Martin Hickman: The electrical revolution is bargain bliss
Saturday 06 June 2009
While pointing the finger at bankers for fleecing the public in crooked overdraft charges and payment protection insurance, the energy companies for making hundreds of millions off the back of artificially high prices, and food manufacturers for stuffing products with modified maize starch, fructose syrup and other garbage, one could be forgiven for thinking there are no bargains in 21st-century Britain. Thankfully there are, and they can be found in every electronics shop.
To hold an iPhone in your hand, to watch a flatscreen television, or to open a laptop spreadsheet, is to take your place at the top of a chain of human ingenuity spanning the globe, hundreds of suppliers and thousands of workers. Over the past decade, some aspects of life have changed little (cars, pubs, restaurants, all basically the same), but the information revolution has thrust products of astonishing complexity and smallness into our pockets, offices and homes.
Televisions, mobile phones, music players and computers are all rapidly becoming faster, sleeker and, almost as dramatically, cheaper. According to Moore's Law (devised by Intel boss Gordon Moore in 1965), computers' processing power doubles every two years. A modern computer has 250 times the memory of a computer just 10 years ago.
The principle applies, more or less, to all consumer electronics. Compare what you could buy in Dixons a decade ago with what is available on the high street this weekend.
In 1998, for £39, music lovers could snap up a state-of-the-art Sony Walkman, which could play a 90-minute tape. A modern Hitachi GB MP4 player can hold 500 songs, 25 times as many, for £29.
A decade ago, Dixons was selling a 32-inch Toshiba widescreen television for £1,599; this weekend, Currys has a 32-inch Samsung LCD for £349 – a quarter of the price.
Each gadget consists of hundreds of components made by specialist manufacturers, often thousands of miles from the gadget brand or its assembly. Because of commercial confidentiality, the supply chain is opaque. Apple, for instance, won't divulge any information about the innards of an iPod, but one study two years ago found it had 451 components. Academics at the University of California discovered a fifth-generation video iPod contained microchips, circuit boards and other items produced by an array of firms in the US and Asia-Pacific.
Toshiba made the most expensive item – the $73 hard drive – in Japan. Two US companies, Broadcom and PortalPlayer, made the processors. Samsung, Elpida and Spansion made the memory in the US, Japan and Korea. Chinese workers assembled the iPod. When the first model was launched, in 2001, a 5GB iPod cost a hefty £349. Today, John Lewis sells the 120GB iPod classic – with more than 20 times the storage – for half the price.
Gadgets are made not just by the vision of designers such as Apple's Jonathan Ive, or the skill of suppliers, but by the nimble hands of an army of unseen workers. Data on conditions in the hi-tech factories of China is scant, compared with the slew of reports from the likes of War on Want on clothes sweatshops.
Likewise, the extraction of raw materials generates few headlines (though Consumers International last year claimed the mobile-phone component coltan was fuelling conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo; a similar report found children hacking out cobalt for rechargeable batteries). Although devices are becoming more energy-efficient, our love of them also raises greenhouse gas emissions.
Still, for shoppers, it's hard to come to any conclusion other than consumer electronics represent a bargain. By the time a gadget reaches you, the supply chain involves some of the cleverest people in the world, co-operation between dozens of electronics suppliers, the productive powerhouse of China's dirt-cheap labour and a journey of tens of thousands of miles, all zooming into your local shop. How much longer will this go on for? Moore's Law is forecast to end by 2015. And you'd be right that a better gadget will be along in a year's time. But still...
Heroes & Villains
Great for measuring kids' feet; shame about the rainforest. According to a new Greenpeace report, 'Slaughtering the Amazon', Clarks is a major customer of Bertin, which indirectly buys leather from cattle ranches in the Amazon. Clarks says it is phasing out leather from Bertin in the UK.
KFC is to serve some un-fried chicken. In a nod towards healthy eating, a three-month trial is to begin in the North-east, where customers will be able to buy a griddled chicken ciabatta, with 345 calories, as well as other less fatty food. "We are trialling the griddled menu in response to the growing customer desire for new taste experiences, and lighter menu options," said MD Martin Shuker. A step in the right direction on a very long road...
Independent Partners; request a free guide on NISAs from Hargreaves Lansdown
World's most lethal spider found under a bunch of bananas
Rumours that the star wants to move on to pastures new
TV presenter Fiona Bruce seemed a bit startled by the find during the filming of Antiques Roadshow
Comedian says he 'never laughed as hard as I have writing with Rik'
- 1 Sick elderly man makes 'complete turnaround' after emotional reunion with dog
- 2 Star Wars memorabilia dubbed 'bit of plastic' by Antiques Roadshow's Fiona Bruce valued at £50,000
- 3 Isis fighters 'crucify' 17-year-old boy in Syria
- 4 Ebola cruise ship ‘in utter panic’ as Mexico and Belize refuse to let it dock
- 5 Death of northern white rhino leaves just six of endangered animals left in the world
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Sorry Judy Finnigan – Ched Evans is no less sickening than an alleyway rapist
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
Workers 'could be forced to pay £5 a week' to get benefits
Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters
Amal Alamuddin calls for the return of the Elgin Marbles from Britain: 'Injustice has persisted for too long'
iJobs Money & Business
£60,000 - £80,000: Saxton Leigh: Our client is an leading Asset Manager based...
£27000 - £32000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our large charity ...
£50000 - £55000 per annum + bonus + benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Relationship M...
Highly Attractive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NOTTINGHAM - BRILLIANT FIRM - You wil...
Day In a Page
This 17th century beauty is full of rustic cosiness, while the detached home office means you can also run a business
This five-bedroom red-brick beauty overlooks the village green and sits in just under two acres of land
Four exclusive apartments in a Grade II-listed former medical school with 2,275 sq ft of living space and 18ft ceilings
A five-bedroom terraced house on the popular Peterborough Estate, ideally located for both Eel Brook Common and South Park
A state-of-the-art farm-building conversion on the former Cliveden Estate, with 11,420sq ft of internal space, cinema and wine cellar
A three-bedroom, 15th-century cottage with original features in the picturesque village of Sissinghurst
A six-bedroom terraced house with large south-facing roof terrace, cinema room and wine cellar
A new seven-bedroom home built in Queen Anne-style with swimming pool and parkland views in Mortimer
A listed, four-bedroom farmhouse in the rural hamlet of Rushall with detached barn, four acres of gardens and paddocks
A first-floor flat with two bedrooms, a spacious reception room and communal grounds in a leafy part of London
A three-bedroom flat with a spacious rootop terrace and balcony, accessed from a private gated courtyard
A Grade II-listed pile with six bedrooms, stables and 39 acres of grounds in Standlake
A two-bedroom flat with boutique hotel-style interiors, close to the foodie haunt of West End Lane
A two-bedroom flat in a beautiful old vicarage, with many original features, close to the city centre
A three-bedroom 16th-century home with an aga kitchen, private gardens and heated outdoor pool, in Hadleigh
A three-bedrom home in sought-after Queen's Gate Mews, with Italian marble-finished bathrooms
Surrounded by glorious countryside in the village of Udimore, sits this impressive four-kiln oast and barn conversion
A five-bedroom house in the picturesque village of Kettlewell, north Yorkshire
An 18th-century former coaching inn with original staircase, open fireplaces and beams throughout
A Grade II-listed Georgian town house with three bedrooms and a south-facing courtyard, near Arundel Castle
Feel on top of the world at this über chic penthouse on the 37th floor of one of Europe’s tallest blocks.
A Grade II-listed Victorian villa with six bedrooms and two further cottages, all with spectacular sea views
A grade II-listed, Georgian cottage with mature 50ft garden, perfect for summer entertaining
A magnificent Georgian pile with turrets, seven bedrooms, a heated pool and four acres of gardens
Fairoak Farm has five bedroom suites, gym, outdoor swimming pool and golf course
Chic two-bedroom river-fronted flat with a private lift that delivers you directly to your home
A spectacular seven-bedroom Tudor pile, once owned by Henry VIII, with 18 acres of land
A seven-bedroom Georgian property previously used as a picturesque wedding venue
A split-level flat in a church conversion with two en suite bedrooms and 1,200sq ft of living space
A three-bedroom bungalow situated behind an impressive stone wall, £645,000
Windsor Castle overlooks this three-bedroom Victorian cottage located on one of Windsor's smartest roads
Chapel House is a former vicarage with nine bedrooms in the beautiful Upper Wye Valley
A five-bedroom B&B and separate owner's accomodation with potential for conversion
Enjoy summer by the Thames in this two double-bedroom converted warehouse in Rotherhithe village
A one-bedroom, luxury apartment with private gym and concierge service in Moorgate
A four-bedroom house in Hermitage Gardens with three reception rooms and landscaped gardens
A seven-bedroom Grade II-listed property with a separate self-contained apartment
A five-bedroom Victorian house with three reception rooms and galleried landing, £695,000
A six-bedroom farmhouse with five acres of land in a former cloth-making village