7/4/07

Updated 7/26/08
It was a good idea at first, but then.....
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Instead of coming up with genuinely new ideas, much of what is on the market today is the same old dog, with a flashy set of new clothes! And often, those new clothes detract from the usefulness or quality of the underlying product.

Stereos are a good example. Whether it's a car stereo, a home stereo, or even a boom-box, the big thing today is flashing lights. Got to have a multi-color display with all kinds of moving things on it. Most people have no clue of what that stuff means, but they think it's
kewl. 20 buttons that no one knows what they do is another must-have.

Problem is, people will only pay a certain amount for the thing, so in order to make it cheap enough, the manufacturer has to cut corners elsewhere. Usually it's the quality that gets cut first. So you can pay $59.99 for your stereo that looks like a fireworks display going off, but don't count on it to last more than 10 minutes beyond the warranty!

I saw a coffemaker in the store that boasted that it has a "Brew strength selector" on it. I took a look at how it worked to confirm my suspicions. The 2-cent plastic knob on top simply diverted some of the boiling water directly into the pot, without it going through the coffee grounds. Gee, when I make coffee, I simply put less of the expensive stuff in the basket if I want it weaker. But with this great new technological breakthrough, I can always put the maximum amount of coffee in the basket, and simply waste it! But it does add another "feature" to the list on the side of the box. The more features you get for your money, the better, right?

Small flashlights. I use a pocket flashlight about 25 times a day, to look inside of control boxes, etc. Although there are many such flashlights on the market, looks are deceiving. Even though it may have an expensive looking "machined aircraft aluminum" housing and an L.E.D. bulb that "lasts for up to 100,000 hours", the switches on these flashlights give out in a month or two. Then the whole thing is junk, gotta buy another one! I've concluded that the push-on, push-off type switches are not reliable. The guts of these switches are similar to the guts of an 8 cent retractable ball-point pen. But the pen lasts longer. SOMEONE SHOULD INVENT A GOOD FLASHLIGHT SWITCH!

A co-worker handed me his LED flashlight to use one time. When I pushed the button once, a bunch of red and blue LED's started flashing like a squad car. The second push resulted in the LED's fading from one color to another repeatedly. The third push caused a bunch of white LED's to come on, WOW, now I can continue what I was doing! The fourth push reduced it down to only one white LED being on, and the fifth push, OFF!

I don't know about you, but when I grab a flashlight, it's because I want to see what I'm doing, not trying to get the driver in front of me to pull over! To me, a flashlight that needs it's button pushed 3 times to become useful, then 2 more times to turn it off, is about as USELESS as can be!

I recently was happy to see that the Big Name in machined aluminum flashlights, finally come out with a L.E.D. version of their product. Even made in the USA! I spent $25 for the "AA" cell size flashlight. After I had it two weeks, it fell out of my shirt pocket and hit the floor. That's all she wrote. It has a lifetime warranty, and I suppose I could spend $10 to ship it to them for repair, and I would be all set to go, until the next time it falls out of my pocket, that is.

Cell phones. I bought a cell phone when they first became popular, I think around 1990. There were 2 styles available at the time, the "bag phone" for cars, or the "handheld" model. The bag phone had all the guts in a kleenex-box size nylon bag that you could put on your car seat, with a cord going to a handset similar to a home phone. The handheld model had all the guts inside the handset, which was about the size of a brick. I chose the brick, and paid $400 for it! This phone is a Motorola, and it's even made in the USA. It works great. After I had it a few weeks, it got left sitting on top of my truck, where it flew off and hit the pavement at 55 mph. I found it, picked it up, and called home on it! Only a minor crack in the battery housing. The only problem I really had with it was that the battery packs weren't good for very many charges. I gave up on the batteries altogether, and decided to just run the phone off of the car cord, as I usually leave it in my truck anyway. This phone was designed for the purpose of making phone calls. It had a bright 7 digit LED display on it, and almost pay-phone size square keys. Simple. I still use it everyday!

But unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. This phone is one of the good old analog models, which means it sounds great! But the cell companies are discontinuing analog service, I've heard by the end of 2006. (Still working, but getting spotty July 2007) That's because the marketers have convinced everyone that "digital" is better. Well it is for the cell companies, they can fit many times more calls on the same radio waves, and also offer all of the extra, expensive toys that everyone has to have now. So I'll have to buy a new phone soon. But all the new phones have little baby-finger buttons that you practically need a pencil to poke, arranged about as logically as the pimples on someone's face. And they have a full color video screen on them now. I can't imagine making a phone call without a video screen, can you? And downloadable ring tones! Gotta have that too. I don't know how I've been getting by all these years with a ringtone that sounds like a phone ringing! And I'm sure I'll use the camera on it 25 times a day. I really need text messaging too, you know how much I love repeatedly pushing little buttons to get a simple task done. And all those lights. Very necessary to have the entire phone lit up like a Christmas tree, makes the batteries last longer. Bluetooth, the next step beyond Green Teeth, I want it! Blackberry, the jam is good so the phone must be too! And as far as durability, I know they are built like a tank, as I've seen one get accidentally get dropped from the checkout counter onto the supermarket floor. It broke into only about 5 pieces!  I'm not being sarcastic here, am I?

Moral of the story: I know at least one person that is in the market for a good cell phone. One that makes phone calls, rings like a phone, has man-sized buttons, and an easy-to-read display. And it might get dropped from the top of a ladder once in a while, and it better still work! Maybe we could even make something like this in the USA? I think Motorola still has an office in the USA. Perhaps we could even put a nice L.E.D. flashlight on it, with a button to turn it ON or OFF, now THAT would be practical!

ADDED JULY 2008: I finally got a phone that was made in this century! It's a Motorola v262 or something like that. Not a bad little phone, but it don't work as good as my old one. Now, instead of the signal getting a little scratchy if I'm in a weak area, it simply hangs up, without telling me about it of course. And there's a delay in the audio that makes conversation more difficult.  And the tiny buttons and display suck. My 49 year old finger likes to press the "end" button when I'm trying to press "3", deleting everything I punched in so far. And my 49 year old eyes can't read the display, unless I wear my reading glasses, but my reading glasses are not good for driving! I think a 50 year-old should design a cell phone.

CD players. I run a small Karaoke business. Karaoke uses special CD's that have both the music, and simple video graphics capabilities, to display the song lyrics. They are called CD+G's or CDG's.

The trick is that you need a special CD player to get the graphics portion off of the CD and display it on a TV.

Back in the early 1990's when karaoke was first becoming popular in the US, I bought my first CD+G player. It was a 6-disc magazine-type CD changer made by JVC. Although this unit was actually a regular JVC player that they modified to play the CD+G discs, they did a good job at it. The designers actually knew how a karaoke show is done, and designed the machine accordingly.

I would put in the proper magazine containing the song that the first singer was going to sing. I would push a button labeled 1 thru 6 to select which disc the song was on, then push one of the 1 thru 18 track buttons to select the actual song on the disc. Then I could push the "pause" button, which would cause the machine to load the proper disc from the magazine, find the beginning of the song I chose, and wait right there.  When the singer was ready to perform, I hit the play button, and the song begins playing immediately! And if the next singer chose a song off of that same magazine, I could program in the disc and track numbers while the first person is singing, and when their song ended, the player would automatically change the disc, find the beginning of the next song, and pause all by itself. When the next singer was ready, all I had to do was hit "play" again. And if the next song was on a different magazine, I could still program it ahead of time, but then I simply had to change the magazine between singers, and push "play" when I was done. This was a great machine, and I wore out 2 of them! But like all good things, it came to an end, they quit making them.

JVC also came out with a 3-drawer CD+G player that was a pretty good machine and was fairly well designed for the purpose. One shortcoming was that if you programmed songs off of more than 1 disc, it wouldn't automatically change the disc when a song finished, but would first start the slow and clunky process of changing the disc when you pushed the "play" button for the next singer. I wore out one of these, too. And of course they discontinued this one, too.

And the person who knew how to run a karaoke show must have quit working for JVC too. I tried out JVC's "carousel" type 5 disc CD+G changer. I think I used it 5 times before heaping it onto the "spare equipment" pile that I keep for emergency use someday. The thing was very slow and clunky, and had a hard time keeping track of which disc was which. I'd put a disc in space 1, close the drawer and try to play a song, and often it would say "no disc". When I opened the drawer back up, the disc was where it belonged, but the whole carousel was off by one disc. This machine lacked the ability to program in a song ahead of time, but have the machine wait to play it, while the next singer got ready.

Since then, I've tried about 5 more machines, and found nothing to brag about. My biggest complaint was that most of the units INSIST on playing track 1 on the CD the minute you put the disc in. And NONE of the buttons, including the STOP button, work until track 1 actually starts to play! How retarded! My second biggest complaint is that for some reason the newer players take 7 to 20 seconds just to read the directory track on the CD, of course during this time none of the buttons work either. My older players could read the directory, and have the selected track playing within 2 seconds of closing the drawer!

Part of the reason for the slowness is that these new machines can play several different types of discs, including DVD's. I imagine it takes lots of time for the machine to figure out what kind of disc you're feeding it. I tried the "DVD karaoke" format at one show. During the show, I flung the one and only DVD I had out into the audience, and told whoever grabbed it that they could play it at home in their DVD player. I found it to be totally useless for professional karaoke use. The DVD's have to always play some stupid introduction everytime you put the disc in the machine. Not for me!

One "professional DJ" (Numark CDN-25+G) dual-deck karaoke player I bought wasn't too bad of a unit, but some of the "features" they put on it were more of a hinderance than help. It had an "auto-cue" function that supposedly found the beginning of the selected song, and would pause at that point. On most karaoke CD+G's, there is video information that appears on the TV screen well before the music begins. But their "auto-cue" ignored the video, and paused at the beginning of the music. Pausing at this point can cause the video to not display properly throughout the song, so their fix was to make the machine start over at the very beginning of the track when you hit the "play" button, defeating the "auto-cue" entirely. But a flaw in the CD player's program caused the "auto-cue" to try to function even when you didn't want it to. If you simply program in a track and hit "play" immediately, it should do just that, play immediately. But instead, the video appears on the screen like it should, but at the point where the music starts, the stupid thing goes back to the beginning and starts all over displaying the video a second time! This wastes up to 15 seconds per song, and there is no way to turn the stupid feature off. The machine also has a big "jog wheel" on the front that can be used for various functions while a CD is playing, but does nothing when the machine is stopped. Common sense tells me that this would be a handy way to scroll up and down through the tracks on the CD, rather than having to push the "track up" button 18 times to choose that track. But common sense isn't really all that common anymore, I guess! This is the only CD player I've had where the entire control system for both decks can be crashed by a flaw on a CD, requiring the unit to be turned off, then on again to continue working. On power-up, the "single-play--continuous-play" selector defaults to continuous play, which I doubt that a professional DJ would use too often.

I tried a couple of the Voco-Pro machines too. Their cheapest machine was not at all suitable for use at a real karaoke show. Besides for insisting on playing the first track on the disc no matter what, the response to the front-panel buttons was hopelessly slow. (I though computer chips were getting faster?) And this is the first CD player I ever owned that actually sounded bad! Noticeable "wavering" in the music. I think I used it twice before tossing it on the "spare junk" pile. For $99, I wasn't about to pay to ship it back. Then I tried out their "6 disc changer" which had a tray that came out sporting 6 little 'cascading' trays to put CD's into. If you bumped one of the trays, it would disappear back into the machine until the drawer was closed, then re-opened. When you turned this puppy on, it insisted on checking every tray for a CD that it could start playing the first song on, even though you haven't put a single disc in the machine yet! And of course there was no way to stop this operation, as none of the buttons work until it starts playing something, or it finally figures out that you haven't put a disc in yet! This one never made it to a gig, after 15 minutes of testing on the kitchen table, I took it back to the dealer and got my $300 back.

So if you design CD players for a living, here's a few hints:
Not everyone wants their machine to play the first track as soon as a disc is inserted. Not everyone wants auto-cue. Not everyone wants to push a tiny button 15 times to select a track. The track select buttons CAN actually work before the directory track is read, if the selected track doesn't exist, simply ignore the selection! The pause button CAN actually work from the stop mode too, punching in a track # then pushing pause can be made to find the beginning of the track, then pause. If the player can play 10 different kinds of discs, perhaps a method of telling it one time which discs I intend to use could speed up reading the directories considerably. And if you insist on putting a bunch of "improvements" on a machine, include a way to turn them off, and keep them off.




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