They’re Called Dumbbells for a Reason

Before I begin my rant, I want to note that the etymology of dumbbell is more interesting than “stupid barbell,” but I’m allowed a bit of artistic license on my own blog. With that out of the way, let me get into this rant.

I still don’t (and likely never will) understand the modern obsession of taking perfectly functional things and making them dysfunctional by connecting them to the Internet. Nike still holds the crowning achievement for its “smart” shoes that became bricked by a firmware update. But the quest to match or exceed Nike continues. Nordictrack is obviously gunning for the crown with its “smart” dumbbells:

There are two things that make the iSelect dumbbells “smart.” The first is that these use an electronic locking mechanism, as opposed to pins or end screws. The second is that you can change the weights using voice commands to Alexa. Though, fortunately, you don’t have to since there’s also a knob that lets you change the weights manually.


Setting up the dumbbells is easy. All you’ve got to do is download the iSelect app for iOS or Android and then follow the prompts to pair the dumbbells over Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. (The latter is for firmware updates.)

Perhaps I’m showing my age, but why in the hell would anybody want to take perfectly functional weighted chunks of metal and complicate them by adding wireless connectivity, voice commands, a phone app, and firmware updates? Changing weights on adjustable dumbbells isn’t complicated or time consuming. And if you, like the author of the linked article, are concerned about the ruggedness of a physical retaining mechanism, why would you have any faith in a mechanism that is electronically controlled?

If you want adjustable dumbbells, there are a lot of excellent options on the market. Rouge Fitness makes dumbbell bars that accept plate weights. Powerblocks are oddly shaped, but built like tanks. There is also the Nüobell, which maintains a classic dumbbell profile. All of these options are within $100 (after the addition of weights for the Rouge bell and assuming you get the 50 lbs. version of the Nüobell) of the Nordictrack iSelect, are built significantly better, and won’t stop working because the manufacturer pushed out a botched firmware update. There are also adjustable dumbbells on Amazon that are much cheaper than any of these.

There’s no reason to make dumbbells “smart.” The feature set of the iSelect demonstrates that. The only thing the “smarts” let you do is adjust the weight of the dumbbells with Alexa voice commands (and brick the dumbbells with a bad firmware update, of course). And according to the article, the voice commands are slower than using the physical knob on the stand so that single feature is more of a hindrance than a benefit.

As another aside, I chuckled when the article listed “No mandatory subscription” under the pros. The prevalence of tying “smarts” to subscriptions is so great that a “smart” device can earn points by simply continuing to function if you don’t pay a subscription fee. That tells you more than you might realize about “smart” devices.

Malicious Automatic Updates

The early days of the Internet demonstrated both the importance and lack of computer security. Versions of Windows before XP had no security to speak off. But even by the time Windows XP was released, your could still easily compromise your entire system by visiting a malicious site (while this is still a possibility today, it was a guarantee back then). It was during the reign of Windows XP when Microsoft started taking security more seriously. Windows XP Service Pack 2 included a number of security improvements to the operating system. However, this didn’t solve the problem of woeful computer security because even the best security improvements are worthless if nobody actually installs them.

Most users won’t manually check for software updates. Even if the system automatically checks for updates and notifies users when they’re available, those users often still won’t install those updates. This behavior lead to the rise of automatic updates.

In regards to security, automatic updates are good. But like all good things, automatic updates are also abused by malicious actors. Nowhere is this more prominent than with smart appliances. Vizio recently released an update for some of their smart televisions. The update included a new “feature” that spies on what you’re watching and displays tailored ads over that content:

The Vizio TV that you bought with hard-earned cash has a new feature; Jump Ads. Vizio will first identify what is on your screen and then place interactive banner ads over live TV programs.


It is based on Vizio’s in-house technology from subsidiary company Inscape that uses automatic content recognition (ACR) to identify what is on your screen at any given moment. If the system detects a specific show on live TV it can then show ads in real-time.

Vizio isn’t unique in this behavior. Many device manufacturers use automatic updates to push out bullshit “features.” This strategy is especially insidious because the malicious behavior isn’t present when the device is purchased and, oftentimes, the buyer has no method to stop the updates from being installed. Many smart devices demand an active Internet connection before they’ll provide any functionality, even offline functionality. Some smart devices when not given Internet access will scan for open Wi-Fi networks and automatically connect to any one they find (which is a notable security problem). And as the price of machine to machine cellular access continues to drop, more manufacturers are going to cut out the local network requirement and setup their smart devices to automatically connect to any available cellular network.

This pisses me off for a number of reasons. The biggest reason is that the functionality of the device is being significantly altered after purchase. S consumer may buy a specific device for a reason that ceases to exists after an automatic update is pushed out by the manufacturer. The second biggest reason this behavior pisses me off is because it taints the idea of automatic updates in the eyes of consumers. Automatic updates are an important component in consumer computer security, but consumers will shy away from them if they are continually used to provide a negative experience. Hence this behavior is a detriment to consumer computer security.

As an aside, this behavior illustrates another important fact that I’ve ranted about numerous times: you don’t own your smart devices. When you buy a smart device, you’re paying money to grant a manufacturer the privilege to dictate how you will use that device. If the manufacturer decides that you need to view ads on the screen of your smart oven in order to use it, there is nothing you as an end consumer can do (if you’re sufficiently technical you might be able to work around it, but then you’re just paying money to suffer the headache of fighting your own device).

Once again I encourage everybody reading this to give serious consideration to the dwindling number of dumb devices. Even if a smart device offers features that are appealing to your use case, you have to remember that the manufacturer can take those features away at any time without giving you any prior notice. Moreover, they can also add features you don’t want at any time without any notice (such as spyware on your television).