Vestigial Tales

Why the products you use every day, especially electronics, might come with parts or functions you weren’t expecting or have no actual use for.

Today in Tedium: When I was 7 years old, I got a drum kit for Christmas, a purchase I’m sure my parents regretted instantly, realizing that they should have gotten me the NES I actually wanted instead. It was Shirt Tales-themed, and the same one Josh Groban also apparently owned. Fortunately for them, I wasn’t actually that interested in it. I played it probably a half-dozen times, leading to anger around the house for making noise. But one day, I got curious, and ended up discovering something that blew my mind. I opened up the bass drum with the graphic of the Shirt Tales characters on the front, wondering what was inside, and found on the other side of it a completely different graphic from the Shirt Tales image located on the front, a design of kids playing music that instantly dated the kit to the early 1970s. It was mind blowing. And I honestly remember that more than the kit itself. And as a result, it makes me curious about things that are produced and manufactured with elements that often, by neglect or design, fall into disuse. Today’s Tedium talks about the unexpected surprises hiding in products you own. — Ernie @ Tedium

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Hidden Button

There’s a hidden button under the spot where my finger is sitting.

Why manufacturers make things that have hidden extra parts

So the thing that got me thinking about this topic is a remote I received for a fan I recently bought. This fan has really come in handy—it’s much quieter than the device that replaced it, and the remote allows me to turn the fan off and on without having to get up during a Zoom call.

But when I was poking around with the remote, I realized something very surprising: The remote has five buttons in rows of two, with the bottom row including a lone button on the right side. One would think to center it, but that wasn’t done, leaving an empty spot on the bottom row. For some reason, I felt the desire to press the empty spot, only to realize that under the layer of plastic was a non-functioning button.

Laser Keyboard Hidden Keys

For some reason, my keyboard had extra spots to install keys on its PCB.

It’s not the only time I’ve run into something like this. Recently, I opened up the Laser keyboard that is the exact model of the one I used as a kid to clean it out and found that there were spots for soldering in keys that were not accounted for in the design of the plastic, which (had they been used) would have put the inverted-T shape of the arrow keys into something more of a cross-shaped design. (A 30-year-old keyboard is full of surprises.)

Cable Box

It may look like this extremely dirty wired remote has a short cable, but the truth is that most of the cable is hiding inside of the main unit, and it’s quite long.

And a couple years back, I bought a cable box from the 1980s because I was hoping to write about it sometime, which I’ve yet to do. I got curious, because I was hoping to explain its story and contextualize the evolution of this particular device, and in the process, I opened it up—and discovered approximately 80 percent of the box was made up of a gigantic cable, which makes sense because the remote is wired and sometimes people want to use a remote on the other side of the room.

That one seems to make some logical sense, but what about the remote with an extra button or the keyboard with extra spots for installing keys? My best guess is that there is some major cost-saving at play in these designs.

Let’s think about this from a software perspective. If you build a website, odds are that it will use many of the same building blocks as the last website you made. Maybe you’ll swap out some small parts, but the basic roots are likely going to be the same. So why not save time and reuse some of those parts?

The general concepts of open-source software often lead to the reuse of elements, and many of those reused elements come with a variety of things that aren’t necessary to the operation of a given use case, but are included anyway.

This is also the case in manufacturing. If you’re producing things at scale, with modest differences between one device and another, you don’t want to create 100 unique devices just to do small variations on the same thing. If you’re building, say, alarm clocks, it’s more cost-effective to adapt an existing design, take features you don’t expect to use, and cover them up, rather than spending the money to redesign an entire circuit board, especially if that board is sourced from an outside vendor.

There is a concept in government sourcing that is worth bringing up in this context, Consumer-Off-the-Shelf (COTS) technology, which basically refers to hardware or software that is purchased in lieu of creating something custom. 18F, the digital services arm of the U.S. government, has a great piece discussing COTS in software use cases, with many of its lessons easily applicable to hardware.

And there are some products that actually do this. Some Internet of Things devices use off-the-shelf hardware and modify it through software or hardware to make it do what it needs to do. This is particularly common in use cases like embedded systems, which may rework existing hardware platforms like the Raspberry Pi and Arduino to speed up development. (The makers of these devices actually promote these use cases.) The makers of this hardware may not necessarily need all of the bells and whistles of the primary tool, but given the narrow audience of the product they’re creating, it allows for a quick ramp-up of a design.

But the opposite is also true. Perhaps you’re a manufacturer of a lot of different devices, and to simplify the manufacturing of the electronics in those devices, you include things that most variants won’t need, or that you decide to include just in case.

Many video game consoles fit into this territory, including proprietary expansion ports that are intended for future add-ons. Many of Nintendo’s early consoles—the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Super NES, and the Nintendo 64—contained such ports, but actual devices that worked with each port were rare, especially outside of Japan.

The Super NES, which was long rumored to be getting a CD-ROM add-on, instead got the Satellaview, a Japan-only device intended for distributing games via satellite radio. The Nintendo 64 got the 64DD, a disk drive peripheral that, again, didn’t ship outside of Japan.

American gamers had to wait until the release of the GameCube to actually get a device that actually used its expansion port for anything, in that case, the Game Boy Player.

NES Expansion Port

The NES’ infamously unused expansion port lies behind this sheet of plastic.

But the NES had an expansion port that never actually saw wide release for any peripherals that actually used the expansion port. The closest it got, in fact, was a modem intended for connection to a lottery system in Minnesota, but that never saw release beyond a tiny test market.

(Speaking of the NES: Many early Nintendo cartridges were rush-released into the U.S. market, and to save time, Nintendo basically reused the boards from the existing Japanese Famicom cartridges, plugged them into Famicom-to-NES adapters, and sold them that way. Some hardcore collectors of NES games can generally detect the added weight that these adapters add to the carts, which are usually mostly hollow.)

Sometimes you include something not because you need it now, but because you might need it later. Or maybe you don’t need it at all but it was cheaper to include it than to remove it.

“I know GM is a company and like all companies there’s absurd rules that make no real sense but just exist, anyway. I understand that. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t at least a tiny bit of madness.”

— Jalopnik Senior Editor Jason Torchinsky, discussing the unusual inclusion of a diesel glow plug dashboard light on a C8 Corvette, despite the fact that the vehicle does not have a diesel engine. (In fact, any Corvette with a diesel engine is usually a custom job.) GM basically told him that the spot for the light was included on the vehicle basically because of standardization rules in other markets, but that it intended to remove the spot for the light in future models.

Austin Evans uncovered a whole bunch of empty space where a disc drive used to be in the Xbox One S All-Digital.

Five examples of common devices designed with unusual, unnecessary, or unused hidden elements

  1. Xbox One S All-Digital. This device is basically the perfect example of a piece of hardware that was cheaply reworked from existing hardware. As teardown videos from Austin Evans and iFixIt highlight, it’s basically the same hardware as the regular Xbox One S, except without a slot for inserting a disc and with a metal shield where the drive was supposed to be. They literally took the disk drive out and replaced it with a piece of metal.
  2. Smartphones with built-in FM radios. For years, many smartphones technically came with the ability to play back FM radio signals, but the functionality was disabled by manufacturers who saw this as extraneous. This led to a campaign by the National Association of Broadcasters to get the functionality turned back on, but Apple and other manufacturers emphasized that it was disabled at the hardware level.
  3. The hidden microphone in the Google Nest Secure. When you build a device that appears to be very similar in design to an existing device, perhaps it makes sense to borrow from its DNA, as the Nest Secure seems like a more security-focused variant of the Google Nest Mini smart speaker. Problem was, the company forgot to mention that the device came with a built-in microphone, a function that was only revealed when a feature was added to the security device. The company claimed it was an oversight.
  4. The PlayStation Vita’s “mystery port.” Early models of the PS Vita came with an unusually shaped port that was not used for any hardware, new or existing, leading to a lot of speculation in the community. Years later, console hackers realized it was a USB variant that could prove handy for modding the system, and took steps to hack custom cables for it.
  5. The USB ports on the back of television sets. One could argue that these ports have gained use cases over time—certainly, the Chromecast makes clever use of them as a charging port, and they can come in handy for LED backlighting—but when TV sets first started including them, they existed largely for diagnostic purposes, rather than for purely functional reasons. In some cases you could likely load media files from them, but odds are if you have an external device, it will handle them significantly better than anything your TV could do. There was a period where TVs came with a lot of extraneous ports, but they’re eventually winnowing down to mostly HDMI.

Jewel Cases

The black disc trays were hiding some valuable real estate for record labels to slather art all over. (Brett Jordan/Flickr)

Why the area directly below the tray in CDs eventually became clear

As I pointed out in a 2018 piece, compact discs initially had significant issues with packaging as record stores struggled to find ways to make the smaller discs compatible with displays set up for vinyl records.

From a design perspective, this didn’t make a lot of sense, as it added a lot of extra real estate for artwork but without really using that space efficiently. I have at times gotten pushback from longbox fans for pointing this out, but the truth of the matter is, it was an inefficient design.

But what makes it even more maddening is that early jewel cases didn’t even properly take advantage of the real estate they actually had for visual elements. See, early on, the inlays of CD cases were often a solid color, usually matte black, with the tray insert behind it remaining blank. It doesn’t take a design major to realize that this was a prime place for additional art.

And even before clear jewel cases became common, this is what a few artists did. In one famous example, the alternative rock band Sonic Youth hid a very graphic photo under the black jewel case holder of its 1992 album Dirty. You couldn’t see the photo unless you lifted up the plastic on the jewel case (which, I’m not sure if you remember, but this was actually kind of difficult to do). And if you did, you got a bit of a surprise from a couple of performance artists.

But as the longbox was transitioned out, the CD industry actually decided to do something with this unloved part of the case. One of the first players on this front was the reissue label Rykodisc, which started to distribute its CDs in green-tinted jewel cases that had a distinctive visual look along the lines of an old Coke bottle. It became such a important part of the brand that the company actually trademarked the cases.

Helmet Meantime

Helmet’s Meantime, one of the first albums to have a clear inlay. By the end of the ’90s, nearly every major-label release had one.

One of the first major-label bands to use see-through cases in this way was the alternative-metal band Helmet, whose 1992 major-label debut Meantime came with a visible inlay … an idea the band itself had. By the end of the decade, many new-release albums came in see-through cases that leveraged the extra room for design elements, and those that didn’t occasionally contained surprises. The early release of Radiohead’s Kid A, for example, had an entire booklet hiding under it.

It might have been one of the few times that a useless part of a product suddenly became useful. And this legacy actually lives on today to a degree in modern video games. With games generally coming in DVD-style cases, some game makers have actually taken the time to actually print out hidden art on the other side, something highlighted in this Metal Jesus Rocks video. It’s pretty awesome.

Part of the reason that I put up a Twitter thread asking for outside input on this one is because I was trying to figure out what I was trying to figure out exactly how to describe this unusual phenomenon in which the products we own, often electronics, seem to contain extra parts that aren’t actually put to use—think tape players that have all the parts to be recorders, except the record button was intentionally left out, or washing machines or sewing machines that have elements the manufacturer tells you not to use.

One person who responded, Byte Into IT radio presenter Vanessa Toholka, came up with the perfect comparison: “The vestigial tail of products.”

So let’s call this basic idea “vestigial manufacturing.”

These are things that, whether through manufacturing limitations, strategic reasons, or cost, were left in products that are commonly used, but never actually found a true use case—or have a use case so obscure that you can’t imagine people actually using it for that reason. These are the rough edges on the mold, the places that offer surprises for consumers, meant for manufacturers or repair shops, or that were produced cheaply using off-the-shelf parts reconstituted into a new type of product.

Perhaps, as with CD cases, they became Easter eggs, or even accepted parts of products. But they were never intended to be Easter eggs.

I still think about that day I opened up the Shirt Tales drum I had as a kid and discovered something completely unexpected, just because I was curious. I wonder if Josh Groban ever did that.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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