A saga of broken toys

S Aufrecht

Warning: nothing but materialism in this post.

At the beginning of the second semester, after relocating to an apartment about two miles from school, I tried to work out a plan for walking to school instead of taking the bus. The second week that I tried this, tragedy struck. First, my backpack fell off the couch, as it had done many times before. Inside was a Brain Cell, which in turn held my laptop. But I’d dropped this whole combination many times before so I just got back to putting music on my iPod Shuffle (which itself was a second generation Shuffle that I overpaid for at Mustafa Center here in Singapore, replacing the first generation Shuffle that died a natural (so to speak) death thanks to Apple’s tradition of shiny but short-lifespan products). I’d been using Ultimate Ears headphones, which fit in the ear canal, sealing off outside sounds, sounding very good, and letting you listen at a lower, healthier volume, even in traffic. Well, healthier as long as you don’t get hit by the traffic. Unfortunately, one UE headphone was slowly disintegrating due to a crack in the shell, and the sound tended to come and go. Plus the original plug broke long ago and had to be replaced with an ugly one that eventually stripped the plastic cover.

Part way through my walk, I went for my sweating cold water bottle and managed to launch the iPod to the pavement, where it suffered fatal internal injuries. Then, when I got to school I discovered that my laptop screen backlight was mortally wounded.

Long story short, I replaced the iPod with a Sandisk Sansa Clip (which a kind American friend bought and sent over, it being unavailable in Singapore and Amazon being unwilling to ship it directly). It’s about half as expensive as the Shuffle, at US$40, for the same capacity. It’s twice as bulky and heavy, but at that still weighs only an ounce and is small enough to hang from the earphone jack (don’t try that at home; see above re: falling). It has an adequate display, a microphone, and a radio, all of which the iPod Shuffle lack. Also, it doesn’t require any special software like iTunes or linux hacks of iTunes; you can just copy mp3 files over and it catalogs them.

The only minuses are lots of little annoyances in the software. After a few seconds the display goes out, and the first button click wakes it up but does nothing else. Which means that, in normal use, you usually have to hit buttons twice, and then sometimes you hit a button twice when you shouldn’t and you lose your place or something. When you unplug the headphones, it doesn’t pause; that was a nice trick on the Shuffle. It doesn’t queue up clicks very well, so if you want to skip ahead ten songs, you have to click … pause … click … pause … click … pause … click … pause … click … pause … click … pause … click … pause … click … pause … click … pause … click … pause … click. (yes, that’s eleven clicks. See above.) It has a ring-shaped four-way button, a middle button, and an offset “home” button. Which allows for a straightforward up/down/left/right, but then to “go” you sometimes go “right” and other times go “middle button”, and to stop or pause or go back you might need any of the “left” button, the “middle” button”, or the offset “home” button. Mostly what you want to do is either play or pause, but then you get trapped in the menu system way too often so the meaning of the buttons shifts and it gets annoying. It’s not a disaster by any means; it’s just … annoying.

Meanwhile the headphones were still decaying, but I solved that problem by losing both them and the Sansa Clip. Which brings me to the moral of my story, I guess: don’t buy expensive electronics. You (I) will lose them or break them or they will become obsolete. I try not to buy anything much over US$100.

By this point the Sansa clip had hit local stores, so I bought a new one. I replaced the Ultimate Ears with a rival product, the Shure SCL2. This has been obsoleted by the Shure SE110, and I paid about US$100. They are about as good as the Ultimate Ears Super.fi 3. The sound quality seems about the same. The in-ear fit is a bit better but the part of my ear outside the ear canal tends to get sore. The thick wires are less tangle-prone than the UE’s super-thin wires and have less of a stethoscope effect.. The case, a stiffened nylon discus kind of thing, is much more convenient and sturdy than the UE leather pouch. Overall, I like them better than the UEs. (And, to be clear, they are in a different league than the earbuds that come with iPods and Sansas and whatnot, which you can replace for like US$10. This is not “audiophile” better, this is a very concrete, walking down the street the difference is night and day kind of better. I don’t know how much of that is because of the earplug-style design, versus superior electronic guts, and perhaps there are cheaper earplug headphones that sound as good. But when I was shopping, the slightly cheaper products, especially the Sennheisers of the same style, advertised “bass-driven” sound that was really unpleasant.)

Right around this time, I also dropped my trusty old Palm Vx for the last time; the front bezel came partway off and the buttons stopped working properly. This is technically the third or fourth Palm V; I first bought a Palm V in 2000 for US$330, but left it on the roof of a car in Alaska. I bought a used replacement in Hong Kong for about US$100 in 2002. In 2007 I snapped one up in a junk store for US$20 just to get the real brass stylus (and as a spare), and I think that’s the one I have now, the other lying in storage somewhere. I may also have bought one on eBay, also for about US$20, or I may just have price-spotted. At my age the memory starts to go, which is precisely why one needs a Palm Pilot. But beautiful as it is, it’s too heavy, about half a pound, and it’s getting harder to harder to find serial ports (instead of USB), so rather than try to fix it I’m just giving up.

Just to complete the story, I also lost my Jimi wallet by leaving it under my seat at a movie. It was on its last legs, with some cracked corners and a slowly tearing plastic hinge, but it was an apparent gift from Tom Bihn and so I mourn its loss. Happily, the thing is so damned small that all I could fit in it to lose was a subway card and a few bills.

Meanwhile, I had to do something about my laptop, because the screen tended to not work. Repair was the first option, but a place at Sim Lim had it for most of a week and then gave it back, no charge but unfixed and possibly unfixable. Since it was three years old and accumulating various problems (keys that didn’t work too well, a scary clicking noise in the hard drive, deteriorating screen even before the backlight died), I opted for replacement. Naturally, the only suitable option was the latest Thinkpad X; the X60/61. I did try the Asus EEE, much closer to my “don’t spend more than $100 on anything you can lose” rule, but the keyboard was too small for real touch typing.

I’d been window-shopping this model for a few months, and even tried out my lessons from Negotiation class at Sim Lim over winter break. The X60 was selling in the US for about US$1000, before tax and shipping and without the 8-cell battery and extra RAM that it really needs. At Sim Lim the bundles started at about S$3000, or roughly US $2200, after tax. So my strategy was to print out the US page and go to vendors and say, “I can get this much more cheaply in the US, but then I have to pay tax and shipping and wait for it. If you can give me an equivalent price, I’ll buy it from you right now.” What I found was that most (out of 4 or 5 places I tried) would give an immediate S$300 to S$500 discount, but also juggle some more balls, so that they take away hundreds of dollars of value at the same time, and keep you from comparing apples to apples.

One interesting tidbit was that they all wanted to give me 3 gigs of RAM, whether I asked for it or not. When we did practice negotiations in class, we all worked from scoresheets, that told us what our total points would be for various combinations of concessions. But you couldn’t see the other party’s scoresheet, so the challenge was to figure out what was worth a lot to you but not much to them, and vice versa. Clearly, Lenovo was dumping RAM out that channel cheaply. This wasn’t especially important to me in negotiation, but it was cool to see how, by comparing lots of players, you can start sussing out what their scoresheet looks like.

Here, by the way, is a chart for one of the class exercises. Paige Turner’s literary agent negotiates a new book deal with Bestbooks. There are eight different points to the deal, from royalty rate to the size of the advance to how many books the deal includes and how long the book tour will be. Each point has five options (e.g., 2% royalty, 3%, 5%, 10%, 15%). So there are 58 possible outcomes, or about four hundred thousand. Some of the points are win-win (translating books into many languages helps both parties); some are purely distributive (royalty and advance payments; if Paige gets more, Bestbooks gets less), and some are very asymmetrical (Paige really, really doesn’t want to go on a long book tour but Bestbooks, while preferring a long tour, doesn’t actually care very much). So it’s possible for two parties to reach a deal where one robs the other blind, or where both do relatively poorly, or even where both do great. Each dot on the graph is a possible deal; the further to the right, the better for Paige; the further up, the better for Bestbooks.

What I learned from laptop shopping in Singapore was to order from the US if at all possible. Singapore has lots of shopping, but very few bargains. Lenovo USA refused to ship to Singapore, so I figured I’d have somebody accept delivery and then re-mail it. But it was a two or three week wait, and then there was some hassle with authenticating my (US) credit card, and my bank (credit union) said there was no problem on their end, and whoever I talked to a Lenovo US said there was no problem on their end, but some other machine in the Lenovo apparatus disagreed because the order got cancelled.

So I headed back to Funan Digitalife Mall, the slightly less seedy and more obnoxiously named alternative to Sim Lim, to the place that had been the squarest dealer in my first round of window shopping. I ended up paying S$2000, or about US$1500, for a “special employee deal” model extracted from the back room that was almost as good as the US model that was US$1200 not including tax and shipping. Break-even, if you count the ten to twenty total hours of time I put into research and haggling over a period of three months as equivalent to spending ten minutes clicking through a web order form.

The X61 is basically the same as the X40. Faster, of course. The battery has some extra rubber feet that make the whole thing about half an inch thicker, and even so it still seems to run a bit hotter. They squeezed in yet another special windows function key, which is annoying until your finger muscles retrain. The left shift key is two keys wide, but the plunger is in the middle of the keycap. I shift with my left pinky (never the right, it turns out) and I don’t stretch my finger far enough, so I often depress the keycap without triggering the plunger. That is to say, the left shift key is unreliable due to poor design.

The top bezel, above the keyboard and below the screen, hosts the power button, volume buttons, and a “ThinkVantage” key. I personally find “ThinkVantage” to be a thing that I don’t want; if the keyboard must have a silly button with a hideous portmanteau name, I would prefer “FrikSharkLasr”. But the real problem with the bezel is that it’s flimsy, and flexes when the power button is pushed. This kind of cheap design damages the impression of solidity typical to ThinkPads.

The fan is a bit noisy. The volume buttons were rearranged from the X40 for no good reason. The power supply plug and dock are different from the X40 so you can’t re-use any accessories. The ThinkLight is white instead of amber. Of course I put Kubuntu on it. The volume and screen brightness buttons didn’t work, though I could still control those things from the command line, until I upgraded to Kubuntu 8.04, at which point almost everything works perfectly without any fussing. One exception is the microphone for Skype, which hasn’t worked on any machine I put Kubuntu 7.10 or later on. After a futzing session, it now works; the critical change seems to be turning on the Capture thingie in alsamixer. Wireless seems less reliable than on the X40: at school, the connection often spontaneously died until I reconnected or even unloaded and reloaded the wireless kernel module, a problem which I didn’t have with the previous laptop. Battery life is about the same: a reliable four hours plus while the battery is still new. Sleeping and hibernating work fine in Kubuntu, but the machine intermittently refuses to wake up promptly, in particular if it went to sleep on battery and wakes up on AC. That could be the model or Kubuntu or the fact that this particular specimen came out of a box in the back of the shop. All in all, the X61 offers negligible improvement over the X40, to the point where I wish they had upgraded the chips without tweaking the case design; they probably just did that to obsolete the accessories.

And finally, I was able to sell the old ThinkPad (after a thorough hard drive wipe) for scrap at Sim Lim. For all of S$50 for the full kit: