My war with consumer electronics

January 24, 2012

Bernard Cole-January 24, 2012

Every January when the Consumer Electronics Show rolls around, I have a complex set of emotional reactions, the same ones that I have when I go into a local Big Box retailer to buy a personal electronics gadget.

First there is anticipation of all the new features and capabilities that developers have come up with. Then there is resignation because over the years I have learned there will always be some flaw or oversight for which I will have to find a workaround. Third comes resentment at whatever has caused this to occur: penny-pinching, lack of planning, or ignorance – sometimes willful - of the consumers’ needs and wants.

The flaws I see in various consumer electronics devices are many, some unique to each type and some common to all. To deal with them I have a kit of tools that I keep at hand to work around the problems. The kit includes: Velcro, Super Glue, Elmer’s water soluble glue, a variety of hooks and rings, various kinds of tape, soldering iron and solder, wire cutter and splicer, and safety pins and paper clips of various sizes. And for really tough cases, duct tape.

For brevity’s sake, here I will focus on just simple MP3 players, of which there must be a dozen different brands and within each brand, a dozen variations. But from what I have learned elsewhere, such as in a recent Jack Ganssle column on Android devices, the same sorts of problems occur no matter how far up the consumer electronics food chain you go in complexity and rampant "featureitis".

Invariably, MP3 players suffer from the same “more is better” malady that infects desktop computers and many consumer electronics devices. MP3 players have been stuffed with as large a screen as possible in a one or two inch square device, a USB connector, audio output, a microscopically sized microphone, and an FM Radio.

On MP3 players, I appreciate the large screens that are now standard for viewing the titles of music and audio books. But most such devices also include a capability for viewing your favorite music videos. Images of a postage stamp-sized singer in which there is no detail? No, thanks. I would rather they had used the space to include additional gigabytes of solid state flash for storing even more books and songs. And the weaselly little pin-hole sized microphone capability? Be serious.

The FM radio functionality is a nice extra, or would be if it really worked reliably. But reception is always iffy in such a small device. It is also the most prone to failure and, unfortunately, takes along much of the other functionality of the device with it. On one MP3 player, after the FM radio went out, I could still play my stored selections, but, I could not change the volume. On another, the FM radio worked OK and the volume worked – once – after which it would turn itself off and I would have to turn it back on and find my place in my selection again.

The designers of the devices, and the companies that take them to market, must know that these problems could occur, because some of them include a reset button someplace on the device – usually a microscopically small pin hole into which you must stick a sharp point to restart the device. They know that they are pushing reliable operation to the edge, but still they try to cram in as much counter-productive functionality as they can.

This is where one of the tools in my kit is useful: a safety pin that I have attached to my keychain for easy access. With it, I have an MP3 player that works most of the time. But regularly – and arbitrarily – it shuts down, until I bring it back to normal functioning by poking at the reset with my safety pin.

The reliability and usability issues also extend to the accessories. My big bugaboos right now are the headsets and earplugs, both the ones that come with the device and the more expensive ones you have to go out and buy when the supplied ones stop functioning.

For example, ear buds. Maybe my ear canals are abnormally small, but none of the buds fit into my ears and stay there. One of my solutions is the Elmer’s water soluble glue. I rub a small amount around the edge of my ear entrance and the bud stays there nice and snug, Otherwise I have to spend more money to get an expensive set with a number of ear bud sizes and fits. Despite that, on some ear buds, when I push it in to fit snugly, the result is an inoperative ear speaker, full of static.

Then there is the length of the ear phone cord. On average, the ones supplied with the MP3 player are 3 to 4 feet in length. I don’t know about you, but my ears are not somewhere between my knees. Some of the more thoughtful companies supply the cord with an attached clip and direct you to fold up the unnecessary cord and attach it to this clip. Thanks for the thought, but it is an awkward solution and gets in my way.

For a while my solution was to use my kit and cut out the extra length and splice what is left to get a shorter cord. But I stopped doing that. Too much trouble for something that has a lifetime of a few months. The cords on earbuds are extraordinarily thin and flimsy and have a tendency to break at the points where it attaches to the ear bud and to the earphone jack you plug into the MP3 player. I do what I can to extend the lifetime, using my Superglue to reinforce those weak points at regular intervals.

That does not do anything about the cumbersome length of the cord. My first solution was to simply wrap it around my neck until the excess was gone. Now, I have kludged a solution that reduces effective length by half. It still hangs around my neck, earplugs on one side and earphone jack on the other. But I have used a large paper clip to create a sliding attachment much like on a trombone, with the cord from the ear buds inserted on one side and portion of the cord with the electrical plug to the MP3 player on the other, and tape in between to keep them separate.

I now have a setup that is much less cumbersome, but flexible enough to fit the player itself into the pocket of my pants, coat ,or shirt, on the left or on the right, or attached to a neck chain - all without pulling the bud end from my ears.

But the problems don't end there. Now suppose I have the MP3 player attached to a neck chain to keep it handy and easily viewable? Have you looked at the size of the holes for attachment, or where they are positioned?. For me, they’re in the wrong place - at the “top” of the device. So if I have it on a neck chain and I reach down to see what is on the display, the image is upside down.

To solve that I use one of the safety pins in my kit and attach it at the bottom of the device with Velcro so I can see the book and song titles right side up, Then I use Superglue to connect it permanently, attachment clamp down, so the safety pin ring hole at one end is available to attach to my neck chain.

(Are you following all of this? Perhaps I should have diagrammed some of it).

These are some of the more mundane and trivial - and least complicated - problems I have with consumer electronics devices. I have dealt with some of the more serious drawbacks from this user’s point of view elsewhere in a column written several years ago titled “IPv6, RFID, GPS and finding lost devices. “ Nothing was done then nor since about those problems that I can find. Nor do I expect anything to be done. And many years of experience with these devices tell me nothing will be done to deal with what I have written about here as well, sadly.

Why? There are three possible reasons. First, perhaps no one but me sees them as problems, but I find that hard to believe. Second, as noted in a previous column on It’s usability testing, stupid!”, I don’t think companies do the right kind of research to understand the users of their products. I know they do not understand me. Finally, it may not be in the interest of the device maker or accessory supplier to do so. If they fix it and make it more reliable, it will not malfunction and then there will be no reason to buy a replacement. Welcome to 21st Century consumer electronics!!

Embedded.com Site Editor Bernard Cole is also a partner in TechRite Associates editorial services consultancy. He welcomes your feedback. Call 928-525-9087 or send an email to bccole@techrite-associates.com.

This article provided courtesy of Embedded.com and Embedded Systems Design Magazine. Sign up for subscriptions and newsletters. Copyright © 2012 UBM--All rights reserved.

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