Fifteen Consumer Electronics Design Mistakes

Let us count the ways these modern marvels of technology drive us bonkers, day after day.

By  |  Sunday, February 7, 2010 at 11:39 pm

You saved and you saved until you could finally buy that shiny new $1000 gadget that promised you everything under the stars. When it came time to plug it in, you found your joy being subsumed by abject horror. Your stomach plunged deep into your gut and you (yes, mortal non-designer you) recognized a fundamental flaw in your flashy gizmo so obvious that it made you want to pick up the device and smash it over the designer’s head.

Even the best designers make mistakes…but this article isn’t about them. We’re about to, ahem, celebrate the worst consumer electronics designers through the lens of their faulty creations. Since I’m far from an all-knowing technology god, I’ve limited our survey to fifteen design problems that have not only bugged me through the years, but that are widespread enough to have bugged many of you too. These problems aren’t limited to current technology, but they all fall into the nebulous realm known as “consumer electronics.” You know: TVs, telephones, VCRs, DVD players, MP3 players, and more.

TV/Video Design Mistakes

Mistake #1: The Red Off Light

Device(s): TVs, DVRs, Receivers, Game Consoles, and more

Sing it with me:

TVs do it, Wiis do it
Even silly PS3s do it
Let’s do it. Let’s never turn off

The little red “off light,” common in most modern entertainment center equipment, serves as a constant reminder that your electronic gear never stops doing its job. It’s always sippin’ on outlet juice, even if you don’t want it to. If said equipment happens to be located in your bedroom, the off light also provides a laserlike beam of photons to tickle your eyeballs into unnecessary alertness.

It seems that most TVs, cable boxes, and even video game systems made after 2003 or so provide some sort of active glowing indicator that they’re “not running” — that is to say that they’re not actively doing what you want them to be doing. By definition, then, the indicator is completely redundant and pointless. (In the case of video game consoles, your electronic gadgets could be doing what you don’t want them to be doing: downloading random updates from the Internet.)

Remember when LED power indicators only glowed when a unit was turned on? It was helpful in cases when the device wasn’t behaving properly; the little power light let you know that the unit was receiving power. Then you could commence troubleshooting — perhaps you plugged the video connector into the audio connector?– and so on.

That was handy. But an off light?

What Were They Thinking? (Benj’s Theory)

It’s 2002 and you’re designing a new TV set. When it comes time to pick the power LED, you notice these nifty new bicolor or tricolor LEDs that combine two or three different colors into a single component. They’re cheap and plentiful, so why not use them? Then you can show everyone that your device works properly–even when it’s not working.

There is one small functional purpose for some “off lights,” albeit one that I still believe is completely unnecessary: in some devices, the power LED doubles as a diagnostic light for software problems. (For the last decade or more, people have been building software-controlled microcontrollers into everything, so if the programming is off, things don’t work. It’s not just an hardware design problem anymore.)

Sometimes power LEDs blink when the unit is “warming up” (booting, initializing, etc.) to let you know that, yes, something’s happening — you’re not just sitting there staring at a blank TV for 10 seconds right after you turned it on. If there’s an error, the LED can blink a certain pattern as well, letting a phone technician in India know that you just wasted $600.

There’s still no good excuse to have a light shine when your unit is powered off. I’m sure some will challenge that assertion, but TVs worked fine for 50 years without red LED off lights, so I know they’re useless.

Mistake #2: The Blinking VCR Clock

Device(s): Video Cassette Recorders

Who hasn’t owned a VCR that blinks? (OK, people under 20: put your hands down.) Almost every VCR ever manufactured shipped with an electronic digital numeric display somewhere on the unit. Its primary purpose was to show running time while playing a tape to assist in viewing, fast-forwarding, or rewinding a recorded program.

That display also had another important reason for being there. When electronics companies introduced VCRs in the 1970s, they marketed the devices as a way to record and time-shift broadcast TV shows, and let owners program them to begin recording at a certain date and time as guided by an internal clock. So it only made sense that the VCR displayed the current time on the front of the unit (even when it was off–you know, just in case you didn’t already have a timepiece).

So what’s the problem? When the VCR lost power, either through being unplugged from the wall, or when your house would experience a momentary power dropout, the unit would lose its internal memory settings. That’s because the VCR’s clock information was stored in a chip that required constant power to keep the clock active and running. Many digital clocks work around power outages by allowing you to install a separate backup battery to retain power to the clock memory while the main power is off. And most didn’t have battery backups.

And here’s the second problem: VCRs were notoriously difficult to program or set to the correct time. It usually involved weird buttons and hard to navigate on-screen menus (on later models). Even if you figured out how to program it, what’s the point of doing it if it’s just going to reset again?

That’s why VCR designers got away with the blinking clock syndrome: people were too lazy to program, so they didn’t care that their VCR could be programmed, so they didn’t demand VCRs with clock batteries. VCRs ended up being mostly used to play pre-recorded bought or rented movies, rendering the time-shifting functionality mostly an afterthought.

Ultimately, many VCRs did ship with auto-setting internal clocks that set themselves based on a broadcast time signature. Unfortunately, by the time this feature became widespread, VCRs were quickly being supplanted by DVD players and the “difficult VCR” stereotype was already firmly entrenched in the public consciousness.

What Were They Thinking?

The display flashes to indicate that the internal clock’s settings have been lost. It’s supposed to be helpful. It’s also cheaper to build VCRs that don’t require clock backup batteries.

Mistake #3: DVD Encryption

Device(s): DVDs, DVD Players

Today, it’s easy to forget that DVDs were designed to have undefeatable copy protection. After all, it was already a decade ago that a group of intrepid tinkerers defeated the DVD format’s “Content Scramble System” (CSS) and released what they’d learned onto the Internet.

Today, DVD encryption is such a joke that legitimate commercial applications openly integrate DVD ripping tools into their feature sets (although major software vendors shy away from it for fear of legal repercussions).

By extension, this design mistake goes for other forms of video copy protection as well: HDCP in HDMI connections causes hassles when it shouldn’t, and Bl-Ray’s DRM has already been cracked. Silly rabbits, DRM is for kids.

What Were They Thinking?

Adding a form of DRM to DVD media not only prevented the casual copy of DVD movie discs, but perhaps more importantly ensured that manufacturers of DVD players had to legally acquire a license to incorporate DVD decoding electronics into their designs.

In that second regard, CSS is not a design mistake. But it’s a mistake with regard to the legal and technical hassle it causes to DVD customers who have a legitimate fair use reason to copy their movies onto another medium.

In some ways, it’s also a mistake that people broke the encryption so easily– although that’s the best mistake on this list.

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42 Comments For This Post

  1. Jason Says:

    Apparently it’s possible to program some HP printers to display a customised message when the paper runs out. I know this because a mate of mine programmed a handful of university printers to display FEED ME A STRAY CAT.

  2. John Says:

    I have this Philips radio,

    Great sound quality.

    Except whenever you press a station button there’s a very loud beep. Totally annoying and infuriating.

    I had to buy an other radio.

  3. pond Says:

    One aspect of DVD encryption and DRM in general you only glanced at, is that the DMCA made it illegal to circumvent such schemes. Thus, ripping your CD (which has no digital encryption or DRM) is legal under the fair use precedents established by the Sony Betamax ruling. But ripping your DVD for those same fair use goals (such as place-shifting) is not legal.

    So it was the content lobbyists who pushed the US government in the 1990s to establish a framework that will condemn us to DRM for the foreseeable future. Even though ripping tools exist and the encryption standard is a joke, it nevertheless provides the legal basis for suing anyone using those tools, without regard to any copyright or fair use considerations.

    The ‘designers’ in these cases, were the lobbyists, who wrote the law the Congress passed and President Clinton signed.

  4. Euro2centa Says:

    Blue LEDs. Ten eye-piercing blue LEDs sprinkled around a laptop keyboard. Half of them always on. Two or three change to orange to signal that whatever is on the faint, nearly unreadable case markings in now “off” …

  5. Michael B Says:

    “in the case of the iPhone and iPod touch, it allows Apple’s products to be incredibly thin and lightweight properties that would likely suffer if the devices incorporated removable batteries.”

    As opposed to the Nexus One, which is much thicker and bulkier than the iPhone because it has a removable battery.

  6. Renchub Says:

    I don’t know how wide spread it is, but my HP printer has ridiculously small ink cartridges. I don’t think I can even get 100 sheets out of the black before it runs out. (Hmm, there’s even court cases about this, I guess it’s a bigger complaint then I thought.)

    I’m also going to disagree with the internal iPod batteries being a design flaw. I have had more problems with hard drive damage (as I drop the classic, again,) on the iPods, and no real issues with the battery.

    Between my wife and I, we’ve owned 4 ipods, and two iphones, battery degradation has never been an issue, though I’ll agree, as a Pandora player all day means I’ll need to charge it at the end of the day. But so what? the iPhone charger is small, and the cable is “multi” functional, if you count being able to use it on ipods as multifunctional.

  7. Backlin Says:

    I can agree whole-heartedly with the VCR and alarm clock issues. Luckily (at least for a little while) my VCR could scan the airwaves and set its clock and date based on the time broadcast by a PBS station. Now that all transmissions are digital, that doesn’t happen anymore. But it’s hard to view that clock from the attic, especially when it’s not plugged in…

    And the alarm clock that I (still use) has the scroll-through-time method of setting, which means if you pass one minute from your intended time, you have to go all the way through the 23 other hours to attempt to get it right again. I usually just leave it, because a minute is usually not that big of deal.

  8. Portable eBook Reader Says:

    The red off light is the one that drives me crazy. I just bought a small LCD TV for my bedroom and it has an annoying blue light when it is on and an even more annoying red light when it is off. As I can’t sleep unless there is total darkness in my bedroom, I had to unplug the TV every night.

    Then I realized that the manufacturers have actually done me and the environment a favor as I now unplug not only the TV now but all my electronic devices to save energy.

  9. David Hamilton Says:

    On the water heaters I’ve seen in various office kitchens, they have an array of LEDs – all red.

    Some signify good news (power on, tank full, water at dispensing temperature), some bad news (half-full, completely empty) but, regardless of the message, the LED is always red!

    It mays seem like a small thing, but if designers cannot get the user interface right of something as mind-numbingly simple as a water heater, what hope do they have for anything more complex?

    (PS: I’ve also seen, bizarrely, a water-cooler that was so badly designed that new users would press purely decorative ‘buttons’ to try to dispense water…)

  10. John Davis Says:

    12:00 Flashers.. I knew how to set mine up so they did not flash.

    LED’s.. Well, I know how to fix those too but it is frustrating when the LED turns OFF when the device turns on.. I have disconnected a few.

    Copy Protection…..

    I recall a letter I sent in to a software house once back in my C-64 days

    “What does copy guard do?”

    It makes the software harder to load
    It wears out or damages the consumer’s disc drive
    It adds to the warranty replacement cost (Please replace this one)
    IT makes Mike Henry (Author of Fast Hack’em,, which by the way would NOT copy that program) Rich and Famous

    Kracker Jax however… DID copy that program, wiped out the copy protection and let me load it without hammering the head stop on the disc drive.

    Likewise. I’ve been able to copy DVD’s even copy protectd ones, for years. Don’t do it.. but have the ability.

    Same for DRM CD’s and other digital medai.. Now that I have done.. but the reason I have the hardware, and the reason I’ve made digital copies beyond what the DRM allowed…. Is that I OWN the rights to those recordings. (Either I or my classical musician daughter that is) Till she moved out west I was her recording engineer.

  11. Ryan Patterson Says:

    You forgot to include sliding multi-position switches.

    For instance my alarm clock has a four position switch ordered as such: set-time, set-alarm, alarm-on, alarm-off. The switch is so hard to push that it is almost impossible select the two middle choices without overshooting and pushing it too far.

  12. brian dodds Says:

    my father bought an alarm clock back in the early 80s and it has two glorious features:

    1. on the top it has a keypad with all 10 digits, to set the time or alarm time you just type the time. and an am/pm button.. genius!

    2. the snooze time is VARIABLE! set it to 15 minutes if you want! no more of this 9 minute BS..

    alas, i only saw that clock in my dad’s bedroom.. he’s still using it, it still works.. i think it was GE branded, iirc..

  13. jack Says:

    how would you like to be a 80 year old and try to operate your tv
    useing th button on the set that are located on the bottom of the set

    instead of eye level

  14. BlueLightRedLight Says:

    If there’s a blue light for ON that you want to see, and a red light for OFF that you don’t want to see, put enough blue cellophane over it to block the red light. The blue will come through fine.

  15. dsq Says:

    There is NO off LED on anything. It’s a stand-by LED. It shows that the effing thing will react to your remote control. When it’s actually off, there will be no light. Everyone that complains about it is lazy and doesn’t care about energy consumption. Switch the multiple-socket-extender-thingy off every night. Not a big deal.

  16. kurkosdr Says:

    The worst kind of copy protection wasn’t XCP. XCP doesn’t affect you if you are smart enough to have your autorun turned OFF, or use vista/seven, which always asks for your permission before it launches the autorun executable (even with the uac off).

    The absolute WORST kind of copy protection was Cactus Data Shield. Cactus had all the usual XCP nastiness (software that executes itself without warning, forces an EULA onto your face, sound is in crappy low bitrate compressed format), plus, it also utilized data corruption.
    The audio section of those CDs had some audio blocks intentionally removed and replaced by data blocks. The thought behind that was that CD players would ignore the data blocks by treating them as read errors (and thus correct the audio as they do in a scratched cd), while computers would decrypt the data blocks as audio, which resulted in loud audio hash. This prevented the user from ripping the CD even if he had bypassed the rootkit (by disabling autorun).
    Too bad CD players with MP3 support employ computer-like firmwares too, which is also the case for many car cd players.

    Needless to say, the CDs were playable only on the most basic CD players. Recalls and returns were massive. Meanwhile, pirates were happily exploiting the analog hole, and if the device was a professional sound system, the burnt disc would have better audio quality that the corrupted original one! Talk about plain ol’ design mistake!

  17. nobody Says:

    what size do 99% of users print on? Standard 8.5″x11″ letter size paper is the answer.
    99% of users in north america, actually, the rest of the world use that:
    And then it makes sens to have the printer precise the format she need, since you can send a job in legal and have only A4 in the tray.

  18. bob Says:

    “Mac laptops also adopting the sealed-battery design.”

    The batteries in Apple’s current laptops are not sealed in as they are in iPods and iPhones. Sure you can’t simply turn the laptop over and pop the battery out, but the battery is totally removable and replaceable by way of undoing various screws.

    See for example

  19. Chris Says:

    dsq: Actually the Wii has THREE LED power states. Green is on, Yellow is standby, and Red is “off”.

  20. Adam Says:

    I think a lot of these are only design mistakes if you don’t understand the design. Sure a standby LED lighting up when a device is off might be bad, but the thing is the device isn’t actually off, the red LED isn’t an off light, it’s telling you that part of the device is still on. If you don’t like it, switch it off at the wall. Removing the red LED won’t switch the device off, you just won’t realise part of it is still on.

    Likewise the flashing clock on a VCR was designed to alert you to the fact that the time had been lost, so you don’t sit down later to watch that show you recorded then realise it didn’t record because the time had been lost. I agree with the backup battery though, computers have always remembered the time even if they were powered off for days, but I guess when most people go shopping for a VCR they don’t ask whether it remembers the time across a blackout.

  21. ama Says:

    While any kind of drm is bad, Apple’s fairplay implementation was actually considered one of the most relaxed around. Yes you needed iTunes to play it, but you could authorize other computers to play it too. You could also burn it easily on a cd without restrictions. I have some music from iTunes from before the switch, and never found this implementationn of drm very bothering, except for typing in 1 password (once) after a fresh installation of my computer if i wanted to play music.

  22. Mie Says:

    That red light tells you that your TV is plugged to mains and is wasting some energy (suspend mode). Led itself uses minimal amount. Just unplug it or use extension cord with on/off switch.

  23. Nick Says:

    I’m with you on most of these items and I suppose that most alarm clocks are rather non-intuitive, but for some reason you use a photo of a Sony Dream Machine, the best alarm clock I’ve ever come across and still use after who knows how many years. To me it’s always been a stand-out in terms of clever features and ergonomic design among simple electronic devices.

    So I’m just sayin’ I think it’s a bad choice of photo…

  24. David C. Says:

    Back in the early days of remote controls, devices often had mechanical power switches on the consoles in addition to the remote’s power switch. If you turned it off from the console, you would not be able to turn it back on from the remote.

    The “off” light back then was usually labeled “standby” and existed to let you know that you could use the remote to turn it on. If the light wasn’t on, then you’d have to get up and press the power switch yourself.

    It’s still useful in the regard for some devices, like non-slimline PS2 and PS3 consoles, which have mechanical power switches in addition to the soft switches. The light tells you that the mechanical switch is in the “on” position, so the soft power switch (or remote or game controller) will be able to turn the unit on.

  25. mbghtri Says:

    In the 1980’s, most IBM and IBM clone computers had a power switch IN THE BACK. You had to reach around the computer and guess where the switch was (probably bumping a cable loose in the process), or crawl behind the desk with a flashlight everytime you turn it on.

    These same computers (and even some computers today) have 3 audio jacks in the back for the speaker output, headphone output, and mic input. Of course, all three of these jacks look exactly the same. My first Acer PC put a colored block (red, blue, green) around each port, but there was no icon or word to describe what each color referred to. In the darkness under the desk, you couldn’t see the color anyway. This bad design probably cost PC manufacturers big bucks in technical support costs as users called in to complain that the sound is not working.

  26. Mark Says:

    The power switch on the IBM PC and PC/XT was actually on the side, and it was very large and easy to find. It also made a satisfying clunk sound when you flipped it off. It’s actually modern ATX power supplies that put the (very tiny) physical switch on the main back, though there is rarely any reason to turn it off.

    I agree wholeheartedly about the stupid audio jacks though, it’s impossible to figure out which one to plug your speakers into without actually getting out a magnifying glass and looking at the plugs on the back of your computer. How often does anyone use the line in or mic jacks anyway? These days most computers have them on the front of the case thankfully.

  27. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    The mistake you’re making is thinking that there were any designers involved in these products at all. Typically, there are not. There is a total disrespect for design in most engineering-focused companies. A product manager has a deadline for when they have to ship the product, and they badger a team of engineers to build the product on time and under budget. That is why there are so many copycat and derivative products: no creative people were involved at all, just business people and engineers. If you can’t create something new, you just look at what it out there, what’s already been done, how things are “supposed” to be done, and you poop out yet another VCR with a flashing clock and no backup battery. As long as it can go into a box stamped “VCR” and it can play video cassettes, job done.

  28. DavidLee Says:

    I think people (Benj _and_ the multitude of commentators thus far) haven’t given the VCR its due – because it was often so hard to program and set its time, we have remotes with thousands of buttons, idiot-proofing by Apple of batteries, _all_ encryption on DVDs, CDs, and other DRM, printers that only allow you to use their maker’s printer cartridges, etc.

    Why HP’s engineer’s decided to use the “PC LOAD LETTER” error message, you should ask them. However, it also shows that again, like the VCR, no user interface is foolproof – so now we get remotes with LCD displays, touch interfaces that screw up with fat fingers, cell phones with overloaded button functions,…

    Those VCRs were – and still are – insidious.

  29. Alvin B. Says:

    Some of these “Mistakes” are examples of planned obsolescence, which while annoying to the consumer, is certainly not a mistake on the balance sheets of the company who made the “mistake”..

    However, the LED thing is one of my pet peeves. Not just the “its off” LED, but general overusage of LED’s in general. I have taken to various means of killing LED lights in my equipment.

    Seriously, have you ever counted the number of LEDs we now have in our homes? I gave up counting at somewhere over FOUR DOZEN just from my computer setup. I have gone through all my external hard drives, and detatched the LED lights internally. Some were incredibly bright. Two of the drives had dual LED’s that flashed *back and forth* when the drive was accessed – and are incredibly bright. I have a USB hub with a piercing blue LED that lit up my entire room that’s now covered over with several old floppy disk labels. Most of these LED’s I don’t need. I’ll know, for example, that my external hard drives are not working because… wait for it… they won’t show up in Windows. I’ll know my speakers are off because… there’s no sound! My DSL modem has FIVE of them! FIVE! Wouldn’t ONE LED be enough? Green and solid=good. Flashing=Wait. Red=Bad. But FIVE? And why do they have to always blink? It blinks to show traffic of course, just like my hard drive… which means if I’m downloading all night… both the DSL modem and the external hard drive are… constantly blinking. Thank goodness for duct tape over the DSL modem! And what’s with the PIERCINGLY bright LEDs anyway? A status LED is one thing, but one that can light up the 7th level of hell?

    I’ve been waging war on these LEDs now for a while. I try to avoid just taping over them – that’s kinda fugly – so there are a few remaining I haven’t killed yet. I have dreams of there being some magical “device” that can burn out LED lights just by putting it near one. Haven’t found it yet.

  30. Michael Kingsford Gray Says:

    Actually, here in Australia, I have always found the “PC LOAD LETTER” message very informative.
    For some stupid reason, when adding a new HP Laserjet printer to Windows (even 7), the drivers assume that you are still backward enough to be using imperial sized paper, when most of the world now uses metric.
    The message tells me that the drivers are Amerocentric, and I have to wrestle with them to convince them that there are actually other countires in the world, and try to urge them that I want to use A4 paper. (Which can take some doing to make A4 ‘stick’ in Windows, let me tell you.)

  31. Jolyon Smith Says:

    #1 – the red “off” light is actually a “stand-by” light. It is in effect a warning of the very thing you bemoan – the device is using power to remain on stand-by. No light = *truly* and completely off.

    #13 – PC LOAD LETTER, outside of the US I’m guessing this message more commonly means “Your word processing application is misconfigured”, i.e. your MS Word document is set to print to LETTER, but the printer only has A4 paper loaded. When the document arrives, the printer is saying “I need the LETTER paper that YOU told me you want to print on”. Dumb printer? Nah, dumb USER!

  32. heinz Says:

    Ha ha, pathetic americans with their AM/PM time. I laugh at your face!

  33. Jeff Says:

    I agree LEDs are overused. The worst I’ve seen yet are those Microsoft Intellimouse Explorers with the stupid red tail light. Why in heaven’s name does a mouse need a bright red light on it’s rear end? I immediately took mine apart and snipped the rear LED leads. It’s just something useless that was sucking USB power for no reason and lighting my room up at night.

    I hate the blue ones too. Some of those are so bright you could use them on airport landing strips.

  34. Darren White Says:

    In the original IBM XT PC, if you turned in on without the keyboard connected it would stop booting (ie stop working) to give you an error message: ‘ERROR KEYBOARD NOT FOUND’, and then ‘PRESS ANY KEY TO CONTINUE’.

  35. Justin Alexander Says:

    Re: LEDs. My current TV has an LED which is on when the TV is turned off and off when the TV is turned on. I can see why this would be annoying in a bedroom, but for the media room I love it:

    (1) Light off and there’s no image? Means the TV isn’t plugged in.
    (2) Light on and there’s no image? Means I need to turn the TV on.
    (3) Light off and my movie is playing? Fantastic. I don’t have a glowing light distracting me from the image on the TV.

    Re: PC LOAD LEGAL. The “PC” code is perhaps unnecessary, but virtually every printer I’ve owned has the capability of loading multiple sizes of paper. Knowing what size paper the printer needs to print the document currently sitting in the queue is valuable information — particularly if you’re dealing with a shared printer in an office setting and may have no idea what computer sent the document currently in queue (or which document is in the queue).

  36. Harrison Ward Says:

    Led lights are great because they are long lasting and consumes less electricity.**-

  37. Pat Says:

    I have a 1988 Commodore 1084S moniter. And the best thing about it is the has just has only a red on led, that is only on when the moniter is turned on. They do not make electronics today that last long, and have less anti-features like the Red off LED.

  38. Samuel Hernandez Says:

    i always wait and look on the internet about the latest consumer electronics items that i can buy.”~`

  39. ben Kindle Case Says:

    With early remote controls there was a wire that people used to trip over again and again. Thank god for infra red! But i think the worst mistake were those big floppy disks, endlessly getting jammed in the

    Ben – Kindle Case

  40. Ray Says:

    Mistake #1: The Red Off Light

    Advantages for me:

    You can easily spot the device in the dark and switch it on.

    You see it is powered, without the off light you’d be guessing.

    Real design mistakes look different.

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  42. Dee Leduke Says:

    Thanks once more for a lot of things.

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