Low End Theory: Wonderful Electric?

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By Brendan I. Koerner


As hopeless gearheads, we're naturally prone to assuming that today's gadgets invariably trump their low-tech forebears. And for the most part that's true—how many of y'all would honestly prefer a rotary phone to your Treo 700wx, except for the purposes of eliciting ironic laughter?

But the quality gap narrows considerably when dealing with low-end gadgets, particularly those that are merely electronic upgrades on everyday tools. While I'm sure the $70 Cuisinart Electric Knife does a mean job of eviscerating ham, I know from harsh experience that the $9.99 Procter-Silex Easy Slice (pictured at right) is vastly inferior to the $3.99 chef's knife I bought at the local A&P years ago. The sad reality that us gizmo aficionados must accept is that just because something's battery-powered or souped-up with an LCD screen doesn't mean it's superior to what grandpa used.

For this week's column, then, I considered some head-to-head matchups between low-end electronic gadgets (all sub-$12) and the austere devices they're meant to replace. Be forewarned: I have very mixed feelings about the razor issue. PLUS: A first-ever reader's nomination for the Low-End Hall of Fame!

Ordinary Chef's Knife vs. Electric Knife
Low-End Entrant The Procter-Silex Easy Slice (see above for link)
Points for the Plain First and foremost, easy to clean. After carving apart a luscious roast, the last thing you want to worry about are the potential consequences of submerging a 100-watt knife in a watery sink. Procter-Silex is a budget brand owned by Hamilton Beach; like many a budget brand, it's notorious for churning out products that are aesthetically pleasing but prone to breaking.
Points for the Elaborate In theory, electric knives are better at such culinary tasks as meat carving. But the Procter-Silex couldn't cut cleanly through a tin can; I think I used mine once before realizing that I'd been scammed. Very shaky operation and, oh yeah, it's corded—makes you feel like a disobedient dog who's been tethered to a backyard stake.
The Winner The plain-jane chef's knife in a walkover. Though I'm open to the idea that an electric knife sharpener might be a nice addition to my kitchen; sharpening stones take forever, despite the nice bonus of feeling like a blacksmith circa 984 A.D.

Toothbrush vs. Electric Toothbrush
Low-End Entrant Tony Stewart Electric Toothbrush from 3D Marketing, $9.99 from Sports Authority
Points for the Plain Another case of me being nervous bringing electricity near water—although in this case, at least, we're just talking about measly AA batteries. Also, I like the occasional ritual of picking out a new brush at the local CVS—so many choices! Really makes me appreciate the genius of the free market, more so than reading the Finance and Economics section of The Economist.
Points for the Elaborate In a word, results. Scoff if you will, but these low-end electric toothbrushes definitely make your mouth feel cleaner, especially those hard-to-reach back teeth. As a gearhead, I also love the fact that the hype sheet claims that the head rotates at 6,800 RPMs.
The Winner A close one, but the electric entrant is the victor. Might be different if the price were closer to $25 than $10, or I lived in a city with more expensive batteries—God bless the dudes who walk through the subways selling two-for-a-dollars packs of Duracells.


Razor vs. Electric Razor
Low-End Entrant Braun 370 Pocket Twist Plus, $11.45 from eTronics4Less
Points for the Plain Having experimented with several electric razors over the years, I've yet to find one that provides as close a shave as the mid-range Gillette Mach 3. (No, I haven't tried the five-bladed Fusion.) And the travel-sized Pocket Twist Plus is obviously not cream of the electric crop. Off-brand blade clones (such as those peddled under the CVS private label) cut the expense of manual shaving in half.
Points for the Elaborate Off-brand clones or not, avoiding facial hirsuteness the manual way is still pretty pricey. The Braun mini has good battery life, is easy to clean, and can survive rough treatment. If only it did a better job on several day's worth of growth; it has problems with whiskers as opposed to stubble.
The Winner I'm gonna have to go with the analog option here, though that's in large part due to my general un-hairiness; I get long-term whiskers, as opposed to short-term stubble that requires immediate attention. My real question is why more effective electric razors have yet to enter the low-end price range—in this day and age of the $19.99 DVD player, how come a decent Norelco is still 80 bucks? I smell conspiracy.

Screwdriver vs. Electric Screwdriver
Low-End Entrant Igo Grip and Drive, $10.70 at Ace Hardware
Points for the Plain Not many, save for the fact that it makes you look macho to have lots of screwdrivers lying around. And they're cheap enough so that, when you invariably destroy a Phillips Head trying to tackle a too-tough job, you can just gather up some spare change and buy a replacement.
Points for the Elaborate As with the electric toothbrush, I'm a late convert to the benefits of electric screwdrivers. They save you a lot of wrist strain, and apply necessary torque on those hard-to-reach screws. I know my low-end electric 'driver pretty much saved my ass on a recent home-improvement project—building some storage cubes in our home office. I think I'd still be fiddling with one last, pesky screw if not for the electric option.
The Winner Tough call, but I'm going with the electric screwdriver. Yes, you can use a power drill for the same purpose, but the simpler electric gadget allows for one-handed operation, and is small enough to wedge into tight spaces. My only gripe on the low-end units? The magnetic bits can jar loose if not properly inserted.


As always, leave your takes in comments, or hit me directly and I'll do my best to respond ASAP. I'll also try to wade into comments, but probably not until tonight—got jury duty tomorrow, where I'll likely be using the Homer Simpson approach to eludingdelaying my civic duty.

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DREAM MACHINE REDUX: A few weeks back, I asked y'all to send along pics of your favorite low-end gadget, ones that have survived the test of time despite years of abuse. Our first nomination for the Low-End Hall of Fame comes from Moshe Krakowski, who wrote in to lavish praise upon his ancient Sony Dream Machine clock radio (pictured at right):

This bad boy was a Bar Mitzvah gift way back in 1991 and has managed to survive being battered, spilled on (hot and cold drinks), spit up on, among other things. Occasionally, when spilled on, the radio won't work for a few days or some of the LED number segments might disappear, but they always come back. (I only know this because I was too lazy to unplug it the first time this happened).

I don't know how much it cost back then, but it couldn't have been much, and it has lasted me 16 years. Not too shabby.


No, not too shabby at all. Congrats on living the low-end dream, Moshe.

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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My husband used to be strictly a brush-and-razor shaving kinda guy, but he's used a Norelco electric for about 15 years now and wouldn't switch back for anything. My son's never used anything but an electric. I got a free sample of that five-bladed Fusion and it works fine, btw, but I don't think I'll be buying any replacement blades for it when these get dull. They are just way, way too expensive vs. the house-brand Walgreens blades (and razor) I've been using for years.

As for electric knives, the one thing they are really, really good at is slicing freshly baked bread. Even with a very sharp serrated "manual" knife you often squish the bread or tear it up if you try to cut it when it's still warm—and of course the whole point of baking bread is to cut yourself off a nice thick slice while it's still warm, right?