Low End Theory

Know When to Walk Away, Know When to Run


By Brendan I. Koerner

Much as I hate to admit it, I'm not much of a gambler. I'll stake the occasional $20 on the NFL playoffs or a friend's tolerance for chugging a bottle of soy sauce, but that's about the extent of it. Vegas and AC just don't do it for me, nor do Powerball, office pools, or Russian roulette. I'll keep my money in my pocket and my brains encased in my skull, thank you very much.

But when it comes to low-end hardware, I suddenly throw fiscal caution to the wind. In the name of a cut-rate price, I'll risk buying any number of esoteric brands from fly-by-night operators. My bet is that, nine times out of ten, the gadgetry will work as advertised, and I can revel in the knowledge that I've beaten the Man at his own game.

But when that tenth time rolls 'round and the low-end dice come up snake eyes, boy, do I feel like an utter waste of humanity. I've been dealing with just that unique brand of depression for the past several days, as I recover from having a nice chunk of flesh being bitten out of my ass by a low-end CD burner. The agonizing tale of low-end wagering gone horribly wrong after the jump, as well as a quick calculation that (I hope) proves that my apparent foolhardiness will pay for itself in the end.

First, the seven-second backgrounder: the internal CD-RW drive on my trusty Sony Vaio GR-390 conked out a few weeks back, and buying a replacement doesn't make sense—the legacy part is $200, and I'll probably be ditching this box in the next year or so. The laptop has a Firewire port, so I figured I'd sniff around in search of an external driver-cum-burner. My requirements are pretty modest—just backup some data, and burn the occasional mix CD—and therefore I could aim low pricewise.

How low? There were plenty of 48x options for around the $40 mark, and hindsight being 20/20, that's probably the direction I should've gone. But then I stumbled across this little number from xPCGear.com, and was instantly charmed by the 52x write speed and the DVD-ROM capabilities. Yes, it cost a little more than I was planning for, at a "whopping" $69.99, but it seemed like quite the deal compared to comparably spec'ed products. And, hey, it was being pitched as a Sony, so compatibility wouldn't be a problem, right?

Now, I know what you're thinking—why on earth didn't I vet the parts numbers, to check for any forum complaints or poor reviews? My only defense (and it's a weak one) is that I've been experiencing a very fortuitous run of hardware luck lately; I haven't had to return any lemons since approximately 2002, when Overstock.com sent me a totally kaput PDA. Call it hubris, but I surmised that the gods of low-end electronics must love and admire me, and would never seek to punish me with a faulty purchase.

My overweening pride—the real key to this whole minor tragedy—doesn't stop there. When the burner arrived, I noticed that it was a homebrew job, rather than something straight from the Sony factory. Okay, no problem—I fired it up right away and it played an audio CD just fine. But I didn't try to burn a disc—yes, imbecilic, I concur. I set the unit aside for a few days, and in the interim, the packaging got tossed.

You totally see where this is going, don't you? I finally tried to burn a disc the day before I left for Washington D.C.—from where these words are being pounded out—and was stunned to learn that my $69.99 low-end treasure was barely worth its weight in corn nibblets. Not only did it fail to make a CD, it actually deformatted no fewer than five test discs. So now I'm down about $72.49, and none too happy about it.

A little Googling helped me diagnose the likeliest problem: the dastasrdly PL3507 Firewire chipset, which necessitates constant firmware updates (and even then it's sorta chancy). I tried updating my Vaio's firmware, though, and no luck; in the true low-end spirit, the burner came with no instructions for how to obtain support, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out which firmware updates to install, and which to avoid like week-old fish.

If I still had the original packaging, all of this would hurt my wallet a bit less—I'd lose the restocking fee, sure, as well as an hour or two reboxing, dealing with xPCGear's customer support in the pursuit of an authorization number, and standing on line at the post office. But now I'm going to lose the whole kaboodle, seeing as how I just don't have the stomach to call up xPCGear and raise a stink about it. From now on, this supposed burner will serve as a sometimes DVD player, as well as an occasional paperweight and/or doorstop.

And you know what? The sun will come up tomorrow, and I will awake, albeit $72.49 poorer. But I'll make it back on my future low-end gambles, at least according to this quick back-of-the-envelope calculation I made: If I only get burned on 15 to 20 percent of my risky hardware purchases, and the successful purchases save me an average of 40 percent, then I still come out ahead, right? (No, seriously, am I right? I totally got pancaked by Calc AB, so I'm not the world's trustiest source on math problems.)

The lesson to be learned here, I guess, is not to assume the eternal benevolence of the Low-End Gods, and to never risk more than $100 on one of these purchases. Live by those words, and you should come out far enough ahead in the long run to someday send your firstborn child to the finest university...in South Carolina.

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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