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All hail the humble component

Over on Gizmodo, John Herrman takes TV manufacturers to task for pitching all these widget-enabled internet-connected “smart TVs.” He says:

So, here’s the idea: Just buy dumb TVs. Buy TVs with perfect pictures, nice speakers and and attractive finish. Let set top boxes or Blu-ray players or Apple TVs take care of all the amazing connectivity and content afforded to us by today’s best internet TVs. Spend money on what you know you’ll still want in a few years—a good screen—and let your A/V cabinet host the changing cast of disposable accessories. […]

And TV manufacturers: Don’t just make more dumb TVs. Make them dumber.

I love the exhortation: Make them dumber! Yes, we want stuff that’s even dumber and more durable and more flexible. We want stuff we can plug into other stuff forever.

It does seem true that in the places where requirements are clear—this must make a good picture—and interfaces consistent, things you buy can actually find their footing and hold steady in the swirl of the shiny new.

I’d love a directory of these steadfast components. I feel like my Samsung TV (very dumb) might be a candidate. The 24″ Dell LCD I’ve had at home for five years would definitely go in that directory—I think these Dell monitors are widely recognized as the, like, basic black t-shirts of computer components at this point.

But what else? And what about other domains? Certainly, a good cast-iron frying pan is a kitchen component. There’s probably some classic kind of shoe that, thanks to its timelessness and durability, has reached component status (I do not know what it is). And there are probably some components in here, right?

We can’t expect stability in durability in every domain yet. There’s not going to be a component-caliber tablet computer for quite a while, obviously. But where components are available… where things are dumb and durable… man, that’s the good stuff. That’s the stuff I find myself wanting more and more of.

What are your favorite components—either things you have or things you’d like to get?

Update: Frank Chimero pulls a Carmody1 and proposes a two-fold taxonomy: the steadfast and the hot-swap. Both have their place.

Another update: Tim Maly goes deeper with “shearing layers.”

1. pull a Carmody v. to leave a comment that exceeds the original post in insight and value.


I love this idea. In the game night/party game component category, I’d put: a deck of cards, Settlers of Catan, and Catch Phrase.

i think that depending on your surroundings, plain converse all-stars (particularly in white or black) and air force ones have achieved this status in the athletic / casual shoe category. because they are casual shoes, however, they lack a certain durability. it’s much more a wear and replace with the same exact shoe type of deal.

the stodgy corporate end does a better job of pushing fashion components that are durable and that can be repaired over time. think of the hard-working Brooks Brother blue blazer or the Ferragamo work flats.

I was going to say Converse as well, being that I just bought another pair. I buy them, I wear them until they run out, I buy a new pair of nines. But they do wear out. So they are Spime components.

Sticking to fashion, I imagine the little black dress, the white dress shirt, the charcoal/navy suit. Someone smarter than me at clothes will have to fill in this section.

I suspect that the people over at Cool Tools would like to think that they are maintaining a list of this kind of component. (Josh, they just added Catan to the pile.)

I’m realising that I struggle with the component problem a lot. I know that in theory I would be better off getting things that will last and last, but I don’t yet trust that I am settled enough in one way or another to actually have and hold them. My own personal shearing layers may not line up with the life expectancy of the product.

I keep thinking of Ed Norton’s character’s lament in Fight Club after his condo gets blown up. “When you buy furniture, you tell yourself, that’s it. That’s the last sofa I’ll need. Whatever happens, that sofa problem is handled.”

Greg says…

You mentioned LL Bean, which made the “Maine Hunting Shoe” come to mind. They’re not stylish (almost anachronistic). They’re not even what you might consider “performance” boots (sort of heavy). But if you want to keep your feet dry and warm while trudging through a foot of snow or slush, those boots — and a good pair of wool socks — get the job done every time. I’ve had the same pair for more than 10 years — and will probably be able to wear for them another 10.

Matt P says…

I own and enjoy a pair of Florsheim black leather shoes and a Calphalon cooking pan (not that exact model) that are tremendously sturdy. I also have a Panasonic clock radio that’s been waking me up since 6th grade… almost 20 years.

My first thought was something like a Le Creuset dutch oven, as they last for at least a decade – if not four – and are super versatile. In what other vessel might one make Kimchi soup one night and bread the next?

But, in a slightly more tech-y vein, I thought a solid pair of bookshelf speakers would also be good to have around. Receivers and the various surround technologies change, as does the format of music itself. But good speakers seem to do for sound what a dumb TV or a Dell Monitor do for images: they reproduce it/them well and nothing else.

It’s interesting you mention the tablet, too. When I first read this, it occurred to me that the tablet is the very inverse of ‘the reliable component’, because in few other devices are the ‘non-fungible’ parts (the hardware) more closely intertwined with the almost infinitely malleable nature of the software. I mean, on the surface, ‘it’s just a dumb screen’ – which means it’s not dumb at all; the screen is everything. But when iOS6 is out and it needs a dual-core processor, one’s current iPad becomes ‘obsolete’ because the hardware can no longer do the things the software asks of it.

It seems it’s the way the dumb TV divorces and separates out different functions that are elsewhere conjoined – the thing that displays and the vast ecosystems that make things to display on it – that makes it timeless, because it’s one part of a network of interconnected bits.

So to end my needlessly long rambling, I’d also suggest that new Microsoft Touch Mouse:

A few thoughts:

I like the term steadfast for these components, and calling the more ephemeral technologies “hot-swap” because you swap them out without shutting down the system.

Clothing for Men – Shoes, jeans, trousers, and coats are all steadfast components and “dumb” because men’s fashion in these areas don’t change very much. Your hot-swappable component is your shirt, t-shirt, and/or tie (if you do that), which you change out fashionably. A few proposals for steadfast components: Allen Edmonds dress shoes, Alden boots, APC jeans, and used heavy coats and sports coats from eBay, RayBan Wayfarer sunglasses, and the previously mentioned canvas sneakers. Proper fit is also a big part of something being a steadfast component with clothing.

Computing – My display and input devices are steadfast: cinema display, bluetooth keyboard, magic mouse. The brain that hooks into all of it is hot-swappable, even more so through data-syncing through the cloud, like Dropbox, and a large external hard drive. The best part about the cloud is that it makes your computer hot-swappable, subservient to your data instead of the other way around.

Media – Basically any service where access trumps ownership is steadfast (presuming they stick around and have longevity). Netflix Instant, Rdio streaming, and any other service that sells the keys to a library is going to work with this component idea because their value derives from their customers being able to access their stuff from any new device that they buy. The device you use to access it is hot-swap, whether a little Roku or an AppleTV or the Netflix app on your phone.

Web – HTML/markup is steadfast and dumb. CSS is hot-swappable, especially with browser-specific properties and media-queries (things hot-swapped automatically based on your user client or screen size!).

LOVE steadfast/hot-swap. Hot-swap is nice b/c it doesn’t demean those devices; it’s not like, “ugh, what a piece of disposable junk.” It’s just like, designed for a different life-cycle.

This might just be my willful-late-adopter ignorance talking, but I feel like I want to quibble with one part of John Herman’s piece. He says “Buy TVs with perfect pictures” — but do flat-panel tellies really have perfect pictures at this point? That is, can they be considered components in this sense yet?

My understanding — and somewhat limited experience watching other people’s LCDs or plasmas — is that picture quality is still evolving and has not reached component state. (That’s one of the reasons I still use a 2002 Emerson CRT TV.)

Witness the constant update of “specs” like 60Hz-then-120Hz refresh rate, LED LCDs, meaningless 1 gazillion:1 contrast ratios. Sure, part of that is to have something new to market. But isn’t part of it also that the technology is still evolving to try to find that ubiquitous perfect picture?

In this sense, flat-panel TVs would be more like point-and-shoot digital cameras than like LCD monitors. Their functionality, convenience, look, etc. make them good enough or more than good enough, but they’re not yet of standardized-perfection component quality.

(And @Tim — Thanks for the Cool Tools link.)

Paper. Plain, white, sheet paper. Lines optional (and not always desired).

Good for notes, lists, reminders, drawing, folding, cutting, coloring, entertaining headgear, extended writing, correspondence, use and re-use.

Don’t get me wrong, I love me my TV and internet. But paper is my best and favorite dumb component.

Oh that’s a good one. Very good.

As Tim says, it’s the original plastic. 🙂

Dixon Ticonderoga pencils
Metal rulers and contractor’s tape measures
Wooden tooth picks

On the tech side, a good NAS is bedrock: here’s a magic, sturdy place to chuck all your files and movies and whatnot, and all of your computers and Xboxes and phones can see it. If you need more space, swap in a bigger disk or two and the NAS will sort things out. My ReadyNAS took the fiddly, imprecise, fragile task of juggling hard drives and backups and made it fade into the background.

I ended up thinking about this some more and writing 1,800 words about it leading into spimes etc. on Quiet Babylon

As I was writing it, I came to another thought which is that we don’t really want dumb components that connect to everything. As Josh noted, even TVs are far from stable creatures. Oh they were stable for a time, and then there was a Cambrian explosion of HDTV flavours and technology types and sizes which is only again starting to calm down (unless 3d TV takes off).

The “buy dumb TVs” exhortation is a solution to a problem, yes, but the problem isn’t “things are too smart” it’s “things move at different rates”. What you really want is to buy things made up of components that are all going to obsolesce at the same speed.

It’s also worth noting that there is a complexity cost that comes with stringing together dumb components and focused-use components as anyone who’s ever struggled with a A/V setup in a foreign livingroom will tell you. Baskets of remotes controlling baroque arrangements of wired-together specialized gear does not a simple evening make. This is one of the big appeals of all-in-one solutions. Yes they are going to be worse than the videophile’s setup but they’ll at least work together.

This, by the way, is the iPad vs Freedom to Tinker argument all over again.

I like the original sentiment, but I find the interpretation slightly misplaced; modularity is to be desired over pure simplicity. For example, I like my TV “dumb” too, but it happens that having a USB service port on the TV is very useful because it allows you to attach a Chromecast or RaspberryPi without extra power cables. The USB port obviously doesn’t make the TV dumber, but it doesn’t really make it inherently smarter; it enhances modularity.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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