Photos: Annoying hardware, a rogues' gallery
Bad software is annoying because it's in your face. Bad hardware is more subtle in its evil: annoyances that seem trivial at first can build over time like a pebble in your shoe into an eternal shaft of dismal misery. You'd hope that after quarter of a century of PC design, the worst excesses of thoughtless engineering would be behind us. You'd hope wrong. Here are just some of the mishaps that continue to take the shine off the technology that changes our lives.
Notebook input devices
Good notebooks have some of the finest, most aesthetically pleasing engineering to be found anywhere. So why do makers keep messing up the bits that really matter? Keyboards are crammed in too tight with oversized keys you never use and tiny, shifted ones you need but can't find.
Spacebars are the size of cocktail sticks. Mouse buttons are placed where only a six-fingered mutant could reach them. Touchpads migrate to the side of the screen. The list of sins goes on and on Ã¢â‚¬" and with the advent of MIDs, UMPCs and other bizarre perversions, it can only get nastier. The people who perpetrate such nonsense should be forced to use nothing else for a month Ã¢â‚¬" or until they go nuts.>
If a washing machine manufacturer put the door on the back, they'd be shot by snipers. This simple observation continues to elude notebooks and desktop manufacturers, who take a satanic delight in finding the most inaccessible surface and populating it with important sockets. Then there's the 'lets cram everything so close together you'll need Boy George's lifetime supply of vaseline to plug things in' school of unusabilty. Chaps: open a notebook and look at it. There are acres of space staring you in the face where things can live.
It's a simple job. Take a high AC voltage and turn it into low-voltage DC. We've known how to do this for a hundred years. What can go wrong? Well, how about the industry redesigning the connectors and changing the specifications more often than England lose wickets?
Not only does every new gizmo come with its own unique adapter to add to the hundreds of apparently identical warm black bricks infesting your life, but you've got at least a seventy percent chance of blowing things up if you plug in the wrong one. That's if you manage to find the right mains lead. And good luck decoding the hieroglyphics that replace useful information on the case stickers.
Is it hard to build a universal adapter? No. Do we need twenty types of socket? No. Why are we drowning in a million adapters, all doing the same job in different ways? Because manufacturers hate us and want us to hurt.
Wireless input devices
When future archaeologists dig out our digital middens, they'll be able to guess what most things were for and why. But even the brightest will be stumped by the wireless mouse and keyboard. Expensive, clumsy and over-designed, their one excuse for existing is that they don't have cables. You know, the thing that delivers continuous, uninterrupted power and tethers the input device to the workspace.
Without it, they are free to get lost and gather dust until their batteries run out: these are good things? Add in the complexities of getting Bluetooth working properly or choosing free channels for proprietary interfaces and these things add layer after layer of misery in return for virtually nothing.
One particular class of input device deserves a circle of hell all to itself. With some honourable exceptions Ã¢â‚¬" and even those are flawed, as iPhone text maniacs know Ã¢â‚¬" anything that requires you to prod the screen is a one-way ticket to digital frustration. Active touch screens? You've lost the stylus: you're toast. Passive? Brush the wrong bit with your pinkie, and heaven knows what'll happen. Recalibration. Contamination. Fat fingers and tiny controls. Fuzzy displays. These things are sins against humanity.
Flash card formats
Like the obsessives who carve the Last Supper into grains of rice, there are inventors who build exquisitely small devices just because they can. If you're wiring an MP3 player into a ladybird then you have a good excuse for microSD as a storage option: otherwise, stick to SD. And that means no RS-MMC, Memory Sticks (Pro Duo, Pro-HG Duo or Micro M2), MiniSD, Picture Cards, Intelligent Sticks or any of the rest of the unlovely, incompatible, auto-obsoleting menagerie. Yes, you can buy a 33-in-1 card reader. That is 32 too many.
Something very strange happened ten years ago. After nearly a decade of solid improvement, printers started to get worse. And worse. Now, your average low-cost inkjet can't handle envelopes without crumpling, can't quite join up the dots straight on vertical letters, prints solid blacks with more stripes than a banker's jacket, and costs more per gram of consumables to run than Amy Winehouse's left nostril. And let's not get onto the hundred-megabyte plus 'driver' software that tries to sell you even more ink while drawling 'Print job completed'. We can see that. Just print the darn page and leave us alone.
Shiny notebook screens
People who work in IT aren't that much more beautiful than anyone else. So why does virtually every notebook maker feel the need to equip us with screens so shiny that they become perfect mirrors the moment the sun comes out? And while fingerprints are useful to policemen, they're not something the rest of us need to stare at for hours on end. The reason, of course, is that shiny looks nice in the showroom: it's our fault for having the analytical foresight of an attention-deficit-disordered magpie. The designers are just feeding our stupidity.
The SUVs of the IT world, high-end graphics cards are symbols of the tasteless greed and mindless spec-mongering that will haunt our species until the heat death of the planet. Sucking up huge amounts of power, stressing bus connectors and overloading cooling systems like a Texas heatwave, these things cost a fortune and cram truly obscene amounts of processing under our desks Ã¢â‚¬" and then devote it to playing with pretend guns. Didn't we grow out of pointing our fingers at each other and going 'bang bang' by age ten? And don't try to justify it by talking of supercomputer applications, medical imaging and all that guff Ã¢â‚¬" as if you care. There are better things to do with our time, money and technology. Grow up.
Mobile phone headphone sockets
Your phone has an FM radio. It plays MP3s. Mobile operators desperately want to flog you overpriced content. Why, then, do so few mobiles have normal 3.5mm headphone sockets? Stuck with hideous hands-free kit that lasts a month before being lost or broken, forced to shell out for a flimsy adapter or obscenely overpriced optional headsets, punters in their millions pick up their iPods and run away. Headphone sockets are the one of the few standards that really work: ignoring them is self-defeating stupidity of the highest order. That's the mobile phone business.
Mobile broadband modems
The worst sort of annoyance comes from necessary, exciting technologies that are badly implemented. Yes, we want universal broadband wireless access on the move. No, we don't want it provided by something that looks like a bar of soap danging on six inches of string, and is just as convenient to deploy. No, we don't want it courtesy of a steroidal pack of gum sticking out of the side of a notebook, where it inevitably catches against the side of your coffee mug. There are a hundred better ways of doing this: a decent standard internal expansion socket is one, or something that neatly clips out of the way with a convenient connector in just the right place. Or simply make mobile phones easy to set up as access points. It's not rocket science: it's barely more complex than a paper airplane.