Lifestyle

Super Shoppers: Technology

Inspector Gadget

Andy Walker holds the best garage sales going. He has to, or else his home in Berkeley, Calif., would soon disappear under a midden of circuit boards and a mountain of almost-new electronics gear. “At the moment I have — let’s see — four computers in the house,” he says. “There’s a wireless network, too, of course. Also seven or so cellphones, a couple of printers and assorted other paraphernalia.”

The gadgets are all tools of the trade for Walker, 36, a consumer-electronics guru who reviews scores of new devices every year. But despite his Futurama-esque living space, the Montreal native is the first to point out that he isn’t an engineer but someone who’s interested in the nooks and crannies of hardware. He sees himself as a representative of the tech-addled average consumer. His specialty is explaining the intricacies of computers and consumer electronics in language anyone can understand.

Walker launched his writing career as a general assignment reporter for The Toronto Sun in 1989. He fell into the world of technology during the mid-’90s when he helped set up the Canada.com Web site for the Southam newspaper chain. During his stint at Southam, he began penning a column for the Edmonton Journal called “Cyberwalker.” The column was a Dear Abby-style feature in which readers would write in with their questions about new media and related computer matters. “People wanted a translator who could put things in English,” Walker says. “They’d see an ad in the paper for a computer but the description would be full of technical gobbledegook. What they really wanted to know was if the computer would do what they wanted it to do.”

Walker set out to tell them. After a two-year stint with Microsoft, he went out on his own, launching Cyberwalker Media, a Web site ( www.cyberwalker.com) and business that specializes in making technology accessible to anyone — even people who find themselves challenged by programming their VCRs. A year ago, he moved his base of operations to Berkeley, where he’s executive editor of Dig iT, a new semi-annual magazine aimed at the high-tech shopper and the technology enthusiast. He also continues to write for other outlets, including MoneySense.ca.

So what advice does one of North America’s best-informed tech journalists have on getting great deals in computers? His favorite tip is what he calls the 80% rule — find the fastest computer on the market (as measured in gigahertz), then look for a machine that’s 80% as fast. You’ll wind up with a year-old model that will still be up to date for the next couple of years, but will only cost you half as much as the latest, hottest model. “Only true power users need the newest machines,” says Walker. “Most people should take advantage of the rapid fall-off in computer prices — manufacturers typically try to recoup their research costs by charging premium prices for new machines, but as soon as the machine is superseded by something newer, they’ll try to unload older inventory at deep discount prices.”

Which type of computer you buy should depend upon your level of technical expertise. If you’re not computer savvy, it makes sense to go with a major brand — Dell, Compaq, Apple or others. But if you are comfortable with the notion of doing your own troubleshooting, or if you know a techie who’ll do it for you, you can often save $200 to $300 by buying a no-name brand from a local computer shop. “What you’re really paying for with a name brand computer is the technical support,” says Walker. “In most cases, the hardware isn’t all that different from what you’ll find at the corner shop, but name brands have that 1-800 number you can call if you get into trouble. If you don’t need the technical support, why pay for it?”

Computer accessories carry their own hazards for unwary shoppers. Inkjet printers, for instance, usually appear to be a great deal, but often aren’t. To avoid surprises, look at the machines in your price range and take note of which ink cartridges they take. Then stroll over to the ink cartridge aisle of any office-supply store and see how much those cartridges cost. If you’re going to use the printer occasionally, multiply the price of the appropriate cartridge by four; if you’re going to use the printer a lot, multiply the price by 10. The result will approximate your annual cost of running the printer. Once you’ve done the math, go back and see if that $99 printer you initially liked still looks like a bargain. Chances are, it’s not.

No matter what type of tech gear you’re buying, it pays to remember to shop by the season. Many technology manufacturers introduce new products twice a year. Sixty days before doing so, they chop the price of old inventory. You can find out when this is likely to happen by going to the manufacturer’s Web site and looking in the Press or Media section, where you can scan press releases from previous years. You’ll likely see a pattern. Palm, for instance, usually introduces new models of its hand-held personal digital assistants in the spring and fall. Prices for older units typically drop in February/March and September/October, just before the latest models are introduced.

Of course, in Walker’s household, it’s always new product time. Surveying his extensive collection of technology, he muses that he has become entirely dependent upon the gizmos that he writes about. “I can’t live without my wireless laptop,” he says. “No matter where I am in the world, it’s on my back. The idea of not having it at hand gives me deep-seated panic.” Until, that is, an even better product comes along.

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September/October 2003 issue.

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