Low End Theory

ShackWatch Cometh


By Brendan I. Koerner

Admit it: you've got a love-hate relationship with your local Radio Shack. The geek in you loves the fact that, whenever you need a pack of rectifier diodes or a D-Sub pin crimper, you know the local Shack's gonna have 'em. But the human being in you hates the pushy sales reps, the shelves of Z-grade junk, and the bank of TVs constantly tuned into the sinister Dr. Phil.

Low End Theory feels the same way, though I tilt more toward the lovey end of the spectrum. In fact, when I first began brainstorming on a Gizmodo column, I toyed with the idea of running a weekly ShackWatch feature. I mean, hey, the Shack's never gonna run out of new, cheap products to either praise or lampoon, right?

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and ShackWatch will be a trimonthly treat instead. Let's kick off the inaugural episode with a look at what's cooking up on my beloved 125th Street, where there's a Shack featuring plenty of push-to-talk phones, synthesizers bigger than a Cooper Mini, and a curvaceous, blue-eyed salesgirl who can push me around whenever she likes. PLUS: Poland responds to last week's challenge!

There are, in my experience, two types of Radio Shacks in this world. There's the sedate mini-mall version, staffed by geeks who were too smart to end up working for the municipal roadkill pickup crew, but too lazy and socially inept to move out of mom's house. This is where a friendly guy named Louie will meet you at the door and try to push you on a 20-inch TV; when you note that you're only there for a few gold-plated Y-cables, he'll back off and return to debating Captain Janeway versus Captain Picard with the other employees.

My local Shack is of the second type: the chaotic retail-strip store, where the employees are too busy playing games or hounding customers about Sprint PCS contracts to notice that gadgets are strewn all over the floor. There's plenty of hardware to ogle here, but it's terribly organized; good luck tracking down that much-needed battery for your Panasonic cordless phone.

Low End Theory's mission was clear: slip in, jot down notes on a few worthy products, and slip out before being accosted by a bitchy-as-hell clerk yelling, "Yo, you looking for a phone? Looking for a phone?!?!"

The first stop was right inside the door, where my Shack's sizeable walkie-talkie stock is displayed. I'm not talking the Nextel variety, I'm talking real-deal walkie-talkies sans service plan. And there seemed to be no better deal than the Maxus Family 4-pak. Multicolored so you know they're good, the Maxuses (Maxi?) promise a range of two miles—perfect for my country estate, natch. (Note to analysts who might interpret previous statement as sign of Gawker Media munificence: I'm totally kidding.) The range spec sounds dubious, but at $29.99 for the whole kit and kaboodle, it seems worth the risk.

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I tried to take the walkie-talkies off the rack for further inspection, but the 125th Street Shack has these weird security racks that don't let you slide products on and off without assistance. I noticed a salesgirl eyeing me as I fidgeted, so I decided to avoid tempting fate and moved on to the Wireless BBQ Thermometer. On post-summer sale for a measly $15, this actually seems like a nifty idea: perfectionist that I am, I've always wanted a less spattery means of finding out when my burger has an FDA-approved internal temperature. Best of all, the digital readout actually says "BEEF," at least on the display sticker. My question is, how do they turn a bunch of digital 8s into "CHICKEN"? And what if I want to roast up a guinea pig, Peruvian-style? (They're called cuy and they're quite tasty, thank you very much.)

The masterpiece of this particular Shack, though, was the Race Scanner Intercom, a getup that lets you and a pal eavesdrop on the pit-to-car communications at the track. It comes complete with headphones fit for sealing out the roar of a 767. It's not quite in the low-end range, with a list of $269.99, but the unit in my local Shack was going for 50 percent off. Hmmmmm, maybe it's because New York is perhaps the worst place in the U.S. to sell an accessory designed for the NASCAR market? Radio Shack may offer plenty of cheap gadgetry to peruse, but their distribution folks sure could use a little refresher course.

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POLAND DIDN'T FORGET ABOUT US: Last week, I appealed to in-the-know readers to clue Low End Theory in to some cheap gadgetry from east of the former Berlin Wall. To my tremendous delight, a Polish Giz-fan responded with the scoop:

You should know that making gadgets in Poland (and probably anywhere in any of the post-Soviet countries) is more expensive than making gadgets in China. We're underpaid, but not that underpaid. So factories are only an exception, not the norm here. These exceptions are LG-Philips, which builds LCDs in Kobierzyce and Thompson, which makes TVs in Warsaw

That said, our new favorite Pole did turn us onto some budget Polish brands that, like the jWins and Cobys of the world, take advantage of cheap Asian contractors. So next time you're in Gdansk, by all means buy a DVD/Divx player from Manta. Our man in Poland gives them a nice thumbs up, in terms of value for the zloty.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appear every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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