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How to avoid the hardware upgrade rip-off

9th Jul 2007
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Get a bigger bang for your PC buckTaking your latest PC apart as soon as it comes in the door isn’t for the faint hearted, but if you’re prepared to get your hands dirty, you could knock hundreds or even thousands of pounds off your next purchase. You might even learn a thing or two about computers in the process.

I’ve just bought a shiny new HP Business Notebook for my wife - a Core 2 Duo machine with 2GB of RAM. A virtually identical spec direct from Dell should have set me back over £900 including delivery and VAT, I paid just over £400 all-in.

Then there is my web designer. He was in the market for an Apple Mac Pro - and in the process managed to save himself a whopping £1,100 off the list price. Finally, I’ve got my eye on a mid-range MacBook Pro with 4GB of RAM - hardly a snip at £1,775 until you realise its “official” price is actually £2,079. That means more than £300 could be saved.

So where do all these savings come from? In a word - upgrades.

Getting the right specification for a PC has always been important, but with today’s software and operating systems as demanding as Windows Vista, it’s critical. Modern operating systems and applications need the right hardware to work well - and by that I mean the latest processors, bags of memory, and of course plenty of hard drive space. Cut a few corners and you’ll end up with a machine that’s slower, less responsive, and in some instances not even usable.

Unfortunately, manufacturers and retailers know this, and price accordingly. They put a premium on the higher spec machines and optional upgrades that are, in fact, essential. The fantastic deals you see advertised in the press or on the TV might sound great, but take a closer look at the specs of those machines and you’ll see older, slower technology, and plenty of those cut corners.

These offers are there to get you in the door or onto the web site, but they won’t cut the mustard if you are planning to run Vista or future proof your machine. You are forced to either choose the next model up, or upgrade. The trouble is that these upgrades, or models further up the range, don’t always represent the best value for money.

Manufacturers rely on the fact that most PC buyers will want their equipment to arrive tested and ready to use. Customers don’t want the hassle of buying parts from multiple suppliers, and certainly won’t want to take their brand new machine apart the moment it arrives. This pattern is especially apparent with suppliers who "build to order" and it’s why adding 1GB of RAM to a notebook on the Dell website will set you back around £100 when you can buy the whole 2GB (not an upgrade, but the whole 2GB) for less than £50 from several reputable suppliers on the net.

Try the same on a MacBook Pro, this time upgrading from the stock 2GB to 4GB. The Apple online store quotes an eye-watering £480 - once again I can buy a whole 4GB of branded, lifetime guaranteed RAM for just £176 all in. All I need to do is fit it myself.

"But how easy is it to fit these things?" I hear you ask.

Well, the truth is it’s very easy. You won’t need a soldering iron, just a simple set of screwdrivers. As long as you follow the instructions given in the manual, and as long as you’re careful, you’re not going to void the warranty.

Even hard drives are often easy to replace these days - a 120GB laptop drive will set you back around £50, probably cheaper than opting for the next model up, plus you get a spare hard drive. If you do replace the hard drive, you will need to re-install the operating system - but that’s generally as easy as inserting the System Restore disks that came with the machine and answering “Yes” to the question “Do you want to restore the computer back to its factory settings?”

Surprisingly enough, this isn’t limited to your PC’s inner workings. The same is true for other accessories, especially cables and software. Out-of-town PC stores may appear to offer bargain prices for PCs, but that doesn’t explain why something as mundane as a printer cable will set you back £15, compared to on-line stores offering the same thing for less than £3. And if you opt for the “half price” bundled anti-virus software, be aware that there are better products out there that can still be had for less money.

Tips for saving money on your next business PC
  1. Do your homework. Don’t rush out to the sheds and jump at the first offer you see - and remember that there will always be a better offer next month.
  2. Know the difference between consumer and “business” PCs - especially in the case of laptops / notebooks. Consumer devices are the most common - the dead giveaway is that they’ll come with Vista Home, or XP Home which may not even work in your business’s network. Consumer devices can be less expandable, notebooks are often heavier but less rugged, and they may come with less warranty cover than the business equivalent.
  3. The processor is the most important part of your PC - and often hardest (or impossible) to upgrade. The latest Intel machines are equipped with Core 2 Duo processors, but take care - many adverts refer “Core Duo” and “Dual Core”, which are actually referring to older, slower devices.
  4. Memory is probably one of the easiest upgrades you can do to either a notebook or a desktop, with hard drives coming a close second. Don’t pay over the top for the next model up just because it has a bigger hard drive or more RAM, without doing your homework on what it would cost you to do the upgrade yourself.
  5. Some notebooks can be fiddly to work on - so check out the manufacturer’s web site before you buy - the support section will contain downloadable manuals which will tell you exactly how hard it’ll be to upgrade all the parts (and indeed what’s possible to upgrade without voiding the warranty). These manuals will also confirm exactly which components are compatible.
  6. You’ll probably need to invest in some tools - a set of precision screwdrivers along with some small TORX bits may be required - nothing that you cannot buy from your local DIY or motorists centre for around a tenner.
  7. If you’re buying several machines, you may be able to save even more money. Upgrading one machine will free up the original parts - which may then fit the other. Two upgrades for the price of one!
  8. If you don’t fancy taking your PC apart - you will almost certainly find a small independent retailer will do it for you at time of purchase for free or only a small charge. These smaller independents often appear more pricey than on-line or the glitzy sheds, but when it comes to the final bill plus when you factor in the experience and service you’re getting, the smaller independents often win hands down.

Taking your brand spanking new notebook or desktop PC apart the moment it comes through the door might not sound very appealing, but it could really save you money. Now, where did I put those screwdrivers?

Stewart Twynham
Bawden Quinn Associates Ltd

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By Anonymous
12th Jul 2007 08:36
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By evanowen
12th Jul 2007 15:24

A likely story
Let's be having the spec of the machine so we can do a real world comparison.

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By Stewart Twynham
12th Jul 2007 16:59

Machine specs
Here are the specs for the examples given:

Notebook: HP nx7300 T5500 Core2Duo, 80GB 5,400 rpm HDD, 2GB RAM. Total cost was £412 including VAT and delivery - one month ago. Price compared with equivalent Dell Inspiron - same T5500 C2D, 80GB, LCD panel, Intel GPU at that time, including a free delivery offer.

Mac Pro: 8GB RAM, Apple online store price for 8GB = £1349.01, (4x2GB PC5300 FB DIMM), at other stores for £493.48. Apple online store price for 2 off Seagate 500GB 7,200 SATA 2 HDD = £418, available at other stores for £130. Total saving £1143.

Macbook Pro: Mid range 15.4" model, Santa Rosa spec 2.4GHz Core2Duo, 4GB upgrade at Apple online store = £480, 4GB (2x2GB PC5300 667 SODIMMs) from Crucial (today) is £164.49.

Dell have in the last few days shifted their models around a bit, but will still charge (for example) £95 + VAT to uplift a 1GB notebook to 2GB, when plenty of stores online charge around £50 for the whole 2GB of branded RAM, including VAT and shipping.

This price differential has another interesting side effect - of making models further up the chain look "cheaper" - as you "spec up" your lesser model, you end up with a price which is closer to the higher model's price - so end up buying that one.

I hope that helps!

Stewart

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