Remembering Computer Shopper

Computer Shopper was a monthly computer magazine, but it was more than that in some regards. Like the name suggests, it changed the way a certain demographic but computer. As hard as may seem to believe today, the main reason people bought it was for the advertising. The articles were good, but nobody bought it for the articles.

Two Computer Shoppers

Computer Shopper, July 2000 issue
Computer Shopper coexisted with the Web for nearly a decade, though the Internet did kill the magazine slowly.

There were magazines of the same name on both sides of the Atlantic. The US and UK versions had similar formats but different ownership and the editorial content was completely independent. I wrote a few articles for Computer Shopper UK in the 2000 – 2001 time frame, and I found their editorial staff extremely easy to work with. But I’m not sure how much anyone read my stuff. It wasn’t the kind of magazine you bought for the articles.

The progression of the computer enthusiast

The logical progression of PC enthusiasts in the 1980s and 1990s went something like this. They bought a brand name PC at retail, learned how to use it, read some books or magazines to learn more, perhaps met some people who also owned PCs, and somewhere along the way they learned it was possible to get a better deal than you could get buying a mass market PC.

So they went to the newsstand and spent five or $6 on the current issue of Computer Shopper, a thick magazine the size of a department store catalog, often 300 pages or more.

And you could find pretty much anything you wanted for sale within those pages. If you wanted a pre-built PC at a discounted price, the front pages of the magazine were full of that sort of thing. You could get a PC from Dell, Gateway 2000, and any number of other smaller competitors that tried to carve out a niche for themselves, either offering better performance or just undercutting their price.

I knew some people who bought computers that way for about 20 years. Every three or four years, when their PC no longer met their needs, they took home a copy of Computer Shopper, spent a few evenings looking through options, and bought whatever seemed to be the best deal.

But there was another type of person who bought that magazine. That type read the magazine back to front.

The back to front Computer Shopper reader

The back to front reader wasn’t looking for a pre-built system. They wanted parts. And while you could find parts dealers in the first half of the magazine and companies selling pre-builts in the back of the magazine, the back pages were much heavier on advertisers selling components. The idea was you bought a clone case, a clone motherboard to fit, other necessary components like a disk controller and video card, disk drives, memory, and an IO card, and then you could build your own PC.

The upfront cost might or might not be much lower than a prebuild, depending on the prebuild you bought. I get lots of flack for saying that, but the savings tended to come in the long run. Because once you were in the clone ecosystem, you probably didn’t buy another entire PC again, at least not for yourself. Instead, you upgraded piecemeal, replacing components as necessary to make the PC better meet your needs, slowly rebuilding it a piece at a time like the ship of Theseus. Sometimes you financed the new purchase by selling the old parts, and sometimes the old parts ended up in a box.

The social aspect of upgrading

How frequently you repeated the cycle depended on how you used your PC. But sometimes your social circle accelerated your upgrade cycle a bit. If you were at a friend’s place and they had a copy of Computer Shopper laying around, of course you flipped through it. And inevitably, something caught your eye, and you might buy something sooner than you had been planning.

Sometimes upgrades came in waves. Word would get out that someone in your social circle was looking to make an upgrade. That might turn into a cascade of events. Two or three people would order parts from the same vendor to save shipping. Some of the displaced parks would be better than what someone else had. It wouldn’t be long before someone put together a spreadsheet to track all of the moving parts. Then when the parts arrived, everyone would get together one Saturday, order pizza, take their computers apart, and move parts around.

The progression from cheapskate to enthusiast

In the very early days, you may have needed to fill out an order form and mail a check to buy components. But by the time I was building, you could call an 800 number, give them a credit card, and they would ship parts to you. And sometimes the person on the other end changed your mind. If the part you wanted was a smoking deal, it might be sold out. But some of the no name parts just weren’t very good.

I was in the market for a Socket 7 motherboard, and I found the lowest price, someone called Motherboards 4 Less. I called the 800 number, and the salesperson told me about Asus motherboards. He said they were more expensive, but they were much better. Faster, more stable, and longer lasting. This was before Tom’s Hardware Guide, so this information was news to me. The price difference wasn’t going to break my budget, so I went for it.

Undoubtedly, some people had that conversation earlier than others. Some started purchasing brand name components, while others continued just buying whatever the cheapest part would fit the bill that they could find.

What about the Internet?

If you are thinking the reason you can’t go to the newsstand and buy Computer Shopper today is because of the internet, you would be correct. But for a while, the two coexisted although the Internet did kill Computer Shopper slowly.

Today we get annoyed when we can’t make a purchase online and we have to call an 800 number. But in the ’90s, buying things online made people nervous. How did they know their credit card was safe? And in the early days, some of those fears were justified.

I honestly don’t remember the first time I made a major purchase online rather than calling an 800 number. I know I bought a printer in the summer of 1996. And I paid for it online. What I don’t know is whether that was the first thing I bought that way or not.

But even in the late ’90s, I couldn’t necessarily beat Computer Shopper prices simply by shopping online. There were some price tracking websites I knew about and used, but that doesn’t mean everyone was using them, and there were still times buying that copy of Computer Shopper paid off.

I probably bought my last issue of the US edition sometime in 1998 or 1999. I have a few copies of Shopper UK because the editor sent me some.

Early in the current century I do remember seeing it on newsstands occasionally, and noticing each time it seemed a bit thinner than I remembered. If there was any fanfare when the print editions went away, I didn’t hear about it. I wish I had. I would have bought the last issue for old times sake.

Computer Shopper PDFs

Scanned PDFs of vintage computer magazines are getting easier to find all the time. In some cases, the rights holder gave permission. In other cases, the rights holder probably isn’t anywhere to be found. Technically, sharing the magazines without permission is illegal. But nobody is profiting off these old magazines anymore, so it’s difficult to make an ethical case that anyone is getting hurt.

Computer Shopper PDFs are unusually difficult to find, however. There are multiple reasons for that. First, it wasn’t a magazine people tended to keep. It was big and bulky, and technically obsolete as soon as the next issue came out. People bought it for the ads, after all.

And the magazine wasn’t exactly produced to last. The publisher knew few readers would keep the issue more than about 30 days, so it was printed on cheap paper and used cheap binding to try to keep the cover price down. That means if you find a 30-year-old copy of Computer Shopper, it might not hold up well to reading or scanning.

The size causes a problem for scanning. Most scanners are designed for standard sizes of typing paper, and Computer Shopper was much larger than that sheet. The popular CZUR scanners that many retro YouTubers are talking about these days aren’t really big enough to accommodate Computer Shopper.

Some people have found ways to get a few copies scanned. Some are complete and some are just selected portions. I wish I knew how they did it. But there aren’t a lot of copies floating around and not everyone who has a few surviving issues has a way to scan them.

What were Computer Shopper articles like?

I wasn’t joking when I said nobody bought Computer Shopper for the articles. But that’s not to say the articles were bad. I’m sure some people didn’t bother reading any of the articles, but I always made a point of reading them. The editorial content was pretty good. The US edition was published by Ziff Davis so a lot of the same people who wrote for PC Magazine and PC/Computing also wrote for Computer Shopper. The same named publication in the UK had their own writers they relied on, but they were professionals and I enjoyed the editorial content in the issues of Shopper UK that I saw.

The content tended to be a bit more on the technical side, since a big part of the target audience was people who weren’t afraid to take a PC apart or build a new one from parts without any instructions. And they tended to give more space to alternative operating systems than the other magazines on the shelf. For example, the other magazines would mention that PC DOS and DR DOS existed, and they might give them a review right after a new release came out, but at least one of the regular columnists in Computer Shopper used and preferred PC DOS.

This reflected its roots. It wasn’t ever strictly a Microsoft/PC based magazine. As PCs rose to dominance, content became more PC centric and so did the advertising. But the nonconformist bent survived in the articles.

The editorial content gives some insight into what a specific segment of the market was doing with their PCs at the time, so they are likely of some historical interest. But the historical pricing is probably just as interesting.

Computer Shopper’s legacy

Few of the PCs built out of the pages of Computer Shopper survive, because they were constantly torn down and replaced part by part over time. If anything survived, it was the last incarnation of any given PC in that life cycle. Unfortunately, issues of the magazine itself are nearly as difficult to find today.

There are still people who build and rebuild PCs over time the same way now, but it all happens digitally now. So the magazine itself is a relic of a bygone time.

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