Low End Theory

Insignia: Mark of the Least


By Brendan I. Koerner

I trust I'm not alone in dreading my semi-regular trips to Best Buy. The haphazard selection of products can be truly maddening, and many of the blue-shirted sales clerks need to get with the program. Don't get me started on the nightmare that was Christmas 2003, when I ordered my girlfriend's digicam online then tried to pick it up at a Best Buy outlet. In the time it took three different "sales associates" to locate my Sony DSC-P32, I could've built my own. Out of toothpicks and bubblegum, MacGyver-style.

Best Buy's been suffering the consequences of its skeeviness as of late, however, as it scrambles to keep pace with Target, Wal-Mart, and Costco. Let's face it, America's a pretty lazy nation, and if we can pick up a progressive scan DVD player while simultaneously purchasing a five-pound bag of Doritos, heck, we'll do it. So Best Buy has to compete on price, and that means pushing its low-end, in-house Insignia brand ever harder. Just last week, the chain announced a whole slew of new Insignia dreck that'll be ready for the holidays.

The upshot? If you've got a cheapskate uncle who knows you're into gadgets, expect some of the following goodies come December. Should you curse your fate, or is "Insignia" synonymous with "low-end quality"? An answer (of sorts) after the jump. PLUS: More surplus goodness!

Before I sat down to tap out this column, I did the requisite check of what the Gizmodo-ers have previously written about Insignia. Turns out that it hasn't exactly been a favorite topic of discussion; there was a matter-of-fact news item when the brand debuted last October, then nothing really since (except for a brief shout-out in a previous Low End Theory). Makes sense, as the brand isn't designed to excite us gadget nerds. As Best Buy vice chairman Brad Anderson quipped when introducing the brand, "We're trying to go wherever there is a value proposition." In non-execspeak, that means, "Yeah, it's cheap-ass stuff made by contract factories. You wanna fight about it?"

Some of the most touted Insignia products are flat-panel TVs, which obviously fall beyond Low End Theory's purview. (Note to first-time readers of this space: If it costs more than two bills, it ain't low-end enough for Low End Theory.) But there are also some cheaper units to be peeped, starting with the Sports Armband AM/FM Radio (pictured above). Not a bad looking product, but I don't get the $26.99 price tag. It's a shade too expensive to be an impulse buy, and there's not much of a price difference when compared to last-gen Samsung YEPPs (now Froggleable for around $30). True, the YEPPs don't offer the AM band on their tuners, but I refuse to believe there's that many folks who jog along to bad talk radio.

Slightly more impressive are Insignia's 10-mile, 22-channel radios. True, you'll need an FCC license to operate on GMRS channels, and I sorta doubt the typical Insignia customer possesses that level of radio nerdiness. But at $69.99 for a two-handset pack, this is a much tastier deal than the armband radio. And that stated 10-mile range is a lot better than what a comparable amount of scratch will buy you at Radio Shack.

Low End Theory

The latest additions to the Insignia lineup are a range of portable DVD players, including a basic model with an impressively large seven-inch screen. It's currently on sale for just $119.99, which sounds like a nice deal until you check out the specs. Progressive scan? Nope. Playback time? A piddling three hours, if you're lucky. S-Video output? You're kidding me, right?

Okay, granted, cruddy specs are the norm for low-end merchandise. And I'll give Insignia some mild props for their PCs, which at least have the decency to feature Pentium 4 chips instead of eMachines' lousy Celerons. But if Best Buy thinks that Insignia's gonna help it compete with Wal-Mart and Costco, they could have another thing coming. They don't seem to get that the future of bargain hunting isn't in specialty stores; consumers see Cobys and jWins everyday at the local CVS or Rite-Aid, after all, and I'd bet the farm that neither of those budget brands is any worse (or better) than Insignia. Heck, I bet some of their products are even made in the same factories.

Low End Theory

I get what Best Buy is doing here: they're trying to snag those customers who walk into the store, realize that they can't afford the name-brand product, and then are relived to discover that, hey, there's an equivalent Insignia product available for 40 percent less. But will that be enough to save Best Buy over the long haul? Already, the company seems to be making some dicey, possibly desperate moves to shake itself out of its funk, like partnering with Geek Squad and AuctionDrop.com. Here's a better idea: how about dealing with your customer-service woes instead? (Even better ideas to fix Best Buy? Lemme know, champ.)

Obviously, I'm all for low-end merchandise. But I'd much rather buy my $15 radios from the Gem Gem Gem Value Store on 125th Street than descend into the chaotic bowels of the nearest Best Buy. Unless, of course, Insignia starts a Willy Wonka-inspired "golden ticket" promotion. I'm sure the factory that makes those cheap-ass portable DVD players is a magic place, indeed.

A SURPLUS OF COMMENTS: Gigantic reaction to last week's column on Army surplus stores. Most folks wrote in to chastise me for not understanding that "Japanese watch movement" simply means "Japanese gears are inside the watch." A few kinder, gentler souls, however, sent along recommendations on other surplus options. The most popular suggestion, by a country mile, was American Science & Surplus—not military stuff, by and large, but how can you not love a site that sels 3,200 RPM motors for $15 each?

Also, one vote was cast for Col. Bubbie's, based in Galveston, Texas. Couldn't locate any good electronics on the site, but "the Colonel" apparently accepts faxed wish lists. Oh, and if you've been looking for a World War One practice sword, he's got you covered.

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 appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.