/ Home & Energy, Technology

How hi-tech are your home appliances?

Fridge

Is your washing machine a boring white box, or is it a smart, wi-fi connected model pre-loaded with apps to make cleaning your clothes as much fun as playing games on your smartphone?

Modern kitchen appliances are getting pretty good at their fundamental tasks, whether that’s washing, freezing, heating or drying. To stand out in the crowd even the most everyday appliances compete to have the fanciest features.

Two years ago my colleague Lisa Galliers asked you which appliance features are essential and which ones you could happily live without. Since then, some technologies have moved on and become more widespread.

Apps for appliances

Smart technology is the latest fad in kitchen appliances, with products from fridge freezers to washing machines coming equipped with built-in wi-fi and apps to help you communicate with them wherever you are using a smartphone. Handy if you’re too lazy to get off the sofa and press actual buttons.

I’m not opposed to appliances having more user-friendly controls and the option to customise settings, but I am worried about how quickly a smart appliance might become obsolete. If the touchscreen display on my washing machine breaks, how much will the repairs cost?

Techy tumbles and fancy fridge freezers

Even the good old tumble dryer is getting hi-tech, with energy-saving heat-pump technology becoming more common and more affordable. The up-front cost of buying a heat-pump dryer is usually high, but the low running costs seem more and more tempting as energy bills rise.

When you buy a new fridge freezer, you probably want it to do a good job of the basics – namely keeping food safely chilled or frozen. But some models now come with features that claim to keep your food fresher for longer, such as humidity-controlled salad crisper drawers. Some fridge freezers even contain devices that release ‘active oxygen’, with the claim that this technology cuts down on bacteria formation and nasty smells.

Have you bought a new appliance recently? Did you feel overwhelmed by different features to choose between, or was it easy to find a machine that simply does a great job of the basics?

Comments
Member

Our fairly basic dishwasher, washing machine and tumble drier have programmes we never use. I’m all for products that do their main jobs well and are not overcomplicated – and I don’t want to pay lots more for features I don’t need and that may increase unreliability. As for energy-saving measures, I think any additional cost needs to be balanced against energy savings – heat pump driers are a good example. There are other ways to save energy – use a drying line outside when the weather is nice (it has been forecast!), use your drier at night if you have economy 7, use a clothes horse…… As a cynic I see many of these extra gadgets as grown-ups toys that are used to get more money out of your wallets and tempt you to discard perfectly good appliances in the name of technology. Curved screen TVs…….

Member
Edward says:
1 March 2014

I agree.We no longer use the tumble drier,having used the outside line when good weather & the heat generated by our woodburner,which we light in the evenings anyway

Member

Why would I need to “communicate” with my freezer and what’s the point of being able to control the washing machine from my sofa when I still have to get up and load/unload it?

Gimmicks.

Member

Phil, I suppose you could always use your smart phone from the sofa to ring someone to load and unload your machine?

Member

My washing machine is over 30 years old, so that predates gadgetry. I found I rarely used my tumble drier, so that was disposed of after taking up valuable space for ten years.

My view is that consumer durables should last a long time and that does not fit in well with technology, which will soon become dated.

Member

The main consideration for any product design should be for it to achieve the required function with the minimum of complexity. There is a story, possibly apocryphal, about the CEO of a pre-war radio receiver manufacturing company. According to the story he would wander round the product development area and cut out a component from one of the radios being developed. If the radio continued working OK, he would sack the designer! A bit harsh, perhaps, but shows a good appreciation of what is needed.

These days there seems to be a tendency to add bells and whistles more to hoodwink the uninitiated than to make the product better. My favourite example is a simple one, the liquid soap dispenser. There is a product on the market which senses a hand and dispenses a shot of soap without physical contact being required. It is said that this prevents the user picking up bacteria that may have been left by a previous user. This does rather beg the question about the purpose of dispensing the soap, which is to wash one’s hands and thereby remove such things as bacteria. In fact, the arrangement could actually go against the needs of hygiene. What happens when the battery fails? Would this mean that it is not possible to get at the soap?

Member

Tonyp – While I am strongly opposed to unnecessary complexity and keen on having a simple user interface, the best designs are sometimes more complex.

Some years ago it was easy to destroy expensive laptop computer batteries by leaving them on charge for long periods, whereas better laptops had more sophisticated circuitry and it did not matter if they were connected to the mains all day. I hope this problem is history by now.

Suppression of radio/TV interference and inclusion of good safety features are other examples of greater complexity resulting in a much better product. Mains-powered items often don’t have a proper power switch. On the grounds of safety and power wastage, that should not be allowed.

Having repaired some of these pre-war radios you mention, over-simplification was not a good idea then and the same applies today. CEOs should stick to what they are competent at. 🙂

Member

Wavechange: I think you are confusing the difference between good design and unnecessarily overcomplicated design. Sometimes, as you say, there can be a good reason for additional complexity whereas what I was talking about was the addition of complexity for its own sake. In my previous life I ran an R&D department working on safety-critical avionic systems. It was often necessary to add significant complexity in order to meet system integrity requirements – a matter of trading reliability for integrity – but this is quite different from adding complexity simply because it seems to be a good marketing ploy.

The main reason for the improvement in battery life in, for instance, laptop computers is more down to the technology of the batteries than anything else. NiCd batteries had a very poor life capability, especially if re-charged after partial discharge, and hated continuous trickle charge.. NiMH batteries were much better but the latest form of Li-ion have excellent performance in all respects.

Suppression of interference and safety features are examples of good design not of unnecessary complexity, so are not particularly relevant to the discussion.

The CEO I mentioned in my previous post, by the way, was the founder of the company and a noted radio designer and innovator, so I guess he WAS sticking to his area of competence!