Rich Warren | Do you really need the latest gadget?

Rich Warren | Do you really need the latest gadget?

Most electronic products flop. Many of the latest and greatest technologies praised by the technorati won't be around in a year. Advertising or viral online marketing can't save a product or app that we don't need or want. Along those lines, 3-D TV comes to mind.

As a technology scribe, my office closet contains many of the useless gee-whiz products that once beguiled me. My favorite always will be a Panasonic typewriter, circa 1984, that wrote with a pen.

When you see the next techno-trend, don't be dazzled. Rather, consider whether you really need that gadget. Will it make you more productive and/or improve your life?

Then there are great products that manufacturers dump because they fail to deliver expected profits.

Consider the Chevy Volt. GM discontinued it because it only sold in the tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands. Yet, along with its smaller Bolt sibling, the Volt represented the most advanced car GM ever marketed. Not only was it advanced, but it was good for the environment. The new plug-in hybrid Honda Clarity now fills the void left by the Volt.

Sometimes we realize we don't need the latest technology, forcing manufacturers to dramatically lower prices to sell it.

TV manufacturers anticipated large profits from 4K (ultra-high definition) TVs by charging outrageous prices the first couple of years. Now you can buy a 4K TV for the same price as a standard HDTV from a few years ago.

Not many people suffered while waiting, since true 4K sources, whether online or disk, remain uncommon.

While the FCC approved the ATSC 3.0 broadcast TV standard that would foster 4K broadcasts, it would render obsolete over-the-air tuners of existing 4K TVs, requiring an external adapter. Those viewing via cable or satellite would not be affected. Broadcasters would have to bend themselves into contortions to broadcast the new 3.0 4K standard.

We also remain at the mercy of manufacturers for updates on many products. If the manufacturer goes out of business or decides to pursue a new strategy, the product could cease operating.

For example, internet "radios" are not truly radios. A conventional radio uses a tuner that captures broadcast signals. While patents exist on some specific tuner designs, the overall basic technology dates back 100 years for AM radio and 75 years for FM radio.

Internet radio doesn't use a "tuner." It relies on a database of audio streams available on the internet, mostly from conventional broadcast stations, but increasingly from internet-only sources.

Companies that market internet radios contract with a source database provider to enable operation of its internet radios. The radio manufacturer must pay a fee to this database provider.

The Bose SoundTouch models probably are the best internet radios for sound and ease of operation. Imagine my shock when one Monday morning in November none of my SoundTouch radios worked. The previous week, Bose contracted with a new database provider and implemented that new provider over the weekend.

A nice person at Bose technical support explained this to me. Bose switched to the popular and superior TuneIn radio database. TuneIn also offers free and paid standalone apps for other devices.

Reactivating my SoundTouch units required downloading the Bose updates and reloading the individual SoundTouch radios. It also meant having to reset my favorite stations.

Fortunately, large and reputable Bose will keep its SoundTouch radios functioning for a long time. However, had I been listening to an internet radio marketed by a Brand X company that suddenly decided to make LED light bulbs instead of internet radios, I might have owned a high-tech paperweight.

Smartphones face the same issue. After two to three years, manufacturers abandon old models and cease updating them. While you might live without the newest features, you shouldn't continue without the security updates. The cars of the future may face the same fate.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. Email him at hifiguy@mchsi.com.

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