The £50 gadget challenge: We test the best quality bargains
Once, cheap technology wasn't worth having. Now quality bargains are everywhere. Tim Walker picks the best – and puts them to the test
We're all technophiles now. Stop the man in the street and ask him to empty his pockets, chances are you'll find at least two electronic gadgets, most likely a mobile phone and an MP3 player.
Perhaps he has a compact games console, too, a digital camera or even a Blackberry. A few years back, this would have guaranteed a mugger a haul worth a grand or more. But these days many high-quality electronic items can be acquired for less than £50.
It's all down to economies of scale, argues Keith Jones, managing director of PC World. "There's no stopping new advances in technology, and as newer methods of manufacturing and design help to cut costs, more people are buying more devices and the laws of supply and demand kick in, so prices for the consumer come down."
There are other factors that explain the quality of our selection of sub-£50 gear. First is the emergence of the Asian manufacturing base – factories in China knock out countless gadgets every day, driving prices down in the UK, and forcing premium brands like Sony or Apple to embrace the budget market.
Second, the explosion in consumer technology has boosted development to such a pace that today's cutting-edge kit is tomorrow's bargain basement. While there are brand-new technologies that still cost a fortune, the average consumer hasn't registered their existence yet. By the time they become mainstream, they too will be affordable.
THE MP3 PLAYER
Sony NWD-B103B, £34.99
How good is it? Better than the iPod Shuffle (which costs £15 more) and than any of its less well-known competitors, according to Stuff magazine. The Sony is the size of a cigarette lighter and, unlike its Apple rival, has a screen to show which track you're playing.
Why is it so cheap? These days, Chinese brands are flooding the UK market with some success, forcing Apple and Sony to produce more affordable players. Only Bose and Bang & Olufsen continue to make exclusively high-end products.
Why would you spend more? The single gigabyte is no good for storing a library of music. It's mainly useful as a second MP3 player for those times when you can't be bothered to lug around that unwieldy 80GB one.
Stockist: Dixons ( www.dixons.co.uk )
THE iPOD DOCK
Intempo IDS05 B, £49.99 (iPod not included)
How good is it? With two crisp-sounding treble speakers flanking your iPod (any model will fit in the dock, naturally), and a mini bass woofer chugging away at the back, the IDS-05B can cope with anything from Ed Harcourt to happy hardcore.
Why is it so cheap? The huge demand for iPod accessories has driven down prices, and competition is spread across many lesser-known brands.
Why would you spend more? There are some really high-quality systems available from luxury brands such as Bose, but this little black box makes paying top dollar for a mid-range dock unnecessary.
Stockist: Amazon ( www.amazon.co.uk )
THE DIGITAL PHOTO FRAME
Matsui 7" PF-A703W Digital Photo Frame, £49.99
How good is it? It does the job, and looks tasteful enough. The Matsui takes memory cards so that you don't have to be connected to your PC to see your photos, and it can run a slideshow or display a single photo. Two years ago it would have cost almost three times as much.
Why is it so cheap? An LCD screen used to be the most expensive component of almost any piece of technology it graced. But large demand from companies with a lot of influence – Nokia, Sony, Apple – has forced the cost of LCD production down. Now a small screen costs next to nothing to produce.
Why would you spend more? This model is only compatible with Windows, so Mac users might have to pass. The most up-to-date digital photo frames are not only Wi-Fi enabled, they can also screen movies and play MP3s. But for that you would have to fork out three figures.
Stockist: PC World ( www.pcworld.co.uk )
Logik IR100 Internet Radio, £39.99
How good is it? The winner in the best budget digital radio stakes has long been the Evoke Pure1, but this Logik internet radio has the added bonus of receiving stations from across the world – about 5,000 of them – as long as you have Wi-Fi access. It's quite a big beast as radios go, but the black styling is smart. You can also stream audio files from your PC to the radio anywhere in your Wi-Fi networked home.
Why is it so cheap? Digital and Wi-Fi may be new to many of us, but to those who know their gadgets, it's all a bit passé. Now that the technology is mainstream, it's also affordable.
Why would you spend more? For an internet radio? Good question. But if you've no Wi-Fi then you might want a simple digital radio instead. You wouldn't want to give your granny a new wireless for Christmas only to find that she didn't have, er, wireless.
Stockist: Currys ( www.currys.co.uk )
Bush DFTA1001 Digital Scart Adaptor, £39.96
How good is it? As good as larger models, and more discreet – only a tiny receiver is visible from the front of your TV set. Because it's so small, it's ideal for a two-TV family to stick behind the telly in the kitchen.
Why is it so cheap? It's better to ask why other Freeview boxes are so expensive. They all contain near-identical technology, so this little chunk of plastic with a Scart plug is essentially as effective as a £120 premium-brand box. Its size is also a cost-cutter, as it can be shipped in far greater quantities than competitors for the same price.
Why would you spend more? Freeview is fine, but more and more people are upgrading to the offerings of Sky and its rivals, all of which provide a box with their contracts – as well as hundreds more potential channels.
Stockist: Argos ( www.argos.co.uk )
THE DVD PLAYER
Toshiba SD-370E with HDMI, £49.99
How good is it? The latest generation of budget Toshibas can do far more than their pricier predecessors could. Not long ago, this would have cost hundreds of pounds. Now, for under £50, you can upgrade conventional DVD images to higher resolutions for compatible HD televisions, or read DivX videos from CD-Rs and CD-RWs, meaning that you could use it to watch those episodes of Heroes that you downloaded on the quiet.
Why is it so cheap? The DVD player is the home entertainment equivalent of the mobile phone: its near-ubiquity has forced down manufacturing costs, and the prevalence of cheap competitors has pushed premium brands into the budget market.
Why would you spend more? For those who simply have to have the best, the next generation of DVDs are split between rival formats, Blu-Ray and HD-DVD. Both have better video quality and better sound quality than DVD, but only one is likely to become mainstream. The other's manufacturers will end up having sunk vast sums of money into a failed format. Of the two, says Findlater, Blu-Ray has the technological edge and should win out. But that's what they said about Betamax.
Alcatel OT-E 201, £8
How good is it? Better than its nearest name-brand competitor (the £25 Motorola F3) says Will Findlater, of Stuff magazine. If you think phones are for phoning and texting, this model is unbeatable, pricewise. It even looks OK.
Why is it so cheap? Mobile phones have become essential, hence huge demand, constant development and swift deflation in prices. This model has all the necessary features – calling and texting – but none of the frills, so its manufacture carries none of the costs associated with camera phones and the like. And without the flashy functions, it has a long battery life.
Why would you spend more? To get the extras – video screens, Wi-Fi access, etc – and the styling: much like Henry Ford's affordable Model T, it comes only in black.
Stockist: Woolworths, with Orange Pay As You Go ( www.woolworths.co.uk )
THE HARD DRIVE
Seagate FreeAgent 250GB, £43.99
How good is it? It hums very quietly, unlike some models, and it's attractive, with a slim orange light to let you know it's awake.
Why is it so cheap? Once again, demand: the more digital photos, downloaded TV series and home-made concept albums, the more digital space is required to store it all. A 4GB USB memory stick will now set you back a mere £29; in 2001, according to Keith Jones of PC World, just 128Mb would have cost a whopping £299.
Why would you spend more? Some smart hard drives have not only wireless connectivity, but the option to email files to them. So even if your laptop is stolen in Bangkok, you can be sure that that travelogue you're writing is safe in a little box on your desk in the UK.