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"Computer Components at a Bargain"

Recently I've been replacing and adding some components to my computer system, and I've learned quite a bit more about choosing the right component and finding the right price to buy it at since I wrote about the original system I bought about a year ago. It was amusing rereading the August 2nd, 1998 Soapbox, in which I marvelled about how 128MB of RAM only cost $150. Particularly since high-grade 128MB 100MHz CAS2 Micron RAM hit a low of about $75 per stick, much to the dismay of Micron shareholders. And since you can get 19" monitors for not much more than good 15" monitors cost a year ago.

It's funny, what with all the cheap hardware and refurbished goods and stuff bought over auction sites like eBay and uBid, because many of the computer hobbyists I know consider top-of-the-line components the norm, along with multiple-monitor configurations and multiple-computer home networks they installed themselves. And I'm sure some of these power users set up all that good stuff for less than some people pay for computers from the store or from mail-order companies.

My latest purchases have been a new Microtek SlimScan C6 flatbed scanner, a Hitachi SuperScan Elite 751 .22 dot pitch 19" monitor, and a Hercules Dynamite Ultra 175/200 32MB video card. (w/o TV-out or DVD software) Save for the Dynamite, which I ordered through Hercules directly because it's so much in demand right now, I probably saved a good $300 on the other two components.

It took me a whole month to decide which system parts I wanted to buy originally for my new computer. I knew basically nothing about what I was doing and I had to read a good chunk of the info out there just to find out what I even needed to begin with. But for the scanner and monitor, it took little more than a lot of reading in the morning and then placing an order before noon.

Review Finder is a hidden gem. It's not unique, but it was the first of its kind that I found. It just compiles links of product reviews in one searchable database, so you can look up product categories or specific components, to read more about them. Sites that post QUALITY new reviews often are Ars Technica, AnandTech (enough with the motherboard reviews!), Tom's Hardware (has Tom gone insane?), bxboards.com for BX motherboards, move.to/overclock for CPUs, Thresh's Firing Squad primarily for video card reviews, Sharky Extreme, StorageReview.com for hard drives, and Ace's Hardware.

Before I got interested in buying a scanner, I knew nothing about them. I haven't ever worked in a graphic design firm or anything before, so the only scanners I'd ever touched were at school. I was afraid I'd buy some cheapass scanner that would never work right, since there are so many different specifications for scanners. But I checked out everything I could find on Review Finder by searching for scanners, and there were a lot of useful scanner comparisons, some of which were written by people in the exact same situation as me. It helps when someone else has already asked the same questions about what is needed out of a scanner. In a matter of hours, I had amassed enough info to seriously consider specific scanners.

I even hit Usenet and updated my newsgroup list, then searched for the word "scanners" in the group titles. Got two matches. I read some of the thread titles -- most were about technical support. What Usenet's good for is telling you what products cause the most trouble and which ones are the most popular. There were a lot of problems with two of the scanners I was considering, and not very many with the third one I had in mind. The third, the SlimScan C6, is a USB scanner, which was the only kind I was looking at, since I didn't want to use my parallel port (it already has my drawing pad using it). It also offered good scan resolutions and high color. An added bonus were positive reviews and its extremely thin frame. It's only a few inches high. Finally, the price was excellent. This scanner was a bargain hunter's dream, especially considering the Hewlett Packard and other supposedly unbeatable scanners cost so much more. I didn't think I'd be able to get a great scanner for under $100.

So once I had chosen the SlimScan C6, I went to PriceWatch.com, as per usual, and also visited BuyComp, Computers.com, and shopper.com. Although PriceWatch is what most people use, some companies don't use it, and you miss out on better deals because of it. For my scanner, I bought it from BuyComp. It was actually one of the few places I found that sold the SlimScan C6, plus I know that BuyComp has a distribution center in Carrollton or some such, so it ships overnight to me, even with UPS ground shipping. Bonus!

I got my scanner the next day. I plugged it into my computer and Windows 98 detected it immediately. USB is so convenient. I downloaded the latest drivers off Microtek's site and I was all set up to scan stuff. All for $95. I was expecting to pay maybe $75-$100 more.

Just recently, I decided to buy a bigger monitor, mainly since I began to get annoyed with cramming numerous images onto one monitor in Photoshop. One always needs more real estate. Monitors are something else I have no clue about, so I went to Review Finder again. Its listing for monitors was as useful as the listing for scanners -- some of the reviews were done by individuals who were in the same predicament. They compared the best quality vs. cost monitors against each other and reading all of the different reviews helped me weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each. For instance, the big 19" comparisons right now are between the Sony (very expensive, but good quality), the Hitachi 751/753 (best quality), and the Viewsonic PS790 (cheap, average quality, but most importantly to me, it has a small footprint, meaning you don't need a lot of room on your desk for it). I figured space would be a problem because my desk at school is so small. But looking at the specifications, the height of the monitor, no matter what the depth (how long the monitor is, horizontally), would still pose a problem. So the size issue ruled itself out on a technicality. :) I also read some good reviews on Sharky's (not usually known for monitor reviews, but...) and some other sites not listed on Review Finder.

So I decided on the Hitachi 751, since it had been on the market awhile, it had the best visual quality (something a web designer appreciates), and had a so-so price. I asked around on IRC regarding how other people felt about the monitors, and I got some good opinions from people who had bought them. Once again, I did NOT touch the big-name sites much for information. They're just useless when it comes to reviews. They seem to review computer components as if their readers are primitive caveman cultures from other planets that would be happy with ANYTHING. Even for the crappiest monitor on the market, they'd still say something generic, yet positive, like, "This monitor is great for anyone, offering an affordable price and many features." Gee, thanks.

Next step of course was to look at pricings for monitors. A helpful guy off IRC pointed me to a site I wouldn't have found otherwise (again, not on PriceWatch) called MegaDepot. It sold the Hitachi 751 at a far cheaper price than most anyone else, PLUS it had only $5 shipping. And for monitors, that's important. If you order a monitor online, you can expect to pay $20-$40 or so just for shipping. $5 was a steal. Plus a $200 sale on the Hitachi 751. In total? I paid $435 for a 19" top-of-the-line monitor. What a steal!

As I noted on my main menu page, UPS left the monitor on my doorstep in the heat, free for anyone to take, after taking a few days to ship. But I got the monitor safely, pulled the mammoth 47 pounder out of the box, and plugged it in. Windows 98 again detected it fine, I downloaded the latest drivers off Hitachi's site, and it worked fine.

I also bought the hardware I needed to network the computers of the house together for about $129 (most of that being the cost of a 3com ethernet card). And I got a high-backed black leather executive chair for $100. My old chair was getting ratty and provided no back support. Do yourself a favor and get a GOOD chair. Your body will thank you for it. You'll feel better. You still have to buy stuff like furniture at a (blech) retail store, unfortunately.

So as for you...you may not be interested in learning all this stuff about your computer. You may not have time to do it. It's not important enough to you. But...you do notice that your system gets slow sometimes, or you have to wait for this and that to open and close. So why not enlist the help of someone else to help you upgrade?

If you know of someone who really knows their computer stuff, then you should ask them for help. And I'm not talking about someone who's just gone to CompUSA and bought a hard drive or something. I'm talking about someone who builds computers in his spare time or whatever. Someone who reads the review sites. What's probably worse than buying a Dell (but at least better than buying a Compaq) is paying someone who knows very little about computers to help you upgrade. He'll end up costing you more than you would have paid originally, probably.

There are plenty of computer hobbyists around. My roommate, for example, just built two computers from scratch for a couple of his friends. They had a budget to work with, about $1500 for each. My roommate is a true hardware freak (whereas I'm a hack) and he managed to put together custom-built systems that are as good or even better than mine (and I've paid a lot more than $1500 for this one, total). Using brand-new components and put together so they don't CRASH or FAIL on you. Plus, all the components have the original company's warranty so you can just call up the company for replacements. I always considered the argument towards tech support for pre-built systems a waste of time, primarily because you can still get tech support from each component's manufacturer. They don't come to your house, but...if the computer hobbyist you know lives close, they can come over in ten minutes. Faster than any tech support at a big company.

Getting a computer hobbyist to assemble your system also means you get to add and remove what you like. Want another monitor? Linux? Games installed? Extra components like a camera or joystick? Want to network all the computers in your house together so you can use one Internet connection without paying more? Dell won't do that for you.

Anyway, I hope I've made a point... Everyone's buying computers these days, and there are a lot of companies scamming as much money as they can off people. Case in point? The eMachine. Sure, it's hard to resist the cheap price, but what you get is a cheap system. They're cheap because they won't last long. And they don't have many features. Meanwhile, the people who spend a lot of time with computers are able to save a ton of money that the companies have to leech off less techno-savvy consumers.

So use the 'Net to help you save money and buy longer-lasting computers. I've said it before, I know, but it's the truth. People see high-end computers as out of their reach, so they hold onto outdated systems for years. Yes, you need some money to upgrade, but not as much as you may think. Besides, the better component you buy, the longer you CAN hold onto it without upgrading. And if you've run out of options, then ask someone else to help you. Surely there's someone you know who will put together a whole system, plus network your whole house on one modem or cable or DSL modem, without charging you an arm and a leg for it. And if not, then ask me! I'm itching to order the newest toys and put them together into a fully-working speed machine.

It's a bargain-hunter's paradise out there if you want to take advantage of it. Don'tcha want to have the latest goodies and have a smooth system for playing games and working on lots of things at once? An upgrade might *gasp* even make you more efficient with your work. At least, that's what I tell myself for when I get that Dynamite card so I can set up dual monitors...no, no, it's not so Quake3Test will run like gravy... It's for Photoshop...

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