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In an Era of ‘Smart’ Things, Sometimes Dumb Stuff Is Better

It still feels magical to light up your living room by saying “Alexa, turn on the lights.” But with all the hype surrounding so-called smart things — everyday devices that are connected to the internet — it’s easy to forget that sometimes the dumb stuff is just better.

Tech companies are adding internet connections to just about everything you can imagine so that they can be controlled with smart speakers or phones. Thermostats, surveillance cameras, mosquito zappers, coffee makers — you name it.

And smart devices are becoming more popular. In 2017, 15 percent of American households owned a home automation device, up from 10 percent in April 2016, according to NPD Group, a research firm.

But before we get carried away setting up the Wi-Fi connections on all our appliances, lights and fashion accessories, let me play Luddite for a second. Some of the most mundane devices are designed to accomplish a simple task extremely well — and in some cases they still execute those duties better than their high-tech brethren.

So let’s take a moment to appreciate some of the best dumb things.

A wristwatch vs. Apple Watch

The Apple Watch, by all measures, is a hit. The latest iteration of the Apple Watch, called Series 3, is fast, water-resistant and versatile with long battery life, making it a superb smart watch for tracking your fitness activity.

Yet a normal wristwatch is still superior at one crucial task: Telling the time.

The Apple Watch’s screen wakes up when you tilt your wrist at an angle, which indicates you are trying to check the time. That helps conserve battery life. But any Apple Watch wearer is familiar with situations where this feature gets frustrating.

While riding a bicycle, for example, you often have to let go of the handle bar and lift the watch toward your face to check the time. When you’re standing on a bus or subway train and holding onto a pole, it is difficult to tilt your wrist at the correct angle to look at the time. Or when you’re in a meeting and want to see if you’re staying on schedule, flicking your wrist isn’t very subtle.

Until the Apple Watch manages to constantly display the time without sapping the battery, a normal wristwatch is better for telling the time in all those scenarios. That’s why you’ll see me wearing a normal watch at work but an Apple Watch at the gym.

A piece of paper vs. a tablet

When people buy new iPads or Amazon Fire tablets, they often give their older tablet a second life by designating it for the kitchen. There, the ancient tablet gets mounted to the refrigerator with a magnet and becomes a glorified recipe reader.

Having tried this experiment, it’s a hassle. You often have to clean the tablet after smearing food on the screen. The battery eventually needs to be recharged. And if you want to double or halve a recipe, you have to do some mental math, which makes multitasking more challenging when you are busy in the kitchen.

Printing out or jotting down a recipe on a piece of paper is just simpler. You can easily scribble additional notes, like changes and improvements to the recipe. Assuming you have decent handwriting, it’s easy to read the steps and ingredients.

And if it gets covered in food, you can just throw it away.

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