Friday, November 2, 2007

“Get a grip, it’s not all about the chips!”
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. An all too common illustration of this axiom is how consumer electronics customers think about Micro chips. The truth that leads to the lie is “not all chips are the same”. True, all things being equal, some chips are better than others. It is undisputable that certain ultra famous brand twenty dollar D.A.C.’s (digital to analog converters) are much better than two dollar, off-shore D.A.C.’s. It then stands to reason that that all products using the 20$ chips are better than ones using less expensive ones, right? Wrong! The missing piece to the puzzle that most consumers lack can be summed up in one word: Implementation.
“Little plastic caterpillars”
We have all seen said chips, little plastic caterpillars with a plethora of tiny, tin legs or a square, black Necco wafer fringed with a skirt of little metal knees. Powerful as these devices are, on their own they do nothing. First of all, they need power, with all the ‘clean power’ rhetoric bandied about these days; it should come as no surprise that the quality of a power supply design can affect the functionality and reliability of these tiny miracle workers. Even more important than the power is the accompanying circuitry. The analog output stage of a portable CD player is no match for a mid-fi home audio unit, whose performance is no match for a high end player, even if they did have the same D.A.C., due to the care and skill of the circuit designer, as well as the money spent on the associated electronic components.
More complex integrated circuits like surround processors and video scalars have scores of features available to the engineer designing the unit the chip goes in. It is unlikely, and probably unnecessary, for any one unit to utilize all those features; but to what good use and how many of the useful features end up in your setup menu all depends, once again, on the skill of the engineer.
“How many hardware engineers does it take to Screw in a light bulb? None, we’ll fix it in software!”
Once the features, uses and complementing circuitry are determined, a software engineer has to make them all work. The software to control a chip is often custom done by product and not something you buy off-the–shelf like the actual chip. Any home computer user is all to familiar with endless software updates and patches, often continuing for years after a product is released, sold and assumed to be ‘done’, because software can be pretty darn complicated. The chips them selves are unfathomably complex devices, their internal schematics resembling an all-inclusive map of Manhattan. The operating software must not only navigate the streets and buildings, but the rooms within those building and wires and pluming within the walls of those rooms, starting to get the picture?
“All things being equal”
All things are never equal. A famous and once revered video scalar chip company decided they wanted to sell more chips and get their name more out in the public. They sold their scalar chip to companies making low cost, poorly designed video processors, who proudly stamped the chip makers’ name on the front of the units. Some of those scalars performed terribly and were notoriously unreliable. Word got out and the consumers, albeit wrongly, blamed the chips. Shoddy implementation destroyed the only real asset any electronics company has, their brand equity.
“I’m in love with my car”
Automotive illustrations often ring true when talking about electronics, so here is a little story to further illustrate my point. An auto repair shop I once frequented had 2 very cool things lying around the place, a 1950’s MG roadster with no motor and a Jaguar V12 engine. The boys decided they would merge the two and customers ogled their progress over the months as they moved back the fire wall, modified the frame and basically completely re-built the car to accept the V12. One fine spring day the project was finally done and the pushed the car out of the garage to fire it up for the first time. No matter how gently the clutch was released, the car just sat in one place while the tires slowly spun at the idle speed of the engine. Even the slightest feathering of the gas pedal simply caused the rear of the car to jump up and down while it slowly rotated around front end, the car completely unable to gain traction. The mechanics had taken two fabulous car parts and created a vehicle that did not work at all. Poor implementation had done them in.
“There is more than one way to skin a cat”
The A/V industry is fraught with urban legends of electronics, units w/ this chip or that technology are always better, negative feedback is always bad, Class “A” amps are always better. There are many different ways to design a device for a specific purpose, if there were not, all stereos would sound the same, all TV’s would look alike and only marketing departments would be needed in our industry. Before you make a buying decision based on a touted technology, design class, a must have connector or a phantom surround mode, remember that none of that stuff is worth is worth a dime with out proper implementation. In our world full of false universal axioms, there is one you can take to the bank: All things are NEVER equal.