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Let the Buyer Beware

Getting the best bang for your buck when buying computer or electronic equipment requires a little research, so here’s your guide to buying guides.

By Helen Thompson

Are you still running Windows 95? Is it getting harder to find thermal paper refills for your fax machine? Do you have an eye on transferring the info in your Day Runner to a digital PDA? Maybe you’re thinking about an MP3 player to replace the tinny radio you’ve been listening to in your office for the past 15 years.

Whether you’re making up your wish list or your copy machine is making its last stand with a defiance that would put Custer to shame, it’s upgrade season. And if you wander in to your local electronics or office supply store only to find yourself inundated with a choice of 50 different digital cameras ranging in price from $199 to $1,199 and a salesperson who doesn’t really understand the differences among them, what can you do?

Be prepared!

Knowledge is power
Review websites are generally one of two types: advertising-supported and nonprofit. Advertising-supported review sites are generally free for the user, while nonprofit review sites rely on subscription models and, sometimes, noncommercial grants to generate the revenue they need to produce content. Generally, nonprofit review publications neither solicit nor accept advertising, which means there can be no question of their commitment to their readers.


“Our first priority is what our subscribers’ expectations are,” says Kevin Brasler, managing editor of Consumers’ Checkbook, a nonprofit publication that reviews services, rather than products, in certain metropolitan areas. “Other organizations are for-profit and selling advertising. And, for consumer-based reviews on many of these sites, I’m not sure how much control they have over ballot-box stuffing.”

While there are certainly reputable for-profit review sites and publications as well, beware of consumer-generated review sites with no editorial oversight or user transparency, which are rampant on the web. Testimonials are a great way to find out what your best value is, but get them from people you know. Here are a few websites with good reputations to help you get started.

Nonprofit review sites (require subscription)
Consumer Reports is well known for its reviews of automobiles and appliances, but what’s good for the home goose is good for the business gander, too. The print version you’ve picked up at bookstores for years is augmented by a hefty archive of buying guides and product reviews at its website. Need a good credit card for handling business expenses? Compare them here. Getting ready to travel? Consumer Reports offers exhaustive reviews of everything from airline services to hotel amenities to luggage. You can also get the fine print on that $300 computer WalMart wants you to buy. And don’t mistake the ads on its site as commercial: They’re all for Consumer Reports products.

Consumers’ Checkbook is a service review site that can help you find recommendations for contractors and other service providers. The only catch? They’re only up in six metro areas so far: Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., the Twin Cities, Minn., Puget Sound, and the Delaware Valley.

Advertising-supported review sites (free for users)
CNET, now in its 10th year of internet presence, has strong editorial content backed by a mission of helping customers boost their confidence in their technology purchasing decisions. Reviews are editorially selected, while ratings are solicited from site users.

ZDNet partners with CNET for its review and rating content, but its strength is in allowing you to make price and feature comparisons of a wide range of electronic products. In addition, you can search for products by a number of useful criteria, and when you find what you want, link directly to the CNET review.

Epinions is a consumer-generated review site, but what it lacks in editorial oversight it compensates for by providing transparency. In other words, it wants you to know who is writing reviews and help you develop trust with other users through biography pages, review lists and the ability to comment on reviews. In addition, you can flag users who have violated the Epinions user agreement and ignore flagged members’ reviews.


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