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Decoding hype on gadgets

Decoding hype on gadgets
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First Published: Tue, May 19 2009. 09 20 PM IST

Imaging by Manoj Madhavan / Mint
Imaging by Manoj Madhavan / Mint
Updated: Tue, May 19 2009. 09 20 PM IST
The consumer technology industry is unusual for a variety of reasons. For example, as power, speed and features keep increasing, the prices of electronic items keep going down, year after year. In which other industry does that happen?
Imaging by Manoj Madhavan / Mint
Then there’s the fetish factor, which reached new heights on that summer day in 2007 when the iPhone came out. You’ve never seen 1,000 people camping out to be the first in line to buy, say, a new flavour of Cheerios or the latest Gap jeans.
But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of consumer tech is how it’s marketed. Apart from cellphones, you hardly ever see or hear electronics advertised on the mainstream broadcast airwaves. Can you remember seeing any TV ad for an answering machine, a camcorder or a surround-sound system? Can you hum the radio jingle for even one Blu-ray DVD player?
No, most high-tech marketing takes cheaper and more subtle forms: magazine ads (usually terrible ones), trade shows and websites. Some companies, notably Apple, unveil new products at live, Webcast, onstage events—and get extra mileage from the intense secrecy that leads up to them.
What may be most interesting about all of this is what the marketing actually says. Obviously, no company is going to proclaim the shortcomings of its products. But sometimes the features that they do flog are so far away from what really matters, it’s almost laughable. It’s a sort of corporate misdirection, and it’s time somebody called their bluff.
Here, for your mass uprising pleasure, is a cheat sheet. It identifies the usual pitch of the marketing in each tech product category—and contrasts it with a much more important feature, in each case, that the advertisers conveniently avoid mentioning.
What you’re told is important: Zoom power. Good heavens, people—why is zoom so important? Sure, it’s nice to get visually close to your child on the middle-school stage or the soccer field. But how much is enough? 20X? 30X? 50X?
Truth is, the more you zoom in, the unsteadier your footage becomes; each magnification also magnifies your hand jitters and renders the video less watchable.
When have you ever seen zooming-in TV or movie footage? Almost never. Take a hint from the pros: Don’t zoom.
What’s really important: Wide angle. I recently tested camcorders from three major companies. I wanted to see how far back I’d have to stand in order to fit an entire 6ft person in the frame. Believe it or not, the best of the camcorders—the one with the widest angle —required me to back up 15ft. Trouble is, by the time you’ve backed up that far, you’re much too far away from your subject for the microphone to pick him up.
Think of all the times when you ache for a wider view on your camcorder. That stage play, that soccer game, those weddings. You can’t capture anything close to that breathtaking mountain vista with a camcorder unless you lamely pan back and forth; the result doesn’t have anything close to the impact you get in person.
But widening a camcorder’s field of view would mean limiting its zoom. And after decades of pounding “20X!” into our brains, the camcorder companies aren’t about to focus on something that matters more.
What you’re told is important: Megapixels. Somehow, the industry has managed to convince consumers that having more dots means better photo quality. And that may have been true in the early days, when 2-megapixel cameras roamed the earth. Enlargements made from a 4-megapixel camera’s shots could indeed look sharper than a 2-megapixel camera’s shots.
But that visual difference evaporated once cameras hit 5 or 6 megapixels. Nowadays, even 6 megapixels is plenty even for enormous, poster-size prints. On small cameras, the experts will tell you, cramming more megapixels on to those tiny chips can actually reduce image quality because the chips heat up and cause coloured speckles (noise) in the photo.
What’s really important: Sensor size. A bigger light sensor in the camera means better light sensitivity, which means the shutter doesn’t have to stay open as long, which means fewer blurred shots.
But the camera companies don’t want you to know this statistic — it’s not on the box, it’s not in the ads—because it’s easier and cheaper to tweak the megapixels than the sensor size. You can look up a camera’s sensor size on the Web, but even then you’ll be presented with goofy, hard-to-understand, impossible-to-compare measurements such as 1/2.3 inches (for small cameras) and 16x23 mm (for SLR cameras). They never appear in simple diagonal inch measurements, the way TV screens (and even camera screens) are measured. No, that would be too simple.
What you’re told is important: Coverage.
What’s really important: Coverage. Yes, they’re advertising the right thing. Coverage is what people want. We don’t want to see no bars and be unable to make a call; we don’t want interrupted conversations when we go through dead spots. We just want the darned thing to work.
The real problem is that they’re lying. The first clue is that, despite all those claims, we still complain about our cellphone coverage.
The second clue is that every cellphone company makes a similar claim. “More bars in more places” ... “Largest network” ... “Most reliable network” ... “Fewer dropped calls”. They can’t all be right (turns out they’re measuring different things—how many people live within the coverage area, for example, versus how many square miles are in the coverage area, or coverage in the US versus worldwide coverage).
The third clue is the coverage maps on each company’s website. Zoom in a tad and you find out that lots of states have more dead spots than live ones.
It’s not easy being a cellphone company, of course. It’s expensive to put up cell towers, and it’s not worth doing in sparsely populated areas. And even in populated areas, you have to fight the locals who don’t want big ugly towers in their backyards.
But in that case, maybe these companies should focus on fixing the things that are within their control—terrible customer-support programmes, tacked-on fees, cancellation penalties and text-messaging charges—and then advertise those.
What you’re told is important: Price. How inexpensive a computer is is certainly an important factor. In fact, to some people, it’s the single most important factor.
What’s really important: Value.
When something is made exclusively to be cheap, there’s a price to be paid somewhere else. You may love your PC’s price, but you may not love the manufacturer’s low-rated, outsourced customer support. Or the ugly patchwork of stickers, logos and panels underneath. Or the huge, ungainly power brick. Or the obnoxious pre-installed junkware that drags the thing to a crawl from the first time you power it up. Or the annual antivirus software subscription that you’ll need for Windows. Or the time you’ll lose trying to learn the pot-luck programs provided on your new PC from different companies, each with a different interface and conventions.
There are two kinds of people: those who value elegance, simplicity and beauty, and those who don’t. You’ll never convince either group to change their minds; it’s like a religious war.
Now then: Do I expect any of these rants to have even the slightest impact on the way tech is marketed? Nah. But maybe, just maybe, the seeds of doubt have been sown. And someday, somewhere, at a store counter, somebody may finally say: “Actually, I don’t care how much it zooms. Got anything with a wider angle?” ©2009/ THE NEW YORK TIMES
Unlike other overtly bulky charging solutions, the iTouch Charging Leather Case ($99, www.hammacher.com/publish/76401.asp#) is a neat, stylish option for people wanting to juice up their iPhone or iPod Touch on the go. Connect the device to the dock inside the leather case and its integrated Li-ion battery performs the recharge. Durable and slim, it is small enough to be pocketable. You can switch off charging and use it as a regular protective device case.
The case can charge your device 2 1/2 times before it needs to be topped up via USB for 5 hours. ASHISH BHATIA
It may look deceptively ordinary, but the Cocoon Grid-It! ($130, www.cocooninnovations.com) is far more versatile than any shock absorbent, moulded laptop bag you may have seen. Inside this double-zippered, 15.4-inch sling are a gadget organization panel and a neoprene laptop sleeve—both removable. Its rummage-riddance panel is a rubberized woven elastic object retention system for holding digital devices such as iPods, BlackBerrys and cameras, along with their cables, in apple-pie order. ASHISH BHATIA
Downloading updates and security fixes for software on your computer is key to staying out of the clutches of cybercriminals. If you have a Windows PC, you should immediately download the fixes from Microsoft and Adobe. And better yet, enable automatic software updates so that you don’t have to worry about this stuff in future. In Vista, click the ‘Start’ button, then ‘All Programs’ and ‘Windows Update’. Then select ‘Change Settings’ and choose how you want Windows to install updates. Microsoft recommends that you choose to receive all important and recommended updates (and while you’re at it, you may as well turn on the Phishing Filter). If you use Microsoft programs such as Office and see a ‘Get updates for more products’ button within ‘Windows Update’, click on that to make sure you’re getting security updates for those products too. ©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
The tiny size of most netbooks makes them great for computing on the go, but those smaller screens don’t leave much room to see the Web browser’s contents. If you want to see more of the Web in your browser window, consider an add-on that shrinks the amount of space that program toolbars take up. Firefox, for example, has at least two toolbar-squishing add-ons available: Littlefox (snipurl.com/hkshp) and Classic Compact (snipurl.com/hksj5). ©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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First Published: Tue, May 19 2009. 09 20 PM IST