Slate Plus

The Gadgets Slate Tech Writers Most Loathe

From the Galaxy phone to Let’s Rock Elmo.

Elmo, smartphones and 3D TVs: these are few of my least favorite things.
Elmo, smartphones, and 3-D TVs: These are few of my least favorite things.

Photo illustration by Holly Allen

When you spend your days thinking about tech, you develop very strong feelings about gadgets. Here, four Slate technology writers reveal the gizmos that drive them batty.

Will Oremus, senior technology writer  

I wanted to love the Microsoft Surface line of tablets. The hardware is capable. The kickstand is perfect. The detachable Touch Cover keyboard is brilliant. But oh gawd, the software. It’s not just the dearth of apps—in its determination to build a tablet that could do it all, Microsoft built one that does almost nothing easily or intuitively. Menus pop up and slide out from various parts of the screen seemingly at random. Key apps require switching from touchscreen mode to the classic Windows desktop environment. Even simple operations like copy-paste can induce migraines.

When Microsoft launched the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2, I wondered whether consumers would really want to use their tablets for work. But the far greater problem is that, with Windows 8/Windows RT, just using a Surface feels like work in itself. These problems, of course, are not limited to the Surface: Other Windows-based tablets and mobile devices suffer from them as well. But I’m singling out the Surface because I had such high hopes for it based on the design and the specs. If only Microsoft could build mobile software that lives up to its hardware, the iPad might have had a worthy rival at last. 

Speaking of would-be rivals for Apple … I also loathe Samsung Galaxy smartphones. It’s a shame that the most popular Android phones are the ones that most grievously muck up Google’s elegant operating system with superfluous features and needless distractions. The TouchWiz interface that launched with the Galaxy S4 was the worst offender, with features like “Smart Pause” and “Air View” that would have been pointless even if they worked reliably, which they didn’t. Fortunately, Samsung is not stupid, and it appears to have eased off on the counterproductive gimmicks with the release of the new Galaxy S5. Still, I’d take a Moto X or a Nexus 5 any day. 

Lily Hay Newman, lead Future Tense blogger

The thing about 3-D TV is that no one wants it. And don’t try to tell me that some people must want it. No one wants it. I’m convinced. 3-D TVs came out in force at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Showcase in Las Vegas, but by the end of the year a Nielsen poll of 27,000 people worldwide had shown that there wasn’t consumer enthusiasm about buying 3-D TVs. Yet companies like Disney insisted on debuting 3-D channels to show things like sports—and then pulled the plug a few years later. Plus 3-D TV is painful. Twenty-five percent of people feel discomfort from watching 3-D TVs. Technology that’s supposed to be all about novelty and fun should not feel uncomfortable to use.

That was about offending my eyes—now let’s move on to another pair of sensory organs. You may have ideally-shaped ears, and if so, you will have no idea what I’m talking about. But I hate earbuds. I hate them because they don’t fit in my ears. Some won’t stay in at all, and the ones that I can actually stuff in there tend to hurt. I use the JVC Marshmallow earbuds just because they’re cheap and they pretty much stay put. But they don’t have particularly strong sound quality (though it’s reasonably good for the price), and even though the part that goes in your ear is squishy, they still make my ears ache after a few hours. The conflict, though, is that over-ear headphones take up too much space in my bag. I don’t want to carry them around, especially while traveling, which is exactly when I use headphones the most. I know some people who use earbuds that have an extra wraparound piece of rubber that goes behind your ear for more staying power. They’re good for jogging, but they also leave little sore spots where they lean against my ears. You just can’t win with me, or my ears, but nonetheless I think manufacturers should try. I can’t be the only one having these problems.

David Auerbach, Bitwise columnist

Parents who bemoaned the insipid cackling of Tickle Me Elmo (1996) didn’t know just how good they had it. Advances in technology have enabled the little demon to manifest himself in increasingly insidious forms, and one of them is this abomination: Hasbro’s Sesame Street Let’s Rock Elmo.

This wretched creature makes incessant, self-aggrandizing pleas to be allowed to rock you. He demands to be fetched his instruments, which you, the parent, have no doubt lost. Your child will take Elmo’s side that they must be found. Once activated with a push of the button on his foot, he begins one of a handful of songs. The songs are obnoxious metatextual proclamations about how “Elmo’s gonna rock”—promises never to be fulfilled. He proclaims his superiority at rocking out and rocking you with a shamelessness that would make R. Kelly blush. Throughout, his robotic arm haplessly thumps on his drum with sepulchral heaviness, always out of rhythm.

But that is not all. After his mechanical maw finally shuts at the end of the song, and just after a precious few seconds of silence, you will hear his banshee-like squeal: “AGAIN! AGAIN!” (You just know some sadistic bastard at Hasbro was behind that one.) And your child will cheerfully oblige and lurch for Elmo’s foot switch. The cycle of suffering will restart. That is, until Let’s Rock Elmo runs out of batteries, at which point he will abruptly cut off. At this point your child will either break into tears, or will start hammering the foot button so that Elmo stutters like Terminator X at 78 rpm—and you are at the edge of panic. Either your child is traumatized, or you are.

Elmo’s Pied Piper-like qualities have been long-known. Your child will begin to sing only with Elmo, not with you. Your child will demand that her foot be pressed before she will sing. Your child will adopt Elmo’s fey, lurching delivery of the alphabet. All you can do is hope that in a few years’ time, she will abandon Rock Me Elmo for the far more palatable Brutal Ernie and Bert.

Seth Stevenson, Slate contributor

My most loathed gadget is my smartphone—whenever it’s ringing. I am done with surprise, unsolicited phone calls. If we have not arranged to talk by phone at a mutually-agreed-upon time, please do not call me. Unless you are one of a handful of beloved people, I will ignore your call, begrudgingly listen to your voicemail, and (in the absence of some pressing reason for us to forge a vocal-aural connection) text you back.