Elgan: Can gadgets be too small, cheap and feature rich?

Moore's Law has 'improved' electronics for decades, but this is ridiculous

Everybody knows mobile gadgets get smaller, cheaper and more feature-rich over time. But at what point are they too small, cheap or functional?

Too small

Netbooks are tiny. That's the whole point. But can they be too small? The answer is: Yes.

A Chinese company called uSmart showed off at the Hong Kong Electronics Fair a netbook with a 4.8-in. screen. The gadget is powered by an Intel Atom processor. It has HDMI support for audio and video, something most laptops don't even have. So, what makes this a netbook rather than a PDA? It runs Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7 or Linux!

Small and portable netbooks are great. But if you can't see the screen and can't use the keyboard, the netbook is just too small. Users complained about the cramped screen and keyboard of netbooks with 7-in. screens. There's no way a 4.8-in. screen netbook running Windows can be anything but miserable to use.

Even devices without screens and keyboards have become too tiny for their own good -- USB flash drives, for example. The iDisk Diamond offers 256MB of storage for $39.99, and it's literally about the size and nearly the thickness of a fingernail.

Elecom offers a MicroSD MR-SMC03 card reader that's nearly as small. The tiny, $13 device lets you insert your own MicroSD card and read it on any PC.

Both the iDisk Diamond and the Elecom MR-SMC03 are literally small enough to swallow, which is too small, in my book. If you drop it, it's like searching for a contact lens. Fortunately, both have places to attach a strap, which secures the gadget but triples the bulk.

Too cheap

Cheap is good, right? Is it possible for gadgets to be too cheap? Can phones be cheaper than free? We're about to find out.

Wal-Mart is selling a range of phones at absurdly low prices starting tomorrow. Among them are three BlackBerry phones that Wal-Mart will pay you $100 to take out of the store (as long as you leave after signing a two-year wireless contract). The way they market the phones is that anyone who buys one gets a $100 Wal-Mart gift card, and the price for each BlackBerry is zero. But let's be clear. The price for smartphones has now dropped to $100 below zero.

When did laptops became cheaper than netbooks, and netbooks cheaper than cell phones?

The $400 netbook rocked the industry as recently as last year. But this year, you can get a full-size Acer laptop with 2GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive for $250 from Best Buy. That's not far off the new second-lowest price for laptops. Staples and Wal-Mart are selling full-size HP laptops for $300 each.

That's cheaper than netbooks, right? Wrong! The new low in netbook pricing is $199. I know, I know. You can buy no-name Chinese netbooks for the theoretical price of $98 -- but you won't. And you could buy very cheap netbooks with a two-year contract, but you'll pay for it in the end, with hidden costs in your monthly wireless bill. And pay, and pay. I'm talking about a ready-for-the-U.S.-market, no-strings-attached, big-brand (Acer) netbook that will be sold at Office Depot on Black Friday for $199.

The problem with such low prices is that if everybody gravitates toward zero-margin (or below) electronics, then quality will suffer. Just look at the airline industry. People now use the Internet to book flights based exclusively on airfares. The result is lousy service, no food and overworked, underpaid pilots.

Just too much

So it's possible for gadgets to be too small and too cheap. But too feature-rich? Oh, yeah.

IoSafe started selling today a $399 waterproof, fireproof external hard drive called the IoSafe Solo. The capacity? It holds 2 terabytes of data. That's 2,000 gigabytes.

What are you going to do with all that storage space? If you fill it up, you'll never be able to back everything up online or anywhere else. If you have a hard-drive crash, you're toast.

The iPhone is famous for its aftermarket. You can buy just about any peripheral device you can think of (except the thing we want the most -- a wireless keyboard). But a new, $28.99 product called the 8X Telescope with Hard Case for iPhone is an accessory gone too far. The case attaches to the phone, and the absurdly large telephoto lens attaches to the case. You put the whole thing on an included tripod, because the telephoto lens will exaggerate any movement and make your pictures blurry.

But if you're going to carry a bulky case, tripod and lens, why not just carry a separate digital camera?

The Apple Magic Mouse is getting a lot of press -- bad press, mostly. Still, the attempt is to make all functionality invisible. Instead of buttons, the Magic Mouse has multi-touch gestures.

The opposite of the Magic Mouse is an overengineered pointing device called the OpenOfficeMouse. The mouse has 18 buttons! It also has an Xbox-like joystick on the side. Those buttons are highly programmable with key commands, macros and what the write-up calls "default profiles" for OpenOffice applications.

Somebody tell me: What's the point of so many buttons, and so much programmability? Convenience? It will take you two years to master all the timesaving features.

I never thought I'd see the day, but here it is: Some gadgets, phones and computers have now become too small, too cheap and too feature-rich.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

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