Low End Theory

From Sharp Minds Come Cheap Products


By Brendan I. Koerner

Along with "lose five pounds" and "finally overcome a debilitating fear of clowns," getting organized is one of the most common New Year's resolutions. Come on, you know you've made the promise more than once—that this is the year you finally start writing down phone numbers for posterity, and scribble out a to-do list each night before bed. It's a resolution that's a lot easier to keep, of course, with the assistance of a PDA, which I guess explains why the little gizmos are being end-cabbed at Best Buy right now. Because if you can't capitalize on America's January/February yen for superficial self-improvement, you have no business being in the retail game.

But the PDAs getting the most ink nowadays are multi-purpose beasts that cost northwards of $150—hardly the sort of pricing fit for us low-end fiends, cursed as we are with short arms and deep pockets. The good news is that organizing one's life can be done without the aid of an Intel XScale processor, Bluetooth, or a screen that displays 65,000 colors. Give me an address book, a calendar, and somewhere to jot down my not-so-brilliant brainstorms, and I'm good to go—as long as the whole package can be had for less than the price of dinner and a movie. Fortunately, that's exactly what the folks at Sharp offer the world with their extensive line of budget organizers—the lifeblood of many a discount electronics store, right up there with Coby CD players and jWin boomboxes. Some personal favorites after the jump. PLUS: Hooray for Maplin Electronics, the Welsh king of low-end gadgets!

Let's start with the Sharp YOP-20HII Pen Touch Organizer, which boasts a mighty one megabyte of memory as well as a protective flip cover. This actually seems to be a cheaper, slightly clunkier version of some of Sony low-end CLIEs, like the abysmal PEG-SL10 (infamous for having a screen just one notch lighter than the final cover of Spinal Tap's Smell the Glove album). No Palm graffiti recognition on this bad boy, but it does come equipped with "diet and pedometer functions" as well as a rudimentary Spanish-to-English translator. Not bad for under $17.

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For another ten bucks or so—far less if you're willing to go the uBid route—you can upgrade to the OZ290H (pictured at the column's top), which offers 50 percent more memory as well as two more phone books and an expense manager. Yes, the readouts look laughably digital, and there's a definite humor element to the fact that the PDA knows the calorie count on a hunk of Colby cheese. But it syncs to Outlook via USB (1.1, not 2.0), and it stores (Sharp claims) 7,000 names and numbers. Again, that's pretty much all most folks need from their PDA; I'll bet 99 percent of folks who have, say, gMovie on the Palm OS device have never used it.

But in my (admittedly limited) experience, cheap touch-screens are prone to problems—especially if you're the sort to lose perspective on your own strength after a dozen shots of Jim Beam. And keeping track of those little pen thingies? Ugh. Good to know, then, that Sharp still has faith in the old-fashioned QWERTY keyboard, as evidenced by the existence of the boxy EL6920B. Packing a whopping 96 kilobytes of memory, this sub-$10 organizer—widely available at bus terminals nationwide—is nothing if not, um, sufficient. It offers the basics (calendar, two address books), as well as a game called Alpha Attack. (Anybody ever played this? I'm working on a column about factory preset games, so I'd appreciate some first-hand insight.) Considering I recently spent $10 on a single, small glass of Jameson's at a Koreatown karaoke bar, the EL6920B sounds like a fair deal—though that teensy screen might become a serious bummer after a few months of squinting.

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The bottom line is that I've got to offer some kudos to Sharp for keeping up with this seemingly archaic PDA in a post-Treo age. This is a company, after all, that has much bigger fish to fry, engaging in the flat-panel TV wars like they are. But whether due to market-research genius or simple corporate inertia, they're still churning out cheaper-than-dirt organizers for the masses. Here's to you, Sharp, for not forgetting about us little people. Now, if only they could figure out a way to get their 65-inch LCD to below $10,000, perhaps there'd be a Nobel Peace Prize in the offing for CEO Toshihiko Fujimoto and his minions. Hey, if Kissinger can win one

MAD OVER MAPLIN: In my pre-Xmas column, I appealed for reader help in identifying some truly outstanding purveyors of low-end electronics. The responses didn't exactly flood in, but I got a few nice suggestions, from locations ranging from NoCal to Llandudno, Wales. I'll focus on the nomination from the more exotic of these places this week: Maplin Electronics. It's described thusly by a reader named Mike, who hails from the land that gave us Gorky's Zygotic Mynci:

I've been there and got AV connectors and computer parts. It's all toys for the holidays and everything in the store is imported from the far east, with lots of generic unbranded OEM items, MP3 Players especially, and plenty of Engrish on the packaging.

Sounds like absolute heaven, Mike. Please have plenty of Welsh Rarebit on hand for my inevitable visit. Oh, and the rest of youse—please 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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