I’m Addicted to Garbage Gadgets

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I can’t stop buying garbage.

Let me back up. I used to be a Gadget Guy. I cared about specs and read message boards full of acronyms. Gadget Guys consider themselves connoisseurs, experts on the lesser-known brands that may or may not offer more bang for buck. (Working at Circuit City in high school I made a point of telling moms to buy the Creative NOMAD MP3 player rather than the iPod for their sons, because “the signal-to-noise ratio is far better” and “nobody’s going to want to be locked into Apple’s music store.” All I can do now is offer an unconditional apology to the Philadelphia-area teens who received Creative NOMADs for Christmas.)

I set my Gadget Man status aside years ago. Sometime around 2011 gadgets became boring; rectangles and apps, rather than specs and buttons. Gadget blogs became “design” blogs. More than anything else, they became easy: You didn’t need to know or memorize anything. You didn’t even need to own more than one gadget, really. You just … bought an iPhone. I lost interest, and bought an iPhone.

But I’m back now. A lot of Gadget Men are back, actually; they’ve been enticed by Kickstarter and virtual reality and driverless cars and all kinds of new exciting tech. My temptation hasn’t really been that stuff, though. I’m back for the crap. In the past few years, many of the technologies inside the gadget — Bluetooth chips, Wi-Fi chips, tiny speakers, LCD screens, that kind of thing — have become so ubiquitous that the price per unit has dropped dramatically.

The decreasing prices of electronics would have been less noticeable to the average consumer five or ten years ago, when most electronics were bought and sold at big-box stores like Best Buy and Circuit City and Walmart. But with distribution moving online to Amazon and others, the barrier for entry into the electronics market has more or less disappeared, and the lack of documentation and opaque provenance of these cheap gadgets doesn’t matter much. All of a sudden, no-name, direct-from-factory gadgets are just about as accessible to the average consumer as anything from Apple or Sony or Samsung.

I have a $60 projector made by a probably imaginary company called “D-POWER” that can only seem to keep, at most, three quarters of the picture in focus. I have an LG smartphone that can’t seem to reliably deliver text messages to or from any iPhone-using friends, which, here in Brooklyn, is another way of saying “all of my friends.” I have a USB hub that came with a ridiculous four-inch-long cable; a $12 smartwatch that alerts me with a vibration and a difficult-to-dismiss message for every one-percent change in my phone’s battery; a USB drive that lies about its storage capacity; and a Jambox-like wireless speaker that loudly proclaims in an accent, somewhere between Ukrainian and Japanese, that “ZE BLUETOOS DEWICE IS READY TO PAIRS.” When you connect a “dewice,” it cheerfully yells, “ZE BLUETOOS DEWICE IS CONNEKKID.”

The thing is, these gadgets, despite their quirks, work surprisingly well. Especially at their price points. The projector is small and, setting aside the fact that one corner of the picture is always blurred, it projects a clear and bright image onto my bedroom wall. The LG phone has a beautiful screen, a nice camera, and runs Android admirably fast. Properly placed, the USB hub connects my hard drives, printers, and whatever else; the smartwatch never fails to deliver my texts and emails; the USB drive is definitely not a whole terabyte in size, but can store as many movies as I need it to; and the fake Jambox is perfect to bring to a barbecue in the park.

I purchased these items at a ridiculously deep discount, sometimes up to 90 percent off the price of their brand-name inspirations, from the figurative back pages of Amazon and eBay and from my favorite app, Wish. They are made in many of the same factories in Shenzhen and Guangdong as the non-crap versions, and from many of the same components. (Sometimes garbage gadgets are made from component parts with minor or unnoticeable defects intended for, but turned away by, perfectionist companies like, say, Apple.)

They aren’t as good as an iPhone, a Jambox, an Epson, or a Logitech, but they are adequate, and, most importantly, much cheaper. They also come with an added element of danger and intrigue. They’re fractured reflections of the much-desired objects we obsess over, odd appendices of global mass manufacturing, cutting-edge technology made without a major corporation’s need for quality control and fear of releasing stuff that might not work.

Wish is a great app for finding shit electronics, but its reviews aren’t exactly helpful: The app automatically only surfaces four- or five-star reviews, so you see a lot of “I’m rating this five stars so people see my review, but this thing broke immediately and poisoned my cat.” EBay has a more extensive selection, but has the same problem: The review system is woefully inadequate. Amazon is your best bet: Search for the gadget you want using generic terms (“bluetooth speaker”), make sure the gadgets-rated-four-stars-and-up-only filter is off, and dive deep into garbage-tech bliss.

The beautiful thing about Amazon is that even the crap has extensive reviews, sometimes even with photography or videos of the gadget in action. It’s a pretty good way to gauge exactly how shitty the insanely cheap product you’re about to purchase actually is. (Many of the reviews come with statements that the company provided the gadget for free or cheap “in exchange for my unbiased opinion.” I have no idea how to get on those lists. D-POWER, if you read this, I would love to receive even cheaper garbage in exchange for my unbiased opinion.)

The rest, of course, is up to you: How low is your threshold for cheap and crap? “No plastic components at all”? “Should do at least half of what is advertised”? “No more than one electrical shock a day”? “As long as it doesn’t poison my dog”? “As long as it doesn’t poison me”?

Just be careful. A few months back my girlfriend and I bought a car. Not from Wish: We bought a Honda Civic with a dented hood for less than $2,000. Perfect, but it needed a stereo. High on my recent success with the shit USB hub, I decided to go with a $21 crap stereo, a no-name item bought from eBay. I’m a genius, I thought. You’re an idiot, said my girlfriend.

It took a few weeks for the new stereo to arrive; garbage gadgets are not given priority shipping status. Stereo decks are usually heavy; but this one was basically nothing more than a one-color screen, some buttons, and a knob or two.

It worked, sort of, at first. Half the buttons seemed to do nothing at all, and my girlfriend’s iPhone could never connect to it via Bluetooth, and the lowest volume setting was still pretty loud, and there was this ridiculous buzzing noise whenever it was on, and also the sound quality was horrible. Aside from that, it was great.

And then my car started dying. It died in front of our apartment. It died in the parking lot of the grocery store. It died while we were on vacation. The entire time, I denied that the shit stereo could be the problem. It’s an old car, I said. The stereo basically does work, I said. We probably needed a new battery anyway; they only last five or seven years. Maybe there was one on eBay I could order.

I took the car to the garage. The mechanic called me the next day: The stereo was a vampire, he said, draining the battery even while the car was off. I gave up and purchased the number-one-selling car stereo on Amazon Prime, for about $80. The total cost for my $21, shit stereo, was somewhere in the neighborhood of $600.

The experience has colored my joy in shopping for garbage. I still browse Wish, still eyeing the dirt-cheap wireless charging kits and Bluetooth shower radios and $1 external battery packs. But now I’m wary. I think about how much damage these gadgets can do, how much more evidence they can give my girlfriend to decide I am a complete idiot, how much harder they can make my life in exchange for a steep discount.

Then I load up eBay again.