Technology that is perfect despite being obsolete?
October 5, 2017 7:41 AM   Subscribe

I have a Samsung YP-U5 mp3 player from 2009 that is absolutely perfect in every way. It's small. Its battery last forever. The sound quality is great. And it has a usb plug integrated so it never needs a cable. It is the perfectly ideal personal music device and yet technology has moved on and, should it ever break, it will be very very difficult to find something new that does its job as well as it does. What are some other devices that were perfect and where future developments and advances only served to worsen them?
posted by 256 to Technology (42 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
The important parts of bicycle design haven't changed since the 1880s. Doesn't mean that bikes are obsolete of course.
posted by rd45 at 7:59 AM on October 5 [6 favorites]


Not to threadsit, but I do want to make an important clarification that I'm NOT looking for technology that was perfected and then more or less continued to be produced with the same design. I'm looking for cases where a moment of perfection went unrecognized and changes to the design were made that just made it worse. I want to know about things like: if you want the perfect blender you need to go to a Sears in 1967. Though I'm especially interested in personal electronics.

(Oh and I do own, ride, and love a singlespeed steel bicycle from 1981 that I could probably take 100 years back in time without turning too many heads)
posted by 256 at 8:08 AM on October 5


Just last week I unearthed a box of old tech in my apartment and found a cell phone I had many many many years ago. If all you needed was a phone (no fancy camera, no messaging requirements, no internet) to make actual phone calls, like for emergencies or something, this tiny little phone so small it could fit into a pocket on women's clothing was PERFECT. (You can't tell from the angle of the photo, but it's thin af, I think just over a quarter inch.)
posted by phunniemee at 8:09 AM on October 5 [1 favorite]


Knob/dial controls for heater/ac in cars from the 80s / 90s / 00s. One dial for temperature, one dial for venting direction (feet, dash, defog), and one dial for fan speed. Can understand how it works just by looking at it, can operate by feel (without taking eyes off road). Utterly perfect.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 8:12 AM on October 5 [21 favorites]


I always thought the optical mouse was peak input device (special bonus points for the Thinkpad red nubby pointer thing) but it's probably too early to say this for either of those things.

I think the swap from rotary push mowers to gas powered ones was a mistake but that could also be (read: is) a function of my use case as opposed to subjective reality. Ditto for any power tools depending on how crotechety you want to be since many of those forms (be it a Japanese pull saw or a chisel) have been the same for a long time and any form changes only really serve to bastardize/accessorize them.

Safety razors have always served me just fine and seem to be an improvement over the Mach14 style of disposables that are out on the market today, both in cost and quality of shave (once a small learning curve/initial deposit is overcome). The Gilette SuperSpeed would be the recommended model for newcomers if you asked me. Ditto for shaving cream/lather but it's less of a strong case I think...

Quilts of the past compared to the blankets that are purchasable in stores today, but that's an apples and oranges comparison more than anything, since the 'oh so soft and fuzzy' feeling dies away after a wash or two. Not to mention that our actual linen bedsheets beat out cotton (which is the more modern fabric choice for bedding since it became affordable for the masses) in every. single. way.

For boots, the goodyear welt is/was superior to current manufacturing techniques in everything but cost.

I feel the same about timberframe housing vs stick frame housing but that's a nuance I won't dive into here for fear of really exposing my curmudgeonlyness. The same goes for abusive and shortsighted farming practices that have came since mechanization. Plus that's rather broad.

There's also the ubiquitious Hobart made Kitchenaid mixer. Bomb-proof in the dictionary redirects you to the entry for that, or should.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:14 AM on October 5


It's just one feature but I cannot believe that my LG G5 phone is likely the last smartphone that will ever be produced with a swappable battery. I go from dead phone to 100% in 10 seconds.

When I compare my experience of keeping a second, tiny, charged battery in my bag versus EVERYONE else I know dragging around plugs and adapters and cables and external batteries....

Way to leave progress behind, people.
posted by Cosine at 8:33 AM on October 5 [14 favorites]


Agfa UItra 50 and Fuji Neopan 400.
posted by fluttering hellfire at 9:09 AM on October 5 [2 favorites]


My mid-80s Black&Decker toaster oven. One smooth moving dial for temp, another for toast doneness; a short lever to press down to start toasting. No selection of which coil to heat. Toaster dial had 180 degrees of rotation, so very easy to finely adjust toast doneness. Turning on the temp dial turned the oven oven. The dials were small, and easy to see what temp or toast setting was pointed to.

It died a month ago. Our current toaster oven has enormous, hard to read dials that fight against turning. The toast doneness settings cover about 90 degrees, because that dial is actually a timer for how long the oven runs. There is an always-on position; when it's time to turn the toaster off, it's easier to unplug it.

(The timer and harder-to-turn dials are probably safety features. It doesn't mean they were implemented properly.)
posted by JawnBigboote at 9:23 AM on October 5 [1 favorite]


Japanese small cars circa 1990's.

I had a Honda Civic with mileage that was better than 90% of the current hybrid models, rarely broke, and if it did break in theory a layman can fix most things as opposed to the newfangled computerized models which require specialty tools.
Sure it didn't have many of the bells and whistles but in terms of getting me from point A to point B reliably and efficiently - it did so superbly.
posted by 7life at 9:23 AM on October 5 [11 favorites]


What are some other devices that were perfect and where future developments and advances only served to worsen them?

Keyboards (typewriter, PC) of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Designed for professional, fast typists. Soon after came chicklet and membrane keyboards (witness the IBM PC vs the PC jr) for cost cutting and various schemes for lower profile and no profile (smartphone on-screen) typing.
posted by zippy at 9:29 AM on October 5 [2 favorites]


Adding to zippy's answer: Old Thinkpad keyboards! They are glorious.

I have two old Thinkpads that I still use a lot because of their keyboards. I ordered a new battery for my employer-owned old Thinkpad recently, and discovered the tech support guys no longer even have a record that this archaic laptop is in my possession. They were amazed.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 9:42 AM on October 5 [1 favorite]


The last wired Mac mouse and keyboard reach that perfection for me. Beautiful and practical. Who wants their keyboard and mouse to stop working periodically due to battery exhaustion? The keyboard has enough travel to be comfortable, but is easy to clean while retaining a striking modern look.

Ditto the original retina MacBook pros. Thin enough to be highly portable, but retaining key travel and ports that have been abandoned in the current models. The same thing happened to the iPhone 6 and up: chasing the last millimeter of thinness and the screen-size arms race led to a less useful phone.
posted by wnissen at 10:01 AM on October 5


Possibly of interest, I read this article some months back that made the point that any technology, at the point where it is perfected, has become obsolete. The author talks about the conventional desktop PC and the Republic Rainbow as examples.

His point is not that further developments make the existing technology worse, but that by the time that technology has been around for a while and has been perfected through many refinements, a different technology has emerged to supersede it. (eg jet planes superseded prop planes).

With any complex product, what's "perfect" is going to be contingent on the circumstances of its use.

To pick one example, new refrigerators use more insulation, which means that they're more energy-efficient, but there's less interior volume relative to the exterior dimensions, so they're less space-efficient. The compressor is smaller and runs more or less continuously, because that's also more energy-efficient, but it means the compressor burns out more quickly, so in a broad sense it's more wasteful. Which is better?
posted by adamrice at 10:01 AM on October 5 [3 favorites]


Exactly, AdamRice! It depends on who is defining "better."
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 10:10 AM on October 5


Democratic socialism. (I keed.) Almost anything that was once designed to last forever with repairs, but is now considered disposable/unfix-able once plastic parts wear out; Singer sewing machines and KitchenAid stand mixers come to mind.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:20 AM on October 5 [1 favorite]


Astak EZ Reader Pocket Pro 5" ereader. (6" is also fine; I prefered the smaller one.) I want to cry. I owned two of them, until the batteries stopped accepting a charge, and the company no longer makes them.

It was an ereader with button navigation instead of touchscreen, with support for both epub and mobi (non-DRM'd), PDF (limited - none of them are good at PDF), and Word files, along with txt and a small swarm of less-popular ebook formats.

The only ereaders on the market today that even use buttons for fwd/back are European; one doesn't import to the US. I have the other one, and its navigation menus are horrible. I hate what the phone/tablet market did to the ereader market. I've made my peace with the fact that we'll never get an ereader that's designed for academic or business use; all the future models are focused on tying them to an ebook store and cloud storage, and totally ignoring features that would make them better for anything other than linear leisure reading.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:40 AM on October 5 [2 favorites]


The Psion 5 is a wonderful little machine and perfect in many ways. It's also obsolete. And there is no suitable replacement.
posted by Too-Ticky at 10:43 AM on October 5 [2 favorites]


My wife still misses her Palm Treo.

For her, it was the pinnacle of utility. PalmOS was perfect for managing her calendar and contacts. You could make calls with it. It had a qwerty keyboard with real buttons. It booted instantly. It could text and send email. The key apps were fast and focused.

The things it was crap at were things that weren't considered indispensable at the time. It sucked at web surfing. Its camera was terrible. But those things were only just becoming a possibility thanks to the iPhone. She loved that phone and to her all the advances of the last 10 years have only made it harder to stay on task. (I don't have a compelling argument against that, I just enjoy futzing with new things.)
posted by rouftop at 11:24 AM on October 5 [1 favorite]


The IBM Selectric 2 was everything a typewriter should be, especially if you had it pull from a ream of dot-matrix printer paper so you didn't have to keep putting in a new sheet.
posted by mattamatic at 11:29 AM on October 5 [1 favorite]


classic, basic bedside radio alarm clocks were the right solution to the problem of waking up.

my husband bought (without my knowledge or approval) some damn thing with an ipod docking station and whatever other bells and whistles and I have never been so annoyed. (Ipods are out in the world doing stuff, they aren't always in the thing when it's needed, plus more steps, plus having to decide on what playlist to wake up to every night and... aggh god no I'm getting angry just remembering it.) It gathered dust for some months and I gave it away.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:30 AM on October 5 [4 favorites]


The Psion 5 is a wonderful little machine and perfect in many ways. It's also obsolete. And there is no suitable replacement.

I had one of those, or the next version. Don't remember frankly. It was the best thing for helping me write ever.

My wife still misses her Palm Treo.

For her, it was the pinnacle of utility. PalmOS was perfect for managing her calendar and contacts. You could make calls with it. It had a qwerty keyboard with real buttons. It booted instantly. It could text and send email. The key apps were fast and focused.


Never did a Treo, but I loved my various Palms and Handsprings, for sure. Amazing kit. I was SO sad when my Tungsten|S finally died. Organizer, my first ereader and more. You should ask Charlie Stross his opinion on Treos.

classic, basic bedside radio alarm clocks were the right solution to the problem of waking up.

my husband bought (without my knowledge or approval) some damn thing with an ipod docking station and whatever other bells and whistles and I have never been so annoyed. (Ipods are out in the world doing stuff, they aren't always in the thing when it's needed, plus more steps, plus having to decide on what playlist to wake up to every night and... aggh god no I'm getting angry just remembering it.) It gathered dust for some months and I gave it away.


Can't lie. My Kindle has been the best alarm clock ever. (I have an Asus ZenPad I use for on the road.) It is much harder to shut the alarm off when half-asleep, and I have an alarm clock with battery backup that can also work as a white noise generator AND run World Community Gird on also.
posted by Samizdata at 11:55 AM on October 5


I have a YU3 and it's still my favourite of all MP3 things, including two android phones.

Sound stuff in general was better built in the past than now. There are DJs working with 1200s older than they are, for instance. I still regret passing on a late 80s sony combo hi-fi because for the asking price it was only needing some maintenance (replacing belt drives that by now turned to mush) there was/is nothing like that on the market at that price. At best it would be on of those tinny glorified iPod docks with a CD player. Other example is portable cassette players - anything new is a toy even compared to my cheap late 80s non-sony walkman, let alone the proper stuff.
posted by lmfsilva at 11:59 AM on October 5


My old PalmV was fantastic. Weeks of battery life, and super-fast at recalling things.

I was also a big fan of the Flip Video cameras, with their built-in USB cables, durable construction, and utilitarian use of AA batteries instead of an internal rechargeable battery.

I'm still a fan of the controls on my 9th-generation Toyota Corolla, and the Apple Extended Keyboard II with it's mechanical switches.
posted by Wild_Eep at 12:16 PM on October 5 [1 favorite]


Oh, and the only way you can kill an old Kitchenaid mixer is by boring it to death.
posted by Wild_Eep at 12:19 PM on October 5 [2 favorites]


The 3.5mm headphone jack, apparently. Ubiquitous, rotatable, infinitely backwards-compatible and cross-platform, no need to charge... and now the major smartphone manufacturers are racing to splinter the standard with Bluetooth, proprietary ports, and shitty DRM.
posted by Rhaomi at 12:58 PM on October 5 [9 favorites]


My old PalmV was fantastic. Weeks of battery life, and super-fast at recalling things.

Oh man, the Palm V. I wrote half a novel on one and I miss it to this day.
posted by 256 at 12:59 PM on October 5 [1 favorite]


Phones: the Nokia 8210 and Samsung X830 both worked far better as portable telephones than current mobiles do. Tiny, and with speed-dial and predicative text. Of course I rarely use my iPhone for actual voice calls these days, which I guess is why phones are so much bigger now.
posted by tinkletown at 1:02 PM on October 5


A pre-1960s, all-mechanical Singer sewing machine. I can't specify a single model because there are so many good ones. Well-designed, well-constructed, can be serviced by the owner with a little bit of training, and they will last forever if you can get the parts for them.
posted by muddgirl at 1:13 PM on October 5 [5 favorites]


as someone that produces radio shows and podcasts there's a program called mixmeister that i bought back in 2002 that's like itunes crossed with advanced mixing tools and support for multiple sound cards.

in 2006 they launched a rewrite called "mixmeister fusion" that was just buggy as hell and dropped some features. the company was sold to numark a year later and it's still available to purchase but never been fully fixed.

tons of people in radio/podcasting (myself included) still uses the pre-fusion version.
posted by noloveforned at 1:26 PM on October 5


The 6th Generation iPod Nano.
posted by whuppy at 2:50 PM on October 5


Seconding Singer mechanical sewing machines, but I would go with pre 1970 or so—more options, but still relatively easy to self-service.

That said, I wish Singer had kept the basic black design, which gave the machines a certain badass cache.
posted by she's not there at 3:32 PM on October 5 [1 favorite]


Smartphones with physical slide-out keyboards. I miss those.
posted by SisterHavana at 6:08 PM on October 5 [5 favorites]


Pianos. I can't seem to locate the original article, but here's a snippet.

And I think a number of musical instruments would fit your criteria, not just pianos. I played the alto saxophone in college, and the Selmer Mark VI (no longer made) was the model players sought, time and again, despite the new models offered by the Selmer company. That was years ago; I don't know if the same is true today. And string players will need to comment on the value of a Stradivarius...

But I like this idea of a product reaching its apex, the height of raw materials and good design and solid craftsmanship, then being left behind forever.

My brother pined for a 1991 Ford Taurus SHO, his dream car. Apparently, they made that year's model with a Yamaha engine, and the Taurus has never been so sexy.
posted by ToucanDoug at 6:30 PM on October 5 [2 favorites]


Old-school light bulbs.
posted by eponym at 6:45 PM on October 5 [1 favorite]


Japanese small cars circa 1990's.

Relatedly, my 2007 Civic is rated to tow 1500 pounds, and does so with aplomb. The current Civic, like essentially every new sedan in the US market, is rated for… zero pounds.
posted by musicinmybrain at 6:47 PM on October 5


The plain black phone with a rotary dial. Absolutely unkillable.
posted by SLC Mom at 7:15 PM on October 5 [1 favorite]


Vegetable peelers.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 8:43 PM on October 5 [1 favorite]


Never did a Treo, but I loved my various Palms and Handsprings, for sure.

My iPAQ 3630 and then the 1900 series one I had did everything I wanted.

AvantGo clipped web content I wanted to read, albeit from limited sources, and saved it. I could read it without the content dancing, singing, and jumping around and across the page. What an idea! It was perfect, and it is gone.
posted by jgirl at 9:18 PM on October 5


The cork screw. Really, can you improve on it? Perhaps an argument could be made for the on with the push-down arms, but all the others with suction and levers and the myriad other things are an abomination.
posted by conifer at 12:59 PM on October 6


The microwave with an analog time dial and a power setting selector switch. It is so obvious this is the right way to do things that my Sharp microwave has a mini-controller-managed time dial and an encoder-based power setting selector. All the smart electronics that mimic mechanical timers and switches tell me the numeric-input touchpad-based micros are damaged goods in comparison to the original Amana Radarange.
posted by jet_silver at 1:19 PM on October 6 [1 favorite]


If you're including software, I'd say that Microsoft Word v. 4, at least on the Mac, was the pinnacle of Word's design. It did everything I wanted as a serious academic writer and it wasn't bloated with clip art and templates and grammar checkers and all the other features that I never use. And it ran snappily even on the hardware of the day.

Arguably, rd45 was right about the bicycle, despite your followup. There are a lot of recent innovations—carbon fiber frames, carbon fiber components, disk brakes, hydraulic brakes, outboard bottom brackets, integrated shift/brake levers, etc. that are, in many cases, unnecessary changes from what worked in the 1950s and 1960s, and that in some cases make the bike worse, or at least more finicky and harder for the owner to service, especially in the field. For mountain biking, suspension, disk brakes, and tubeless tires can be a plus, but for ordinary road riding, touring, and even racing, a steel-framed bike with caliper or cantilever brakes is perfectly fine.
posted by brianogilvie at 3:11 PM on October 6 [1 favorite]


Many tech items, but safety razors for sure.
I started using them many years ago for the simplicity and style, but I was stunned by how much better they work. There isn't one thing about them that isn't just plain better than newer razor styles.
posted by bongo_x at 12:31 AM on October 7


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