When to buy Apple Products

You don’t want to buy a product just before it is replaced by a faster version at the same price. That’s why MacRumor’s Buyer’s Guide is useful for Apple products. It currently shows that there are many iPods and computers that are due for revisions soon based on the time since the last revision. This coincides with recent rumors of a September 9th event to announce new products.

This does not predict exactly when a new version will arrive.  Apple could come out with a small bump in the middle of a cycle. But if a revision is long overdue, you should consider waiting unless you need something immediately.

Buy Dell, buy Mac, or build your own?

It is often claimed that Mac computers are simply far more expensive than their PC counterparts. Some also say you might as well buy Dell now because they are so cheap? So what is the truth? Should you buy from a big PC seller like Dell? Should you go with the stylish Mac? Or should you just buy parts and build your own computer by hand?

I am using Dell as the example of the big PC maker. Plenty of other choices exist such as HP, Acer, and Gateway that are all similarly priced. The Mac is only made by Apple. For build-your-own computers, I will be using prices based on parts from newegg.com which almost always has the lowest priced computer parts. I will target 2 different system concepts. The first will be a home desktop where you can either go with a tower that is powerful or an all-on-one solution that is easier to hookup and more stylish. The second system will be a notebook.

Tower Desktops
The most common home/office desktop computer is a tower. I designed towers from Dell and NewEgg that consisted of Core 2 Quad 2.66GHz CPUs, 4GBs of RAM, 1TB hard drives with 32MB of cache, and with video cards that were very powerful such as the GeForce 9800 GTX+ for the build-your-own computer and an ATI Radeon HD3870 for the Dell. That makes these systems almost identical as far as specifications and performance.

The resultant price for the Dell was $1674. The build-your-own was $1361. The build-your-own price assumes you already have a copy of Windows XP which allows you to buy the much cheaper Vista Home Premium Upgrade version. If you need to buy Vista Home Premium full version, that adds $128 more to the price which yields a final total of $1489. The build-your-own saves $185 and you can save even more if you already have your OS or have a copy that allows an upgrade Vista version.

Now what about the Mac? Unfortunately, Apple makes absolutely no tower in this category. This is a big complaint about Macs since this is the most common choice for home desktops. Your first Mac alternative is the very expensive Mac Pro which is overkill for almost anyone since it has server components. These higher quality server parts are also very pricey. The pricing for a Mac Pro starts at $2299 which pretty much rules it out for most sane people. Then you are left with the under powered, over priced mac mini or the iMac. The mac mini is cute and good enough for most users but the price just isn’t worth it unless you specifically need a super tiny desktop.

All-in-One Desktops
It is this design that Apple pushes as what people should want in a desktop. It is certainly simpler for most people to hook up and a more stylish and elegant solution. However, if something breaks you almost always need to get a specialist to open up this harder-to-work-with case. These tend to be more expensive as well since they include an LCD monitor and some laptop components since they are so thin.

The Dell XPS One starts at $1299. The Apple iMac starts at $1199. The iMac has a slightly faster processor but you need to add 1GB of RAM to the iMac to bring it up to the RAM of the Dell. Getting the RAM from crucial is going to add about $30 after tax and shipping which brings the comparable iMac price up to $1229. The iMac also has a better video card with dedicated memory whereas the Dell uses up some of the 2GB system RAM for video. The end result is the iMac is hardware superior in several ways so if you want to run Vista or Mac OS X on it, the iMac is clearly the way to go.

Apple has had huge success with their notebooks mainly because they are very sturdy yet stylish. They also include a built-in camera which has become very popular these days for video conferencing. I will compare Apple’s most popular Macbook to the Dell XPS M1330. Again, you need to get some extra RAM from crucial for the Mac bringing it’s total up to 2GB for an extra $30. It can support up to 4GB but Mac OS X simply doesn’t need that for 99% of users out there. Vista on the other hand needs all the RAM it can get. The Dell comes with 4GB probably for that very reason. The price points are then $1149 for the Dell vs $1129 for the Macbook. The Dell has one other big hardware advantage of a 320GB hard drive. The Macbook only includes a 120GB. Moving the Macbook up to 250GB adds $150. So as far as a direct hardware comparison the Dell is the better value. Despite this, Macbook sales are growing at a much greater rate than any PC notebooks because they are so well designed and have the often preferred Mac OS X.

New Macs Soon
One point that is almost always left out in comparisons is that companies like Dell are constantly adjusting their prices. Apple only changes their prices when they release a new version of a model which they typically only do every 6-8 months. The result of this disappointing practice is that Apple hardware only tends to be a good value when a new model comes out. New Macbooks are expected out next month and new iMacs and Mac Pros are also due out soon. I have often found myself having to wait many months to buy a Mac just to wait for the better hardware value. It is this and the lack of a true Mac desktop tower that are my biggest complaints about the Mac lineup.

Operating Systems
I have barely mentioned the differences between Vista and Mac OS X but they are typically the biggest reason someone goes with a Mac over a PC, despite any price advantage a PC may or may not have. Vista is sluggish and needs 3+ GB of RAM. Besides that, I don’t think it as quite as awful as many people claim. The Mac has always been the more elegant OS and that is what really keeps Mac sales growing at twice the rate of PCs. The fact that Macs can run Windows but PCs can’t run Mac OS X also make the Macs more attractive.

If you want a powerful yet good value home desktop tower, building it on your own is much cheaper than Dell.  This is the best choice for gamers as well.  There is really no Mac alternative for the tower. If you want an all-in-one desktop solution, the iMac is the clear choice. If you want a notebook, Dell has an edge on hardware but I’ve never needed 320GB in a laptop before. The MacBook’s design, sturdiness, and OS tends to put it as the best selection and it is the one I recommend. Next month’s new Mac portable lineup should strengthen their hand even further.

Digital TV Converter Box Scams

The FCC has ordered all local over-the-air broadcasts be digital by February 17, 2009. Taking advantage of this, scammers are putting up ads and commercials claiming to offer free digital converter boxes. The FTC should shut down these misleading ads. One ad says:

The United States Deptartment of Commerce is preparing everyone for the switch to digital television by authorizing payment coupons for certified brands of these special TV boxes.

But the government process has us all tied up.

That’s why Universal TechTronics is providing these Miracle ClearView TV boxes immediately to the general public for free for everyone who gets the 5yr. warranty.

There are two problems with this. First, the device is only “free” if you don’t consider the mandatory warranty and shipping of $100.

But the main reason this is bogus is that most Americans don’t need to do anything. If you have satellite or cable TV, you are not affected. And if you are one of the rare Americans that uses a rabbit-ear antenna for over-the-air broadcasts, your TV could have a digital tuner built-in if it was purchased recently.

If you do need a digital converter box, it should cost about $60. You can get a $40 coupon from the federal government that lowers your cost to around $20.

For more on the Digital TV Transition, see the FCC site:

We need an eBay competitor

Problems on the Auction Block

eBay is the biggest auction site on the internet. This has generally worked well for people. More sellers provide more products to buyers. More buyers are better for sellers. But eBay has taken unfair advantage of this near market monopoly.

Over the last several years eBay has regularly increased fee percentages. For example, if you are a seller and your item ends at $150, then your ending fees will have increased over 40% in the past years. Most recently the final value fee changed from 5.25% to 8%. eBay has tried to hide this by lowering insertion fees, but the overall fees have increased dramatically. eBay also owns PayPal now and takes a cut from that transaction too. See this Fee Calculator for exact fees.

No greater service has come with these fees. eBay still has rampant fraud. Invariably people will email me as a seller asking me to end my auction early in exchange for their paying me early. It’s a Nigerian Prince type scam.

Buyers are still regularly defrauded by sellers who have built up a good reputation by numerous bogus low-cost auction transactions.

eBay has also made things bad for sellers by not allowing them to leave negative feedback for buyers. That’s right. You can leave feedback, but it has to be positive. I recently sold something on eBay and the buyer just didn’t pay. I can’t leave that person negative feedback. eBay has said that this is so that sellers do not have an unfair advantage. But all this has done provide an unfair advantage to buyers.

Competitor Please

Because of eBay’s arrogant attitude toward its customers, it is time for them to get a real competitor. The nature of an auction is that it needs lots of buyers and sellers to work. So it would be easiest for a big company with existing traffic to offer auctions.

Google is the biggest kid on the block. If they started auctions, eBay would be forced to lower prices. However, eBay is Google’s largest customer for its ads. Google has also been slow in moving into the content business, afraid to scare off its advertisers who might be competing with them. Still, Google could easily compete with eBay.

Yahoo gave up on their rival auction site about a year ago. It was odd that Yahoo search engine didn’t feature their search results over those from eBay. Still, Yahoo has many content sites and could try again to advertise a new auction site on its other websites.

Amazon’s Selling on Amazon could be a strong natural competitor. It sells at a fixed price, but has higher fees than eBay. Amazon also has a payment system that is somewhat of a PayPal competitor, but it costs even more and is difficult to use.

An unknown could also compete. But these sites have to do things like offering fixed-price auctions for fear of not enough bidders.  Etsy is for selling handmade goods. ePier is a small and simple auction site.  Overstock.com also has an auction site.

Someone should step up. There are numerous forums with people complaining about eBay’s fees and behavior. People are getting fed up and are ready for a real alternative.

Where to buy electronics

While Best Buy may be popular for electronics, they are rarely the best buy. Their staff is known to make up answers. Their online prices are not as good as other Internet stores. And their in-store prices are often higher than their online prices, despite what their in-store website shows. Their Geek Squad is poorly trained and could try to take a video of you taking a shower. So instead of driving to Best Buy, first look around online.

Amazon has decent prices, but is also just a good place to shop around for what you want. Between Amazon and Amazon’s third party sellers, their selection is huge and their reviews can help you figure out what is best for you.

Newegg has long been a favorite electronics seller because of their great prices. They are usually one of the first places I visit. They sell lots of electronics, computers, computer parts, accessories, and software.

Cables, such as HDMI cables for HD TVs, are a huge rip-off in most retail stores. Best Buy and Circuit City will charge $40-$100 for a cable that is no better than a $5 cable from MonoPrice. MonoPrice’s cables are so cheap that you might suspect that they’re selling stolen goods. But MonoPrice has been around since 2002 selling quality cables and parts for their real price.

Although their site is not as attractive as MonoPrice’s, Blue Jeans Cable also offers a good deal on cables, especially if you need something special that is custom made.

While their prices aren’t the most competitive, Crutchfield offers a comprehensive site for home theater equipment. Their phone sales people are also knowledgeable.

There are times when you need a real physical store. For example, laptops have different “feels” and are good to play with before purchasing. Luckily, in the D.C. area, we have a great store for electronics.

Micro Center, with 21 stores nationwide, has a store here in Fairfax, Virginia. They have good prices and a wide selection of computer equipment and software. They have a television section for large LCDs and Plasmas. Unique today, they have a section just for selling Apple products. Micro Center is great for geeks too because they sell everything you need to build a computer from the ground up. MicroCenter also has a bookstore and a game section for PC and console gaming.

Micro Center‘s employees are generally quite knowledgeable, especially compared to those at Best Buy. They make money on sales commissions by putting a sticker on items that they help you to find. On checkout, those stickers are scanned for comissions.

If you’re shopping specifically for an Apple product or accessory, Apple’s retail stores are great and have an intelligent staff. Since Apple keeps prices the same everywhere, you won’t feel ripped off shopping there. There are only a few ways to get prices slightly better than the standard list price from Apple. You can get an Educational or Government discount from Apple. Or you can go to a third-party seller that might offer a small discount or combo package that Apple does not have. Amazon is the best of the third-party sellers now. They offer $100-$150 off of most current iMacs.

Although Best Buy is ubiquotus, there are many better alternatives. Give some of these other electronics stores a try.