What Not To Buy in 2007?

According to Mr. Ulanoff of PC Magazine, to avoid buying yourself a lemon of a ‘present’ this holiday season, you just need to follow his tips. But in reality, the things you shouldn’t buy are the points in this article. Here are some snippets from the recently published article that elicited a few chuckles from me. Let’s start if off with his advice for desktops.

Don’t buy: Any PC with integrated graphics.
I promise you that you’ll rue the day you saved $200 but did not opt for an nVidia or (ATI) AMD graphics CPU with discrete graphics memory. I contend that discrete graphics capability will speed up your gaming, browsing and video-viewing pleasure.

I contend that discrete graphics will not speed up browsing, and for most people, will not increase video-viewing pleasure. There’s a reason why the majority of computers still ship with integrated graphics – because most people need nothing more. Not everyone plays games. And if the article is to be taken at face value, integrated graphics will somehow decrease browsing and video-viewing pleasure – it won’t (short of 1080P video, but then you’ll probably be watching that through Blu-Ray/HD-DVD on your HDTV…).

Maybe buy: A mini PC.
The Apple Mini and HP Slimline are cute and fit in tight spaces, and though they don’t offer all the power I’d want, they have more than enough to satisfy most midrange users. If you’re ready for a PC in the living room, don’t want to spend more for a full-blown media center and hate the idea of a BTX-style case next to your 50-inch plasma, mini PCs could offer the perfect solution.

Funny how this follows immediately after the above do-not-buy-integrated-graphics rant, since almost all mini PCs (and ironically enough, the two named ones) are outfitted with integrated graphics. I’m also not quite certain what he means by a BTX-style case? BTX is a motherboard form factor… Alright, moving onto laptop advice.

Don’t buy: A sub-$500 laptop.
I came across a deal for a Dell Vostro for under $400. That seems like a real bargain until you try to visit a flash-driven Web site, view online video, or play even the simplest PC-based game on one.

Again, more misinformation. I don’t know whether the author actually tried this ‘$400 Vostro’, but I can assure you, it will have no problem with a flash-driven Web site, viewing online videos, or playing Solitaire (probably the simplest PC-based game?). Of course, what’s more likely the case is that he hasn’t used this $400 laptop and is just making stuff up. Just as cheap doesn’t automatically mean bad, expensive also doesn’t automatically equate to good. Don’t buy something more expensive because it is more expensive. That’s just dumb.

Maybe buy: A $400 One Laptop per Child PC (part of the “Give One Get One” program).
Yes, I know this contradicts my first point, but if your child or grandmother can live with what is essentially a toy PC, you’ll be doing a mitzvah for an underprivileged child who could never afford a PC.

If you’re in a giving mood, I think you’re better off making a nice $400 cheque out to UNICEF or another charity of your choosing. I’ll let PC Mag’s own article do all the counter-arguing that is necessary. In short form – a laptop for the internet is not terribly useful in a place where there is no Wi-Fi, no internet connection, and no schools. Plus, are you seriously going to saddle your kid or grandmother with this thing?

Do buy: Any laptop with a widescreen.
Standard 4:3 aspect ratios are yesterday’s news, and not just because it’s hard to play widescreen video on them. A widescreen gives you more screen real estate, so you can run e-mail and the AOL Instant Messenger window next to each other without hiding anything on either interface.

I’m going to nitpick, just because this guy deserves it. A 19″ 4:3 LCD typically has a native resolution of 1280×1024 while widescreen versions are 1440×900. Both yield nearly the same number of pixels; in fact the 4:3 display has slightly more. Still, he makes a good point. Widescreen monitors are a better suited for multitasking, presumably emailing and chatting at the same time (wow).

Next up, Digital Media Players.

Don’t buy: PC-less players.
These players from Haier and Slacker sound cool—there’s no PC required and music streams directly from a Wi-Fi connection—but the reality is that they’re not ready for prime time. The more content you put on Haier’s arguably innovative new player, the slower it gets. Plus, though Slacker (which works with Internet Radio stations) will work with open Wi-Fi networks, it pulls music onto the hard drive for off-line playback. So how is that so different than what you do with an iPod classic?

No PC required, but you can still use a PC with them. The more music you put on it, the slower it gets? Where did he get that from? Of course Wi-fi is going to be slower than playing straight off the hard drive, but did he forget that the Haier still has a 30GB drive for music?

Do buy: An iPod touch.
The most lust-worthy digital music player ever made simply has no equal.

He’s right – almost no other player of that capacity (8GB and 16GB) is that expensive ($299 and $399 respectively). Lust-worthy? Sure. But then I’d rather converge it all in an iPhone if the interface if what you’re after.

Don’t buy: A digital camera with less than 5 megapixels.
The deals on 7-megapixel-and-above cameras are simply too good. Obviously, 4 megapixels will print decent 4-by-5-inch photos, but 8-by-11-inch and larger images (yes, you may someday print larger ones) need more resolution. Plus you can’t zoom into detail on a 4MP image the way you can an 8MP one. You’ll be surprised at what you see when you look closely enough. (“See, Honey? I was wearing my wedding ring on that business trip.”)

It’s this sort of mentality that started the megapixel race between the digital camera makers. The result is cramming millions more pixels into the same (or smaller) sized sensors. Consequently, picture quality in point-and-shoots for the most part hasn’t gone much of anywhere over the last little while. I bet the 5MP 2/3″ sensor of my Sony F717 (from almost 5 years ago) beats the pants off 98% of the point-and-shoots today. Zooming to 100% of many of the high resolution photos taken with anything other than the lowest ISO presents a nasty mess of noise and/or noise reduction.

Don’t buy: Linux.
The world’s cheapest operating system is the darling of every do-it-yourselfer and the potential bane of every cheapskate user. You’ll save money and, I bet, lose your mind if you switch to Linux. Note to DIYers: This advice is intended for middle-of-the-road tech consumers. You, with the screwdriver in your hand, please feel free to download as many copies of Ubuntu as you want.

Even with the included post-script at the end of this ‘tip’, it’s sure to get a bunch of you Linux enthusiasts’ panties in a wad. I mean even I was a little irked at the comment. I mean, who buys Linux in the first place? 😉

Do buy: A new PC.
You won’t know how slow you’re going until you bring home a brand-new PC that’s pumped full of high-end graphics, bottomless storage, and loads of RAM. If you skimp on any of these areas, you’ll be sorry. It may not be today or tomorrow, but it’ll happen someday and likely continue for another three years, until your next PC purchase.

Again – not everyone is a video gaming, HD video-watching, multitasking geek. Average families, spend half the amount this author wants you to and still be able to do all the things you wanted, without the ‘high-end graphics, bottomless storage, and loads of RAM‘.

Well, that’s it for now. Remember, this holiday season, don’t buy into the ‘What to Buy for Christmas’ lists, but even more so, don’t buy into the ‘What Not To Buy’ lists. Thanks for reading.


8 Replies to “What Not To Buy in 2007?”

  1. What’s your take on integrated graphics and viewing HD content though? My previous computer was a P4 2.8GHz, 1GB RAM, and an ATI Radeon 9550, so it wasn’t the most blazing of computers. It died trying to load 720p trailers, let alone 1080p. With discrete graphics cards like the NVIDIA 8600-series and the ATI 3850 being so cheap at sub-$150, why not get a dedicated HD viewing assistant in the latest computer? HD is the future, no?

    I couldn’t agree more on the MP war. I’m getting a Canon G9 for its build and features, but the 12.1MP they crammed in there on a 1/1.7″ (or whatever…) sized chip is just horrendous. Give me 8MP max and give me something better than ISO 800. If Fuji can give clean shots, so can you, Canon.

  2. Richard – With integrated graphics (it’s not even just integrated graphics, it’s video processors without hardware decoding for the popular HD codecs, like VC-1, H.264, etc), you’re relying on the CPU to decode just about everything for you. That means, if you’ve got a fast enough CPU, you should be okay.

    I’m not contending that hardware video decoding is useless. In fact, it’s really quite good for the more stressful codecs, like VC-1; however browsing through BestBuy and/or Futureshop’s site and you’ll see that it isn’t until a certain price bracket that dedicated graphics cards actually pop up. And for most families, HD-DVD/Blu-Ray hasn’t even made it into their living rooms, much less their desktop. On the other hand, codecs like MPEG2 or WMV9 at 1080p resolution won’t hurt modern CPUs too much. You can take a look at this performance analysis – the H.264 performance of CPUs alone is pretty abysmal, but load up a MPEG2 or WMV video and it’s not bad at all. (And we’re talking 1080p here…)


    Older, single core CPUs (and as you point out, even the Radeon 9550, which has no hardware decoding for VC-1/H.264) will definitely struggle with most HD content, but just about every new desktop today around $500 comes with a dual core CPU. The thing is, moving up to something with dedicated video (which is usually on the higher end models) could mean spending $1000, and getting quad core, 3GB RAM, etc, etc, which may not be necessary for most users.

    I’m also tracking the G9 and reading a lot of reviews on it and the older G7. Futureshop had their Friends and Family sale and the G9 was down to $449. I was very tempted to pull the trigger, but I think I need to do some more research over the holidays to see if it’s worth it. The functionality really intrigues me – it’d be a nice way to learn some of the fundamentals behind optics and I love photography.

  3. The main thing that sold me on the G9 over the G7 is RAW… and there are some other minor features as well. After some digging at dpreview.com, it turns out that the only other two major features are the increased LCD size and a slightly larger sensor (1/1.7″ vs. 1/1.8″). Funny how they increased the sensor slightly but they decided to cram another 2MP in there.

    I’m getting mine from the States. I’m right now testing out this semi-shifty dealer that’s selling them for really cheap. I know, I know, it’s like every scam artist’s dream, but there are other people at RedFlagDeals.com that are taking the plunge with me. Thankfully VISA has fraud protection so a quick phone call will smooth that out. The only other option is a couple of stores selling it for $430 USD, but I’m trying to have mine brought back to smooth over the taxes and duties and such. $450 from FutureShop and BestBuy was very competitive, but 14% tax really kills it.

  4. Yeah, it seems like if you have the right tools, RAW can be very useful – but I’ve never worked with RAW post-processing before. I guess that could be another area I could learn something in. Seems quite time intensive.

    Aside from the RAW, the larger LCD and slightly different noise-reduction technique interests me in the G9 over the G7. I did some thorough reading of that DPReview review and I generally prefer the G9’s approach to NR over the G7. A little more noise, but also a considerably less ‘smooth’ or not as much detail is scraped away in an effort to reduce noise.

    The Canon forums at DPReview are pretty active and one major compliant I’ve been seeing is that noise is quite bad at ISO400 or above. I get the feeling that some have been spoiled by their DSLR’s ISO performance. I mean it’s got to be better than my current P&S SD200’s IQ? 😛

    What’s the dealer you’re looking at? I’m hoping for a half decent deal up here in Canada for Boxing Day, but if that doesn’t come, I’ll consider ‘semi-shifty’ dealers, too. 🙂

  5. Well I’m going through http://buykazelectronics.com/. They do use Authorize.net authentication and the guy who runs it is prompt in his responses. I placed my order on December 11 and got my tracking number for a Canada Post shipping order today. They have a 20% off sale going on right now ending tonight and they pay duties and brokerage fees to Canada. Sounds too good to be true, right? Here’s the forum thread that goes through just about every detail of the operation. Personally I’m hoping that I will have a nice big box of a Canon G9 and a Canon SD870 IS on my doorstep come Monday morning (3 days shipping from today).

    If you’ve never used RAW before, you’re in for a big surprise. You will see benefits, evidenced here, but the workflow you go through will have to change. Editing RAWs is a slower process since you’ll want to fine tune each image. There will be bigger storage requirements because, depending on how large your files are (G9’s are 19MB RAW+JPEG). Your computer will need to be better, but most modern systems are fine. My old one seriously lagged under editing multiple RAW files.

    Aside from the noise, yeah, people do expect a little too much from non-DSLRs. I suppose I’m the same, but when companies like Fuji are pumping out incredible high ISO performers, you just wish they would use that proprietary sensor in a slick body like the G9. Yes, you won’t get a DSLR’s performance; yes, you will get better IQ than your SD200, but it’s still not good enough. At the end of the day, just downsize the images from 12MP to 6MP. 🙂

  6. Haha, I just did a quick read-through of the RFD thread – hopefully everything works out for you. It’s quite the deal if it’s legit. I’m sure you’ll do it without my saying, but definitely post the results on your blog when you get stuff. (Of course let me know how the G9 is too!)

    I’ve never worked with RAWs before, so I’m optimistic about improving photos and at the same wary of the learning curve/software/time required. And hey, larger storage requirement just means I have another excuse to buy more hard drives right? 😉 As for the noise, yeah, I figure I’ll shrink the images down to a more reasonable size – I don’t do much/any printing at all and I really don’t need all 4000×3000 pixels of a 12MP photo.

  7. I have a vostro with upgraded graphics and it is wonderful very fast and no noticable issues with graphics. You should not have any problems with graphics as long as you have enough ram.

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