Farewell, Digi-Key catalog

The May 2011 High Frequency Electronics arrived with the sad news that the most recent Digi-Key catalog is the last, replaced by the www.digikey.com web site.  Digi-Key are also cancelling their TechZone magazine.

I suppose it was inevitable. The warning signs were certainly there, as Digi-Key sent thinner and less frequent catalogs to hobbyists than to professionals, then cut back  to annual issues. Nevertheless, I will miss the giant catalog that has always had a prominent place in my office and home lab.

I received my first Digi-Key catalog in 1983. Back then, it was thin, only 32 or 64 pages long. They had a good optoelectronics section, which remains one of their strengths. The only US semiconductor manufacturer they carried was National Semiconductor, though they distributed several lines of Japanese semiconductors.  (At one point, I wondered if National was Japanese, too!)

In those days, the “-ND” suffix meant No Discount. Prominently displayed on the catalog front cover was a schedule of discount percentages, with better discounts for larger orders. Full reels of parts and certain expensive items had an “-ND” on their part number to mark them as exempt from the discount, but anything without the “-ND” was fair game. Later, Digi-Key started listing price breaks for intermediate quantities (10, 25, 100, etc.), and as that practice spread through the catalog, the “-ND” suffix became ubiquitous. Today, it serves only as Digi-Key’s signature, which is ironic given its origins as an exceptional case.

I will miss the serendipitous discovery that the printed catalog made possible. More than once I went looking for one thing and spotted something else interesting and useful. I also learned a lot from the catalog, since when I started receiving it, I was just a kid who didn’t know there were resistor types beyond what Radio Shack sold. Every five years or so, I read the catalog cover-to-cover. I mostly skip over the boring lists of part numbers, but I pay attention to the detailed descriptions of FPGAs, processors, development boards, tools, passive components, optoelectronics, and more. Over the following years, memories of what I saw will percolate up when I’m looking for a solution to a problem. It has been worth my time.

I hope Digi-Key looks for ways to provide that serendipity in a search-engine world. How am I to know about a cool new component if I don’t know I should search for it in their database?  Maybe I’ll have to start getting the trade magazines for the advertisements. Lately I’ve just been scanning their RSS feeds. Are EDN and Electronic Design still printing on paper, or have they gone all-electronic, too?

A compromise would be an e-book version of the catalog, which is already available as a 140 Megabyte PDF!  I wonder if that will go extinct, too. There is surely a cost to creating the catalog, though it is surely less than the printing and postage costs.

The change may lead me to buy more from Mouser. Mouser’s search engine is just a little bit better, and if search engines are all we have, that little bit will give them an edge.

I bought my first National Semiconductor databooks from the pages of the Digi-Key catalog. Times change. Farewell, old friend of the thin newsprint and satisfying “thunk”. I’m glad I’ve known you over these years.

Update 5/21/11: Here is the Digi-Key press release, “Digi-Key Drops Printed Catalog and Redefines Itself as The Leading Totally Integrated Internet-Based Global Distributor

2 thoughts on “Farewell, Digi-Key catalog”

  1. Hi Stephen,
    Thank you for your post. It’s always a pleasure to hear from such loyal customers and am I quite impressed with your Digi-Key part number knowledge. I just wanted to let you know that we still produce our TechZone Magazines which are now available exclusivley online. You may subscribe to recieve updates when new issues have been released. Also, to help you learn about new products check out our resource for new products added daily/new suppliers/Product Training Modules/Resources & Tools at http://www.digikey.com/new. You can always try our interactive online catalog for easy reference as well. If you have any further quesitons please do not hesitate to contact us at webmaster@digikey.com.


  2. Hi, Jennifer!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

    I don’t mind losing the paper TechZone. Frankly, my copies have never lasted long before going in the trash. The single-topic-per-issue format has not yet been relevant to my particular sector of electronic design. Maybe it will hit an interesting topic one of these days and my view will change.

    I am not a fan of virtual catalogs. They combine computers and books in a way that maximizes the weaknesses of both. They are hard to search, I can’t stick my finger in a page while I flip to another, they generally don’t work well with the browser’s built-in navigation and bookmark features, and the turning-page sound effect is patronizing. The PDF catalog, as unwieldy as it is, is better.

    Digi-Key embraced the web early, and your search engine was cutting-edge at the time. To step ahead of your peers, look beyond 8.5″x11″ newsprint. The catalog is built on boxes on a page, each box having some descriptive material and a list of part numbers and prices. Imagine a modern shopping-cart engine, with each of those boxes one item in the system, and hence, one web page. Have a write-up and pictures or drawings at the top, just like in the catalog, and list the part numbers and pricing at the bottom of the page, with an “add to cart” provision. For some parts, you could provide a part-number builder. Organize them in a browseable tree and add some powerful search functions (Newegg’s are good), and you will have something that can truly replace the paper catalog, especially if you also keep the existing database-search system. This kind of model works quite well for Sears, who were also once known for their catalog, as well as for the zillions of web-only merchants. In distribution, McMaster-Carr’s web site is a step in this direction.

    Your transition to web-only is a milestone in the broader transition from print to online. Thanks for the great catalogs over the years, and thanks again for chiming in on the discussion.


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