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  • The Dirty Little Secret About Cheap PC Boxes

    June 1st, 2006

    Despite all the back and forth discussion about whether Macs are more expensive than equivalent Windows PC’s, it’s not always easy to argue against just buying something real when the budget is tight. So people run into the local discount store, and take home a $399 computer, complete with monitor, keyboard and mouse.

    Let’s forget for the moment what the specs might reveal. I suppose if you just want to go online and maybe do some word processing, this may all you need, although I can argue the point in some respects. In fact, I won’t even remind you that the cheap Windows PC is just as vulnerable to malware and system anomalies as the more expensive models.

    Instead, I’m going to examine why these products are so cheap, and it’s not because of cheap Asian labor. Remember, some of those same factories are also building Macs. Now on the surface, I suppose you could argue that the cheapest way to build a PC is actually for you to assemble the box yourself. You go to your local PC emporium, buy the logic board, the processor, the power supply, case, drives, and all the rest, take it home and start your do-it-yourself project. In fact, I’m sure some of our readers are quite good at this, but if you actually considered how much time you really have to spend on the project, you might find you are being underpaid as far as labor goes.

    So how do they do it? Well, when you price a copy of Windows XP, it doesn’t seem to make sense either. How could some pay $200 for a full installation copy of the Home edition and make a profit on a $399 computer? Well, of course they are buying an OEM version, which is much, much cheaper, and the price depends on the quantity they purchase. The same holds true for the rest of the parts they use in their products, and you can rest assured they pay as little as possible to assemble those cheap boxes.

    But there is one other factor that isn’t getting much play among the technology pundits, but it forms the focus of a fascinating article over at CNET’s News.com. It’s all the battle to buy the desktop of your PC. You see, when you set up your new Windows computer, you’ll find your desktop cluttered with sign-up applications for such services as AOL, EarthLink and MSN. There will be demo software too of one sort or another putting up popups that exhort you to you buy the full version when the trial period expires, and do you think Google made that deal with Dell to put its stuff on their computers without paying something for the privilege?

    Yes, the Windows desktop is for sale, just like ad space on a billboard. The companies who vie for product placement hope that you’ll order their service or software, and are willing to write checks to the PC box makers to get their piece of the pie.

    Of course, as that News.com article points out, this can cause complications, because removing software from a Windows PC isn’t just a matter of dragging an application or folder to the trash, or, rather, “recycle” container. It will likely have other resources that remain active and grab a piece of that precious CPU horsepower and memory allotment. Even using the Add/Remote control panel to get rid of the stuff may still leave remnants in the infamous Windows Registry.

    You could, of course, erase the drive and be done with this stuff, but it’s quite possible your recovery CD will simply put it back on your computer. Want about a straight CD copy of Windows XP to restore your PC to pristine condition? Check with the manufacturer. It may cost extra.

    Some PC service companies, such as Best Buy’s “Geek Squad,” the crew that travels around town in those VW Beetles with the silly paint jobs, will happily charge you a fee to help uninstall this junk. Everybody is making money but you.

    Sure, Apple provides some demo stuff on a new Mac. There’s a 30-day “test drive” for Microsoft Office, and a trial version of iWork ’06. But they don’t tie up system resources, and, if you prefer, you can just trash them and get on with your life. The fully-enabled bundled software, such as iLife ’06, is fully functional, but doesn’t do silly things or send you pop-up reminders if you choose not to run it either.

    So next time you are tempted to take that cheap PC box home, think, for a moment, what you might really be getting into. It’s not always as easy as it seems to save money, or, as they often say, you do indeed get what you pay for.

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