Improving Value: Cost Cutting Done Right
- 2006.11.10 - Tip Jar
In my previous article, Cheap Is as Cheap Does: A Crappy Cable Cripples a Capable Display, I described how a substandard VGA cable soured my impression of an otherwise excellent ViewSonic monitor and actually caused me to return it and choose another brand.
In this article I'll look at cost-cutting done right, meaning actual reduction in the retail price that has an insignificant effect on the product itself. There is always the option of buying the cost-is-no-object lustomatic model, but for most of us the selling price is a very real consideration in almost every type of purchase.
Since The Mobile Mac is mostly about laptops and portable computers, that's where I'll finish. Before going there, however, I'd like to take a brief look at a few other products where prices have come down steadily over the years while quality has remained the same - and in some cases actually improved.
Those examples are cars, audio equipment, and computer peripherals.
Cars seem to always go up in price (or at least never down), but in the grand scheme of things, cars are much cheaper than ever before. Looking at the low end, you can buy a cheap Hyundai Accent for under US$10,000, whereas 15 years ago a Hyundai Excel cost about $8,000.
You might be tempted to say that the car's price has gone up 20%, but you'd be wrong. Inflation is always a factor, and 8,000 1991 dollars were worth more than 10,000 2006 dollars.
Even ignoring inflation, the 2006 Hyundai is a far better value despite the higher number on the window sticker. Airbags, vastly improved emission controls and engine management, and more power - not to mention a larger and more comfortable cabin - combine to make the 2006 Accent a rather decent ride compared to the stripped down budget-mobile it was back in 1991.
I should know; I drove a '91 Excel for a few weeks as a rental and it was, by all accounts, a penalty box. A recent rental of a 2006 Accent, on the other hand, was entirely pleasant, even coming from the Mercedes that I usually drive. Sure, it was an inexpensive car, but it was quiet, handled safely, and rode quietly and smoothly down the highway. In short, it did nothing to remind me that I was driving a cheap car, something the 1991 model never let you forget.
Audio equipment is another area where costs have been cut deeply while quality hasn't. Sure, high-end stereo components are as expensive as they were a decade ago, but the features and (more importantly) the sound have improved, especially at the low and high ends.
I have a mid-grade Yamaha receiver from the early 1990s that sounds terrific, but it lacks many modern features like video inputs and DTS noise reduction that are present on even low-end modern components. Surround sound inconceivable for most living rooms in the early 1990s, but it's commonplace today even on low-end dorm-room systems.
No, the modern components don't have the heavy construction and solid-feeling controls of my old Yamaha, but they're much less expensive, have far more flexibility, and, most importantly, sound better.
Before moving on to portable computers, let's look at computer peripherals, specifically monitors, which I've recently purchased more than a few.
Back in 1999, I bought my first LCD monitor for a desktop computer, a 15" Dell with XGA (1024 x 768) resolution. It was the cheapest 15" LCD at the time at around US$450, was made by Samsung, and was clearly a high-quality product that I still use today as the auxiliary monitor on my associate's two-headed Power Mac G4. Color and response time aren't as good as on a decent CRT, but it's fine for casual use - and it still looks great when there isn't a modern monitor next to it.
That's the problem, there is a modern monitor right to it.
This last March I purchased a pair of 19" dual input (analog/DVI) Samsungs at about $350 each (a slightly improved model now sells for $270) and recently added a 19" ViewSonic at $200 and a 19" widescreen Samsung at $250. Prices continue to drop while quality continues to rise on LCD monitors.
In addition to being larger and offering considerably higher resolution (SXGA - 1280 x 1024) than the Dell, the Samsung and ViewSonic LCDs are brighter, have more vibrant color, and an exhibit much faster response times. In short, LCD technology - already very impressive in 1999 - has come a very long way while prices have plummeted from the exotic to the affordable.
And so it is with portable computers. Let's look at Apple's low end.
The cheapest iBook in 2005 sold for US$999 and was considered a terrific value. Yesterday Apple released the second generation MacBook at exactly $100 more than that iBook - the same price as the first-generation MacBook.
Yes, the MacBook is a bit more expensive, but it has a built-in webcam, a larger and faster hard drive, much faster and more modern architecture, not to mention a bigger and better screen (13.3" 1280 x 800 vs. 12.1" 1024 x 768).
In short, the MacBook, while only $100 more expensive than last year's iBook, is a much more capable computer that also has better build quality (iBook keyboards were very underwhelming).
The first generation MacBook had some serious teething problems, but from all accounts Apple has taken care of the problems, so I'd be very surprised to see them lingering on the second generation models.
Not only Apple does it right: IBM, Toshiba, and other PC brands have drastically cut prices on low-end notebooks while holding the line on higher-end laptops, where they are adding features and improving quality. A case in point is the Toshiba Portegé 3505 tablet I wrote about a few months ago. That machine, now four years old, cost almost US$3,000 when new and was state-of-the-art in all ways save its lowbrow video card.
Toshiba's current Portegé M400, which I ended up buying instead of the older model, costs much less at US$1,700, has equally high build quality, and at that low price squeezed in a semi-modern Core Duo processor, a gig of RAM, and a large, fast hard drive.
I'll chalk the price drop up to the tablet PC's newness wearing off, but like Apple with the MacBook, they've crammed considerably more value into an equally well-made machine without a serious price jump.
The Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro is another example of increasing quality and features while holding or lowering prices.
...buy what you need when you need it - but only after someone else works out the bugs.
This trend will likely continue, which presents the problem of knowing exactly when to buy. My advice for technology is that since there is always a cheaper and better model just around the corner, buy what you need when you need it - but only after someone else works out the bugs. Do that, and while you might get new model envy every once in a while, you'll also get reliable technology at a good price when you need it.
Thanks to sensible cost-cutting, everyone can enjoy incredible performance and versatility at what not that long ago were unthinkable prices.
Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.
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