12 August 1999
Retail Therapy: Decision Making in the Computer Age
Palm vs. Psion
Of Celerons and Synchronicities
It's like this: I have a hard time making decisions. It's like, I don't know enough to make it final until I've taken the first steps: usually in a zigzag pattern, trying out the different options for size. This doesn't work very well in relationships, I've found, and it doesn't work very well in computers, either. But what else can you do? Especially when the used monitor--so much in demand that people were lining up and bidding for the last one--is staring me in the face, and the two young fill-in sales clerks are sitting there with their fresh shiny faces upturned, waiting for me to do something, one way or another?
Palm vs. Psion
I knew I was like this before I went to the coast, but at least had decided I was going to buy a handheld, and went so far as to narrow the field with some Internet research first. I wanted lightness for trekking into the woods and mountains and a workable keyboard for touch-typing, so that I could write my journal entries during outdoor jaunts without the tedious retyping that paper journals required. And of course I wanted a good price.
The reviews at CNET were pretty thorough, and pointed to a number of worthy items to check out first-hand: the NEC, heaviest and most expensive but with a real keyboard, the Psion, small yet with workable chiclet-size keys, the HP models at a good price, and the Phillips Velo. I knew with the small keyboards, it would be essential to try before buying.
Even in Vancouver the stocks were limited. The HP's were most in evidence--in fact the only ones available on retail shelves, among my short-listed preferences. But the keys were too tiny and cramped for my purposes. I almost gave up, while still considering the heavier pricier NEC if I could trust the CNET review (top choice) enough to order sight unseen, and my own certainty enough to lay out the double price required ($1500 Cdn, or $1000 US). Meanwhile I came upon a used laptop store in Vancouver, with IBM Thinkpads galore for $500. Great for keypads, but not as portable as I wanted for slinging or wedging into backpacks. I passed.
We moved on to Victoria. Still hunting, I went to CompuSmart, a kind of computer superstore, and found a nice array of handhelds, mostly Palms, and finally a Psion. While looking over the Psion I was approached by a salesman who inquired as to my needs and immediately steered me to the Palms.
"Oh, these are way superior. The Psions give a lot of problems but the Palms are really taking hold. All the software applications are coming out for Palms now, you can do everything with them. And if it's a keyboard you want, here, you can just plug in this accessory keyboard and off you go: it's full size."
True enough, there was a plastic tray with full sized keys that plugged right into the Palm. Desktop synchronization was also a one-touch snap. I was nearly sold--but wanted another look at the Psion, to compare. I typed a bit on it and liked the feel, the responsiveness, the live bounce and soft click of the keys. I found myself typing:
"Yes this is the one the one I like these keys okay, this is the keyboard that does work well, something says okay and forget the other, so it goes and I try a little more, how does it look on the screen, where's the comma;;;"
I had a little trouble finding the comma and drifted back to the other keyboard, larger but less firm, with a flimsy cheap-plastic feel to it but, it was true, the Palm module itself had a nice heft in the palm when detached, and I could always use the stylus to write with, for even more lightweight applications?
The salesman came back and reinforced the impression of versatility: "I never go anywhere without mine now." He pointed to his belt holster where the Palm nestled gracefully as a gun.
We did the business and I walked away with my two boxes, the Palm and its companion keyboard. On to lunch on the waterfront. Walking out on the long pier and back with my companion Carol, I was uneasy, too disturbed to enjoy easily the bright windy day. What was the matter?
It didn't help that we'd just spent two full days and part of another shopping in Vancouver for sleeping bags. The clerks in those stores wound up welcoming us like family by the end, as we stretched out on their floors again and again, in red and orange and purple and black, rolling and stretching and poking and packing and asking twenty questions of every make and model. Carol got swept into my retail dysfunction and bought one bag at my urging while I procrastinated. I had hoped that her purchase would spur me to buying a compatible bag, and I was planning on returning to the first store of the series where we could have it at the lowest price.
But the next morning, after a night not entirely happy with her new bag, we bypassed that first store on Sleeping Bag Row (otherwise known as West 4th) and found ourselves back in store #2, because I had this visceral memory of a certain other bag we'd seen there?
Finally we found a pair of matched down bags we liked best of all, and decided that if store #3 would take back the already-purchased bag, we'd come back in and be done with it, happy with our new finds. The outcome was a happy one but the process exhausting. Therefore I was leery of doing this all over again: but the truth was, new Palm boxes already in the car, I couldn't get that Psion out of my mind, the feel off my fingers.
It was my gut, really, that was churning. Because it had been my strong intuition that the Psion was "the one," and the salesman's insistent rationale that persuaded me otherwise. Carol helped me work through these feelings; was gracious enough to accept (and help me accept) how it was with me and buying. Not only buying; we'd been through more than enough of my waffling about our still-tender relationship--but that's another chapter or three. Back to the seawall: if I really felt uneasy--and I still had some uncertainty about the issues of comparative compatibility with desktops--I should go back to the store and get more clarity, come to some more satisfying completion.
I went back to the store and got another salesman, by chance. It was a fresh start; except that he gave me the same pitch. Again I was persuaded as he was both genuine and personal about it. Again the larger keys and flexibility of the Palm spoke to my rational mind, overcoming the sentiments I'd imagined while typing on that Psion's dim, dark screen. I thanked the young man and walked away secure in my decision.
I never did use the thing much on that trip--as we got caught up in the city scene, got rained out from further camping, and cut our trip short to come home. Once at home I began to really appreciate the manual option, writing with the stylus while pausing along the trail, carrying the compact unit without keyboard in my pants pocket. For longer writing sessions the keyboard was perfectly adequate, though I missed some of the basic navigation movements of a true word processor. When it came to synchronizing with the desktop, I was happy to see the familiar Word icons cropping up on my desktop like new clover, or screens appearing right in Word itself upon dragging them there.
All was going well, in other words, until one day the Palm got knocked to the kitchen floor. Screen blank, backlight locked on, no data, no reset. Cooked. Was this to be expected? Surely a portable needs to withstand such daily knocks. I returned it under guarantee immediately and received another.
Up and running again. Yes, I had lost my scheduling data, my precious to-do list (a blessing, really), and probably some journal entries--no huge deal. Then, within a couple more weeks, things started to go wrong with no apparent physical cause. The screen would lock up and need resetting, more and more frequently. More than once I lost everything and had to restore the system with a hard reset. Meanwhile the synchronizing wasn't going too well either. Not all the data was transferring properly; the process wasn't completing. Finally the whole mess became unworkable and I gave up and called the store again. They were gracious enough to accept the keyboard back as well, though it technically was a separate product, and shipped me the long-lost Psion as a replacement. The right brain, I concluded, knows something about the universe that the left brain doesn't.
The Psion has been everything the Palm promised and much more, for virtually the same price as the Palm-keyboard combination. The Psion operating system is set up like a true desktop, with files and folders organized as icons. The Word program is a true word processing program with all the standard navigation keys and shortcuts, and standard file management. The synchronization to Word and Schedule+ is nearly seamless. The keypad itself is small but amenable to touch typing, though it takes some practice to become familiar with the location of punctuation keys. All in all, a superior product--yet not without its quirks. The computer is only human, after all.
Synchronization with the to-do lists and agendas of Schedule+ is not as seamless as promised, with gaps and duplications and odd placements. The Word interface worked perfectly, at first--and now produces .doc files that work in the WordPad and Word97 programs, but not in Word95, unless first loaded and saved by one of the other two programs. A reinstall of both PsiWin 2.1 and Word 95, strangely enough, didn't fix the problem.
A visit to the Psion users newsgroup led me to a contact who generously mailed me a copy of PsiWin 2.2 to solve the Schedule+ synchronizing problem--but now it seems as if that's when the Word problem started--while the first problem remained unresolved. Now the newsgroup reports that 2.2 is indeed worse than 2.1, and that 2.3 is the real solution. Does this way of counting ring a bell?
Of Celerons and Synchronicities
So, back at the desktop, the time has come to put the old 486 out to pasture (into the family room, or Carol's office). Too many system crashes, software conflicts, Windows 95 reinstalls, slow waiting while files transfer or are searched, finger-tapping while the system loads and reloads and locks up and reloads, too much updated software eating up too many scarce resources?
The game of leapfrog continues, and it's the hardware's turn to catch up, at least on this virtual ranch. At least, so I was kind of thinking without really knowing it, when the following ad appeared three weeks ago in the local Pennywise:
Celeron 300: 96MB RAM, 6.4gig HD, 8 meg video, 17" monitor, 40xCDROM, sound, speakers, keyboard, mouse, Win98 plus tons of software, $1300 includes setup & 2 hour course.
Pretty good deal, right, for thirteen hundred Cdn? It pushed me to start thinking seriously, four years might be enough for the old beast I'm trying to push through the brave ever-new world of web publishing.
I called and found out more. "It's a fast little machine," the seller told me, as if describing his sporty Triumph convertible. The Celeron, I was informed, had limitations in clock-doubling, but was an Intel product and worked just fine.
I almost went for it then and there--not even wanting to get into research, comparison shopping, agonizing for weeks over components and options. He had exactly what I wanted, didn't he?
Maybe the trouble started with the Scotch blood in my parents, who taught me to be always careful with money. On the other hand I did grow up in the fifties and sixties of affluent America, so retail therapy was the only personal development game in town in my development years. My parents, for that matter, came along for the same joyride. "What's money?" my mother would say with a wistful sigh from suburbia--"It only brings happiness." A dichotomy resulted in my psyche, so that no major purchase is guilt-free or easy.
I bit my wallet and reinstalled Windows 95 for the dozenth time, then reinstalled only the most essential software programs, in order, backing up the registry as I went. Of course the usual number of new conflicts arose, as they insist on doing with every new configuration. I work with it: a mechanic with his hobby "classic car." The Macromedia program still drags, though doesn't crash. Netscape 4.61 still crashes. Word95 and Word97 still play a little dance, competing for top dog in the file association sweepstakes. But I'm finished now: I've placed my order for a new system.
That decision naturally didn't come as easy as I had hoped it would be. The basic decision to upgrade got easier with every crash and restart, every crawling program function. Where I got into trouble was comparing apples and oranges, prices and risks.
To make a long story shorter, I can summarize as follows: I decided to get what I really wanted, thought I needed or would need as computing continues to advance with its relentless pace: a Pentium II Celeron 433 processor, 128 RAM, 6.4 G HD, 8 MB video, extra HD, scanner. The new systems dealer in town gave me a good price and offered a used 14" monitor for 90.--going fast. That bargain applied the pressure I didn't need, but pushed me to get the deal over with, which, afraid of my own propensity for endless stewing and considering, I dearly wanted to do.
But I felt it only prudent to visit my neighbor with a PII 350 system with similar uses, to pick his brain before committing. He gave me the scoop about the early Celerons performing less than expected. On the day I was going to town to place a deposit on the used monitor and new system, I followed up with some Net reviews on Celeron and discovered there were performance problems with the Celeron 300, but that the later editions were every bit as good as their true Pentium counterparts. This sealed the verdict for me against the used 300 in the Pennywise.
Just for clear conscience, I stopped in at the three other computer stores in town. One dealer had a couple of different options for chipsets, and pointed out that when the 500's and 550's came down in price, I could always upgrade again. That was fine but beside the point: the 433 would do nicely for my needs for the foreseeable future, and I had confirmed my guess that I had the best deal already lined up.
The little walkup office with the system I wanted was being run by a couple of young adults that day; I just wanted to see the monitor and put a deposit on it pending my order for the full system. When I saw the monitor I was disappointed: I had been told it might be a 15", and it did look small. I started feeling cheated out of that 17" monitor in the Pennywise. I still had a 17" which I planned to take from my 486 system; my family could use the 486 with the 14" monitor, no problem. Did I still want to go through with this? It was hard to commit, right then and there. I said I'd think about it, and would be in touch. If I placed an order with the dealer the next day, I figured he could just hold the monitor for me as part of the deal. I walked out quickly, concerned about the quarter in my parking meter running out, and the frozen apple juice I still had to deliver that long hot working day.
I got a few miles outside of town to my last delivery, and the client was not there as promised. Oh. I was free of commitments now--ready to go home. But wait--now I remembered that to order with this dealer--he was too small to take credit cards--I had to place a 50% deposit. I had forgot this detail, and now if I wanted his system this week (and I did, I did), I would have to backtrack into town and take a check to the teens minding the store. While I was at it I may as well just pick up that monitor and be done with it. Total cost, $1900. The used system would have been $1600 with extra hard drive and scanner, but what the hell: I was getting the processor I wanted, and that was the main thing, worth the extra cost.
So far so good: only in the way out of town again, diminutive monitor strapped cozily beside me, it hit me: if those chipsets can be upgraded, why couldn't I buy the Celeron 300 system and upgrade the processor to a 433? It probably wouldn't cost more than $300, pulling me even with the cost of the new system. Then I'd have the same speed but that 17" monitor for Carol and the kids to use. She was going to be doing more writing, and had already commented about how much easier spreadsheets were with the larger screen... And then there was all that software... Jeez, I'd done it again!
Why hadn't I thought of this before writing that $1000. check?
But wait! It was only a check. I still would need the hard drive and scanner. Maybe the dealer would understand my confusion, do the upgrading work on the used machine, and happily--or grudgingly--refund the difference. Maybe it wasn't the end of the road, and I could still swing it back the other way.
I stewed and figured and calculated and balanced all the way back home, two hours, and woke up the next morning somehow resolved to go through with the deal I'd set up. I called in with the specs--his prices had gone up but he'd go with what he'd quoted me, and we were on for $1900. It would be ready for pickup in a week (four working days for him).
A day passed, uneventfully: except that now, at last, my 486 purred along, crashless, smooth. I worked mainly within Word that day, wondering what all the fuss was about. How much power does it take to light up a screen, move a cursor along and to display typed letters one at a time?
Midway through the next day (yesterday) I started to get cold feet for real. I went through all the figures again. I started to wonder what I was getting all those gigabytes for, and so began to lust after all that juicy software to fill it up.
Conclusion: Monitor vs. RAM, simplicity, guarantee; software a wash
Once all the upgrades were in place, the two systems side by side would cost about the same. The difference then, boiled down to this: I could have that bigger monitor and "ton" of enticing new software, but not without a price. The tricky part was, it wasn't exactly a money price any more. It was back in the realm of configuration mysteries, of personal dynamics, of gut feelings and rationalizations, of reputation and reliability. Yes, I could probably arrange--if I called first thing this morning--to cancel the order and talk about renovations instead. But there were half a dozen sticky questions in the way.
The first obstacle was that the seller of the Celeron 300 was out of town on a camping trip and unreachable till the end of the week. The silver lining was that his system was still unsold, and so remained a possibility for me even three weeks after the ad appeared. I needed to know whether his system was upgradable to a new processor. My guess was that, less than a year old, it would be. Next, I wanted more of a breakdown on the software. Was it stuff I really needed--for instance, an upgrade to First Aid 95, good graphics programs, things I'd never even thought of? Would it be a problem to get the original installation disks or files from him? What about registration records, tech support? He'd told me in our one conversation that "all the glitches" had been worked out. But did I want to inherit a complex array of possibly conflicting software, having to work through uninstalls and orphaned files and corrupt registries (leaving aside the irresistible allure of learning to use the darned programs in the first place)? As for price, I assumed as a private seller he wasn't charging tax. But he mentioned that he did a lot of buying and selling. So maybe there'd be a 14% bump to that $1300.
Back to the new dealer, I'd need his input on the upgrading of the processor. How feasible was it, and how costly? Would he charge an extra service fee for the backup hard drive? What about his new prices? Would they kick in if I delayed this whole deal any further? Would he be willing to take back that 14" monitor for resale? How would he feel about all this? Was his work already started and too late to halt?
With so many unanswered questions, and feeling bad about inflicting my own indecision on someone else, it was going to be hard actually to carry through on a change of plans. This whole upgrade notion was for the sake of simplicity, right? To save time for real work--the work which computers were supposed to make more streamlined, not more complicated. To get away from endless configuration problems, hardware and software conflicts, mysteries and black holes.
Yes, I could probably shed sufficient light on this half-submerged raft of details with a couple of phone calls. And then arrange the extra trip to collect the used system, and then deal with the dealer with these weird vibes of changing my mind in midstream, and then be stuck with a six-month guarantee on a hybridized digital personality, instead of a two-year guarantee on a lean clean machine.
In sum, the choice was as clear as this:
A larger monitor on the one hand, vs. 32 MB more RAM, simplicity all the way around, and a longer warranty. The software issue was really a wash, as the benefits could easily be outweighed by problems down the line, or sheer glut.
I woke up not even seriously tempted to call the dealer. And chances are, even if I had, complete with trepidation and my list of questions, he would have responded to the first one and that would be that:
"Yeah, I started yesterday, it's coming along and will be ready for you as promised next Wednesday."
Computers. We just can't seem to win.
© Nowick Gray