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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Top 10 cheap geek tips

The Bargain Queen has a confession to make: she's a closet geek. She lusts after the latest hot gadgets just as fervently than she does pretty shoes. She even occasionally convinces herself that buying something that allows her to, say, wirelessly stream mp3s to the speakers in the next room is way more practical than buying clothes, whose only functionality is keeping her warm and protecting her from public nudity.

Unfortunately, her tech budget is just as limited as her shoe budget so she can't always buy her latest dream toys. In 10+ years of geekery though, she's gotten pretty good at keeping up with technology while keeping to her budget.

Here's her top 10 tips for cheap geeks:
  1. Try to stay off the bleeding edge. In The Bargain Queen's experience, brand new and untested ('bleeding edge') technologies are a bad idea. The first time a feature is implemented, it will have some pretty major bugs - and counter-intuitively, you'll pay extra to have it while it's unstable. Plus, when a new technology doesn't live up to its much-hyped promise, it can disappear pretty quickly (e.g. WAP) and your expensive gadget becomes a useless souvenir of an ever-changing technological landscape. The only sure sign that a technology is going to survive is when people who aren't hard-core geeks start buying it and raving about it, which is usually months or years after it's first released - and by then it's well off the 'bleeding edge'. While you don't have the same geek credibility if you wait a while, you'll also save yourself from some expensive mistakes.

  2. Buy less hardware and more add-ons. While it can be tempting to buy one of every new 'must-have' device type, very few of them are really necessary. The Bargain Queen now survives with just a laptop, a mobile (cell) phone and a digital camera - no MP3 player, PDA, portable DVD player, wireless go-anywhere broadband or anything like that. She survives very comfortably and rarely feels like she spends too little time connected to machines.

    This works well because in most cases, buying new software or peripherals to add functionality to something you already have will be much cheaper than buying a new stand-alone device. For example, if you wanted to make digital sound recordings, buying a microphone for your computer is much cheaper than buying a digital voice recorder. But to do this, you have to plan ahead. Some devices make it easy to install new software and have vibrant developer communities; these are the ones you want. On others, it's near-impossible to do anything more than the manufacturer intended unless you pay them fistfuls of extra money, or re-write the operating system in assembler. And you really don't want to learn assembler.

  3. Don't buy multi-function devices. So if you want to buy fewer devices, what you need is a phone / palmtop computer / camera / MP3 player / voice recorder right? Wrong. The Bargain Queen's experience of these devices has never led to a glowing recommendation. The parts of the functionality that are new to the manufacturer or device type are invaribaly buggy and unreliable (see point one about bleeding edge technology), and the amount extra that you pay for them often exceeds the cost of buying a better stand-alone device to do the same thing.

  4. Do your research. In almost every space within the technology industry, there's a vast range of products on offer. If you find it bewildering trying to choose between them all, you're not alone - The Bargain Queen sometimes finds it puzzling too, and she has a Masters in IT. many people handle this bewilderment by talking to someone who does know... say, that nice young fellow at the local computer store. If you're still approaching your technology purchases this way, please stop! The internet has a wealth of information to help you in your technology purchases, which you'll find on blogs, news sites, user forums and newsgroups. If you're completely new to this, start at epinions, then Google the product name or type and the word 'review'. And while you're there, don't forget to compare prices online! Noone will convince you their $20-off special is a great deal if you've seen the product $100 cheaper on a reputable website.

  5. Buy the best quality you can afford. If you've done your homework, you'll know the best options at each price-point. So you buy the cheapest option that will do the job, right? Not always. In some cases, spending more will only get you a fancier brand name and packaging. In others, it means the difference between replacing it in a year or five years. In really extreme cases, the cheaper option won't actually do what you need because a crucial feature is missing. The extra money will probably be worth it if you get a more reliable, extensible product; customer support and a good warranty will also make a big difference if you have any problems with the product.

  6. Always get a free trial. Whether you're buying hardware or software, getting a free trial before you buy is really important. You don't want to be stuck with a lemon, and you generally don't know whether a product is any good until you've tried it.

    In the old days, software trials were easy: almost everyone offered a 30-day free trial. Many companies still do, although The Bargain Queen has found a few lately that don't. To get around this, she has an only-slightly-illegal solution: she gets a copy from a friend, or finds a password to turn a crippled trial version into a fully-featured one. In the majority of cases, she tries the software, finds that it doesn't do what she needs and deletes it promptly. In the rare case where she finds the software genuinely useful and usable, she pays the money and keeps it.

    Trying hardware can be more difficult because so many display models have no batteries, so you can only inspect the outer casing. If the store can't arrange for you to try it with the batteries, you'll need to do one or more of three things:
    1. wait until someone you know buys one and try theirs (easy if you have geeky friends)
    2. rely on online reviews to get more information on the product
    3. buy from a store with a generous returns policy, so you can return it if it doesn't fit your needs after all

    If all this fails and you do end up stuck with something you don't use, you can still re-sell it on eBay and consider it a not-so-free trial!

  7. Check the UI before you buy. So what do you look for when you're trying out a product you might buy? Apart from checking that it has the features you need and works reliably, you also need to check the user interface, or UI. The UI is the sum of all the controls and displays in the device, including buttons, screens, menus, prompts, error messages, touchpads, handwriting recognition panels, paper feeds and anything else you interact with. It's important because it determines how easy- or difficult-to-use your new purchase will be - and it doesn't matter how amazing the features are if you can't use them successfully.

    The easiest way to evaluate the UI is to try the most common things you'd want to do with the device. On a camera, this would mean taking and reviewing some photos; on a phone, you might make a call or send a text message. If you can't figure out how to do these things within a few minutes of fiddling, the device is probably too difficult to use.

    And if you think you can't use it because you're not very good with technology? You're wrong. People with advanced degrees in computing find it hard to use the same things that frustrate 'regular' people. A bad UI is impossible for anyone to use, no matter how smart or technologically savvy they are, so don't ever feel bad if you don't buy something because you couldn't figure out how to use it!

  8. Know thyself. For many years, The Bargain Queen worked with geeky males who made fun of her fashion obsession, but are actually bigger fashion victims themselves. Not when it comes to shoes, obviously, but when it comes to gadgets. When one of the boys came into the office with a new phone that recorded video, it was only a matter of time before most of the other guys had one too. Did it matter that they hated home movies, or that the picture quality was too dreadful to watch? Hell no. It was cool, it was new and you weren't geek enough without one. On the bright side, they all had well-paid IT jobs so they could do this and still pay the bills. If you're not an expensive ubergeek, or your financial priorities lie elsewhere, it helps if you only buy things you'll actually use - and to do that, you have to know yourself really well. Will you start listening to music when you go jogging each day if you buy that iPod? If you're tone-deaf, love the quiet and hate to sweat, probably not.

  9. Wait a while. A newly-released model is always harder to find for a good price than one that's been out for a while, and the the cheapest time to buy is when the next version is about to come out. Considering that prices may be reduced up to 50% within a year of initial release, it's well worth waiting a few months to get the must-have device. Even if the new price hasn't come down a lot, you might be able to buy from one of those serial updaters we talked about in tip 8. After a few months, some realise they're not going to use their latest toy (or just have to buy a newer, hotter one). They often sell barely-used devices for less than half price - and they're still under warranty.

  10. Never buy on credit. Many stores offer financing so you can pay off your new technology over a year or two if you don't have the money upfront. These are NEVER a good deal. The Bargain Queen has done this only once, on the afforementioned multifunction phone. It looked like a good deal at the time because the price over the life of the contract was only $200-ish more than the phone and includes $40 of 'free' phone calls each month for two years. The phone now costs a third what it did back then, the cost of phone calls has also come down significantly and it's still not paid for yet - and as far as financing deals go, this was one of the better ones on offer.

    If you want to avoid these traps, you need to save up to replace anything you depend on when it wears out - and factor in replacing all your software at the same time. As a rule-of-thumb, most devices last 2-3 years if you treat them roughly or 5-6 years+ if you treat them gently (more for TVs and stereos, less for DVD players). To factor it into your budget, total the costs of all your technology essentials and divide by 36 or 72 to come up with a monthly budget that will provide a generous amount if you can put it into savings each month.
And if you have any ideas of how to save even more money on technology, let The Bargain Queen know! ;)

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  • At 1:16 pm, Blogger Mama Duck said…

    What a great list, thanks so much!

  • At 1:45 pm, Blogger The Bargain Queen said…

    Thank you!

  • At 10:39 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I would add that brand names have a higher resale value. That’s actually how I manage to maintain such a tech-savvy lifestyle: when I’m done with a product, I put it on sale on eBay (ALWAYS keep the original boxes and receits somewhere). The difference between the new toy and the not-so-new is always far more bearable than the face value.
    The key is to feel when the 2d hand price is optimum: ideally, it’s right before the introduction of a new model.
    It’s like buying a Mercedes: it’s the first one that hurts. In my case, the same rule applied succesfully to: computers (Apple), smartphones, LCD Monitors or camcorders…

  • At 11:53 pm, Blogger brah.john said…

    This is great! I found myself adhering to several of these naturally, but some of your tips I just haven't thought about. Thanks for sharing.

  • At 8:11 am, Blogger The Bargain Queen said…

    Thanks Anonymous! That's a really great tip. I tend to buy brand names anyway because they have better support, so I didn't even think to mention it! Thanks for filling in the gap :)

    Thank you brah.john!

  • At 7:25 am, Anonymous Kay said…

    As a neo-geek, I thank you for the tips. I especially second #3 -- the more things a device can do, the more chances for it to break, even after the expected bugs are worked out.

  • At 9:57 am, Blogger The Bargain Queen said…

    Thanks Kay! Great blog btw - pity I'm in Australia and the tax laws are completely different here.


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