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Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Back to school - Useful technology for students at budget-conscious prices and general buying tips

Back to school: The most popular technology for the return to class -
I was inspired to initially just write a rebuttal of this (above linked) article at But, then I decided to write up something a bit more useful to consumers. I couldn't believe the prices listed in this article! I'm not knocking Parentcentral specifically here (they generally publish some very useful articles), but I've found that often articles like these in newspapers in general don't tend to be researched by anyone with enough knowledge about technology (they just talk to people at a couple of big stores).
Seriously? For students: iPads? Laptops for $850, and routers for $120???!!! (And whats with the camcorder?)

There are always better deals out there. Sometimes you can get much better quality for a much lower price than you are often led to believe. I research and source computers and computer-related equipment every day and I find that there is a wide range of prices on products of similar quality and performance.

Let's compare some prices and items in this article to some better deals out there.
(Note: my sourcing for this post was done in the Toronto. Prices will vary in other areas. The lower prices I quote are on products of similar quality/performance or better (or, the lower-priced item is of good quality and the higher priced item was overkill for the purpose). Pricing was done Aug 24, 2011 (so beyond a few weeks from this date, the prices and technology will change))

Parentcentral: minimum price: $400
Tweak: minimum price: $225
Savings: $175

Parentcentral: Epson Stylus NX All-in-one wireless. $100 (Best Buy)
Tweak: HP Officejet 4500 Wireless All-In-One. $60 (on sale for this at Best Buy, normally $70 at Staples (cheaper than the regular Best Buy price))
Savings: $40
(Note: Regarding the different printers they mention in the article at Parentcentral: Over-priced or not practical. A student will need to print some things in colour - so a B&W laser is out of the picture. Also, multi-function printers are of good quality, serve more purposes, and are very cost effective so I would recommend these over non-multi-function machines. The touch-screen feature is pretty much eye-candy, adds extra cost, and doesn't make a whole lot of difference in the basic use of the machine.)

Surge Protector
Parentcentral: $53 (Best Buy)
Tweak: $25 (Active Surplus)
Savings: $28

Parentcentral: Netgear Wireless-N Gigbit router. $120 (Best Buy)
Tweak: D-Link Wireless N 150 Home Router. $30 (Canada Computers or Staples)
Savings: $90

Office software
Parentcentral: MS Office 2010 for Home and Student. $160
Includes: Word, Excel, Powerpoint and OneNote. Some very advanced functions might not be available in this version.
Also of note here: There is a free Starter version of MS Office 2010 that you can only get pre-loaded on some new laptops. This version only includes Word and Excel, and you can't run any macros or add-ins and they don't have a lot of advanced features the full version has, and it has advertisements.

Tweak: Open Office. Free.
Fully functional office suite. Word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing, database, and math programs. No advertisements. Compatible with the latest MS Office formats. You can configure it so it will save in MS Office formats by default. Thousands of add-ons also available for free. And, there is a Canadian English spell-checker add-on available. Also, built in one-touch export to PDF format from all of the programs in the suite (no need for other PDF software/Adobe Acrobat).

Savings: $160

Parentcentral: Sony VAIO 15.5 inch laptop. $850 (Best Buy)

Tweak: HP G-Series 15.6 inch laptop. $430 (Future Shop)
This HP model is similar to the Sony model in quality/performance and features, but is better in these regards: more powerful/faster processor, larger capacity hard drive, much lighter weight (and costs $420 less!)

Savings: $420

Parentcentral: $270
Tweak: $200
Savings: $70

On-site basic setup of a computer system
Parentcentral: Geek Squad: $130 (flat fee)
no extra software or customization or optimization of system. They only
hook you up to your Internet connection*, one peripheral and install one
piece of software. Performed by a technician with almost no experience to a few years
of experience. Includes delivery of system (if system purchased at Best

Tweak: Thor Tech Support: $30-$60 (1-2 hours (average amount of time) at an hourly rate)
Includes full
setup and connection of all devices and Internet connecting*, various
free-software installations (office suite, security, and useful
utilities), tutoring of the operating system basics, and customization
and optimization of operating system. Performed by a technician with
over 20 years experience.

(* must already have an Internet service plan with a provider (ISP))

Savings: at least $70

Future Shop
This is one of the best places to go for a deal on a laptop if you are looking for a good budget laptop. They have about the biggest selection at generally decent prices. They also have decent prices on external desktop hard drives (made by Seagate). But watch out as there will be some models of Seagate drives decently priced and some Seagate models that are greatly overpriced.

Best Buy
Contrary to popular belief, you aren't generally going to find better deals here. Sometimes they will have a great sale prices on an item. But usually, the items on sale are sub-par quality and their regular prices are usually higher than other places (for computer and computer-related equipment). They generally don't stock better-quality items. They will sometimes have a good sale price on decent printers. Shop around elsewhere first. Once you find what you want, check to see if they have it on sale here for less.

Generally overpriced in most areas of computer technology. But, there are some gems here. This store has the best selection of printers at good prices. They also have a good selection of routers at decent prices. This is also a good place to go for printer ink/toner and paper, school/work back-packs, and office furniture (including low-priced basic computer desks and chairs).

Active Surplus
Lowest prices in Ethernet cables. Also here: USB cables, surge-protected power bars, and thousands of electronic and odd items.

Canada Computers
Great selection of some computer peripherals and internal parts at generally low prices. A good place to go for: external hard drives, routers, keyboards, mice, USB sticks, card readers, video cards, and more.

Other small stores
There are a lot of other great small computer stores around Toronto (especially around College and Spadina, and along College from Spadina to Bathurst) with good competitive pricing, but you need to know what you are looking for before you enter (see shopping tip below).

All stores will generally have a large ranges in prices for items in each category (and a large range in quality). It helps to do advance research before you go to the store to buy something. If you know what you want to get in advance you can ignore the salesperson's advice (which is usually to buy whatever has the highest mark-up/profit margin for the store). Usually, what they try to sell you is, for good quality items, over-priced, and for the budget items, just poor quality. There are good quality budget-priced items out there, but the sales people won't usually steer you towards them.

Printer Paper and Ink
When you are buying paper, for decent quality printing, buy the paper and ink made by the printer manufacturer. There are chemicals in the individual brands of ink and paper that are made to work together. They do that as they make their money mainly on these items (since you have to keep buying these over and over) as opposed to the printer.

Inkjet Printers
Never power these off. If you do, the ink heads can dry out and clog and then you can't use the cartridge again. When left on all the time, they go into a low-power sleep mode, and the little power used keeps the print head from drying out.

Netbook, Notebook (aka Laptop), or Tablet

For students who need something to take notes on in class and then use at home and on-the-go for homework, lets look at these options:

iPad and other tablets
So, you want to type a lot and have a versatile device? Then don't buy these. They are priced above low-priced laptops and have no keyboards (only an on-screen keyboard) and lack a lot of other useful features.
What is it good for? If you have money to burn and want to look cool and don't need it to do much and you don't need to do much typing, this might be for you. But for a student on a budget (or a parent looking to get the best value and most useful computer tool for your teen), forget it.
Price: for a decent quality one, about $400 and up ($520 and up for an iPad).

The keyboard is smaller than a normal laptop keyboard (so, they're not great for big hands or if you are going to be doing a lot of typing). Smaller screen (so, things will be tiny, and if you are working on spreadsheets or doing graphic work, forget it). No DVD/CD drive. Bare bones operating system. Small hard drive (so less storage space) and a not so powerful processor. There is a reason they are called Netbooks (handy for quick Internet browsing tasks, not for much else).
What is it good for? If you only need something for quick notes and basic Internet browsing and you need something that is small and light, this might be what you are looking for.
Price: for a decent quality one: about $200 and up

These come in a range of sizes - from just a bit bigger than Netbooks, to 18" screen behemoths.
Laptops have come a long way in the past few years. Now they are very powerful and have large hard drive capacities. Laptops, even the basic budget ones, generally all have full-sized keyboards, DVD/CD drive, webcam with microphone, 2-4 USB ports, HDMI port, VGA port, Ethernet port, card reader, mic and headphone jacks, and Windows 7 Home Premium operating system. If you are on the go and need something light weight, there are small/light models to choose from. If you want something that is mainly to be used in one location, anything goes, including an 18" entertainment laptop.
Laptops in the 15" screen range give you the biggest bang for the buck as they are the most common (so they are more mass produced and thus cheaper to make). Smaller and lighter ones are more expensive. Larger ones with more power are more expensive. But, if you want something light and powerful, there are a lot of models and low prices and good quality to choose from.
Price: for a decent quality one, about $350 and up.

Totalling up all the savings listed above, compared to the linked article, Tweak has just saved you over $1000 (or about 50% off). Those are significant savings for those on a tight budget.

In my business, Thor Tech Support, I normally charge a flat fee of $60 for the research and sourcing work for putting together a desktop computer system, or a laptop (Note: in the post above the savings on the laptop was $420 and it is a much better laptop too. With a $60 R&S fee added, it would still be a savings of about $360.) I also research and source printers and other computer parts and peripherals (at a lower price). This saves my customers not only the time and effort of doing this themselves, but also a lot of money off the price (compared to if they ended up buying something over-priced and of lesser quality, like those in the linked article).

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Facebook Contacts List - Do Not Be Alarmed

I see a lot of alarmist notes going around about the Facebook Contacts List as if it is a big invasion of privacy. It's not. It is as private or un-private as you want it to be.

If you want to see a list of your friends phone numbers (of the friends who have posted phone numbers for their friends to see on Facebook), go to edit your Friends List, and click on Contacts. Notice, you will only see your Facebook friends phone numbers (and not the phone numbers of everyone else on Facebook).

If you want only your friends to see your phone number and/or your mobile/cell phone number, you can post these on your Facebook Page (with your info). If you want anyone, including people you don't know, on Facebook to see your information, then you can adjust this in your Facebook Privacy settings. If you don't want anyone to see your phone numbers at all, don't post them in Facebook.

There is no scary privacy issue here. Whether your phone number appears or not, and who can see it, is up to you.


If you have an iPhone (this might work on other smartphones too), and you find that suddenly a lot of non-facebook people's numbers are on your contact list (your whole contact list from your phone), then you would have allowed a Facebook application on your phone to do this. There is not a lot of harm in this happening as this list is private for you only. However, if you have email addresses in your contacts of people who are not on Facebook, these people will receive automatic invitations from you to join Facebook every couple of weeks. You can disable this reminder on Facebook here.

If you don't want all your contacts from your phone to be in your Facebook on-line too, you can remove them by going here and following the instructions.

You can keep your number and your contacts list private in the Facebook Account Privacy settings on your Facebook page.

Some people have their privacy set so nothing is private. Then anyone can see their private info. These people are either unaware, want everyone to see their private info, or they don't care.

For more details on this, go to this link.