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Shopping Mission Impossible: Comparing consumer tech products

A rose by any other name, ....................... might really stink.

Back in the olden days, say 10 or 15 years ago, there was this thing called private label, or house brands. Very often these were products that major vendors would build for large retailers who would then sell them under their own names.  But a few years back that all began to change.

Retailers no longer were the “name” that customers were looking for. Consumer electronics, primarily in the form of TVs and home computers, had their own stars and major retailers wanted to capitalize on those product names.  But they still wanted some way to differentiate them from their competitors. And this almost always meant a better price.

The solution to this, from the retailer’s perspective, became multiple products with almost the same name. Now aficionados of the various technologies quickly caught on to this practice. The broad range of flatscreen TV’s are the worst of the offenders; the only differentiator often being a single character or letter in a five or six character product identifier between TVs with major feature differences. Websites that cater to the tech savvy TV buyer would end up with long discussions as buyers dug down into the specs and found out the changes between the various models being sold by specific retailers when compared to the models advertised on the OEM website. And many of these differences are quite significant, so the information being dug up by these buyers was, and is, a valuable tool when purchasing a new TV.

The problem is, the average consumer doesn’t understand that there is a difference between Amazing TV #1A74563A and Amazing TV #1A74562A except that the latter is sold at the local big box store as a “holiday special” for $200 less. They probably would not even notice the features that have been removed from that special sale item unless they had occasion to use the full-featured version. And then they begin to wonder why their TV couldn’t do the same things as the one they thought was identical at their friend’s house.

Fortunately, there are so many people affected by this issue that there is usually a lot of searchable information on the web. And thankfully, my family doesn’t contact me before their TV purchases (usually). Unfortunately, they do contact me about computer purchases. And after more than 20 years of answering the “what computer should I buy” question, my family knows that the answer is likely to be “buy one from a major vendor with a good warranty so they can help when problems crop up.”

However this year I’ve been hit with a different approach to this question. My family calls or emails and asks “is this a good computer for my needs” which is usually a reasonable question.  They then follow up with “where should I buy it” to which I thought I could say “where ever you can get the best deal.”

Which brings us back to the original problem; there are many home computers and laptops now,  from Tier 1 vendors, that are special versions made for various retail and wholesale outlets.  The primary product names are the same, but they have their own specific model number.  So I can’t just say “Wally’s SuperSkinnyBook 10 is a good choice”, because that name, at four different local outlets and seller’s on the web, doesn’t mean the same computer. And when I’ve drilled down through the specs that the various reseller’s put on their websites, it often appears that they are the same computer, but with price delta’s that don’t make sense.

Now it’s possible that they are actually identical, and the different sub-model number simply represents the retail outlet, but that seems unlikely. What’s more likely is that the cheaper version has cheaper components; when someone orders thousands of a specific product, the OEMs will build to spec. But all that gets published are generic stats for storage, memory, drives, etc., that can have wide variations based on the quality of the actual OEM of those parts and their own parts structure.

So this shopping season I’ve found myself explaining to the non-tech savvy that the reason they can’t find that computer when they search the web anywhere except the one vendor they saw it at, is because it was made just for that vendor. And when they go to the OEM website and look at the base model of the product line there is no guarantee that any of the components talked about there will be the same.

Which brings us back to the old maxim “you get what you pay for.”  The best I can often do is simply remind the friend or family member, that there might be a small difference in price between identical products they find on the Internet, but if the price difference is very large, and the specifications are talked about in general terms, then it isn’t the same computer and they can’t compare it to other products they are seeing.

So, for the vast majority of folks to whom computers aren’t a technical hobby,  check that return policy and make sure there is a good warranty and support program in place, before you buy that new home computer.


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