By Brendan I. Koerner
Growing up in Los Angeles, I had few greater pleasures than strolling the aisles at my local Army surplus store—a dank, musty joint called Doughboys. Amidst the shelves filled with thermal undies and canvas tents, you could find all sorts of interesting military flotsam; I have rather fond memories of discovering Korean War-era gas masks and empty mortar rounds stashed behind mounds of battle fatigues. And, Lordie, all those compasses!
Doughboys is long gone, replaced by (if memory serves) another "much-needed" Blockbuster outlet, but Army surplus stores still offer some gadget-freak goodies. For this week's column, I perused stores both online and off in search of the finest, cheapest electronics that Uncle Sam no longer needs. And he's passing the savings on to you! The highlights after the jump, along with the obligatory Simpsons reference. PLUS: Reader's respond to last week's price-drop challenge!
It's worth mentioning that surplus stores—and Doughboys was no exception—are often staffed by clerks of dubious mental stability. (Or, to be more colloquial about it, folks who are one beer short of a sixpack.) The stereotypical storeminder is Herman, the one-armed, bayonet-obsessed character from, yes, The Simpsons. Okay, so there are plenty of perfectly normal surplus-store workers out there. But if you'd rather not risk getting monologued about the Battle for Pork Chop Hill, I'd recommend turning to a reputable online vendor. I've been particularly delighted with Canada's Forest City Surplus, which also offers lab equipment (beakers, anybody?) and security cameras. Who knew the Canadian military was getting rid of so many gadget goodies?
The most scintillating item I came across, though it's a little more expensive than Low End Theory's typical price cutoff, was the Night Detective Night Vision Monocular ND Argo 3 (picture at the top of the post). If you've ever wanted to peer 1,000 yards into the distance at 3 a.m. and make out distinct shapes, this is the product for you. And it's a relative steal at $179.95, by far the cheapest night-vision solution out there. Best feature: an "automatic light protection circuit," which shuts down the gadget should your gaze settle upon an especially brilliant light source. No sense going blind while just out for a friendly post-midnight raccoon hunt.
Another illuminating product potentially worth your while is the Cyba-Lite Sport LED Head Torch, on sale for about $30 from an online British surplus depot. I have no clue as to why they felt it necessary to add the word "sport" to the product name, as I can scarcely imagine wearing this contraption strapped to my noggin' while playing anything. But with 100,000 hours worth of burn time, this is definitely the head-mounted torch you want when the End of Days finally arrive.
Multiuse gadgets are a Low End Theory favorite—you can't spell "special values" without "U-S-E-S"—so the True Utility LED Torch Watch deserves a mention. With the carabineer attachment, you can hang from a rock face, check the time, and light your cigarette all at the same time. But answer me this: what does the hype sheet mean by "Japanese watch movement"? I've been to Japan, and the watches seemed to move in the traditional clockwise motion over there. Little help, someone? Domo arigato.
I could go on and on, but suffice to say that there are some tasty surplus bargains to be had if you're willing to sift through stacks and stacks of slightly stained longjohns and peacoats. For example, who wouldn't like to pop open their next Michelob with the aid of the U.S. Army Musical Bottle Opener? It can be had for under $8, plays a rousing march, and is (according to the very limited hype sheet) both "fun and functional."
Got other military surplus finds that'll make your fellow Gizmodo readers envious? Drop me a line. But, please, no tales about knives and the animals you gutted—we're a family publication.
THE PRICE-DROP CHAMP: At the end of last week's column, I appealed for info on products that have gone low-end faster than the portable DVD player. The metric I decided to use was percent drop in price over the last 4 to 5 years; I found that the portable DVD player had plunged 92 percent since 2000.
Lots of great contenders came down the pike. The two best candidates, though, are GPS receivers and USB Flash drives. The latter could be the winner; a reader pointed out that the Simple Tech 128MB drive is going for around $14 now, while equivalent units were priced at $200 or above in 2003.
Impressive, indeed. At this rate, they'll be sticking USB Flash drives in boxes of Cheerios by 2008.