Low End Theory

Time Isn't Always Precious


By Brendan I. Koerner

One day soon, I'm going to disappear for a few months and write the opus I've long dreamed of bestowing on the world: a 879-page book tentatively titled Great Moments in Low-End History, with a foreword (hopefully) by Crazy Eddie. Now, I haven't exactly worked out what moments I'll be focusing on, or how I'll spin, say, the debut of the unbranded cassette recorder into a complete chapter. But I do know what historical moment I most look forward to recounting: the day, sometime in the 1980s, when an unknown arcade operator added a digital watch to his quarter-for-a-toy vending machine.

No event, of course, could more strongly signal a technology's slide from respectable to low-end. I mean, I remember when I got my first digital watch for Christmas way back when, and I could tell by looking at my dad's face that he was pretty proud of getting his only son such a fine, high-tech piece of gadgetry. And all of a sudden, you've got digiwatches sliding out of machines that also dispense butterfly stickers? Say it ain't so, Casio.

Today, thanks to the questionable magic of low-cost East Asian labor, they're practically giving digiwatches away at the local Kwik-E-Mart. After the jump, some notable timepieces you can pick up for less than sawbuck. PLUS: The worst in cellphone factory games!

What's interesting about the low-ending of digiwatches is that two pioneers of the technology, Casio and Timex, have stayed in the game despite stiff competition from unbranded rivals. You have to pay a $5-$7 premium for a Casio, versus a flimsy version which only says "Digital Sports Watch" on the box, but the features are probably worth it. Take the Casio W59-1V (pictured at the post's top), which'll run you a whopping $9.99 at retail. Everyone's favorite manufacturer of cheap keyboards pulls out all the stops on this one, with "micro-light illumination" and 50 meters worth of water resistance. It's also got an alarm, which is sorta like the Firewire port of digiwatches—a rare and fading add-on that's actually pretty useful to a large chunk of the population.

For the ladies, Timex chimes in with this, um, "stylish" offering from its vaunted Acqua(sic) series. It's $3 less expensive than the W59-1V, but you also get a third less performance on average; five years of battery life to seven for the Casio, and it'll conk out 30 meters below the surface. On the other hand, it does feature that monster of technology, the Indiglo night light, as well as a "nylon wrap strap." Most importantly, it's a Timex, so you just know it's gotta be a quality piece of electronics.

Low End Theory

Nice to see these two venerable brands still plugging away on the low-end digiwatches, but my standard question applies: why? With such teensy margins, and a customer base that I assume isn't too particular about specs, can they really turn a profit on these products? If anything, it seems the low-end digiwatch market is dominated by two less technologically impressive flavors of digiwatch: the company promotional item, and the kiddie toy. Products like the Spider-Man watch, or the watch distributed at your last corporate retreat, are featureless—they exist primarily to offer a space for a logo to be imprinted. It's also generally assumed by the customer that, for $1.79, they're probably not buying an example of fine Swiss engineering, and that it's okay if the thing breaks within 60 days. Like human beings, these low-end digiwatches are born to die.

Come to think of it, that's the real sign of a technology's slide into the low-end abyss, rather than the vending-machine example. Digiwatches have reached a level of disposability and developmental stasis that few gadgets have ever achieved. We can certainly dream of the day when MP3 players can be treated as such, but the economies of scale (not to mention the manufacturing technology) haven't quite gotten there yet. Until that day, we'll have to content ourselves with the glory that is the digiwatch emblazoned with a Proctor & Gamble logo, purchased for $0.45 per 1,000 units for "P&Gfest 2006" at the Owasoo, Okla., Radisson Hotel. You just can't get much lower-end than that, now, can you?

Low End Theory

WORST. FACTORY GAME. EVER.: In last week's column, I asked for nominations for the most head-thunkingly awful pre-installed cellphone game ever. Lots of folks wrote in to envy the fact that I have Push Push and Fly Ribbon on my Samsung handset—"those are the two best games ever," noted one disgruntled fan. Okay, agreed on Fly Ribbon, which has gotten me through many a drunken subway ride back home. But there's this one level in Push Push I can't get past, and GameFAQs hasn't proven much help.

Much worse than either of those, though, is Snake, nominated by three ticked off readers. Also receiving multiple votes was a game called Logic, foisted upon the public by the evil overlords at Nokia. Never tried it, but it sounds pretty horrendous—any game that makes mention of "hieroglyphics" can't be a good time. Still, when stuck on the 2/3 train sans reading material or headphones, anything's better than staring at ads for Dr. Zizmor for 45 minutes.

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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