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Returning To Sender: A Cable Conundrum

I often spend Friday afternoons packing up old review hardware to send back to whatever PR agency originally shipped it my way. (In case you were wondering: No, I don't get to keep any of the stuff I write about.)

This routine comes with two challenges.

The first is erasing whatever data I'd loaded on the machine, just in case the people running the company's product-loan program forget to do so and so wind up sharing my address book, calendar or e-mail with the next reviewer. With computers, that's not too hard. (See this Help File item from December for the details.) With smartphones and other gadgets, it can take some tinkering and digging into manuals, as I wrote last summer.

The second is going through all the cables and chargers on my desk to figure out which ones belong to the device I'm shipping back. This can be a much bigger problem, because I am a total slob when it comes to my desk at work, and because most electronics vendors include generic, lookalike data and power cables.

As I type this, for example, I have to pack up a TomTom Global Positioning System navigator that I reviewed for National Geographic Traveler a few months ago. It's all ready to go, but I can't find the USB cable that came in the box--most likely because I mistakenly shipped it back with some other device a few weeks back. And looking for that cable has revealed that I have at least one unidentified power brick and one USB cable floating around my desk.Oops.

Beyond inconveniencing product reviewers, these anonymous accessories also advertise how much of a product was sourced from the lowest bidder available. When you open the box and a set of no-name parts spill out, it's easy to wonder how many other corners were cut in less visible places. It's also likely that the nameless power adapter in the box was not the most efficient model available at the time.

I'd like to think that more companies would be willing to spend a few more pennies per product to come up with more distinctive components (even if it simply means getting the USB cable in a different color, like Sony's distinctive purple, or stamping the company's name on the power brick). But looking at a lineup of boxed products in the store, how would you know that one hides the same old generic accessories and the other will reveal this extra touch of refinement?

I don't think this problem's getting better anytime soon...

By Rob Pegoraro  |  May 2, 2008; 4:14 PM ET
Categories:  The business we have chosen  
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What I've done at home to help me figure out what's what under the desk is to get some of those tags with string on them and loop them around the cables. Write the name of the product the cable goes to on the tag. Pretty easy to remove if necessary.

Here's an example:

Posted by: ah | May 2, 2008 5:25 PM | Report abuse

I have bought USB hubs from different manufacturers over the years. Since it is optional to connect the power brick to a hub, I just put the power bricks away. One time I got an overload condition, so I went to my box to look for the power brick, and of course I ended up wondering which power brick is for which device. And I'd better not make a mistake in finding the right one as the output voltages from the bricks are not the same. Oops indeed.

Posted by: F Ho | May 2, 2008 6:48 PM | Report abuse

I use a tag around the cord made from masking tape and labeled with a sharpie. Also do the same to the end of the cords close to the plug as they are plugged into that big power back-up thingy or power strip.

Posted by: Rosie | May 2, 2008 7:42 PM | Report abuse

A silver sharpie works great on those black accessories-write on the brick or/and usb plug what device it powers!

Posted by: Nancy | May 2, 2008 8:44 PM | Report abuse

With respect, I disagree with you SO MUCH on this issue. It would be WONDERFUL WONDERFUL if USB cable and power supplies became commodities, and you DIDN'T have to worry about which power supply belongs with which printer/speaker/external harddrive/ etc. etc.

Let's all just get along, and plug in, or better still, go wireless (bluetooth?).

Posted by: ingbermr | May 3, 2008 7:24 AM | Report abuse

Rob, are you looking for sympathy? With the plethora of cheap labeling devices out there, there's no excuse for not having a label on every wire on or around your test bench. Maybe some device manufacturer can send you one to "test"...

Posted by: Apostrophe | May 3, 2008 7:54 AM | Report abuse

I have two "less technology abled" office on the West Coast that I'm responsible for along with an office here, and here's a great cable story.

Person gets to work one day. Realizes they left power cord for laptop at home. Grabs random cord from other laptop, plugs in.

Later that day, having problems with computer. Keeps shutting off, says it's charged, but maybe not really charged? Calls me, I try to figure it out, but don't think to ask cord question, and she doesn't volunteer it, thinking it insignificant.

Ships computer out to me, I pass over to vendor. 15 minutes later, the chuckling phone call -- wrong power cord.

I'm sure that this scenario has been repeated more than once. In this case, it involved the power cord to ONE Acer not working on ANOTHER Acer (and the brick DID say Acer, but you can see that didn't help).

The potential for this exists in my office every day that someone forgets a power cord. Users don't understand, and sometimes become angry, when told you just can't take the cord to another laptop (unless they are THE SAME).

I tell them all the time that computers are not toasters. But everyone seems to think that they are/should be....this is just another example of an area where manufacturers need to come together and go with ONE SOLUTION. It's like buying a phone charger and having it come with five different plugs to ensure that it will work....whose bright idea was that?

Posted by: BobT | May 3, 2008 8:20 AM | Report abuse

Wow...If you only have one unidentified "wall wart" power brick on your desk, you're doing really well. I have a whole box full of them. Comes the time I need one, I have to match them up to the product by studying the power tip and voltage. If they are wrong, you can quickly burn up a $200 shortwave radio, which I did once. So I'm a lot more careful now about which brick I plug into what.

Being a Design Engineer, I think your main point about the generic & inexpensive nature of accessories being an indication of the quality of a product overall is a bit off. That's like saying the quality of one's underwear is a measure of the man.

If a 2 cent screw works as well a 3 cent screw, why not use it? If there are 30 screws in the unit, I just saved $.30...sometimes the profit margin of an inexpensive electronic item.

In the case of a generic power brick or USB cable, as an engineer I can order a generic, off the shelf power brick for a $1.99 each, and I can have a 1000 of them by next Tuesday. If I need anything done to them, such as apply my company's logo to it, it now becomes a special item, and I will pay dearly for it. The price will easily jump to $3 and even worse, I may have to wait 3 months to get 10 of them. If those are approved, several more weeks to get the rest.

That's how it works whether I'm designing an $8 FM radio in China or a $300 sound mixing board in Denver. If the product life cycle is a typical 18 months to 2 years at best, I'm now three months behind before anything gets built or sold. It make much more sense to buy the generic brick and invest that time & money into the main product.

Sony and maybe a few others have the luxury of needing so many power bricks per month, that their vendor most likely has a hot brand in the fire ready to stamp "SONY" on anything that goes out the door.

Posted by: Jon K | May 3, 2008 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Couldn't companies manufacture a sticker to mail along with each item? They don't have to take the time to apply it themselves, but if it came along in the box and fit on the power brick, I'd certainly take two seconds to apply it. It's like the stickers you get when you buy blank VHS tapes (I think I'm the only person on the planet that still buys these to tape TV shows, but I digress). It's certainly a cheaper alternative to stamping the power brick. I like Sony's idea!

Posted by: cbr | May 5, 2008 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Power supply bricks, usually called "wall warts" or "line lumps" come in two basic designs. The cheaper (transformer) ones are heavy, bulky and will only work on one mains voltage. They waste a lot of power as they are on 24/7 while the load is usually on for short periods. The other type is a miniature light-weight switching supply and will work anywhere in the world with the proper plug. Read the line voltage requirement, if it says "INPUT: 100-240 VOLTS" you have the good one. However, they cost more, so often you get the transformer type with your product.

Posted by: Bill | May 7, 2008 2:08 PM | Report abuse

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