Consumer electronics these days have been transformed into a battle of bulleted lists over actual functionality. Ok, most of the CE space has been, there are a few notable exceptions like Apple still running around not pimping how many megahertz they are running. In general though, everything is marketed as faster and better with the numbers to back things up even if they don’t really many anything anyway.

I ran into an example recently with a recently shipping bit of gear. It’s a set top box like most others but it has an optical digital audio output in addition to the conventional digital-over-HDMI that every other previously shipping box has.

This is both objectively and subjectively dumb. It does however add an extra bullet point on the spec sheet.

Subjectively it’s a bad idea because these set top boxes are aimed at the “normal” people out there, not audiophiles. The typical setup consists of a TV with a smattering of HDMI inputs, a cable box and maybe a blu-ray or a game system. In general these people don’t have a receiver in the mix at all. If any optical is used it’s for the audio out from the TV into a sound-bar or something like that.

On the other end of the spectrum you have the folks that have receivers that are connected up to an array of speakers. No problem. Except that the HDMI will already carry the audio just fine. The only place for optical audio is from devices like high-def audio that no one really uses. The HDMI, to reiterate, already has the digital audio bit stream and since it’s digital doesn’t need any additional anything to make it work.

Objectively, what’s the bottom line? What’s the bill of materials (BOM) cost of this? I’m figuring you have to have a TOSLINK transmitter that likely weighs in at around $1.50 but associated driver circuitry that might add another $0.50 to the unit. Even if you can get that down to $1.00 on BOM costs, that’s a reasonable fraction of the total out-the-door cost. On the other hand, if you just add a headphone jack or standard RCA connectors you now have something that could be plugged into anything and the total cost will be likely a quarter of the final cost and far more useful in the end. (Think: hooking up headphones or something similar) Hell, just drop it and save the cost for something that no one is going to use.

What’s the problem with the cheap and useful solution? You don’t get to put on another line item on your spec sheet. If no one has something on their spec sheet, there might be a reason for that, right? It’s like cars don’t typically come with self-inflating pontoons because they are, for the most part, very un-needed.

Silly, silly, silly.