Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Want tech product advice? Here's where to look

June 8, 2009

Are you a grabber or an investigator?

Grabbers do very little research before buying gadgetry. They visit a store, maybe two, find something they like, and put down the Visa for it. Investigators like to know in advance what they're getting. Particularly when the zeroes start to extend west of the decimal point, they rely on others' opinions, technical specifications and reviews to help the decision-making along.

I am an investigator. I already know what my next cell phone will be in six to 12 months (and it won't be either a BlackBerry or an iPhone). If my computer died tomorrow, I'd already know what brands to buy, what models work well, and where the better bargains are to be found.

I admit this due diligence is more work and time, but I think it's worth it, because I'm only rarely disappointed by what I buy. And I also admit that my familiarity with what's under the hood makes me more comfortable sloshing through product specifications. But you don't have to be a card-carrying nerd to find out some basics about the machinery you're about to rely upon to make that most wondrous of all things: profit.

If you're a grabber, I'm not even going to try to convert you. You're already committed to the grabber path. It's to the investigators I speak. When we put on the deer-stalker cap, light the shag pipe, and venture out into the foggy night, where are we going?

For myself, I'm going online. Not to the manufacturers' sites, at least not yet. Those are largely whitewashes (although not all, as we'll see). I go first to the review sites. A couple of old standbys are CNet (www.cnet.com) and ZDNet (www.zdnet.com).

CNet is a venerable review site that covers almost everything that can be plugged into something else. It includes washing machines, camcorders, refrigerators, home theater, laptops and others. Several of its site areas have blogs, reviews and buyer's guides. If you love technology and love the people who love technology, you can spend days wandering the hallways here.

ZDNet is an aggregator review site, meaning it incorporates the reviews from several other sites, including CNet (but without CNet's other goodies). Like many other sites, ZDNet has price comparisons, too. Not as friendly as CNet, in my view, but it has very broad product coverage.

Both CNet and ZDNet have good information from disinterested third parties. There are ads on the sites, but nobody has ever suggested that the ads influence the reviews. However, if you want to really get to know your gadgetry from the experiences of real users, join some forums and boards. In the parlance, "forums" are categories that hold "threads" made up of related messages. Forums are places where altruism lives. Experts help newbies. Newbies help one another. The company helps both. At their best, forums are civil and completely frank. Newbies can expose their ignorance without fear, and ordinary users can harvest huge fields of product information, both for purchase and later for operation. Most of the time, they're free.

In particular, manufacturers' sites may have forums. Remember what I said about exceptions to the shill sites? Apple, for example, has dozens of forums on its site (discussions.apple.com/index.jspa) covering every current product, and with some going back a few years. Users post questions or observations, and others chime in. Reading the iPhone forum, for example, is a graduate education in its problems and potential.

Not to be outdone, Dell (www.dell. com) has reviews from users as well as its own forum site. As with Apple, the advice goes beyond how to jigger the hardware. A thread about a sound card, for example, led to a discussion about sound quality and how to select speakers.

I should mention that CNet has forums, as well. CNet has one for small businesses, in fact. Google is deeply into the game, with its Google Groups (groups.google.com). Google Groups is more free-form than more specialized boards, with forums neatly classified and listed in alphabetical order. You may have to search Google Groups for the information you want, although you can subscribe to group messages.

Amazon.com (www.amazon.com) has some toes in the water with its own product reviews. And there are many independent, product-agnostic boards with forums, such as NotebookReview.com (forum.notebookreview.com), Tech Forums (www.tech-forums.net), PC Magazine (www.pcmag.com), Computer Shopper (computershopper.com), and PC World Magazine (www.pcworld.com).

I'm not advocating you read every one of these sites, but one or two will give you insight into whether your new biz-thing will make you money or make you upset.

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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