Low End Theory

How Do You Say "Low End" in Dutch?


By Brendan I. Koerner

Several years back, I visited an American pal who was hunkered down in West Berlin. On a lark, we took a Soviet-era train to the (intermittently) lovely Polish town of Szczecin, to catch some of the sights. (Yes, our travel plans were made during a Bitburger binge.) En route, my friend whipped out an electronic German-English dictionary, crowing that his girlfriend had dropped upwards of $100 to buy him the gadget. Seemed like a fair price at the time—your own personal, handheld translator? Pretty impressive circa 1999.

Nowadays? Um, not so much. We've reached the point where the gadgets cart at New York's fabled Port Authority Bus Terminal—located right by Gate 200, if you're interested—sells Franklin electronic translators for under $30. Just in case you've come into the city for a date, and want to impress the lucky lady (or bloke) by ordering the night's paella in Spanish. Never saw the day coming when overcoming God's post-Tower of Babel wrath would be so cheap, but there you go—good thing memory prices have slid so precipitously in the past five years. After the jump, the rundown on what'll help you overcome the world's polyglot reality, despite the fact that you've got next to nil in your checking account. PLUS: You want boomboxes? Lordy, we got boomboxes. Do we ever.

The first name in electronic translators, of course, is Franklin. Not only do these folks make the lion's share of translators you'll find at shops worldwide, but they also do a fine business in digital handheld Scrabble dictionaries and bibles. The latter product line isn't truly low-end, in that the cheapest models (which offer the complete King James or New International versions) are close to the $50 mark. Still, that's an exceedingly fair price for 791,328 words of wisdom, right?

Franklin's bread-and-butter, though, is those translators, which range from a simple Spanish-English version to a behemoth that can handle a dozen tongues, from Czech to Turkish. What's amazing is the price break that Franklin gives you for upping the number of languages you want to process—the Spanish-English model lists at $24.95, while the 12-language unit goes for just $15 more. The catch is that the single-language translators are a lot more comprehensive; I wouldn't try asking your 12-language Franklin how to say "conflagration" in Hungarian, lest you fry the things circuits. Oh, and the Spanish-English model also features Hangman, the perfect way to pass a 14-hour layover at the Cuzco bus station.

Low End Theory

The drawback on all the Franklin products is the screen, typically a three-line LCD that'll slowly kill your eyeballs over several weeks of travel. The folks at The Sharper Image (a Low End Theory favorite) understand this weakness, which explains why they're, um, scientists cooked up the 12-Language Talking Translator, which recites useful nuggets in a voice akin to that of WOPR. It's fascinating to note what languages the Sharper Image crew chose to include here—aside from the obvious Western tongues, they also plugged in Japanese, Mandarin, and Swedish. That last one's a true headscratcher, given that a) Swedish is the native tongue of just 9 million human beings, and b) about 8 million of those folks speak another language fairly well, judging by my (admittedly limited) travels in that quasi-socialist paradise of pricey beer and athletic blondes. Swap in Arabic or another more widely spoken language, and they would be in business. (Private note to my friend Jeff, who married a Swede and now resides in beautiful Gothenburg: Sorry, my brother, but you know I speak the truth.)

The Sharper Image unit gives you a paltry-yet-adequate 8,500 verbal phrases—enough to get you a hot meal and a hotel room, though not much else. Seems like a good deal at $39.95, but let's face it—sometimes you only have $20 bill, and the value meal at Taco Bell is calling your name. In instances such as these, my advice is to economize on your translator and plump for this unbranded four-language translator, priced to move at a lower-than-low $13.50. No technological comparison with the Franklin or Sharper Image units, as this credit-card unit only has enough memory for 36,000 words and 400 useful phrases in German, English, Spanish, and French. But if you're only goal is survival on a European adventure—or to impress your date at the local fondue joint—this is a budget option to consider.

There's a zillion other low-end translators I could drone on about, like Lingo's Global 8, but I'll spare you the agony. Suffice to say that the low-ending of electronic translators could be Exhibit A in the case for why the memory revolution matters oh-so-much. For discount electronics, the key factor usually isn't processing power, but merely the volume of information that can be stored. And with each passing year, a byte's worth of memory just gets cheaper and cheaper. It wouldn't surprise me one bit to walk by that same Port Authority electro-cart four years hence and see the Franklin 100-language translator on sale for, oh, $39.95 or so. And what a glorious day that'll be, as I've long yearned to order a meal in Xhosa.

Low End Theory

BOOMBOX DATABASE: Wow, no idea there were so many Yorx fans out there. The response to my column on the late, not-so-great stereomaker elicited a strong reader response, mainly from folks who waxed nostalgic over their Yorx gear of old.

No one was quite as enthusiastic, however, as one Jens Gruber of Germany, developer of the Boombox Database. He alerted me to the fact that he's got the details on at least 24 Yorx products in his annals, which currently list the specs on 6,800 radios and cassette recorders (with 24,000 pictures thrown in for good measure). If you got weak at the knees after reading the preceding sentence, it makes sense to purchase Jens' database on DVD for a mere $40. It'll take up a gig on your hard drive, but that seems fair given the hours of enjoyment you'll derive. There are few greater pleasures in life than peeping specs on, and JPEGs of, late '70s ghetto blasters, after all.

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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