When Cheap Tech Is Good Enough

Four bottom-of-the-barrel tools I love

Clive Thompson

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On a black background there are three close-up images of Airpod-style earbuds. They appear to be x-rays — the external shell of the earbuds is dark-to-invisible against the back background, while the internal electronics glow in blue, yellow, orange and red
Via Lumafield

Are Apple Airpods worth the cash?

A set of the cheapest second-gen Airpods are $130, and the third-gen ones are $180; a “pro” set, $249. One can buy knockoff brands for much less! But it’s clear that Apple’s engineering is far, far superior to cheapo brands.

In fact, recently the tech firm Lumafield did CT scans of Airpods compared to the knockoffs (that’s the image above). Lumafield found that Airpod batteries were precision-designed to fit the interior space, giving them longer life and probably making them safe. Audio-wise, Apple’s components were far better, too …

Moving to the internal circuitry, the genuine AirPods are a marvel of miniaturization and precision engineering. They use a combination of rigid and flexible printed circuit boards to pack components densely and ensure that every millimeter of space is used effectively. On the other hand, the counterfeit AirPods reveal much simpler electronics cobbled together from off-the-shelf components. That leaves less room for functionality; the counterfeits have fewer microphones and less control circuitry, compromising their sound quality.

So it seems clear that if you’re dropping the extra dough on Apple’s Airpods, you’re getting very good-quality tech.

But … that’s not what I’m here to talk about, today.

I’m here to talk about the other times — when I’ve bought a cheapo brand of gadget, and found myself extremely happy.

I mean, there are times when I splurge! When I buy a new laptop, I need something with i) a high-rez screen, ii) 1 and ideally 2 terabytes of storage, and iii) Logic Pro. That nearly always means I buy a high-end Macbook Pro. They’re expensive, but super solid, and when I’m using something so intensively — and professionally, since I’m a writer — it’s worth it.

The same goes, often, with musical equipment. As a guitarist, you learn pretty quickly that a mediocre neck can subtly hobble your playing. So in my country band The Delorean Sisters I play a custom-made Telecaster, while in my hard-rock power trio Lipstick Driver I play a Les Paul Studio; the necks on both are to die for. Spendy, but (for me) worth it.

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Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net