Monday, August 30, 2010

Nothing's Ever Built to Last

My DVD player downstairs is giving out on me. It's a DVD/VCR combo and already the VCR has been problematic for years. After too much use (which generally means about 3 hours, now), it starts eating the tape inside it. You can't record on it; it will just give you a chewed up picture with no sound. So I figured, well it's a bit old. It's aggravating because I've had 20-year old VCRs that still worked just fine or were only slightly finicky. But it seems the newer things are, the worse they are at their jobs.

And now the DVD side of it is going, which is just fantastic (read sarcastically). It seems the laser mechanism is dying. You know, one of those times when the disc just spins and the thing makes clicking noises for 10 minutes before telling you "disc error" or that there is no disc in the machine. It stops being able to read the disc. Apparently this is a widespread problem with disc-reading lasers, but one that doesn't get any press. My very first DVD player died this way. It was so temperamental that every now and then you could get it to work. Sometimes if you shook it a certain way, you could jolt the mechanism into reading the disc again, but it wouldn't last. I even took it to a shop, but they said they couldn't fix it, or that it needed a replacement part they didn't make anymore or something like that. And it was only a couple years old.

It's the same with CD players, though these can be a little easier to monkey with, as the laser is more accessible. I had a boom box with a laser assembly that crapped out on me as above. Likewise, if it was sitting a certain way, it just wouldn't read the disc; sometimes it would give up in the middle of the song. For awhile I could get by by holding it and manually shifting it into position, or moving the laser assembly by hand up or down its track to "reset" it into working. But eventually, that didn't work. I've had two CD players die that way.

And it's the same with DVD players. I searched online to see if there were any option for fixing it, but besides cleaning the lens, the general answer is "it'll cost you more to replace the part than to buy a new machine." And there were countless people begging for answers as to why their discs wouldn't play anymore. Seriously, just google "DVD player won't play" and see how many hits you get. It seems all these lasers just crap out after awhile and there's nothing you can do about it. Were we as consumers told that this fancy new technology would get to the point it wouldn't function anymore with no warning? No!

With the advent of blu-ray and all the hype behind hi-def, part of me is really paranoid that all of these machines are built essentially to fail. Like they've all got a built-in obsolescence, and are only designed to operate for a max of 5 years before dying. This ensures the customer HAS to replace the machine (thus keeping money in the coffers of the DVD manufacturers), or spring for a blu-ray player (thus keeping money in the coffers of Sony).

I'd think it just varied player to player or was an isolated incident, but empirical evidence tells me it's clearly not. I bought my first DVD player in the summer of 2001. In the last ten years I have had, no exaggeration, no less than six DVD players, counting the ones I'm currently using. I get that everything dies, and I can even understand it after 10 years. But to go through so many in so short a time seems to me like there's a problem at the source: we the consumers are getting shoddy material. Now, if I pay 30 bucks for a machine, I kinda don't expect much from it, so when it dies, I'm annoyed but at peace. But not when I've spent twice that.

And it's the same with so many products made these days. You would think that in this day when the Enviro-terrorists are pushing recycling and an end to waste that things wouldn't still be so disposable. But they are. More and more electronic waste is generated partially because machines aren't built to last. You'll see it with air conditioners, cars, radios, computers, everything. These things are DESIGNED with a 4-year shelf life, prepped to die just in time for the next big thing. I find that insidious. The VCRs of the early '80s were heavy and clunky, but they worked forever. They were made of metal. They could last with only minor maintenance. The late generation are mostly plastic, and they jam and malfunction much sooner and more often. Never buy one built into a TV; they are guaranteed to die after a few years, and then the TV will no longer function. Typically, a tape jams inside, and the whole unit shuts off when a tape is in limbo. I've had two die on me, one family members' die, and heard several other anecdotal stories of the exact same thing. It's a design flaw.

We're told to trade up for tech that's more modern and better. But is it better for us that everything has some kind of electronic readout (if only a clock) now so that even when its off, it's never done draining electricity from the wall? Seriously, have you noticed how many electronics no longer have "on/off" buttons? They have two settings "on" and "standby". You can't turn things off without unplugging them. Sometimes people scoff that vinyl is still around or making a comeback. But I think that part of what's so trustworthy about it is that it lasts. A turntable from 40 years ago is just as dependable as one bought today. The "laser" of that era is the needle, and though the needles do at times wear out, replacing them is a fairly straightforward and simple matter. If anyone had told you (or your parents, depending on how old you are, dear reader) that when you buy a record player, it would work fine for a year or so, then the needle would wear out so you'd have to replace the entire machine, would you have ever made that purchase? I would think not. Why buy something that's not reliable?

In a recent hit single, Green Day share the following lyric: "Nothin's ever built to last/You're in ruins." Is sad, but true. These days, nothing is built to last, and I find it antithetical to everything the left-wing tree-hugging agenda wants us to stand for. In other arenas, when something is not satisfactory, it gets worked on until it's improved. I think it's time we the consumers demanded better, and got what we deserved: a return on our investment, and a product that lasts. I for one will not stand any longer for shoddy craftsmanship, or for "the next big thing" when it means imminent failure of all that preceded it. Cubans are still driving cars from the '60s, and I can't play a DVD in a machine from six years ago. That to me says there's more than a disc error; what's not loading is this nation's common sense.

It's time we send out the call for a little old-fashioned reliability. In the meantime, I guess I'll be buying a new player soon.

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