December 6, 2023

Seven Tech Trade-Offs Worth Making

The easy answer is “both.” But the reality is that most of us are usually dealing with a finite amount of money to spend, and that means making trade-offs. We want to get the most bang for our buck, not to be lured into paying for features and options that are not worth the money.

Below is some guidance about what is worth paying for, and what can be left unchecked on the options list.

PAY FOR PC MEMORY, NOT SPEED When buying and configuring a new computer, companies often give the option of upgrading the processor and adding more memory, or RAM. If it is an either/or proposition, go for the RAM. Processors are usually fast enough for most people; it is the RAM that can be the bottleneck.

Here’s a side note on RAM: Do not buy it from your manufacturer; RAM purchased from online retailers is just as good and considerably cheaper. Check out retailers like Crucial (for Windows machines) and Smalldog (for Macs). Each will tell you what kind of RAM you need for your machine, and they often sell it for more than half off the manufacturer’s retail price.

PAY FOR MESSAGING, NOT MINUTES Admittedly, this advice for cellphones applies best to a certain type of user — one who has a Monday to Friday, 9-to-5 office job. If this describes you, you are probably not using your cellphone all that much on weekdays. That leaves you with nights and weekends, when minutes are free. Look at your last bill and see how many minutes you actually used. You may be surprised to find that you are using many fewer minutes than you are paying for.

And what mobile carriers charge for individual text messages is ridiculous. If you have no bundled plan, each text sent or received can cost you as much as 20 cents. For an extra $5 or $10 a month, you can get hundreds or even thousands of texts included in your package. It is a far better price than going à la carte.

PAY FOR COMPONENTS, NOT CABLES Buy the finest displays, speakers and components you can afford for your media center. Be dazzled by a crisp, bright display. Feel as if you are in the middle of the action with the most powerful surround-sound systems. But when a salesperson starts pushing the A/V cables for $1,000 (this price is not an exaggeration; such cables exist), walk away.

Many connections today (H.D.M.I., optical audio) are digital, which means there is little to no signal degradation along the length of the cable. Small exceptions can be made if you are connecting components across long distances — say, more than 25 feet. Even with analog connections, it is highly likely that you will not be able to hear the difference between a cheap cable and an expensive one.

PAY FOR SENSOR SIZE, NOT MEGAPIXELS David Pogue, who writes the State of the Art column for The Times, has made this the camera shopper’s rallying cry for years. But it bears repeating because the industry still promotes one now-useless specification and obfuscates a far more important one. Just know this: Almost all cameras have enough megapixels now; it is the size of the image sensor that largely determines the quality of an image. Sensor size is confusing, because manufacturers use different formats. In response to ’a blog post from Mr. Pogue, someone created, a site that converts sensor measurements for an easy comparison.

PAY FOR SPEED, NOT CHANNELS For Internet access, most cable operators offer tiers of service, usually a broadband version of coach, business class and first class. The top tier is usually more than most people will ever need, but the base package may groan under the weight of heavy video streaming. Better to move up a tier, which should add about $10 to your monthly bill.

That way, you can cancel most of your movie channels and go with services like Netflix, Hulu Plus or Amazon Instant. Their costs are considerably less — either pay-per-video or less than $10 a month — than what you pay for Cinemax, TMC, Starz, Encore and other movie channels. (You may want to keep HBO or Showtime if you like those channels’ original programming — those shows will probably not be available anywhere else for a while.)

If you have a recent TV or Blu-ray player, you may already have access to Netflix and the other providers as built-in “widgets” that will connect through your home’s Internet connection. If not, $99 will get you an Apple TV or you can get a Roku box, which starts at $59; both will connect to streaming services. Over the course of a year, the cost of the hardware and services will be far less than the monthly fees you were paying the cable company.

PAY FOR APPLECARE, NOT MOBILEME Apparently, Apple makes some products that people really like. But Mobile Me, the company’s suite of cloud-based services, does not have the same draw. Maybe it is because most of what Mobile Me can do is available free from other companies. Web e-mail? Gmail. Photo storage? Flickr. Cloud storage? Dropbox. There used to be one killer app on MobileMe — Find My iPhone. But now that is available for free to all iPhone users, so that is one less reason to pay $99 a year for the service.

But saving on MobileMe frees up some cash for something more valuable, and that’s AppleCare, Apple’s extended hardware coverage and phone support. If you buy an Apple product without AppleCare, you get 90 days of free phone support and one year of hardware coverage (note that accidents like spills, drops and other mishaps are never covered, only malfunctioning equipment). If something goes wrong after that, you must pay for any phone support or repair work, and the prices are high — from $30 to $50. But purchase AppleCare (which costs from $29 for an Apple TV to $349 for larger MacBook Pros) and you get three years of phone support and repair coverage.

While other tech companies offer similar plans, most are to be avoided, as calling them for help often results in, “Did you try restarting your computer?” Apple’s techs are helpful and persistent and, since the company makes both the operating system and the hardware, they have the added benefit of actually knowing what they are talking about.

PAY FOR TV SIZE, NOT REFRESH RATE As Matt Buchanan pointed out in a still-useful post on a year and a half ago, every television manufacturer has a sweet spot when it comes to price and size. Going to 50 inches from 42, Mr. Buchanan explains, may cost you $200, but going 54 inches from 50 could cost $400 more, so 50 inches is where you would get the most for your dollar. Every manufacturer has its own sweet spot, so it pays to look at the lineup and see where it is.

But one thing you do not have to spend much time looking up is a television’s refresh rate, measured in hertz. That tells you how many times per second the TV refreshes the image on its display. A 60 Hz television refreshes its image 60 times a second; a 120 Hz does it 120 times a second. Many — if not most — TVs now have a refresh rate of 120 Hz, and more expensive models are faster than that, refreshing the image 240 times per second. And while twice as fast is theoretically better, your eyes would be hard pressed to tell the difference. That is not a tradeoff, that is a ripoff.

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