Shopping for Gadgets: The Good, the Bad, and the Unbelievably Broken

by Kendall Clark

Lately I've been trying to increase my Gadget Quotient. At times that process has been a joy, but other times...

The Good

This weekend I was on the hunt for a new camera and a new television. I bought the latest Elph back in January, took it to Finland, then promptly lost it in a cab in Washington, DC. I was depressed for weeks.

Since Kate and I are headed to Mexico next week for a vacation, we decided we should replace the camera. Kate used to be a food stylist and food photographer, so she knows from cameras. We decided, based on our elaborate research, on the Nikon D50. The research process, by the way, included me reading the Washington Post ad about the Nikon D50 at Penn Avenue Camera, a local DC mini-chain. Kate said Penn Avenue was great, so we strolled down on Saturday.

I can't say enough about local chains full of knowledgable experts. The people at Penn were helpful, friendly, and fun. We talked pros-and-cons and ended up with the D50 2-lens kit, for what turned out to be a really great price.

I'm sure Froogle would have told me a cheaper price, but now I have some friends (okay, they're not friends, but they will help me with my camera!) in the business. We spent so much they even threw in a free 512mb SD card to go along with the 1gb high-perf SD card I bought.

Anyway, the Nikon D50 is an amazing digital SLR, maybe two steps above prosumer, though not quite to full pro. These categories are fluid, but the D50 should be my camera for many years.

The Other Good

Okay, so, camera done, we went out to the Virginia suburbs to look at some big-box retailers' HDTVs. We just finished renovating a very old row house in the old DC neighborhood called Shaw, and we want to fill it with thousands of pixels of pure digital TV.

I knew we weren't buying from a big-box, for no other reason than that I don't trust the way they display TVs. I think the whole game is rigged like high-end HiFi shops used to rig equipment to favor their favs. Anyway, BestBuy, Tweeter, and Myer-Emco all had mixed results. We saw a lot of TVs, figured out that we weren't really that enamored of DLP-powered sets (though they are the best value in the bigger-than 50" market segment), and started to narrow things down to LCD.

On a lark, on the way home, we stopped at a very local chain called Belmont TV. Where we met Alex, with whom I promptly fell in love (well, you know how it is when you find a fellow geek who's got your back and whom you immediately trust!). 30 minutes later we were hooked. We picked a 50" Sony Grand Wega projection LCD for the living room (it's only 16" deep, but thousands cheaper than a comparable flat-screen LCD), and a 32" Toshiba flat screen LCD for the bedroom. Belmont's prices weren't great, just like Penn Ave Camera, but they weren't bad, and the customer service was amazing.

The Bad

Now my tale of electronic commodity fetishism takes a turn for the worse when the subject of HD DVR came up. A DVR is, basically, a TiVo -- a computer for recording TV. I've had a TiVo since the summer of 2000, when they were first introduced. They ran a giveaway when they first released the Series 1; you had to write an essay on why you wanted a TiVo and they gave away 50 or so. When I heard this, I grabbed the Communist Manifesto and did a bit of Emacsing: replace "capitalists" with "network TV execs" and a few other choice substitutions, and I had myself a winning essay. Woohoo.

At any rate, I'm a complete TiVo junkie. Can't live without it. (Well, really, I'm a complete DVR junkie; I'd be just as happy with a ReplayTV, likely.) Though I'm an old Linux hand, I've never even mod'd my TiVo... Didn't see the need. Works fine as-is.

Since we've got two new HDTVs on the way, I want an HD DVR. And, thus, the bad: there is no such thing! At least, there's no such thing that's worth the time or effort or investment. DirecTV has an HD TiVo, but it's a lame-duck piece of crap, apparently, and expensive ($599). I say lame-duck because DirecTV will soon release (like, first quarter 2006) their own DVR, marooning all of their unlucky HD TiVo owners.

I say piece of crap because while it's a Series 2, the USB port is disabled, which means you have to use a phone line to transfer program data. Which stinks. To high heaven. I've been using a USB ethernet adapter on my regular-TV Series 2 for at least a year, and I'm not going back to a phone line. Which won't work anyway since our only phone line (who needs POTS these days?) is at the opposite end of the house. Upstairs.

Comcast has an HD DVR coming out soon in DC, but Comcast is a really gross company in my experience. Plus Matt's PVRblog suggests that it's unlikely to be a very capable device. (And, okay, I had my heart set on DirecTV's NFL programming package.)

I don't understand why Mark Cuban -- who's made a huge, multi-pronged HD content play over the past few years, going so far as to invest in HD production houses and movie theatres -- doesn't buy ReplayTV and build an HD DVR. It wouldn't take very long. You could use free software throughout. Put 2 very big SATA drives into it and an MPEG-4 encoder, a ton of I/O options, and Bob's your uncle...

In short, I'm finally on the cutting edge, again, and it kinda sucks. There's no good HD DVR solution, so I'm going to use my existing TiVo, which won't record HD, but will record something.

I'm hopeful this mess will be sorted out soon!

The Unbelievably Broken

Let me bring this rant to a quick close by saying, flatly, that DirecTV's customer support is the single worst corporate customer relations experience I've ever had. I'd rather wade through ten layers of Soviet-style bureaucracy in the old Yugoslavia than deal with them again.

(Alas, that being said, I signed up for their service anyway. My NFL addiction is sad but real. Please help me!)

Here are the lowlights:

  • I called them 5 (five!) times before I got a customer service rep who knew a little bit what he was talking about. The first four were totally ignorant.

  • I was quoted 4 (four!) different prices for the same service and hardware. I talked to reps who could not, systematically, distinguish between HD hardware and regular hardware, whether tuners, receivers, or DVRs.

  • DirecTV charges one price for poor people and another price for rich ones. That stinks. They call this a security deposit based on credit worthiness, but that's crap.

  • I was told grossly wrong technical information by two different supervisors. I had to explain to several DirecTV employees that there actually was such a thing as a cable-ready HDTV, introducing them to the very idea of a CableCard.

In short, my experience with DirecTV was nasty, brutish, but not short.

My recommendation is that they train a separate unit of CS folks to do HD sales. It would be very simple to start the sales pitch with a simple question: are you calling about regular TV or HDTV?

Tallying up the score:

  • Belmont TV: Yes!

  • Penn Avenue Camera: Yes!

  • Local retailers generally: Why not give'm a shot?

  • Nikon D50: Absolutely.

  • Sony KDF-E50A10: Drool city.

  • Toshiba HL95: Oh, momma!

  • HD DVR scene: Bleak.

  • DirecTV customer service: Completely useless.

It ain't all roses...