Low End Theory: The Pantheon of Low-End Goodness

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By Brendan I. Koerner

Look, I'm not going to lie to you: a lot of low-end gadgets aren't exactly built to last. I'm sure everyone out there in Gizmodoland has a tale to share about the $9 faux Discman that shattered within 48 hours, or the drugstore digicam with the exploding flash. As I've written before, you're always gambling when you go the discount route—with shoddy warranties and non-existent support the rule among low-end purveyors, today's $15 MP3 player is tomorrow's paperweight.


But far be it from me to add to your blues in the dark, frigid depths of February. This week's column isn't about those myriad times the Lords of Guangdong have given me the scroogie, but rather about the low-end products that have proven stunningly resilient over the years—starting with my beloved Apex AT1302 (pictured at right). Call this my own personal Low-End Hall of Fame, a pantheon of electronics that provided me with far more bang for the buck than I ever thought possible. Read on for four favorites, and start thinking about some of your own to share.

Apex AT1302 13-inch Color TV
Date of Purchase Fall of 1999
Price $79
Backgrounder My second TV in New York, replacing an antiquated Emerson that I'd found on the street (and that only showed hues of green, rather than a full color palette). Bought it at the Circuit City on Union Square, and distinctly remember the salesman's crestfallen expression when I told him where he could shove his extended warranty (though in much nicer language, I assure you). It's been with me every since.
Bound to Happen The remote control was made out of the cheapest plastic I've encountered in all my years on Spaceship Earth; it cracked badly within a few months, and is currently occupying a few square inches worth of space at Fresh Kills Landfill. The paint's worn off the channel buttons as a result.
Why It Deserves Adulation By far the most solid 13-inch TV I've ever encountered. Yes, it weighs only slightly less than Aaron Gibson, but that means it's been great at taking punishment. It's currently wedged between my stove and my toaster, a position in which it gets spattered with grease, broiled with waves of heat, and pounded by crashing plates (though only when I'm high off the Special Brew). Still displays the same craptacular picture as back in '99; just wipe a little Windex on the screen 'round Christmastime, and this puppy should be part of the inheritance I leave the grandkids.

RCA Lyra Headphones
Date of Purchase Sometime in 2002
Price Free (see below; list price surely <$5, though)
Backgrounder Given to me by a pal who'd just purchased an ultra-cheap 64MB RCA Lyra MP3 player—can't remember how much he paid for it, but I'm willing to bet he had money left over from his $20 bill. He assumed that any headphones that would accompany such a cheap digimusic player were bound to be awful, so he bestowed them upon me, knowing that I lap up freebies like a dog just returned from the Mojave Desert.
Bound to Happen The logo paint is gone, but otherwise these earpad-style 'phones are in excellent shape—which is a lot more than I can say for the five or so Apple earbuds I've blown out listening to Raekwon with the bass kicked way the hellheck up.
Why It Deserves Adulation As indicated above, the mere fact that these headphones haven't blown is a testament to their superior craftsmanship. Also, the little plastic hooks that latch 'em onto your ears are still going strong, despite getting drenched in sweat, frozen in the New York cold, and otherwise abused over the past four-plus years. Oh, and they provide surprisingly rich sound, given that they came packaged with a decidedly low-end MP3 player in the first place.

Acomdata 80GB External Hard Drive (Firewire Compatible)
Date of Purchase April 2003
Price $49.95 (a bargain then, a possible rip-off now)
Backgrounder Bought this drive after a previous backup drive whirred, screeched, then gave up the ghost at one of the worst times possible (i.e. just as I was experiencing a rather nasty laptop meltdown). I remember being a bit skeeved out by the Acomdata brand, which has its share of haters on various e-commerce sites. But the low-end gods were looking out for me on this one.
Bound to Happen The drive's starting to make some chimp-like yelps in its old age, and I'm wondering whether it's going to flare out sooner rather than later.
Why It Deserves Adulation External hard drives are so cheap nowadays that this doesn't seem like a particularly great steal in retrospect. But at the time it was a good price and, more importantly, Firewire compatible; I was using a Sony Vaio PGC-GR390 at the time, which oddly had Firewire but no USB 2.0. The Acomdata drive is hefty and not much to look at, but it's save my hide on multiple occasions. The only question now is whether I buy another one, so I can have a backup for my backup. Or is that overly paranoid?

This image was lost some time after publication, but you can still view it here.
This image was lost some time after publication, but you can still view it here.

Sony ICF-C120 "Dream Machine" Clock Radio
Date of Purchase Can't Even Remember—1997, perhaps? Earlier?
Price Under $10, for sure
Backgrounder Purchased at a "variety store" in Washington D.C.'s Mt. Pleasant neighborhood. I was a newly minted adult at the time, with a job I had to get to—showered and dressed—by 9 a.m. I had a travel alarm clock from my days in Ireland, but wanted to wake up to the soothing sounds of WPGC ("The People's Station"). The Dream Machine seemed like the way to go.
Bound to Happen The slider on the top that toggles between off, radio, and buzzer is pretty loose, and it'll come off if you jiggle it to hard. There are also lots of crevices that have become a might dirty. Suffice to say, this isn't the sort of alarm clock you'll see showing up in too many Wallpaper spreads.
Why It Deserves Adulation This white cube's survived some seriously rough handling over the years. I'm the farthest thing from a morning person, and I've often taken my wrath out on the poor Dream Machine. But it keeps on pumping out the ear-piercing tunes every morning and, as a special bonus, it's broken in a very beneficial way—if you put the slider in just the right position, it'll buzz and radio at the same time. If that doesn't get you up, you don't deserve to be a functional member of society.

I've got others, but I'm going to end here and throw it over to y'all: got a low-end gadget that's lasted you for years, and without which your life wouldn't be complete? Mention it in comments, or better yet, send me a brief description and a picture. You're dream of seeing your $5 knock-off/off-brand gadget on Gizmodo can come true! But nothing too racy, please—this is definitely a family site.


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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I bought an RCA 20" TV with built in DVD player back in 2002 from BJs. I think I paid $160.00 for it back then which was a hell of a price. Why bring it up? I bought it for my then less than one year old son's room. It's now in my children's playroom as my son (4 now) has two sisters ages 1 and 2 — I've been busy if you know what I mean :) — and boy do these kids beat the crap out of that TV. The DVD drawer was jammed one time and wouldn't close. I think it had gotten out of the guide rails. I lost my temper with it and kicked it in by force. I thought it would never work. A few minutes later my wife just came over and pressed the eject button and sure enough, it worked. The screen is even cracked near the bottom right but the TV doesn't show the slightest sign of malfunction. The cable TV plug in the back is bent into the TV but still works.

Who said RCA brand sucked? Excellent battle-proven TV set.