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...
Budget 2015: George Osborne is set to get tough with further cuts in public spending
Five Questions On: GB Energy's new tariff
Simon Read: 'Taylor Swift tickets purchased on Viagogo were cancelled hours before the concert'
Simon Read: You're guilty until proven innocent when HMRC sends in the tax credit detectives
Bank-beating exchange rates on your international payments
- 1 BBC told new political editor must be 'impartial' with Nick Robinson reportedly stepping down
- 2 Humans of New York image of crying gay teen receives best response yet from Ellen DeGeneres
- 3 Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
- 4 Motorists taunt suicidal woman on bridge and tell her to 'get on with it'
- 5 The map showing the most dangerous tourist destinations in Europe, according to the Foreign Office
More Britons believe that multiculturalism makes the country worse - not better, says poll
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture
iJobs Money & Business
£15000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company offers a range of ...
£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisors are r...
£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: SThree were established in 1986....
£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Compliance Manager is require...
Day In a Page
Previously two semi-detached properties, this five-bedroom home is spread over three floors with a large breakfast kitchen, orangery, office and gym on the second floor.
This five-bedroom home enjoys countryside views over the Blyth estuary to Southwold, offering flexible living space with a ground-floor annexe - ideal for use as a holiday let.
Close to the market town of Eye, this four-bedroom detached home offers a double-height living room which takes the place of the original, 19th-century, chapel nave.
Dating back to the 19th century, this four-bedroom home needs modernising. Spanning three storeys, the red-brick house has a fireplace, a small terrace and a cellar.
Just outside of Cambridge, this single-storey home offers three double bedrooms, a living room with vaulted timber ceiling and ladder steps that lead to a mezzanine study area.
This six-bedroom Georgian home is on three floors with open fireplaces, a two oven Aga, an annexe, and cottage gardens with outbuildings and a car barn.
A former coach house, Glebe Farm Stable is now a three-bedroom cottage with a double car barn, an attached office, kennels and an outbuilding that's currently used as a gym.
Located beside an impressive Victorian viaduct, this four-bedroom home has an open-plan living area that is glazed on two sides, with skylights and high ceilings.
A former furniture workshop, this three-bedroom home has high ceilings and painted brick walls, in a village setting only fifteen miles from the coast.
This five-bedroom stone townhouse features a pine staircase and an Inglenuk fireplace, double doors from the lounge give access to an enclosed courtyard.
This five-bedroom, detached home blends traditional and modern design; the sleek kitchen features a gas hob and oven set within an exposed chimney breast.
Moored in Chelsea's Cheyne Walk, this houseboat offers two double bedrooms and a teak deck that's ideal for al-fresco dining.
Surrounded by woodland, this five-bedroom manor house has plenty of outdoor storage space in the form of three converted loose boxes, two smaller outhouses and a woodstore.
This six-bedroom home is set amongst three acres of grounds. Currently a large family home, Clift Hill has potential to make a B&B or countryside retreat, subject to change of use permissions.
This Grade II-listed three-bedroom home is situated on a private road, just a short walk from the sandy beaches of Frinton-on-Sea.
Less than five miles from Malmesbury, this four-bedroom cottage comes with equestrian facilities and gardens that extend to approximately three acres.
Spanning three storeys, this late-Victorian five-bedroom farmhouse is a spacious family home with a modern interior and B&B potential.
With an original church arch, this triplex one-bedroom church conversion has a light, spacious, feel and comes with a secure off-street parking space.
This recently-refurbished three-bedroom home has bi-folding doors that lead out to a decked seating area - ideal for alfresco dining this summer.
Well-located for coastal walks and popular restaurants, this detached four-bedroom home offers views over farmland, to the Solent, the Purbecks and Bournemouth.
If you love high ceilings, school conversions like this one are bang on the money. This two-bedroom flat is minutes from Burgess Park and the foodie haven at Borough Market.
Set within a church conversion in Bermondsey, this two-bedroom maisonette combines existing features, such as original arches and brickwork, with a contemporary finish.
In the pretty market town of Bungay, this grade II-listed Mill House is arranged over four floors, offering four bedrooms and three reception areas.
This four-bedroom Edwardian home offers a combination of original features and contemporary design after a renovation by the current owners.
This four-bedroom home offers a vaulted ceiling in a breakfast room that's ideal for summer entertaining with doors that open to the patio and garden.
On the market for the first time in more than 50 years, this six-bedroom home is a project with vast potential - spread over three floors of living space.
This five-bedroom home comes with a range of outbuildings including a large barn which could be converted into a self-contained granny-flat or rental.
Surrounded by rolling countryside, this four-bedroom barn conversion comes with a self-contained, one-bedroom annexe that could serve as an office or a holiday let.
Located near Harrogate town centre, this five-bedroom Victorian terrace is arranged over three storeys while a current study serves as an optional sixth bedroom.
A ground-floor flat in a country house, located a mile from Sway; this two-bedroom home would make an ideal weekend retreat on the edge of the New Forest.
On a popular residential lane in Caterham on the Hill, this four-bedroom family home offers a secluded garden and a convenient location for local schools and public transport.
Just a short walk from Westerham green, this three-bedroom cottage has a light kitchen with exposed brickwork and double doors that lead to a south-facing garden.
In a prime spot opposite the River Thames, this one-bedroom flat has an 18sq ft reception room with glass doors that open out to a private terrace.
Set in the hills above Llanwrda Village, west Wales, this 18th-century three-bedroom farmhouse has holiday-let potential from a separate barn conversion and annexe.
This charming end-of-terrace townhouse is arranged over three floors, with two double bedrooms and a private courtyard garden located at the rear of the property.
Located in the University area, this semi-detached five-bedroom home is arranged over three floors - there's even a rear garden and off-road parking too.
Only a few minutes' drive from the charming town of Marlow, this two-bedroom home sits on the private riverside estate of Harleyford.
This detached four-bedroom home in Middleyard is arranged over two floors, with features that include a wood-burning stove and bespoke oak staircase.
In a row of eight detached Georgian residences, this five-bedroom home offers views of The Sound, Mount Edgcumbe and Cornwall from its impressive veranda and full-length balcony.
If you love cooking for friends this two-bedroom flat - complete with views of the iconic Battersea Power Station and an open-plan kitchen/dining area - will go down a treat.
Located above Grasmere village, this five-bedroom home is arranged over three floors and offers countryside views across Grasmere Lake towards Silver Howe.
This four-bedroom detached home comes with a double carport, useful workshop, garden and two walkways that offer views of the adjacent countryside.
With space for an equestrian business, a greenhouse for growing your own veg, a wine store and a gym; this five-bedroom home has all the ingredients for a country retreat.
The decked roof terrace of this two-bedroom flat is perfect for summer drinks while large windows and ample storage space make for a light and spacious interior.
Set sail for this four-bedroom farmhouse in Cowes. With five acres of land and an indoor pool, this home oozes character. There is even potential to let a one-bedroom annexe.
Surrounded by approximately 15 acres of grounds, this six-bedroom grade II-listed home has been extensively refurbished yet retains many period features.
This four-bedroom home comes with a two-bedroom cottage and commercial office, with planning to extend, in a stunning courtyard setting.
In a pretty Norfolk village, this four-bedroom family home is surrounded by landscaped gardens, with even a self-contained annex for guests.
A few miles from the seaside at Perranporth, this four-bedroom farmhouse sits amongst nine acres of idyllic grounds - including a lake and two barns used as holiday lets.
This five-bedroom home is arranged over three floors of a converted Victorian hospital, offering spectacular views of the Pentland Hills - only three miles from the city centre.