They blink, beep, turn on automatically in the middle of the night, and even admonish you in a droll monotone when you've made a mistake. They are a new generation of ``smart'' appliances -- machines that sport space-age electronic touch-pad controls instead of bulky dials, flash messages to signal when a door is ajar or a cycle over, and feature some self-diagnosis to hold down visits by the repairman.
Be it a boon or a bane, the digital revolution that has altered everything from your television to your stereo system is now invading the laundry and kitchen.
To some, these new electronic ranges, refrigerators, dishwashers, and other major appliances are mere marketing gimmickry, offering no improvements in the basic way household chores are done.
To others, they represent just the beginning of what eventually will radically change -- and take more of the tedium out of -- housework. Already, manufacturers are tinkering with ranges that cook with light and microwave ovens that understand verbal commands. Electronic appliances are seen as a step toward bringing automation to that last workplace holdout: the home.
At first reluctant, some manufacturers are now moving into the electronics era rapidly, encouraged by sales of early models. Washers and dryers with electronic controls are in their third generation, and microwave ovens have been fitted with sensors and touch-pad controls for several years. Most appliancemakers now offer at least one product with electronic controls. Digital features are becoming standard on top-of-the-line models. Still, probably less than 15 percent of all appliances are fitted with them.
``It is still a modest evolutionary step toward electronic controls,'' says Chuck Ryan, a vice-president of fundamental research at Merrill Lynch. ``They [digital appliances] do give consumers who aren't price sensitive more options than before.''
Driving part of the push to electronics in the kitchen and laundry room is the changing family. With more than half of all women working, the cooking, cleaning, and other household chores no longer fall to women alone. Appliancemakers are scrambling to come up with machines that can be easily and quickly operated by men, women, and even children. Electronic controls are seen as one way to do this -- although in the past some confounded rather than soothed users.
A few early models, for example, could be accidentally reprogrammed by children or knocked out of kilter by static electricity. Manufacturers claim to have worked out these kinks and are struggling to ease the complexity of controls. Longer term, they are banking on a generation of computer-familiar consumers to buy the smart appliances. ``Young people today are being introduced to computers in kindergarten,'' says Joy Schrage of the Whirlpool Corporation. ``That is the generation we are going to be selling appliances to in the year 2000.''
For now, buyers generally pay a $50 to $100 premium for electronic controls, although appliancemakers expect prices to drop as more of the new machines are produced.
New features range from the frivolous to the fascinating, depending on your pocketbook and viewpoint. Whirlpool, for one, has come out with a dryer that senses the amount of moisture in different loads (synthetics, for instance) and shuts off automatically when clothes are dry. The idea is convenience and electricity savings.
The newest electronic washers offer programmed settings for different fabrics and blink on a digital display to indicate what part of the cycle is under way. Some top-priced refrigerators are fitted with sensors that warn when a door is ajar or temperature inside too high. Some dishwashers run different lengths of time for different loads and can be timed to start hours after the owner sets up the program, presumably when hot water and machine noise won't be such a concern. Ranges exist that allow cooking by microwave or gas simultaneously within one oven, in theory combining the speed of one with the browning qualities of the other.
To appeal to growing legions of fix-it-yourselfers, companies are also pitching new appliances as more reliable and easier to service. Some dishwashers, for example, blink a message that a drain is plugged or, if the problem is worse, tell the user to consult a technician. Computer chips can analyze the cause of some breakdowns and avoid visits by a repairman -- although costly service calls haven't become extinct.
``We're not putting solid-state devices in appliances just to have them there,'' says Harold Schafer, vice-president of consumer products marketing for White Consolidated Industries Inc. ``We're trying to give customers more reliance and convenience.''
Really? Not everyone agrees.
``By and large, electronic controls have been put on for mundane reasons,'' says James Magid, electronics analyst with L. F. Rothschild, Unterberg, Towbin Inc., a securities firm. ``They just duplicate what electromechanical controls do at a higher price.''
Whether valuable or not, more sophisticated electronics are likely to be fitted on appliances in the future. Within five years, for example, manufacturers envision sensors in washers that will be able to measure the amount of soil in clothing and use only as much soap and run as long as needed. Nor will the circuitry be limited to the control panels. Companies are moving toward using semiconductors in controlling the speed and power of motors in appliances, which is expected to dramatically reduce energy consumption, something many argue the appliance industry hasn't excelled at thus far.
More controversial is the thrust toward developing appliances that respond to verbal commands and talk. Proponents see speech recognition and voice synthesis eventually proving a boon to groups such as the elderly and handicapped in particular. But others in the industry believe consumers don't want these features, or at least appliances that talk back to them.
Ultimately, of course, appliances may be linked up with a home computer. Here the possibilities become virtually limitless: A homeowner might, for example, push the ``cook'' button for prepackaged food on a touch-sensitive screen. The computer would read instructions from a bar code on the package and automatically set defrosting and cooking times on a microwave.
Such pie-in-the-pantry thinking, however, is years away. Even electronic appliances themselves will take time to invade the home. After all, consumers don't buy new refrigerators overnight: The average life of an appliance is at least nine years. A Tuesday column