Tuesday, September 20, 2005

"High end productivity at your fingertips!"

Hand in hand with my love of old technology is my love of cheap technology. Now, I have plenty of experience that tells me that cheap gadgets are worth what you pay for them, often less, but that never seems to dull the siren song of some gizmo that does X Y and Z all for the low, low, price of...

Anyway, being a cheap tech aficionado, I've encountered the iConcepts line of PC products a few times. iConcepts is a low-cost line of peripherals from a Chinese company called Sakar (which I believe must be an Asian-inflected form of the English word "sucker"). Sakar makes nifty little gizmos that are too cheap to resist, but alas, are also too cheap to do what you bought them for.

My first run in with iConcepts was when I was in the market for a digital camera. I wanted something in the 1 megapixel range with a few extras, like webcam ability, and possible audio & video recording. I picked up their slim-line digicam and spent a couple of days trying to get it to work with any version of Windows I could get my hands on before giving up and returning it to the outlet store for my $20 back. (I eventually wound up getting a BenQ mini cam - the DC1300 - that is still serving me faithfully.)

Buying ultracheap tech is a little bit like walking into CompUSA. You know that no matter how simple and straightforward your needs are, they are going to find a way to disappoint you. There's that breathtaking micro-moment when you are both wondering whether this time might be the time you actually get what you wanted, and wondering how exactly they are going to keep you from getting what you wanted. It's the way I imagine Charlie Brown must feel every time he sees Lucy holding that ol' football.

So that's what I was feeling today when I plunked down my debit card for an iConcepts Wireless Optical Keypad Mouse. I'd been wanting a wireless optical mouse to use with my laptop, and although this one was bigger than I'd wanted, the built-in keypad made it irresistible. As with most laptops, there's no built-in numeric keypad on my Latitude. If you need a keypad, you have to use the main keyboard keys with Num Lock on, which puts about half your keyboard out of commission for anything other than numeric entry, yet still sucks as a numeric entry tool.

I've been learning Blender, the open-source 3-D modeling program, and they say the best way to use the program is with one hand on the keyboard and one on the mouse. Blender uses the numeric keypad for really essential and frequently used commands, so this device seemed like the perfect tool. I could use the mouse and click the keypad buttons with one hand, while still having access to the full keyboard with the other hand. I'd be stylin'!

So I get the wireless optical keypad mouse back to my desk, pry it out of the "everyone's a crook!" blister, and plug it in. Nada. The little red light on the bottom doesn't come on. So I change the batteries, thinking that maybe the ones that came with it are just dead. No dice. Then I see it:

There's a plastic shield that covers the keypad. The top part of the plastic shield is clear. The bottom part is textured, so it's more translucent than transparent. And hidden behind the translucent section is a tiny switch, with two labels: "Mouse" and "Keypad." I pry off the cover, flip the switch from "keypad" to "mouse," and the little red light comes on. After that, the mouse works fine.

So you can't use the keypad and the mouse at the same time. There goes my anticipated Blender workflow, and truthfully, the whole reason I bought this particular unit in the first place.

I guess what bugs me the most about this incident is how much of a science modern companies have made out of caveat emptor. Just because I saw device that had both a keypad and a mouse, why did I expect I'd be able to use both devices at the same time? I can almost hear Sakar's justification for thwarting my expectation:

"Certainly we are under no obligation to point out this 'feature' of the product anywhere on the package! Why, you can see the switch right there, albeit hazily, behind the clear plastic cover that suddenly becomes not-clear where it covers the switch! You say the pictures on the package of the product being used also hide the switch from view? Merest coincidence! Do you think we designed the product and packaging this way just to obscure this glaring flaw... er, feature... as much as possible? Oh, all right, we did. But it worked! We've got your money! Woo hoo!"

I will say this for Sakar - whoever writes the copy for the packages may be a little less than forthcoming with important technical details, but he or she has the soul of a poet. Truth be told, once I read the package's declaration that the wireless
optical keypad mouse "makes your cursor glide across the screen like butter on ice" there was just no way it wasn't ending up in my briefcase.

BTW - I'd include a picture of the product from Sakar's website, but the wireless optical keypad mouse (Part # M07017) does not currently exist on their website. Neither Google nor I could find it. Supposedly this is just another example of them living by their motto: "Setting New Standards of Quality."


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