How my new electric shaver changes the way I shave (and illustrates bandwidth vs. latency)

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Philips 7240 XL Shaver

I've been using electric shavers for over a decade, going through three separate shavers, and I've had a pretty stable shaving habits in that time. But my new electric shaver has changed everything.

I'd usually shave every other day or so though with major variations -- sometimes maintaining my unshaved Mountain Man look for months, sometimes shaving every day. It just depended, though my default state was a bit stubbly.

I recently bought a new Philips 7240 XL shaver, and everything's changed -- suddenly I'm shaving every day now.

Every electric shaver I owned before was slow, but effective; they would take several minutes to neatly clean off a day's growth, or tens of minutes to work through weeks of growth. It always took a while to shave, but when I did, my shaver performed admirably.

I find it next to impossible to get my new shaver to shave multiple days of growth; it seems anemic and underpowered. But boy, is it fast. I just rub it over my face for less than a minute, and a single day's growth disappears. My new shaver rewards daily shaving because it's so quick, and punishes occasional shaving, because it does such a poor job of taking off many days of growth.

I like to think of capacity to remove large quantities of facial hair as analogous to high bandwidth, and startup speed as latency. My old shavers had high bandwidth (they removed a lot), but took a while to start (low latency). My new shaver removes little hair (low bandwidth), but gets started fast (low latency).

This is a bit like switching from desktop email client software like Eudora or Outlook to an AJAX-based system like Gmail. The desktop client tools work great when you can sync large quantities of data, and are set up to reward latency-insensitive batch operations. Gmail, on the other hand, transfers only small to medium quantities of data at a time, but demands high latency.

When dealing with hardware, designers' choices tend to get deeply embedded into the system. Software tools can be more flexibly adapted (e.g. Gmail's non-AJAX mode, which allows for use on lower-latency connections; or its IMAP interface, allowing for use with desktop clients.) As a software guy, I have a lot of respect for hardware folks, who are boxed into final unalterable decicions, and yet can still go ahead and make bold decisions. If it were me, I wouldn't have had the guts to design a somewhat-ineffective-but-really-fast shaver; I'm glad Philips did.

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Anirvan Chatterjee is a San Francisco Bay Area tech geek and bibliophile.

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This page contains a single entry by Anirvan Chatterjee published on January 13, 2009 3:31 PM.

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