Commentary

Why Are Consumer Electronics Constructed So Cheaply?

I'm a gadget guy. I love consumer electronics. But there's a critical flaw in the latest generation of devices: poor construction. 

 

Many devices I purchased in the late 1990s and early 2000s (and still own, believe it or not) still work like new, including video cameras, CD players, VCRs, stereos, tube televisions and answering machines -- even an old Dell laptop. But it seems like everything I bought within the last four years has a lifespan of one to three years. 

Here are a few examples of recent product failures among some of the most highly regarded brands:

  • My one-year-old BlackBerry's backplate cracked and had to be replaced. Shortly after that replacement, the circuitry fried and the entire phone had to be replaced.
  • My two-year-old Mac's keyboard circuitry fried, and that had to be replaced. Shortly after that, the camera failed and had to be replaced.
  • My wife's droid vibrated and then fell off her bedside table, resulting in a cracked screen (just like all the cracked iPhone screens you've seen).
  • My son dropped his grandfather's iPhone on a carpeted floor and cracked the screen.
  • Last weekend my 18-month-old Samsung plasma television developed a short and stopped working -- and I'm still waiting for the prognosis.
  • Two of our four Panasonic wireless home phones -- each under three years old -- have significantly deteriorated in call quality.
  • My lightly used, four-year-old iPod's hard drive now freezes intermittently, while my wife's has died completely .

This trend is a problem. I expect devices to work for many years, especially if I invest hundreds or many thousands of dollars in them. On an aggregate basis, dollars add up quickly and become significant. Second, the shortening lifespan of all these devices translates into excessive environmental waste. As far as I can tell, there is very little, if any, effort to minimize the environmental impact of this trend.

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 That's why I'm making an open request for all consumer electronics manufacturers to increase the ruggedness of their products. In addition to building reasonably rugged products, they should back up their products with reasonable guarantees of performance and lifespan. That means standard warranties of three to five years, minimum -- and 10 would be even better. (I've been using American Express's extended warranty guarantee too often lately.)

To encourage quality and alleviate environmental impact, I propose legislation and taxes for manufacturers of products that break quickly or fill our landfills sooner versus later. 

A friend recently suggested I should simply boycott cheaply manufactured electronics. The problem with that logic is that there are few ways to differentiate the cheap from the quality. Again, it seems like most devices are guilty, even the most esteemed brands.

That's why I would like to see product reviewers focus just as much on lifespan and ruggedness as they do on bells and whistles of the latest gizmos. It should be easier to pick out the gems from the junk. I also would like to see more modular designs, so we can replace components versus entire products.

What else can we do to reverse the onslaught of cheaply-manufactured consumer electronics devices?

It's a growing problem that nobody talks about. But enough is enough.

25 comments about "Why Are Consumer Electronics Constructed So Cheaply?".
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  1. Stacey Kaser from Bluestone Productions, January 29, 2010 at 2:08 p.m.

    Hmmm... reading between the lines, I'm not sure if your issues come from a sudden decline in manufacturing quality, or the fact that you now have toddlers. Those little buggers can wreck havoc just about anything.

  2. Nelson Yuen from Stereotypical Mid Sized Services Corp., January 29, 2010 at 2:13 p.m.

    LMAO to the previous comments.

    I want to ask a tangent question...

    Does anyone trust C-Net's reviews of gadgets and gizmos EVER?

  3. Carla Sarett from IRG, January 29, 2010 at 2:13 p.m.

    You didn't mention your remote control for digital cable -- I'm on my third. We've all demanded that devices get smaller and more light-weight, but the trade-off is that these devices are far less durable.

  4. Warren Lee from SEO-CUBED.COM, January 29, 2010 at 2:14 p.m.

    It is simply the fact that as corporations strive to make more money product quality and customer service are often sacrificed. There is a good video about this that I helped create with Steve Marshall on youtube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=miqJ4IETwGU

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 29, 2010 at 2:39 p.m.

    Hear Here !!!!!! Meanwhile, using your watch for time, phones for phones and computer for computering will help, while only help, the opportunity to drop your small media centers while stealthily moving forward on your campaign. The less you use, the less you buy. Many people do not have the budget to have backups or replacement.

  6. Greg Thompson from Dow Jones Local Media Group, January 29, 2010 at 2:50 p.m.

    This is the best book I have found on the topic: http://www.natcap.org/sitepages/pid5.php. The point is that companies need to take Cradle to Cradle reponsibility for their products. Germany and others have had some success in requiring this. Vote with your dollars - and yes it takes time to research which hurts your ability to be the first in your circle to own an iPad.

  7. Ben Rothfeld from Acxiom Digital, January 29, 2010 at 2:50 p.m.

    This is why I'm forgoing new CE purchases until I can afford a Leica. A FILM Leica. Those things are built like tanks.

  8. Max Kalehoff from SocialCode, January 29, 2010 at 3:03 p.m.

    Tim Donaldson: "If your electronic devices are failing you, buy fewer of them. Duh." The point is not to stop buying electronic devices because quality is systematically decreasing. The point is that devices need to systematically increase in quality. Duh!

    Ben Rothfeld: Leica...nice. I still have a Nikon F, and it's about....40 years old...working perfectly.

  9. Simon Cohen from Bell Canada, January 29, 2010 at 3:22 p.m.

    @Nelson Yuen: Yes, I find CNET's reviews to be an impeccable source of information, but I always like to vet them with a second party like Consumer Reports. 90% of the time when they review the same proiduct they come up with the same results.

    On the larger topic, I agree with the cradle-to-grave system. If we can't get manufacturers to increase durability they at least need to increase accountability - something we *can* legislate.

    I think the primary reason for a lack of durability in some gadgets is an awareness on the part of the builder that new versions will drive new demand and so consumers aren't as likely to expect a long life from the product. Case in point: We just gave away an old TV because we upgraded to a flat panel. There was nothing wrong with the old TV. It was just old. Western-style consumerism is the real culprit here.

  10. Roger Furman from Voodoovox, January 29, 2010 at 3:34 p.m.

    this is why when i buy ANY electronic devices, I buy the extended warranty........ROCK BAND has lost money on my son.lol......AND yes I have a tube 15" RCA TV that still works great!!! It is from the '70's....

  11. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, January 29, 2010 at 3:40 p.m.

    Your evidence is anecdotal, a single collective case, so not worth much. One person's experience does not constitute a trend.

  12. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc., January 29, 2010 at 3:45 p.m.

    This is an interesting observation. I think there are a couple obvious reason(s) for this decline in quality, including increasing cost pressure on the demand side, increasing prevalence of corner-cutting manufacturing on the supply side, time to market pressures, design and UI trends (e.g., slimline 'pocket' phones with large glass touchscreen faceplates), planned obsolescence (e.g., by design, the phone should last only as long as the 3G contract does), etc.

    There's also the changing dynamic of device ubiquity (i.e., back in the 80s, everybody had a WalkMan -- but today, EVERYBODY has an iPhone), the general theme of 'small and mobile' (which puts any device at greater risk), and changing usage patterns, which imply (as another commentor noted) that you may well, nowadays, use the iPhone while running for a bus, or let your kids play with it, or take it to the beach, or leave it on the table at the office, etc., or use the laptop in a StarBuck's and then run for a plane, in a way that would have seemed greatly cavalier with analogous equipment, two decades ago.

    What's ironic, I guess, is that we're all trying to bond more closely to the communicating and media appliances we own (and thereby to the internet and social networks they enable us to touch) -- but that, by and large, the prices of these devices are still high -- and as you note, their ability to resist damage is limited. A couple years ago, I experimented, for a while, with an alternative approach: I bought a literal handful of first-generation PalmPilots on eBay for practically nothing, and set about using them as if they were disposable, synching them to my laptop daily. And I found that once the fear of breaking the device was gone, my relationship to it changed in a positive way -- I was more eager to experiment, use it assiduously, and extract value from it.

    As you say, this is terrible for the environment and unsustainable. But it taught me that if we can't figure out how to make these devices either 'too cheap to meter' or routinely durable, we're all missing out on at least part of their promise as tools, and by extension, missing out on part of the value they represent as conduits to the internet (which is really all most of them are). When I'm sitting at home on a Sunday with my wife, reading the New York Times, I can fold back a page of the magazine section and toss it to her across the living room, so she can take a gander at an article. But you can bet I'm not gonna do that with the NYT on my $800 iPad.

  13. Joelle Kaufman from BloomReach, January 29, 2010 at 4:52 p.m.

    In the pursuit of margins and growth, manufacturers are sacrificing their brand integrity. At this point, it's hard to find a manufacturer that will take cradle to grave responsibility for their product's durability and function. I've had a dryer that failed off and on for 18 months before the Extended Warranty agreed it was a lemon. I've had home AV equipment (installed) fail as well. As a result, I don't recommend those brands and, if necessary, actively inform people - for example, DO NOT BUY LG Dryers. The repairman will tell you they break, a lot. But I've had products from Apple, HP, and others fail too.

    It's not just the failure, but how the brand supports the product that fails. BestBuy and Costco are amazing this way - no questions asked, just replace. And their brands are growing and thriving. Toyota is experiencing massive brand damage due to their recent product quality failures. General Electric and Canon - usually very reliable. Over the long haul, your brand and your pricing will be damaged if you don't improve your products. So, legislation may help, but the long hand of the market is more efficient.

    I find that I rely on consumer reviews - on Amazon, Yelp, CNet and more to give me a sense of the durability of the product. Consumer Reports is a good source too. It's hard to make a happy customer praise you - but an upset one is a problem for life.

  14. Mike Reaves from MondoBox, LLC, January 29, 2010 at 5:08 p.m.

    It's because they're made in China now, not Korea or Japan. "Made in Japan" was once a euphemism for 'poor quality' now (irrespective of gas pedals) it means very high quality. Don't let your son put your droid or iPhone in his mouth - you wouldn't want him to get lead poisoning.

  15. Stephen Tompkins from Stephen Tompkins, January 29, 2010 at 5:14 p.m.

    Agreed, Max - I bought a flat panel TV and 6 months later it has a line down the screen where the non-HD TV's end. Its so annoying. I tried and tried they assured me this never happens but I use my TV so infrequently I think they were lying. Needless to say I want be buying that brand anymore :)

  16. Melissa Pollak from National Science Foundation, January 29, 2010 at 6:39 p.m.

    I couldn't agree more. I had a Zune that died at 14 months (after normal use) and another that worked so poorly that it had to be replaced (when it was still under warranty). And, I've never had a DVD player -- or a CD/DVD burner --that's lasted more than two years, leading me to believe that DVD technology is still just not ready for us consumers. Finally, the color on my new Sony Bravia XBR TV is wacky (no purple or yellow). I'm hoping the software update Sony sent me will correct the problem, but I won't be surprised if it doesn't.

  17. Paula Storti from Worldwalk Media, January 29, 2010 at 7:58 p.m.

    Agreed, I have a list of devices that have failed as well. The one that most irritates me is a Flip Mino HD which failed at around 90 days and after 6 or so calls to customer service they declined to replace. I got caught in the Cisco acquisition which clearly wasn't under my control. The Flip has a price point close to an iPhone (which I also own at least one of), the warranty should be as close to or equivalent to Apple products as possible or better.

  18. Tristram Carlisle, January 29, 2010 at 9:04 p.m.

    Boo on legislation and taxes.

  19. Peggy Lee from PPL Consulting, January 30, 2010 at 7:15 a.m.

    Made in China. Made to be cheap and disposable--replacement market you know

  20. Mark McLaughlin, January 30, 2010 at 4:33 p.m.

    2 iPods, 1 iPhone and a Mac made your list. I'm always in awe of the cult-like love for Apple products even though the most passionate fans all have multiple nightmare stories to tell about the products falling apart.

    You even say "just like all the cracked iphone screens you see" which reminds us of the ubiquity of flawed Apple products.

    My house is filled with PCs and Macs. The Macs have way more battery problems and hard drive crashes than the PCs - actually we've never had a PC crash. But, my wife and my daughter have a passion for Macs that is not daunted even though they have to drive an hour and wait for days to get these big problems corrected.

    The only time I ever went to an Apple store myself (my iPod froze) - the store was filled with people waiting to get products fixed or replaced and yet these people were raving about the very products that were so flawed.

    Apple has the most amazing brand equity I have ever seen and I make my career studying brand equity.

  21. Gregory Yankelovich from Amplified Analytics Inc, January 30, 2010 at 5:57 p.m.

    I agree that there is no longer good reason to pay premium for the brand name products, as the brands diluted their value in pursuit of profit margins. I am not attacking the pursuit - I am critical about their intellectual laziness as a single minded "optimization" of the cost inevitably destroyed their reputation. Consumers played their role in this downwind spiral demanding low prices above all, but now we start to smarten up figuring that buying inferior product to save $10 is dumb considering time we have to waste dealing with poor quality. The cost of poor customer support, shipping, driving to exchange and overall interruption of our lives well overweight these savings. From this perspective consumers start to look at the reputation a product earned with other customers, who already experienced it, before they make their purchasing decision.
    The prior commenter Joelle Kaufman brought a very good point - the experiences of other customers of a product is the best indicator of what you can expect. But here is a paradox - to get reliable reference you have to find sufficient number of reviews for this product, and they are often dispersed over multiple sites like CNET, Amazon, etc. If the number of reviews for the product is low, the trustworthiness of the expressed recommendations is less reliable. Moreover reading and interpreting large number of reviews can be a daunting task. I once have spent over 25 hrs researching my notebook purchase, and as much as hate wasting so much time, I am glad I did as it helped me to save much more aggravation if I did not. That experience inspired me to start my company (http://www.amplifiedanalytics.com/) that created algorithms to produce product reputation ratings for Consumer Electronics industry to allow savvier brand managers to start competing on the quality their product reputations instead of discounts.

  22. Laurie Sullivan from lauriesullivan, February 1, 2010 at 8:58 a.m.

    1) Manufacturing moved offshore in the late 1990s and early 2000s to China (mostly third-party manufacturers), followed by other Asian countries, which rely on cheaper materials and labor to build products. (A topic I followed very closely during that time.)

    2) Some material used to manufacturer electronics is counterfeit. It may have the stamp of the manufacturer on the electronic component, but it's not authentic.

    3) Try as they might, companies manufacturing overseas cannot oversee quality inspections as closely as they can in U.S. manufacturing facilities. The manufacturing that began in China is now being done in other countries that do not have the same strict manufacturing guidelines as the U.S.

  23. Lisa Gaglia from Clear Channel Outdoor , February 1, 2010 at 2:52 p.m.

    I often wondered the same thing !
    Equipment I bought years ago (as clunky as it is) still works, but my beautful and stylish Bose stereo that was given to me as a gift stopped working only after a few years and, I didn't use it that much.

    Could it be manufacturing in mass amounts and equipment becoming smaller, we are by passing quality.

  24. Juliette Cowall from Godwin Plumbing & Hardware, February 2, 2010 at 1:27 p.m.

    This has been going on for, literally, decades, and not just with electronics. There was a time when one could expect 25-30 years from a furnace and 20+ years from appliances. Now we're replacing furnaces at 10-12 years and appliances at 5-7 years. (Please tell me I don't sound old.)

  25. Dale Brooks from db media, marketing & consulting, February 3, 2010 at 5:09 p.m.

    Take for example a 27" Sony table model TV set, that has been dinged and jostled countless times over several moves that still gives me a great picture (for an analog receiver). That was made in Japan about at the time Japan was establishing itself as the quality production source.

    The Chinese would do well by becoming better consumers of what they make. Maybe then they'll start to feel our frustration.

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