Top X: The best places to buy the worst gadgets

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Once a standard-bearer for the technological life, The Sharper Image may soon become a fading memory: its last stores close in the coming weeks. In its wake remains our voracious hunger for crap gadgets, a void that gapes from the brick and mortar of main street to the limitless web that killed it. You've doubtless been wondering where now to find janky gifts for the less interesting males in your family. Whatever your cause, enjoy our essential rundown of the best locations to get the very worst products offered in the post-Ionic world.

Brookstone

Abysmal Gizmos Galore

Following the demise of its longtime retail competitor, Brookstone is now nearly alone in its quest to serve disappointing technology to the mallgoers of America. Its oddly familiar selections include "Bob," a 5-in-1 Wobble Clock, and the Ion Dual-Ripping Cassette Deck with USB Output, for those with no knowledge of the magic format-shifting technology of bittorrent, but an almost infinite supply of free time.

Brando

USB to the Farthest Degree

Brookstone may put its collection on attractive urethane plinths, but Brando is in a league of its own. On every conceivable front, it has more, better, cheaper trash than any rival. Just today, new products include a USB Fast Food Flash Drive, a USB Cat Fan, and Sony's latest thumbdrive.

It is a cataract of crud, a deluge of dreck... but mere words are useless. Brando is best absorbed in silence, alone: just you, the universe, and its chosen serial bus. In its bosom lies every wonderful piece of brightly-colored flotsam you ever imagined–and then something really weird, like a USB elephant.

Hammacher Schlemmer

Unexpectedly banal gifts for 160 years

Though apparently just another catalog, this redoubt offers a better breed of purposeless gear, much of it concealed by genuinely high-end electronicana. One does not have to dig too deep, though, to find Golf ball-finding glasses or the robot beverage buggy.

Alibaba

The International House of Crap

It is with a little sadness that we come to Alibaba.com, an online megamall of random electronic debris. With richer pickings even than Brando, it is a virtual warehouse of everything Eastasia ever dreamt of committing to meatspace. Why, then, the melancholy note? Because almost all of it is for wholesalers only, to be bought by the thousand or not at all. This is where those "innovative" desk-vibrating speakers come from. This is where CES attendees get their promotional thumbdrives. This is the wormhole through which incendiary replacement laptop batteries ("highly safe") enter our reality.

Like lichen on an ancient sun-baked turd, however, even this cloud has a silver lining: those prepared to make the outlay get gear with their own logo on it!

Flea Markets

Surf the plastic turf

The flea markets of Silicon Valley are organized by august associations with proud histories. London's alleys hide armies of clever villains, laden with fantastic gadgets freshly liberated from the backs of lorries. And there is mighty Akihabara: by sheer volume it touches the face of space. If you want to see the transitory world of consumer electronics invested with real and humane culture, visit just one of these amazing places.

If you've got a birthday boy to please on the cheap, however, the locals have got you covered. A manky stall amid the fruit 'n' veg racks of old Europe, perhaps, or a pegboard palace erected in a doomed suburban mall. Laden with pleather cellphone holsters and dodgy chargers, such inexpensive delights lurk surprisingly close to home.

eBay

Rag and Bone for the Internet-prone

eBay started out as a place for individuals to sell broken rubbish, and inexorably grew into to a place retailers could sell rubbish that never worked to begin with. A mandatory federal recall harshing your mellow? No sign of the lawsuit-bait blinkentoy that Junior demands? There's a suggested search with your name on it at the world wide landfill: Buy it Now!

Craigslist

The Stuff of Nightmares

Let's just put it this way: It's brave man who buys a used hot-tub in Berkeley.

Skymall

Transorbital Lobotomy, No Icepick Required

Air travel. The foetor of the minicab, the chaos of check-in, the spite of the departure board. Your mind scattered, your heart a Jenga column of wrath, all that remains is your destination: the seat, the plane, past the monorail and the smelly carpet and the avenue of unpleasant restaurants. But when you make it there, it will be yours. The Book. Neatly concealed between nylon mesh and the airplane safety instructions, it waits for you, just as you wait for it.

In its dog-eared pages is a halving of the world, a mystic reapportionment of sanity and salesmanship. At 20,000 feet, a man can do strange things. Buy an electronic golf hole, perhaps, or a $190 plastic multidevice charging valet. It is a catalog with fully 18 items that marry the digital life and the wonder of defecation. What better digestif to follow a run-in with the TSA?

See also: Sky Maul

Swarovski

The Unbearable Slightness of Bling

Daniel Swarovski's original patent bears witness to an amazing discovery: Precision-crushed glass, given sufficient lead content, reflects and refracts light with the timeless brilliance of an acrylic rhinestone.

An icy temple of class, sandwiched between Build-a-Bear and Hot Topic, the Swarovski dealership is studded with a million sparkling lights. In another world , that $250,000 telephone could be yours; but here and now there is no shortage of cheaper options, each cloaked in a symphony of frozen snot.

Sharper Image

Prometheus Returns

Wait! What? Is its spirit not already with Hescheisstus, the god of unappetizing technology? Liquidation aside, this former giant's ghost is still with us, lurking in the retail nation's bargain bins and the few stores yet to close. Linens 'n' Things, itself just about ready for bankruptcy's embrace, has enough Ionic Breezes to single-handedly restore the Earth's ozone layer, should it wish to. A trip to your local Macy's will turn up a curious proliferation of recognizable items.

Moreover, there is now the promise of resurrection: Sorry to keep you in the dark. But, there's something big coming. Soon. Stay tuned," the official website declares.

Redemption or legerdemain? Come what may: forget synchronicity and forget divine intervention.

But whatever you do, don't forget the return policy.

Published by Rob Beschizza

Follow Rob @beschizza on Twitter.

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20 Comments

  1. Craigslist = me, at work (it’s 8:30 AM where I live), laughing ’til my eyes watered. Thankfully no one was around, or I might have been forced to explain why I was laughing…

  2. Thinkgeek.com

    For every one good item there are scads of useless chum and USB sucking items galore.

    I’ve dealt with their customer service…it was not…pleasant.

  3. Wasn’t the web that killed Sharper Image as much as it was a series of costly lawsuits, both as plantiff and defendant. The above link is to an absolutely fascinating article about the rise and fall of Richard Thalheimer, the ousted founder of Sharper Image. It’s like King Lear, only with massager chairs and motorized tie racks.

  4. Seconding DealExtreme. You can find about a dozen different kinds of “digital buddhist jukeboxes.” I gave in and bought the “Ultimate” one, and OF COURSE it arrived pre-broken due to exceptionally low-quality point-to-point floating solder joint wiring with extra-cold joints.

    HOWEVER, the customer reviews often make up for the occasional hassle: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zV-VyLJokmk

    (Yes, I have a collection of these “buddha boxes” because I was given one at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Ukiah, CA. As the video says, they are very soothing.)

    And yeah, the “aureole around Buddha” does in fact shine “when switch on” http://www.dealextreme.com/productimages/sku_6058_5.jpg

    Anyway, I also got a pile of <$1 LED keychain lights with batteries included -- actually good value, and a bunch of powerful magnets, which are so thin they will shatter in normal use. I also got a string of LED xmas lights that are better than the ones in local hardware stores. Just remember: everything is coming from Taiwan. It's going to take a while.

  5. Odd. Previous comment should say that I got:

    1) A pile of teeny LED keychain flashlights for less than $1 each. Since these included batteries, and they work well enough, it’s a deal.

    2) A bunch of Neodymium magnets that are so thin that they shatter when you look at them funny.

    So yeah, some of it’s useful crap, some is useless crap. Some arrives broken.

  6. Shite Gear Hamper for the mega win!

    I really don’t want to spit coffee all over my still new-ish monitor please.

    I’m really taking a shine to this site.
    The writing is great between everyone here.

  7. By the time I was 14 I had the Mallard Duck Quacking phone, The Wave Machine and a remote control boat that lasted two days (because i took it apart to see if I could put it back together slightly customized as more of a war machine) all from the Sharper Image.

    I think they went to shit somewhere around there.

    Anyone who bought their stuff as an actual adult have no excuses.

    RIP TSI

  8. Good writing there Rob!

    How is it you guys here in Gadgets can make some supposed pros round these parts look like complete shills?

  9. Ohmigod ohmigod ohmigod the Sharper Image is coming back !!!!!

    I wonder what their big surprise could be.

    Could it be…a USB-powered nose hair trimmer???

  10. @1 & @11:

    Same here…I was stifling laughter with tears in my eyes. This bears repeating:

    “Do go ahead and sh*t in the hot tub in the company of four other grown men you’ve never met after downing 10 tacos and a gallon of milk 12 hours previous, but

    4)Please refrain from smoking.

    because that might make people uncomfortable, and frankly it’s just unhealthy and smells bad.”

  11. I just love this quote from the Brando About Us page:

    “We deliver happiness and convenience to everyone.”

    With that promise, and a bewildering variety of bizarre usb products, who wouldn’t want to have a go?

    Still, it is disappointing to see what isn’t available… no clamshell phones that look like clams?

  12. @15 Ross: “You slighted Radio Shack?”

    Radio Shack is to receive our special attentions.

  13. You really outdid yourself with this one, Rob. But Brando is in a-not-entirely-distant second place with descriptions like this (from the Hellfaux Kitty fan page):

    In the hot summer, you can bring it wherever you go or just put it on your working desk, then you will feel the coolness penetrating your heart…..

    …yeah.

  14. Radio Shack is to receive our special attentions.

    I was recently surprised to learn that even the hole-in-the-wall RadioShack stores still carry their brand of radio scanners and accordingly related radio and CB equipment and adapters which are otherwise specialty items even online. When I needed a BNC-to-SMA adapter, of all places, the RadioShack two blocks away had it for $5.

    Though they still can’t compete with DigiKey and Mouser to sell electronics parts like they used to.

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