In Depth: Top 10 tech irritations

The Feedster

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Jun 26, 2007
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As technology fans, we have to put up with crushing bouts of disappointment on a regular basis. If the iPhone 3G launch proved anything it's that speculation about what the next iPhone might be like eclipsed what we actually got - a minor hardware refresh.

We dare to dream of a brighter, all-digital tomorrow; of intuitive gadgetry and seamless interconnected systems. But modern-day technology often doesn't live up to this rose-tinted futurama. In fact, technology can be downright bloody irritating - overcomplicated, often underpowered or poorly built. All of which set us thinking... what are those 21st century technologies that get us all riled up to the point of near-violence? Consider the following...

1. Microsoft Windows

Just the thought of Microsoft Windows is enough to send Mac users scurrying for cover. It's the OS we love to hate - bloated, labyrinthine and, like the leaning tower of Pisa, liable to fall over at any moment.

Windows is an OS that fights you all the way. Over time, layers of downloaded patches fatten the install. Lengthening queues of half-hidden system processes hog memory resources.

Type 'Windows problems' into Google and you'll see that Windows has spawned a cottage industry of PC troubleshooters - registry cleaners, disk defraggers and system tuners. If Microsoft ever produces an OS that actually works properly, hundreds of small companies will go to the wall.

2. Microsoft Windows Mobile

A mobile version of Windows should be a winner. Or at least pretty to look at. But the Windows Mobile OS is so needlessly overcomplicated, it actually makes a mobile phone more difficult to use.

Windows Mobile is undeniably flexible and its Office compatibility is great for business. But this is an OS that rarely anticipates what you want to do. Instead, you have to wade through sub-menus (and sub-menus of the sub-menus) to turn options on and off.

The shocking state of the Windows Mobile UI has been thrown into sharp relief by the iPhone. One is slick, quick and pleasantly intelligent. The other is messy, sluggish and infuriatingly fiddly. This year Windows Mobile has ruined the HTC Touch Diamond for us and surely scuppered Sony Ericsson's Xperia X1. Windows Mobile 7 can't arrive soon enough.

3. The Zune

OK, so Microsoft is an easy target. But the Zune frustrates the hell out of us. Mostly because Microsoft had the chance to take on Apple in the MP3 player market and provide a credible, Windows-based alternative to the iPod.

All Microsoft had to do was match Apple's iPod touch feature-for-feature - a touchscreen, Wi-Fi, audio/video playback, 32GB of flash memory, all shoehorned into some sort of slim lust-lozenge.

But to really take on the iPod, the Zune needed to have something that the iPod didn't have. Something extra. Something special. Not an FM radio and a voice recorder. But something to really get the Zune noticed - a Skype client, maybe, integrated IM or Xbox Live-style arcade games.

Instead, what we (or rather the US) got was a variant of the Toshiba Gigabeat and some limited song squirting. Microsoft missed a trick here. Big time.

4. Rechargeable batteries

Most technologies seem to have dramatically improved over the years apart from rechargeable battery cells. Did you know that the first commercial Lithium-Ion battery was released by Sony in 1991. It was the same year that Apple released the PowerBook 100, which had a 16MHz processor, a 9-inch monochrome display and an 80MB HDD.

It's telling that battery technology hasn't changed significantly since. In comparison, we now have quad-core CPUs, high-definition colour displays and half-terabyte disk drives.

It's annoying, because we rely on rechargeable batteries to juice up our must-have gadgets - our mobile phones, iPods, portable video players, sat-nav systems, radios, Wii remotes and so on. Scientists continue to minutely tweak the chemical composition of Li-Ion cells. But small increases in battery life are typically achieved by reducing the power consumption of other, greedier components.

Today's laptops still rarely get more than five hours of battery life (much less if you do anything useful). While converged smartphones (with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and GPRS/EDGE competing for power) often won't last more than 36 hours without a sneaky top-up charge. Poor battery life is the thorn in the side of the Nokia N95 and, if you surf the web a lot, it rubs some of the shine off of Apple's iPhone 3G. Where are those hydrogen fuel cells we've been promised?

5. Early obsolescence

It's the curse of the early adopter. Buy any brand new technology today and the clock starts ticking down to that moment when it's superseded by something better/faster/smaller/bigger/cheaper. The worst thing is, product lifespans seem to be getting shorter and shorter.

TVs, digital cameras, camcorders and laptops are all replaced and refreshed annually. It's likely that a better mobile phone than yours will be on sale before you're half-way through an 18-month contract. Apple's original GPRS/EDGE iPhone lasted only eight months in the UK before it was replaced by the 3G version.

Even then, the iPhone 3G isn't the revolutionary update that many people expected. Why didn't Apple update the 2MP camera? Why not offer a 32GB version? All the more reason not to buy one. Want to bet that Apple launches a more powerful iPhone model in 2009? Or an iPhone nano?

6. Tech support lines

Anyone who knows a little bit about technology will want to avoid calling a technical support line. If you've got a problem, you'll try to fix it yourself.

You'll reset it, perhaps give it a thwack, then reset it again. You'll try reinstalling the software, consulting the manual and updating the drivers. You'll shout. A lot. And before you admit defeat, you'll Google the problem and sift through a ton of forum posts, hoping that someone, somewhere across the Internet, has had the same problem as you (and has handily fixed it).

Because the wisdom of the crowd is far better than the last resort - calling tech support. First you've actually got to get your call answered. Is it just us or do tech support services only seem to be available between 2pm and 3pm, on the third Thursday in every month, and via a premium rate phone line that costs you £1 per minute?

And when (or indeed if) you get through, past the patronising recorded loop of "I'm sorry, all of our lines are busy... your call is important to us...", you're treated like a prize idiot by a call centre-jockey reading from a script. You can sense the ire-sparking opening gambit coming - "have you tried turning it off and on again, sir?" Grr.

7. Speed cameras

British drivers should rejoice at the news that Swindon Borough Council plans to scrap its speed cameras and spend the £400,000 it saves on other safety measures. The cameras are a "blatant tax on motorists" say the Council, which doesn't get any of the revenues earned by fining speeding drivers. Britain is, however, still the most monitored country in the world. There are over four million cameras watching our every move...

8. Ringtones

We're all for personalising mobile phones, but for God's sake do it quietly. Chirpy polyphonic ringtones and song samples have become a national disease. People who buy ringtones seem to split into two types. There are those people who are so embarrassed when their phone starts playing Dizzee Rascal's "Dance wiv me" that they can't answer the call fast enough.

And then there are those who do the opposite - listen to the ringtone play in its entirety, often missing the phone call.

And it's not just the ringtones themselves, it's the TV adverts for ringtones. Why would you want to sign up for a ringtone service that costs you £4.50 a week!? That's more than a basic Sky subscription.

9. Wires

At CES in January, an array of wireless technologies promised to banish the HDMI, SCART, composite, speaker and USB cables currently cluttering up our homes.

The 802.11 wireless standard is already pushing Ethernet to the cliff-edge, although it is making a fightback thanks to easy Powerline networking products that route data through your home's electric wiring. We're still waiting for a fully ratified 802.11n standard. And have been for some time.

But what about short-range wireless? We've been promised Ultra Wideband (UW:cool: and Wireless USB, designed to squirt data wirelessly at 480Mbps at distances under 3 metres. Then there's Wireless HD and Wireless HDMI.

They sound similar to UWB, but operate in the 60GHz band and can achieve gigabit data speeds. Then there's NFC and TransferJet, and good ol' Bluetooth. The technology is impressive. But where is it? Why do I still have a tangle of wires behind my TV?

10. Blu-ray

Like VHS before it, Blu-ray won its format war despite being the lesser of the two competitors. That's right, the WORST product won. Blu-ray might have bested its rival in terms of storage capacity, but every HD DVD player boasted persistent memory and an Ethernet port as standard. So HD DVD decks could be upgraded over the Internet and ultimately access the Internet-only extras that came on some discs.

The first HD DVD discs were also of a better quality than Blu-ray's BD-ROMs; while HD DVD's interactive HDi software was more robust and easier to program for than Blu-ray's BD-Java. Crucially, because HD DVD shared some of the technologies present in DVD, players and discs could be cheaply mass-produced.

HD DVD had superior technology and pricing on its side, but it still lost the format war. It's almost unthinkable that a great technology could be rendered obsolete in this way. But then again, the tech landscape is littered with casualties that failed to inspire shoppers - TiVo, Psion PDAs, Laserdisc, MiniDisc, Sega's Dreamcast, the Acorn Archimedes to name but a few.

(Things that didn't make this list: why UFOs only appear to people with rubbish cameras; sneaky electric cars (you just can't hear them coming); international roaming charges; why the UK gets most of the good technology last and has to pay almost double for it; Top 10 lists; printer jams; why we ever believed there would be a paperless office; and the UK government's inability to keep our data safe and secure.)