By Brendan I. Koerner

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Is there any low-end gadget more ubiquitous than the clock radio? There's nary a fleabag motel room in the world, from Oklahoma City to Ouagadougou, that doesn't have one of these slumber-piercing marvels of digital technology perched upon the nightstand. How, exactly, did mankind awake before the clock radio's invention? Did folks actually have to forego the screechy pleasures of Mike and Mike in the Morning at 6:30 a.m.? The mind boggles.

Most clock radios, alas, are pretty straightforward affairs—your basic molded plastic boxes with dials and snooze bars. Fortunately, some budget-conscious product designers have rolled the ball ever-so-slightly forward in the clock-radio realm. This week, Low End Theory went in search of the most innovative clock radios on the market, provided they were priced under the magic $20 barrier. Because, honestly, who has more than $20 to spend on a frickin' clock radio? Certainly not a motel proprietor in Burkina Faso.


The full rundown of affordable, semi-marvelous clock radios comes after the jump. PLUS: Who's got the skinny on Supersonic?

Before I get to the bargains, first let me drop a little wisdom regarding the clock radio's glorious history. Luxury vendor Bulova claims to have invented the gadget back in 1928, but the good folks at Smithsonian magazine say it ain't so. This 1997 snippet depicts a 1921 handwound version, which I'm sure did an excellent job of picking up the one or two radio stations in existence at the time. (Super-geek bit of trivia, courtesy of Wikipedia: the world's first radio news program was broadcast out of Detroit in 1920.)


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Of course, clock radios didn't start getting seriously low-end until the advent of foreign manufacturing and digital displays. Nowadays, you can pick up a perfectly serviceable model for under $10, provided you don't care a whit about style and reception quality.

Now, reception quality I can do without: I need a little fuzzed-out blather to get me up, and I've got my laptop-stereo-WEFUNK combo to satisfy my musical needs. But no way I'm giving up on style, even with a light wallet. And so the Conairphone TCR200 (picture above) is like manna from heaven. Totally a chocolate-and-peanut-butter combination, except with an "oversized snooze button" and (get this spec) "AM/FM tuning." You mean they have FM now? Sweet. And yours for only $14.02.

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My snooping around revealed that the biggest recent innovation in the clock-radio space is projection—that is, the clocks will cast the time on the wall opposite your bed, so you needn't twist your head toward the nightstand at 3 a.m. The best-looking model I could dredge up comes from jWin, a Low End Theory favorite. For some reason, it totally reminds me of Twiki from the 1979-1981 TV version of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Given my fascination with geography, I'm also crushing on the SPEGLOBE, which is shaped like the planet and provides a reading lamp, to boot. The caveat here is that it comes from the realm of "business supplies," an industry not known for its high-quality gadgetry. Don't spin that globe too hard, or you'll end up cracking the LCD.

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If you're more vintage-minded than the typical shopper, though, none of the current clock radios will do you right. Best, then, to turn to the virtual pages of eBay, for a throwback unit that can double as a doorstop: this gargantuan (22 inches long) model from Yorx. There is nothing in the seller's hype sheet about audio quality, but I'm willing to bet it's pretty good; this clock radio's so big and unwieldy, you'd almost think it had a tube preamp stashed in the rear. The winning bid of one Canadian dollar was already submitted, but you might still be able to wrest it away from the seller. Ask politely, offer another loonie, and prepare for many pleasant mornings of borderline white noise.

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Got any leads on other fab clock radios under $20? I know that space constraints forced me to drop a few gems, like this unit partly inspired by the Weeble Wobbles. Tips and leads appreciated, as always; send 'em my way.

SUPERSONIC SKINNY?: I'm thinking about launching a semi-regular "Brand of the Moment" feature, to focus on mysterious low-end vendors whose wares you see everywhere. I'd like to start the series with an in-depth look at the Supersonic brand, but I'm sorta running into a brick wall on these blokes. Anyone know where they manufacture, and how they're able to offer such ridiculously low prices? One hunch I had is that they're merely rebranding jWin stuff, but I don't have much evidence to support that contention. Who's got the inside scoop? Drop me a line and let the sunshine filter through.

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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