese-rip-off city-driving gas-saving minicar. I have a Buick Park Avenue, 25-30mpg and a good 250.000 miles on the odometer. The only things I had to repair were the usual O2 sensors, lights and EGR valve and I am not an old-man's driver, I usually go 5-15mph over the speed limit for hours on end. Then you have those 50-60mpg Japanese cars with 3 cylinders being sold here in this area, that is just laughable. Even 4-

  • by klubar (591384) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:33PM (#17019348) Homepage
    Over the last couple of years I've been impressed with quality of "cheap" electronics. It's pretty remarkable that companies can cram the amount of functionality into gadgets at the price.... look at cheap gigabit switches... 8 port gigabit for around $150... or wireless routers.... lots of features, small and should last 3 or more years... Most of my gadgets are replaced because I want more functionality or cooler features, not because they broke.

    I still have 4+ year old PCs happily working and other electronics that live a long life....

    The quality of most devices is extraordinarily high.
  • Really? (Score:3, Funny)

    by also-rr (980579) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:35PM (#17019388) Homepage
    I accidentally washed and spin dried my new USB stick and it still works. You go try that with a 5 1/2" floppy and tell me how well that works out for you.
  • "MADE IN CHINA"

    Seems to be stamped on my crappiest gadgets. They have improved quite a bit, though. Still, I actively look for "MADE IN JAPAN", "MADE IN KOREA", "MADE IN USA", or "MADE IN MEXICO" preferentially and in that order. Sometimes the same model will be available from two or more source factories, even if it's a bit pricier. "MADE IN KOREA" used to be bad, but now is as good or almost as good as Japan, so presumably the Chinese stuff will improve as well and we'll have to get our cheap crap somewhe
  • by ematic (217513) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:37PM (#17019422)
    Taking good care of your electronics is the key to making them last. Especially if you pay a bit more for a well engineered one. I know of a lot of original Gameboys that still have life in them.

    I'm an electrical engineer. While there may be system-level/market-level planned obselescence (based on outdated protocols, DRM, or style -- think iPod G1-4), there certainly is not one at the component-level (chips/ICs). Microprocessors are reliable as ever.

    This essay lacks references. And, following argument is groundless: "The electronics industry has clearly spotted this problem, and ... your gadgets will simply break within the year".

    Explain.

  • ...on the other hand, he's full of shit.

    Yes, the original IBM PC (from which the XT differs only at the motherboard and power supply level - the case is identical) was a tank. I had one. It had a ~60W power supply (same size as the 600W and 800W supplies today) and a couple of internal 5.25" floppies. The case was probably three times as heavy as the aluminum case that my last PC was in.

    This is precisely my point - consumers don't want big heavy tanks. At the same time, almost none of my electronics

  • As much as I love a good conspiracy products like the RAZR are flimsy because that's what the market demands. People want something that looks cool and is light and... uhm... looks cool. Surprise! You don't get heavy-duty parts with that.

    On the other hand the original IBM PS2 tower (which the article doesn't mention by name, but was of that same era) was marked "Two person lift" complete with nifty stickers of people injuring their backs on it. It wasn't supposed to be light and pretty, it was meant to
  • To Serve Man (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Doc Ruby (173196) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:40PM (#17019494) Homepage Journal
    They're flimsy because the mass production scales cut costs by automating out repairs by humans in favor of manufacture and replacement by machines.

    Replacement for wearing out offers the chance to get a new one with some incremental features, and the newer styles that have so much social value.

    The hidden cost remaining in these gadgets is discarding them. Either labor-intensive recycling, or environmental pollution plus increased scarcity of materials. The original seller doesn't pay most of that cost, so it doesn't show up in the sale price. But it costs the consumers in increased aftermarket costs and labor.

    We should take the flimsiness that economics encourages to the next step: biodegradeablility. Make them flimsy not just to human mechanical use, but to our ecosystem, including bacteria. Or even feedable to our pets. That will cut the costs of discard way down. Which will leave us more money to buy new ones.

    Until we can get those little buggers to reproduce themselves. Eventually, they'll be recycling us.
  • Article Summary:

    My name is Chris Stevens and I like to whine because I dropped my Motorola RAZR and it broke.

    Get over it. If you wanted durable, you wouldn't have picked the RAZR. It's pretty obvious to everyone else that it wasn't meant to be durable. Why don't you get a cell phone the size and weight of your precious IBM XT and tell me what you think.
  • by TheAwfulTruth (325623) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:43PM (#17019564) Homepage
    yes, yes, planned obsolescense etc...

    The #1 reason that modern gadgets break is because market pricing pressure makes then that way. They are cheap cheap cheap. While a /few/ people would pay the $120 it would take to create and sell a heavy duty all metal, robust keyboard, it would not be enough to compete with the millions that won't pay over $12.95.

    I work in the hardware industry and pricing pressure causes manufacturers to do crazy/dangerous things to reduce the cost of every single component in a 1000 component product. Farm out calls for 1000 parts to the lowest bidder and you can pretty much guess what the total end result will be on the quality.

    ISO 9000 has pretty much gone out the window in the last few years as being just too expensive to implement and manitain by the entire supply chain. Thus we are now constantly (Yes, still even today) dealing with capaciters that explode after 100 hours use, switches that break after 100 presses and an almost infinate variety of unplanned but inevitable hardware failures.

    And in the end, if that means that someone has to buy a new phone and a new keyboard every year well, the companies that make them could have worse things happen than selling another product to the same customer. Even if the customer gets mad an never buys from that company again, it doesn't matter, pissed off customers of the competitor will come running back to THEM. As long as their quality is not significantly worse than their competitiors anyway.

    But in the end, the age of the flimsy is mostly the end result of the age of extreme consumerism where everyone must have everything and it must all cost 12.95 or less.
  • Then buy a phone which has durability as a feature. Nextel has a bunch of motorola phones that will survive all kinds of abuse. I've had an i90 for going on 4 years now. I've gone through 3 faceplates, 2 batteries and 2 keypads.
  • Improvements in the tools (CAD/CAM) and the methods (finite element analysis) are to "blame" for this "problem."

    I love overbuilt gear, too, but a RAZR built with 14 gauge galvanized steel would weigh a pound and cost as much as your old XT did when new. I for one welcome our cheap-gadget-engineering overlords.

    -Isaac
  • I'd reply with a comment but my keyboard's broken.
  • Over Engineering (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Shadow Wrought (586631) * <{shadow.wrought} {at} {gmail.com}> on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:53PM (#17019754) Homepage Journal
    Nowadays engineers can find the exact minimum amount of materials and the like to use to acheive their goal. Back int he day they'd find an approximate and double it too make sure. That'd be my guess.
  • by NineNine (235196) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @02:17PM (#17020286)
    It's very simple. People are idiots. That's why gadgets break. Not because people break them, but because when people see things like the iPod that have a battery that you can't replace yourself, they buy them, anyway! What kind of idiot buys a gadget with a battery sealed in it? I know that I certainly wouldn't, but millions upon millions of people continue to throw their dollars at these pieces of crap, and when they die, they buy ANOTHER one, often from the same company.

    The companies are laughing all of the way to the bank. They have mindless drones buying everything that they release, no matter how shitty, and the people come back and buy more! With so many stupid people buying these pieces of crap over and over, the only incentive that the manufacturers have is to make cheaper crap that breaks even quicker, because they know that no matter what, people will buy them again, and again, and again...

    Oh yeah. This was typed on a IMB XT keyboard that I bought at a thrift store for one dollar. It was manufactured in 1993.
  • by Animats (122034) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @02:49PM (#17020964) Homepage

    There's good hardware out there. You can buy more rugged phones, especially for Nextel's network. The Motorola i530 [amazon.com] meets the MIL-STD-810F [army.mil] ruggedness specification. It has all the usual stuff (camera, Bluetooth, web browser, etc.), it's much tougher than most phones, it's about the same price as most phones, and it's not much thicker. Available in black or bright yellow.

    Shuttle PCs [shuttle.com], the little breadbox units, are very well made mechanically, with good internal rigidity, support for cards on multiple sides, and a liquid cooling heat pipe system that really works in high ambient temperature environments.

    You don't have to buy the crap.

  • by MaWeiTao (908546) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @02:51PM (#17021006)
    I think build quality has declined with the ever increasing desire to keep costs down. I see several problems. First, companies seem to be so eager to do business in China that they're willing to tolerate anything. When it's a company's primary goal to cut costs, why would they want to spend any more money than necessary to ensure a higher standard of quality? The consumer is clearly content with the current standard of quality at low prices so why bother with anything more? So they dump manufacturing in Chinese hands and let them deal with everything. In the end, all many companies are doing is slapping their own logo on the product.

    Which leads me to the second problem. Too many American companies seem to have given up on producing quality products and instead have focused on being cheap. This means that they are no only outsourcing manufacturing, but design as well. So instead of having products that are thoughtfully designed and aestetically pleasing we're getting an overwrought messes that aren't particularly easy to use. How many American companies are left that are actually involved in every step of the design and manufacturing process for consumer products. One of the few is Apple and they do an amazing job. But look at Dell, or HP who are essentially sticking their logo on someone else's product.

    These companies are going with Chinese suppliers because they adhere to the same principles of cheap manufacturing. The end result, of course, is something that doesn't look very good and isn't particularly reliable. The Chinese don't yet have the product design experience that the Americans should have, and the Japanese and many Europeans definitely do have.

    The problem ultimately is that American companies seem to have gotten obsessed with making money first and foremos. Pride in quality products has taken a back seat. There are American companies out there that used to produce respected products that now only offer crap products. They want to do things that require a minimum of effort but produce a maximum of income, hence the apparently popularity of web-based businesses. The Koreans, by contrast, have done quite well because they have a lot of nationalistic pride. They want to outdo the Japanese in every way they can. The Chinese are also quite ambitious so although they're still well behind most of the world they're making a lot of headway.

    The Taiwanese also produce excellent products, but there in a similar situation as the US. They lack a lot of the pride other asians have and they continue to try to stick to the easy way of doing things. The problem is that the Chinese can do what they do more cheaply. So their chance for success is to move upmarket much in the way Japan did in the 70s and the Koreans more recently, pushing their own brands and improving quality.

    That's an important point... It's why the Japanese and some Europeans to a lesser extent thrive. They're not competing for the bottom of the barrel. They're producing higher quality products which offer both technological innovation and design sophistication. They care about making quality products. To many American companies seem to be stuck producing the same old crap and constantly reminiscing on the supposed glory days of the 50s and 60s.

    Here's a example I face on occassion. I walk into a Staples looking for office supplies. Because I'm in design I care about having a space that actually looks appealing. But all I see at office supply stores in the US is garbage. Complete and utter garbage. Completely uninspired and bereft of any design sensibility. It's all industrial-looking transparent crap. Why? Couldn't they hire some damn designers and an engineer or two to put a little effort into something that feels durable and looks good? Contrast that with when I was living in Taiwan and I could walk into any of a number of Taiwanese or Japanese supply stores and find some neat looking stuff that actually worked well. Some of these products even had ingenious little features.

    I guarantee you, however, t
  • by gelfling (6534) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @04:03PM (#17022682) Homepage Journal
    Consumer electronics don't make much money which is why 95% of the PC companies are dead and gone now compared to the early-mid '90's. Dell, HP, Lenovo, Apple and everyone else. So if you're only making 2-5% on every sale what can you afford in terms of quality. For an extra hundred or two hundred bucks you'd have a hard time convincing a consumer that the engineering life of your product is longer than the economic life of your product which is probably 3 years whether it continues to work or not.

    I have a house full of PCs which will probably be the last MS OS code I ever buy. Buy the time it comes to replace the machines, which I'm in no hurry to do, the hardware costs for whatever is MS code current at that time will be too costly for my taste. So I will go with down level machines and run something else like Linux or perhaps just scrap them all and buy cheap mini-Macs. But if I was the kind of person who slavishly followed MS's lead and ran out and bought new machines just to run Vista, I'd find myself in an endless upgrade cycle to keep pace with all of the MS requirements. So it's entirely probable that my 'old' hardware would only have to work for 2 years or so. Given that most hardware lasts for more than two years and the vendor gambles that x% of their market churns their machinery every two years then the value I place on having that hardware last reliably longer than two years is almost zero. I can use cheaper parts, purchased on commodity market with little or no QA or standardization. I can assemble it in the cheapest factory I can find and I will make more money not less even if a large percentage of the product fails between 2 years and some arbitrary date but less than a 'reasonable' period of time.

    I addressed this earlier in another post that was flamed when I suggested that MS be assessed a recycling tax for every turn of the OS version crank based on ever increasing hardware requirements that drive needless hardware sales. If they want to sell more software then they need to absorb the cost of churning the old hardware. If they want to pass that cost on to the consumer then we'll see just how receptive the consumer is to the real cost of bloated software. It's really the flip side of the same issue.

  • by Fantastic Lad (198284) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @09:11PM (#17027634)
    once the critical part has broken, if you have the technical skills to fix it, you can pretty much be assured that your toy/tool/car/whatever will last a good, long time.

    A while ago, in my search for a small, dedicated word processor with a long battery life, a big screen and a proper keyboard, I bought an HP Jornada 820. It's a great little machine with no moving parts and a flashcard port rather than a hard drive. Awesome. I use it all the time for writing on the go in ways that make regular lap-top and palm users go, "Wow! I wish I had something which served me as well. How much did you spend? Really? Wow. . . If I gave you some money, could you get one for me also? eBay scares me."

    The problem, and I was told to anticipate this, is that the screen on the Jornada 820 likes to break off after a period of use.

    So when mine did, I pulled it apart to see why. It's pretty amazing! I discovered inside a set of re-enforced bolt holes in the chassis where some scrupulous engineer figured the screen hinging system ought to be attached. But somebody, somewhere, made the call to ignore those bolt holes and instead use these single, weenie screws in a rather less than strong part of the chassis. A ploy which was clearly designed to have HP's cute little Jorna break with ease. And they do. Thank you so very much, HP!

    But since planned obsolescence is a given these days, I was overjoyed!

    I simply drilled out the never-used re-enforced bolt holes and employed proper bolts to re-attached the screen. (And because I like to do a really good job, I used some spring-steel and washers to make the whole thing even more rugged. Barring accidents, the screen will never come off again.)

    So now I have a computer which by design was supposed to be dead several years ago, but which works just fine for me. And unless the (evil) designers were able to sneak any other time-bomb flaws into the device, my little word processor should last me for a very long time. This makes me happy!

    The moral of the story? Learn how to fix things or get used to spending hoards of cash because several somebodys over at HP and similar companies are spineless villains.


    -FL

  • by seanellis (302682) on Wednesday November 29, 2006 @07:32AM (#17031170) Homepage Journal
    Like so many things, predicted by the late, great, Douglas Adams. But for shoes.

    From Wikipedia:

    In the critical condition, demand for shoes rises faster than the capacity to make good quality footwear. As shoe quality decreases, the demand increases further because shoes wear out faster and need to be replaced more often; as the demand for shoes increases, cheap mass production causes shoe quality to drop even more. What results is a spiral of increasing shoe demand and decreasing shoe quality. Eventually, this destabilises the economy to the point where it is "no longer economically viable to build anything other than shoe shops", and planetary society collapses.

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