Sunday, February 07, 2010

More Not Always Better ...Nor Less Cheaper

One of my favorite vintage TV programs is “Home Improvement.” Tim Allen’s escapades seemed to always center on making things, that were working just fine, even better. His mantra, “MORE POWER” got him into more trouble. Tim, like many of us, falls victim to the conviction that “more” is always “better.” I know I have made the mistake of putting “one more turn” on that faucet connection only to cause a leak or just a bit more fertilizer on the lawn to make it greener only to see it turn brown.

Just as in plumbing and gardening, there are examples in home electronics that more is not always better. A friend of mine related his frustration recently with his HDTV set. He lives out in the country away from all cable and chooses not to use a satellite service. So he gets his TV using an antenna. (Yes kids, TV does not need a wire.) Living on a high hill he was able to get almost all the local stations and even some from as far away as Lexington and Dayton. But he could not get Channel 9.

One day, after spending hours trying in vane to point the antenna just right, he happened to see his neighbor in the yard. He asked the neighbor if he was getting Channel 9. His neighbor said that he had a great picture from that channel and proceeded to show my friend the antenna he was using. Instead of a large amplified outdoor antenna, the neighbor had an inexpensive antenna set up on the floor behind the couch. The TV that it was connected to had a perfect picture from Channel 9 and the other local DTV stations.

Returning home, my friend was understandably confused and frustrated. His antenna was more powerful but did not work. Going back home he disconnected the antenna amplifier and, mirabile visu, a perfect picture from Channel 9 appeared.

For readers of this column, you may remember that I have discussed that over-amplification of digital signals can be as bad as a weak signal. (My friend needs to get a subscription to the Harrison Press.) But to my friend and many others this fix seems counterintuitive. More should always be better.

There are lots of examples where the obvious solution is not always the right solution.

For example, many of us want to reduce our electricity bills and have installed compact fluorescent replacement bulbs throughout our homes. While these energy saving lamps are great, there are applications that they will actually cost you more money. Since the upfront cost of these bulbs is much higher than regular incandescent lamps, some of the savings come from the longer life of the bulbs. The life of the bulbs is significantly decreased by repeated on and off cycles. It is not a good idea to use these in bathrooms, storage closets or other areas that have many on and off cycles per day. The bulbs will fail sooner and need to be replaced and the old ones safely discarded.

So more is not always better and less is not always cheaper and new technology hardly ever simple.

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