Buying Hardware (A Treasury Of Computer Knowledge And Links)

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Here I offer advice on and information sources for buying computer hardware; but the same advice also of course holds for buying complete systems or software.

The Main Divisions On This Page:
o Strategy & Tactics
o Mail-Order Houses: Customer Surveys
o Street-Price Quoters
o On-Line Auctions

Strategy & Tactics

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When buying hardware, there are several important considerations beyond the obvious one of the nominal price tag. The first is the hidden cost of shipping; all too many mail-order houses use "shipping and handling costs" (or just S & H in the ads) as a sneaky way to jack the real costs of items while yet appearing to offer them at very low prices. Real (that is, as charged by shippers) rates are bad enough, and service by UPS--the commonest choice of mail-order houses--is pretty awful nowadays, but UPS is usually Hobson's Choice. At all events, be absolutely, positively certain that you accurately and reliably ascertain shipping costs on any prospective purchase and add them to the tag price before selecting a source. And don't let them routinely ship to you by overnight or two-day means: unless you have some reason (such as replacing a failed part to get up and running again) to require the part really quickly, always insist on shipping by the cheapest method.

Another critical issue in purchasing is the seller's policies on returns. A very common policy is for the seller to charge a 15% tax on any returns whatsoever--a tax usually euphemistically called a "restocking charge." That's fine and fair if you are returning a working item for reasons of your own, but it's wildly unfair if you are returning a defective item for repair, replacement, or refund--but many dealers charge that 15% even if the returned item was "DOA" ("dead on arrival"). If your final-choice seller has such a policy, ask if they will agree to waive the charge if the item arrives defective.

(Oh, yes: for any agreement whatsoever that you reach with any seller about anything, such as a waiver of restocking charges on a DOA item, get it in writing, even if that "writing" is an exchange of e-mails, before you place the order; be sure you can produce documentation of who at the seller promised you exactly what when, and that it was a definite promise--which necessarily means that you must always get the name, the full name, of everyone you speak with or write to who is making any commitment as to prices, terms, product specs, or whatever.)

Yet another semi-scam is the "cash discount," typically 2% or 3%. Since no one but a fool pays for mail-order products except by a credit card (because you can have disputed or erroneous charges reversed, while a check or, worse, a money order is money gone down the creek in problem cases), that "cash discount" is actually another hidden way to raise the true selling price above the attractive tag price. Always be sure to look for such fine print in any seller's policies (and, of course, always read carefully every seller's policies web-site page); if you find such a charge, just add it into your figuring of the actual bottom-line cost of the item to you.

Last but very, very certainly not least is the integrity and character of the seller. It is invariably worth paying a few dollars more to buy from a vendor who has earned a reputation for dealing honestly, fairly, and perhaps even generously with buyers, as opposed to one who has earned a reputation as a lying weasel. Fortunately, there are straightforward ways of finding out in advance about sellers' reputations, and I give you some of those below.

Mail-Order Houses: Customer Surveys

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See how other customers feel about the places you might buy from.

Reseller Ratings: Find out what other buyers have experienced in dealing with the many mail-order vendors on the internet. VERY useful!

RankRate: Posts from customers of mail-order shops. This is what scientists call "anecdotal evidence": it's not a definitive survey, but it may be suggestive.

Street-Price Quoters

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Check current prices on computer materials--see who's offering what for how much. (These quoters are normally updated at least daily.) But be aware that there is by no means any guarantee that any of these sources--or all combined--cover the entire web; when it comes time to drop the "window" from "window shopping," check around extensively. Try the places listed as winners in the customer evaluations above.

The first three sites listed here are all pretty good; the other three are still always worth checking before you actually commit to spending money, because surprises do turn up.

PriceWatch: Probably the best--usually has the lowest prices and the Search is easy to use and zeroes in on targets accurately.

Killer App: A fine runner-up now that they have implemented their "express" alternative to the hideous frames-based mess that they used to require (it's still there, but our link takes you to the new, streamlined page).

Price Scan: A decent third-place tool--good prices and a Search that uses drop-down boxes to help specify the target more easily.

CNet Shopper: Mediocre--not usually the best prices available, and its Search is not nimble or exact, but it sometimes shows suppliers not found on the other sites.

StreetPrice: Easy to use, but not so comprehensive as some others; it did not seem to deliver anything not on the better guides, but it's worth looking to be sure.

Bottom Dollar: Spotty price results (sometimes high) and a Search that is a pain in the elbow and doesn't target very well.

PriceTrac: Right now it's not good--but it looks new, so give it a chance.

On-Line Auctions

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There are now several of these in operation. Each has its own rules and policies, which you should of course read before even looking over their offerings, but the essence is this: entities--both individuals and companies (and it's mostly companies on these boards)--offer products, both used and new, for sale to the highest bidder. There is normally a minimum price set, a minimum bid increment, and a specific cutoff date and time. In some cases, you can try a bid below the minimum and, if no one tops you, the seller may decide to sell you the item despite your bid being below his or her "minimum" (but in actuality, that is rare, and almost always applies to individual, not corporate, offerings).

All of the advice I gave above about mail-order houses applies, in spades, to on-line auction buying. Fortunately, many of these sites now offer means, right there at the site, for you to examine what other buyers have reported about their experiences with particular sellers; for individuals, there may be little or no reported experience, but what you find about companies can be enlightening. Unfortunately, you often, especially when dealing with individuals, cannot use credit cards on auction items (companies are, naturally, better about that, and it is something to look for); when payment by check is required, be very sure that the overall tenor of the offering gives you some feeling of confidence about the seller.

You will not normally find cutting-edge, newly released products on auctions, for obvious reasons. But if you know what you're about you can often "cherry-pick" to great advantage. If you want to assemble from scratch a pretty good but not super-duper computer system, and have time, patience, and some knowledge of components, you can achieve your goal for an amazingly low cost by patrolling these auction sites.

Before bidding, be very certain you understand exactly what product is actually being offered. There are commonly several versions of a given product--some fairly similar, some drastically different--as well as successor models. Look for complete model numbers and read the descriptions closely, then go visit the product maker's web site. As an example, you could find a "Matrox Millennium II PCI Video Card with 4 MB On-Board RAM" at, say $50, and think you had a bonanza find--but closer review reveals that that card is not the current G200 AGP version, and that the RAM is an older, slower form than today's SGRAM. As always, but especially so in auctions: caveat emptor!! If you just flat-out make a spec mistake on a retail order, it costs you 15%; at auction, it costs you 100%.

Last but not least, and so obvious it shouldn't need mentioning, but . . . . Always be sure you have a good idea what an item should be worth. A Pine Technology A3D 3-D PCI Audio Card with the Aureal Vortex codec at $35 may be a great price for that card, but if you can get essentially the same hardware in a DCS Multimedia S805 at straight retail for $25, why go the tortuous auction route? The rule? Always do your homework first.

A sort of Postscript: as I assembled this links list, I came to the tentative conclusion that there are far, far too many of these sites. For effectiveness, there should be a small number of competitive sites. As it is, potential buyers have simply too much territory to patrol. I suspect strongly that once the dust settles, only a few of the better organized sites will be found still standing (there are already a lot of dead links in this area).

The links list below is by no means all the on-line auctions--or even all the computer-related on-line auctions--out there. It includes what seem to be the larger and better-established sites, plus a few others thrown in for comparisons. You can seek further than my list at Auction Guide: Computers, which claims to be a comprehensive guide to all on-line computer auctions (or, if you move up their site from the linked page, to auctions for many other kinds of things as well), or of course do both.

Haggle: They have perhaps the largest computer-parts offerings list.

eBay: One of the bigger, better-know auction sites.

Egghead's Auction: From a large, well-known company.

Bid: Another larger player, they have separated pages for Americans and Canadians.

City Auction: Claims to show only items offered to folk in your region--but who, for computer equipment sent by mail, would actually restrict their audience? A gimmick, but still it's one of the bigger auction sites.

Box Lot: Don't let the title fool you--this is just another one-at-a-time auction.

Tech Tap Auctions: Quite new. Check to see how they're coming along.

Auction Floor: Yet another auction site.

Auction X: And another.

U Bid: And another.

MyAuction: Yup, you guessed it.

Auction Sales: Here's a surprise--an auction site!

Deal Deal: Seems small, but looking is free.

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(Last updated: 15 January 2000.)

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