SHIFT: 5 products where it pays to go low-tech

With the annual Consumer Electronics Show fast approaching, prepare to be tsumanied by new gadgets that defy a credo every engineer and designer should have tattooed on their foreheads: Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

It's not only small companies huckstering their way into our homes, pockets or cars with a microchip-controlled equivalent to Ronco's egg scrambler. My Ludditic excoriations are aimed at mainstream brands who produce either unnecessary devices, necessary devices that are poorly executed, or especially products that are designed to improve on non-electronic predecessors, but don't. Such as:

Since most of these products are wildly successful, I hear a big "What the hell do you know?" forming. But just because a product is popular doesn't mean we need it or it's better than what it's replacing. Remember the Pet Rock? CB radios? 8-track? MiniDisc?

I state and rest my case after the jump (click Continue).

Thomas Edison's first patent was for an electronic vote counter. Legislative bodies, however, yawned. They preferred slow and inefficient roll calls, which allowed additional time for arm-bending and deal-making. Edison learned a valuable lesson and swore he'd never invent anything that people didn't want and/or need.

Not even Edison could live up to that standard (did he really think we wanted or needed to live in concrete homes?), but at least consumer necessity and desire were considerations, in many ways sadly lacking in the:

Amazon Kindle
Books have been nearly as long as Christianity — remember, Gutenberg merely invented movable type (not the blogging software) in the mid-15th century, not the book itself. Books require no power source, no screen, no user interface. They store a huge amount of information. They're interactive, searchable and completely portable. Apple would kill to design something so efficient and user-friendly.

Kindle's chief improvement is that you can carry more information around with you. A book will never run out of power and, if it does or I lose it, I can buy a cheap replacement or borrow it for free from the library. And I don't have to pay $400 before I can even read a book.

Bluetooth
Think that Bluetooth earpiece in your ear makes you look important? Nope. Strutting around with that blue LED-blinking contraption dangling off your head makes you look like an idiot. If you're going to wear a Bluetooth earpiece, either be driving or make believe you're having a conversion.

Beyond looking silly, it's easier to jack in a wired earpiece than it is to drill down to the depth's of your cellphone's menus just to tell it you're connecting an earpiece. That's assuming the Bluetooth battery is charged and it's actually connected. Maybe I'll reconsider when the Bluetooth 2.1 spec arrives, which reduces these ridiculous pairing and connection rituals, is finally implemented sometime in 2008.

GPS personal navigation devices
Maps at a gas station are, what… $3, $4? GPS apps on your cellphone about the same. Maps and turn-by-turn directions are free at Mapquest. Need traffic updates? Turn on the radio.

Unless you're a limousine or taxi driver or a delivery person, you do not need a PND.

Plus, interfaces on PNDs are about as fun and easy to use as a tax form. Until a GPS has voice recognition so I can just tell it where I want to go, I'd rather get lost. Until then, I'm happy to do a little preplanning and save myself a couple of hundred bucks and several migraines.

Noise-canceling headphones
Why spend extra money and time to monitor power levels for your headphones to accomplish what any set of earbuds with foam or rubber sound-isolating pads can accomplish?

If you really want to soundproof your plane ride, get a set of custom-made Ultimate Ears. They take a mold of your ear and create perfect form-fitting earpieces so soundproof, you won't even hear yourself think much less the engines or the chatterbox you're stuck next to.

Select Comfort Beds
I've been sleeping on the top-of-the-line Select Comfort 9000 ($4,000 in my particular configuration) since September. It's damned comfortable. The technology — which includes a sophisticated system of air pockets that can be inflated or deflated to attain the utmost comfort, along with scientific use of cushioning and fabrics — is compelling. Considering you spend around a third of your life in bed, this attention to and the cost of comfort are more than justified.

But you have to plug it in. It has a remote control. You have to tell it when you're comfortable, and "comfort" doesn't necessarily mean you're getting the right support. Why can't I have a bed that gives me comfort and the right support without having to program it first? Oh, I did. I had a Duxiana bed. It was damned comfortable. More comfortable, in fact, than the Select Comfort. It did all the select comfort and support work. I didn't have to program it or plug it in. Just like a book, wired earphones and a map.