Functionality not included

Do you remember back when you were in primary school? Ah, the calculator (and maybe the game boy, depending on age) was the most technological thing in our lives. They were so wondrous, weren't they? I glowed with pride when I could get my solar-power, 8-digit display to say "58008." That's "boobs" spelled upside down, for those of you who aren't in the know.

It could have been the origin of leetspeak. My calculator said "boobs" (insert your best Beavis & Butthead impression here). I didn't know I could want more out of life...that is, until that other kid Nick showed up with the 10-digit display. Oh, how envious I was - ten whole digits, to do whatever I wanted with. Granted, I'd barely learned multiplication and long division...but just think of the number real-estate!

By high school we had all moved on - bigger boys, bigger toys. I bought my first Texas Instruments Ti-85, a calculator with smooth black finish that I soon etched my name into with a kitchen knife to keep it safe. That same kid came into class again, this time with a TI-89. I was envious for a minute...

So, realizing I was a bit of a maths geek, Nick wandered over to me. "Look at this, dude," he said in his best 'Oh, I'm trying to gloat without being obvious' voice. "Dude, this thing has so many buttons - I don't know what half of them do," he said. He began pressing buttons furiously. Apparently "on" was one of those buttons he wasn't so sure of yet.

I took the calculator from him, surprised at how light it was. That was when it dawned on me - I flipped it over and removed the battery panel to see the cool grey plastic staring back at me. "Dude, no WAY!" The look of anguish on his face was priceless. "I paid almost $200 for this thing, and they didn't put any batteries in?!"

Oh, it's funny how life provides irony to those of us who bother to read, wait, and make an informed buying decision. But I still have to admit, I was envious.

"The more you pay, the less functionality is included out of the box."

I'll come back to this in a minute. But first, how many of you are buying the new P35 chipset and some new DDR3? How about the HD 2900 XT? nForce 680i SLI? C'mon, I know there are some takers. There have been some massive high-end product launches in the past year, haven't there? The 8800 GTX, 7950 GX2, Vista...the list goes on and on.

Now, I don't intend to slam any one company, but has any one of these launches been what one could consider a complete package, aside from maybe Core 2 Duo? Apparently, our dear tech industry has taken a lesson from the calculators of old - batteries, a basic functional necessity of the calculator, are no longer included.

I'm sure a few of you are scratching your heads at this rather long and roundabout analogy, so let me light the path through the warped caverns of my mind that link the two.

When you buy a calculator, some sort of electrical current is necessary. The screen, no matter how much you pay, does not power itself up by magic. If you buy a $1.00 8-digit display, odds are that it is solar powered. Basic functionality is provided automatically. If you buy the $20 scientific calculator, it comes with a couple button cell batteries.

However, when you buy the $100-200 graphing calculators, you're on your own. If there are no AA batteries in the house, you may be waiting a few days until you can con someone to haul your teenage butt to the store. The more you pay, the less functionality is included out of the box.

If you still don't see where I'm headed, re-read that hardware/OS list above. Each of these products is plagued with a ridiculous expense, a tremendous driver problem, and until that's sorted they are arguably less functional than their predecessors. And yet, each is the "top of the line" - apparently that's turned into a code for "may someday work, but not yet."

And yet, for whatever reason, every one of us would take one of each. We'd even pay to do it. And when we do, we spend more time tweaking, configuring, rebooting, reinstalling, and updating than we do even using it for its stated purpose.

Back to top

Brett Thomas

Remember back to Nvidia's nForce 680i SLI chipset - some worked great, but others were totally awful and it took a long time for the problems to be ironed out. The R600 is a great concept piece, but the drivers are still immature. Sure, it works, but all of the promised features aren't there yet. The 8800 Ultra is 30 percent more price for 10 percent more speed at such ridiculous resolutions as to be nearly non-justifiable. Vista can't run any of it because the driver model is blown to hell in a handbasket. Quad everything (core, SLI, etc, take your pick) works, but most applications can't make use of it.

By the time anything works like advertised, there will be a new eight-core CPU, G92, R700, etc.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Do we, as a consumer base, have mass attention deficit disorder? We lust after things that are not viable, incomplete or completely DOA. We push the companies to develop it faster, then stare at all of the unused power as we twiddle our thumbs in hopes a rogue game or application might make use of some of it.

And just as things start to actually use all this horsepower, we're already onto the next one, dropping another grand or two on the counter for the next new thing. Never mind that the last new thing isn't even nearly used to its potential. The sheer, gratuitous waste is almost something to be proud of in and of itself.

I'm guilty of this, too. Fortunately, I am in the tech industry so it's a little cheaper for me - but my desktop is utter overkill. An E6600 overclocked like mad on a Gigabyte GA-965P-DQ6 with a 7950 GX2 and 4GB of OCZ FleXXLC RAM inside, running Vista on its own dedicated Raptor drive, with 400GB of Seagate storage. To show all the pretty things it can do, I have it hooked to a Samsung 215TW monitor (which I love, by the way).

"And just as things start to actually use all this horsepower, we're already onto the next one"

I'd bet many of you reading this have a system to puts my desktop to shame, too. Some of you have probably already said, "Damn, that's all?" And therein lies my point - everything in my system is less than a year old (except the case itself, an Antec P180), and easily and comfortably runs Oblivion in full detail. And it's already on the losing end of a battle with modern systems, on the off chance that the system you pit it against actually starts up.

I haven't even turned that system on in over a week - Vista is too buggy and there are odd BIOS problems with my motherboard. Instead, my daily work and life is conducted from my 13" Macbook with its measly integrated G950 graphics. All of my favourite games run on it well enough, and it's portable. Most importantly, it runs like a champ, and has since I took it out of the box - a requirement for any machine you actually work on. The battery (which was included) was even pre-charged.

In the end, it all goes back to the battle of the calculators. The top of the line is great, right up until you actually need to use it for your math test, since none of it seems to work right. Right about then, you'll wish you had that wimpy little solar calculator - at least then you could write "boobs." I'm sure you could ask to borrow one from one of your classmates, who will likely snicker at your fall from calculator grace. But don't worry, they'll still be jealous - just as soon as you get some batteries.

Maybe you could ask for a stock of them at Christmas, along with AMD's Barcelona or Intel's Penryn. If your family happens to go yachting or play polo, you could even buy the DDR3 to accompany them. Oooh, and the next generation graphics cards will be coming out - I hear this time you'll even get to solder your own chips in the "OMGR0X0R!!11" versions.

The box could even have a new label: "Functionality not included."