Low End Theory: Back-to-School Craptacular!

One of my favorite boardroom buzz phrases is "added value." As in, "By adding textured grooves to the volume knobs on our TVs, we've created a lot of added value for our customers." In other words, creating added value means making superficial changes that are just noticeable enough to merit a listing on the hype sheet.

One of the granddaddies of added-value tricks, of course, is slapping a cartoon character on the frame. It goes without saying that, circa 1982, you could have seized my Spiderman walkie-talkie only by prying it out of my cold, dead hand. Never mind that it had a range of about seven meters, and picked up interference from the neighbors' cordless phones. (Hearing about Mrs. Larson's hysterectomy caused me some serious angst, I'm afraid.)

The contemporary melange of kid-oriented licensed merchandise is much more sophisticated. Join us, won't you, as Low End Theory takes a stroll down the toy aisle for a peek at this school year's assortment of cartoon gadgetry. PLUS: Low End Theory's first-ever contest!

The undisputed champion of licensing for the juice-box set is Nickelodeon, which has an entire corporate division dedicated to the pursuit. Smart lads over there, as they've actually made sure that the channel's properties festoon some halfway decent gadgets, beginning with the eye-catching SpongeBob SquarePants DVD Player. It comes from the budgetmeisters at Emerson Radio Corporation, which totally turns out some top-notch clock radios (if such a thing can be said). The spec sheet on this one is mighty short, amounting to little more than "comes with remote control" and "compatible with any TV possessing RCA inputs." On the plus side, there's a feature where each movie played on the unit is given a "4 starfish" rating by SpongeBob. Yes, even Battlefield Earth, which saddens Low End Theory; I guess SpongeBob got caught up in all the fame and money in Hollywood, and now he's trying to excise his body thetans with John Travolta.

I also dig on the (deep breath) Batman Long Range Night Vision Headband Walkie Talkies (exhale), which Amazon has on sale for $29.99. Haven't tested these out, but the spec sheet almost sounds too good to be true: a range of 2,000 feet, as well as simultaneous talk and listen. The manufacturer terms the latter feature "Duplex Technology"; kudos to the PhD candidate in literature who came up with that euphemism.

There's a pretty steep quality drop-off from there. The Dora the Explorer optical mouse? Color Low End Theory unimpressed at the $34 price tag; for that kind of cheddar, you could pick up a cordless iConcepts mouse at CVS. Equally risible is the $20 premium that Emerson charges for its line of Nick-licensed, 13-inch CRT TVs. Does it really cost that much to color the rim of a $79 unit red, and add stickers of Dora and her monkey Boots looking all happy? Low End Theory thinks not.

The cake-taker in terms of added-value ripoffs, though, is the Barbie Think Pink Learning Notebook from Oregon Scientific. Don't be looking for any Pentium chips in this hunk of junk; it's really just an old-fashioned Speak-and-Spell gussied up to look like a Dell Inspiron, with a screen three shades darker than charcoal grey. You might as well use your $50 bill to teach your daughter origami.

Now, I'm all for getting kids involved in technology from as young an age as possible—obviously, these are the Gizmodo readers of tomorrow, and I look forward to getting paid to write for them. But the premium you're paying for the added value of brand-name cartoon characters seems mighty steep, and Junior is too-often ending up with an inferior product.

I was going to wrap up with a suggestion that, instead of committing to onerous licensing agreements that lead to high retail prices, discount gadgeteers would be better off creating in-house cartoon characters—or perhaps licensing cheaper mascots. (Low End Theory pines for a Go-Bots revival.) But then I realized that, hey, I don't have any kids (yet), so I've no clue as to how much the juice boxers pine after Nickelodeon properties. If you've got a young'un running around, drop us a line at brendan@gizmodo.com and answer this: Do your precious little ones insist on gadgets bearing brand-name cartoon properties? Or do you resist their plaintive wails in favor of buying them more effective electronics? Bonus points, and a possible hat tip in next week's space, if you can steer us toward a kiddie added-value product worth owning.

LIL' HELP?: Low End Theory's pops used to have one of those Sharper Image white-noise machines, which is supposed to lull you into sleep with the gentle sounds of "rainfall" and "ocean waves." I think he used the thing once before rightly concluding that the cure was worse than the disease, and he'd rather deal with four hours of snoozetime than an entirely sleepless night of "whoooooooossssshhhhhhh! whoooooooooooosssshhhhhhhh!"

Which brings us to this edition's contest: I'm on the lookout for the most out-and-out hilarious Sharper Image gadget you can find. There will be a preference for older gizmos, so dig deep into your closets and into eBay. The winner will be publicly saluted as an amazing, stupendous individual, and will receive a copy of "Roller Coaster Tycoon 3" to boot. E-mail entries to your Low End Theory headquarters, brendan@gizmodo.com. Good luck, mein freund, good luck.

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