Beware the Black Friday electronics

Ars Technica ran an aptly timed article today called How to talk your family out of bad consumer electronics purchases. It’s definitely worth a read, to steer you away from bad Black Friday electronics.

There’s a great tip in the article. If a doorbuster item has a model number that isn’t available the rest of the year, you don’t want it. That’s a good rule.

I’ve worked on a number of Black Friday-special computers over the years. Typically I find them discarded at a rummage sale or a thrift store. I buy them for an absurdly low price, bring them home, find them to be absurdly unusable (if they still work, that is), then I pop the hood and find the lowest-end CPU available at the time, some undersized and absurdly slow hard drive that had been gathering dust in a warehouse for a couple of years before getting slammed into this horrifically underpowered computer, and the cheapest, nastiest motherboard that was available at the time.

I could build a computer just like it any time of the year. I don’t, because when I build a computer, I want it to actually last more than 13 months.

When it comes to other Black Friday electronics, frequently the design started out fine, but they substitute cheaper components into the original design in order to hit whatever price point they want to hit. Take capacitors, to pick on a particularly unglamorous but vital component. To make the numbers easy, let’s say a really high quality capacitor that will last decades costs a dollar wholesale. Replace all of those dollar capacitors with 25-cent models, and the difference won’t be noticeable when the person brings the TV home. They can knock a few bucks off the price right there. The cheap capacitors will probably start to fail after a couple of years, but that means the purchaser will be back for a new one, doesn’t it? Replace every 50-cent component with its 10-cent equivalent, and you can knock a few more bucks off. Replace the panel with the cheapest, nastiest panel available, and you’ve got yourself a doorbuster. But it’s not available year-round because the consumer magazines would crucify it.

As the article put it bluntly:

I know you hate all your electronics, Frank, but do you ever think maybe it’s just the kind of electronics you’re buying?

And let’s not get started on tablets. Well, OK, let’s get started on tablets. My brother in law and I just spent 45 minutes amusing ourselves by looking at the so-called doorbuster tablets. He’d find a sub-$100 tablet, then I’d tell him what was wrong with it. The specs rarely gave insight into everything wrong with it, though. They invariably had a panel that was an absurdly low resolution, rarely told you how much RAM they had on board, and rarely told you anything about the CPU. For all I could tell, they might only have 512 MB of RAM and a single-core CPU. If you already have something like that you might as well make the most of it, but there’s no reason to part with perfectly good money in exchange for one now. Not when a 7-inch Asus Memo Pad costs $129 right now (down from its usual price of $149). I fired up Zinio on my Hisense Sero 7 Pro, which has a 1280×800 panel in it, to show what I mean. At that resolution, a magazine looks good. You’ll want to zoom in because the screen is half the size of a typical printed page, but the text is sharp and readable. On an 8-inch tablet with a 1024×768 display, it won’t be as nice of an experience. The text will be bigger, but not as sharp and clear.

I’ve heard of a couple of places selling a 13.3-inch tablet for $199. Sounds great for reading magazines, but it’s a 1280×800 panel. At that size, you’re only talking about 120 pixels per inch. A 13.3-inch tablet for that use really needs a 2560×1600 panel in it. Maybe someone will introduce something like that next year.

One year I stood in line to get a color laser printer, and one year I stood in line to get a DSLR camera. In both cases, they were models that are available year-round. I knew exactly what I was getting. One store was selling the printer for $100 off and another was selling it for $75 off. I didn’t get it at the first store, but landed one at the second.

But I don’t do that much anymore. Frequently I can score a good deal on what I want online, without getting up at an absurd hour and standing in line in the cold.

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