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[ The PC Guide | The PC Buyer's Guide | Introduction To The PC Buyer's Guide ]


"There ain't no such thing as a free lunch"
-- Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

The phrase above is one of my most important personal "life rules" and one that I urge you to keep close to the top of your mind when shopping for systems, components... in fact, anything. Made popular by its use in the Heinlein classic and commonly used by the abbreviation "TANSTAAFL", this phrase expresses a key, inherent characteristic of most markets: you don't get something for nothing.

While this applies to most everything in life, it applies particularly to our effort at PC purchasing in several ways:

  • Beware the "Deal Too Good To Be True": If you are offered a deal that seems too good to be true, there is a very real chance that it is, and you are in danger of being scammed. If a hard disk costs between $200 and $250 at every vendor you check, except for one that is selling it for $119, that should give you pause. Either the price is a mistake, or the component is different, or something comparable is going on. If a new component is out of stock at every retailer you check with, but a guy with a pseudonym on an auction site claims to have one available for sale, money order in advance only, the needle on your "dangerometer" should be pegged in the red zone!
  • There Are Reasons For Market Niches: There are situations where Component X costs twice as Component Y even though they seem to be no different. Or, there are some companies that sell Product X for consistently far more than another company sells Product X. "TANSTAAFL" in this context states that there are reasons why these situations exist. While in the short term sometimes prices can get out of whack, eventually the market corrects for this. If over a long period of time the price of something seems too high to be justifiable, yet people continue to buy it, this often means there's a characteristic of the product or how it is being sold that you have yet to uncover. People often have surprisingly different reasons for buying different things.
  • If It Costs, You Pay For It: I never cease to be amazed at how many people "want to have it all" and expect to get it. They want the convenience of a large, high-overhead retail store, but they don't understand why the products cost more than they do at an online vendor. They like the personalized service of a small Internet "one man shop", but expect him to match the prices of a huge Web retailer selling at huge volume through automated systems with no personal customer interaction. They actually believe that companies that offer as standard policy "free shipping" are eating the shipping costs. It is far better to always bear in mind that conveniences and services have costs, and that far more often than not, the customer pays for them one way or another.

All of the above said, I should make one thing clear: "TANSTAAFL" doesn't mean that there aren't good and bad deals out there. You still have to shop around and be aware of better and worse ways of getting what you are looking for. Mostly, this concept should keep you on your toes and always looking to understand why things are what they are, particularly when it comes to pricing.

Note: There seems to be a new exception to "TANSTAAFL". The Internet era has seemingly changed the rules by introducing to the market companies that want to lose money! Some retailers are intentionally selling at or even below cost in order to get new customers. So sometimes you will be able to find a free lunch hiding out there somewhere, subsidized by the investors and creditors of these risk-affine companies desperate for market share at any cost. All I can say is this: enjoy it while it lasts, because it won't for long...

Next: Top Ten Tips For Successful PC Buying

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