Low End Theory

Still Waiting for that Precious Beep


By Brendan I. Koerner

To my tremendous chagrin, these friends of my mom bought me a Christmas gift—a hopelessly ugly porcelain plate rimmed with shells and starfish and other nautical tidbits. As if lugging the blasted thing across three time zones weren't pain enough, I also felt compelled to make a thank-you call, which I feared would inevitably lead me to the wrong end of a monologue about Mrs. ——'s son (who, at 32 years old, lives at home and plays bass in a band called Enema). Clever lad that I am, I timed my call to guarantee that the gift givers would be at work; I'd simply leave a pleasant message, and be done with the ritual. Except, get this: not only does this family eschew voice mail, they don't even have a blasted answering machine.

Maybe there's a logical explanation for this particular family's eschewment of non-human phone picking-upping, but cost can't possibly be the reason—not when a digital answering machine can be had for well under $20 nowadays. Over the past decade, the answering-machine market has dutifully obeyed the classic low-end pricing trend, going from moderately affordable to downright cheap—so cheap, in fact, that it doesn't pay to fix one if it goes on the fritz, the ultimate indicator of a product's low-end status. After the jump, a rundown on the current answering-machine scene, which I know y'all have just been dying to read about. PLUS: Readers give the scoop on Radio Shack's battery-operated coin sorter.

I did a little digging on standalone answering machine sales before reviewing the latest units, and found that it's mighty paltry, indeed. Last year's U.S. sales barely topped $37 million, compared to $724 million for cordless phones with built-in answering machines. The top brand is AT&T, which I guess explains a lot 'bout why this company's been flailing around like a drowning burro for the past several years. I'm no B-school prof, but isn't there an old management riff about focusing on your core competencies or something? Besides, to AT&T, a few million dollars is like a nickel to you or me—or at least it should be.

The good news about answering machines is that they're no longer the mammoth boxes of yore. Somewhere along the line, product designers figured out that peeps like them curves, so the trend is toward units that resemble spaceships and robot heads. The most eye-catching of the lot is the Xact 1600SL, which sorta reminds me of Nintendo's R.O.B.. Gotta love the deep-orange top and the $17.70 price tag on this one, as well as the "beeperless remote access." Read the fine print, though, and you'll notice that they only stuffed this unit with 14 minutes of record time; I reckon that the venerable Xact brand (which has recently reinvented itself as a supplier of Sirius hardware) incorrectly assumed that folks are assiduous about erasing their messages. Bad call.

Low End Theory

The ubiquitous GE Digital Answering Machine (pictured up top) is far less visually fetching, though it makes up for its humdrum looks with a full half-hour of recording time. Not only that, but the good designers over at GE have preserved my favorite all-time answering machine feature, the Toll Saver: if you call in for your messages and your home phone rings more than twice, hang up before that fourth ring and you've saved yourself a quarter (or more!). Despite AT&T's apparent supremacy in the answering-machine market, this is the unit I've seen on sale most frequently; I even bought one for my grandma last year, albeit for a few bucks more than Wal-Mart's current list price of $14.88. That still sound steep? Fear not, you can add it to an order above $250 and use the megastore's convenient "Bill Me Later" option. You'll pay off your GE machine right around the time the Sun turns into a gaseous red giant.

The last machine worth highlighting comes from Conair—yes, the hair dryer people still have a phone division that makes "digital answering systems" (systems, not machines). The TAD2014AWN is another unit that has a nice space-age look—methinks that the Conair designers were fans of the original Battlestar Galactica, as there's a noticeable resemblance to the Cylon A.B. Fighter. I also like how they went against the grain and colored this thing grey, instead of the traditional black or white. Also, kudos to the Conair copy staff for coming up with "Voice Activated Circuitry" on the hype sheet. All this means is that it doesn't start recording until it actually hears some noise on the other end. But adding the word "circuitry" to a feature description definitely makes it sound a lot higher-tech.

Low End Theory

All the machines—or systems—I've described retail for under $20, which is the low-end magic number. At that sort of price, a Best Buy extended warranty will cost over 33 percent of the total purchase. Now, that's how you know something has truly entered the realm of the cheap—when even an overbearing salesman must realize that no sane individual would fail to see what a rip-off the warranty is.

Heck, these things are so cheap, I'm thinking of buying one for the family that gave me that hideous plate. So next year, after they saddle me with some other bit of Xmas pointlessness, I can avoid the post-gift, cross-country monologue. That'll be the gift that keeps on giving.

COIN REPORT: Color me surprised at the wave of positive feedback about the Radio Shack coin sorter I shouted out in last week's column. A few folks grumbled about undercounts and overcounts on coin rolls, but all agreed that, at $20, the product was well worth the scratch. One bright idea from a reader: weigh your rolls before taking 'em to the bank, to doublecheck on the coin sorter's work. He said the rolls are light by a fraction of an ounce on occasion, so he just stuffs in a few extra nickels.

Though the Radio Shack version was widely praised, a competitor from Office Depot got the nichty-nicht from one aggrieved Low End Theory fan. So many jams, he just gave up and returned to stuffing rolls by hand. Which got me thinking—is Office Depot known for inferior private-label gadgets? There's not one close to my Harlem headquarters, so I'm none too familiar with their product. Let me know what's up with the O.D.

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.

Read more Low End Theory