Low End Theory

Words' Worth


By Brendan I. Koerner

There's a fantastic scene in the criminally underrated John Carpenter flick They Live, in which the character played by "Rowdy" Roddy Piper first dons the Ray-Bans that enable him to see Earth's alien invaders. The aliens looks just like you and me sans sunglasses, but like horrible freaks when the truth is revealed. Peering at an alien disguised as a woman of a certain age, Piper laughs as she applies a spot of makeup to her face. "That's like putting perfume on a pig," he mutters in disgust.

So, too, is gussying up junky low-end products with phrases that hint at space-age technology. You know what I'm talking about—gadgets you picked up for $4.99 at the local t-shirts-plus-the-kitchen-sink store, and which promise such laughably hyperbolic specs as Coby's "Digital Bass Boost System." Obviously, they want to make it sound as if your portable CD player's assembly was overseen by a team of labcoated engineers, rather than a factory owner with mustard stains all over his too-tight Arrow shirt.

After the jump, some of Low End Theory's favorite spec-sheet come-ons. PLUS: Last-minute gift ideas for the broke and miserly!

Up until now, this column has been woefully bereft of cordless phone coverage. That ends here, joyfully, with a shout-out to Uniden and its "RocketDial" feature. I first noticed RocketDial while perusing the locked glass cases at Gem Gem Gem, my beloved 125th Street value supercenter. They've got so many cheap electronics back there by the registers, I could just go in there with my digicam every week, snap a few photos, and be done with this column. If, that is, the Gem Gem Gem manager didn't look like the sort of dude prone to kicking shutterbug ass.

RocketDial sounds pretty fantastic—like something that enables you to call 50 people at once. But the reality's pretty disappointing; all RocketDial does is let you program in one (yes, one) number for one-touch dialing. Sort of like the lonely man's speed dial. But kudos to Uniden for creating the nifty logo, a Flash Gordon-style rocket blasting off into the cosmos, as well as for wisely trademarking the RocketDial name.

Low-end audio products seem to be a particularly hot market for spec-sheet euphemisms—the industry has about 1,001 ways of saying, "Yes, our bass is terrible, but we're gonna try and trick you into thinking otherwise." My personal favorite is the plethora of products boasting about "Turbo Bass" technology (sometimes oddly hyphenated as "Turbo-Bass"), which as far as I can tell means nothing. (Though I'd be interested in hearing otherwise from qualified audiophiles; drop a line.) Take, for example, the HS-410 earbud headphones from Philips. Obviously, no one shelling out under $10 for headphones expects much beyond mere audio transmission. But, hey, you get Turbo Bass with these puppies—and a Radio Shack-quality "24k gold-plated plug" to boot. Melt it down and make a profit.

Low End Theory

The ultimate perennial in all things low-end, though, is using an extra "x" somewhere—I reckon to imply extreme technological progress. This is a phenomenon in the "normal" gadget realm, too, as with MaxxBass. But you see it a lot in the Gem Gem Gems of the world, too, in Panasonic cassette players featuring XBS (the Extra Bass System). Do a Froogle search for "Maxx" and you'll come up with dozens more, like the $20, 25-in-1 VS-Maxx video game system with "deluxe controller." Just, um, be careful about Froogling "Maxx" in the workplace; it's also a very popular screen name for porn stars.

Low End Theory

When I encounter spec-sheet euphemisms like these, I always wonder who comes up with 'em. Do the Cobys and jWins of the world have frustrated English majors on staff to handle all their package-copy needs? Do we really have a Pavlovian response to the letter X, judging it to be somehow indicative of superior tech? And, of course, what great phrases did I miss during my cursory research? Answers to any of these questions should be dropped here forthwith.

THE JOY OF GIVING: All right, just a few days left for y'all to pick up something nice for your beloved(s). Two weeks ago, after I covered some low-end ideas for the holidays, I spurred a few readers to offer ideas of their own. One of the best was the Rocket Robot Kit from OWI, a steal at $24.95 (especially with "no soldering required").

Oh, $24.95 still sounds steep to make the robot-lover in your life a wee bit happier? Then simply set aside $9.99 for Sector7 Mighty Mike, which (per hype sheet) "walks, dances, and slides." It also shoots foam discs; alas, these are not included. But if it can shoot foam discs, perhaps it can shoot pennies, too. Just don't blame Low End Theory when members of your family end up with ugly, Lincoln-embossed welts on their bodies.

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.

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