Kent's Weekly Rant: Episode 1

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Welcome to the first installment of what will be a new weekly column. Each Friday I will vent my anger and frustration at one lucky company, or broad range of topics. So sit back, relax, pop some popcorn, and watch as I descend in a frenzy of incoherent ravings.

In this inaugural issue I will start off with a completely off topic rant that has nothing to do with iPhone, so do forgive my wandering mind. A recent chain of events compelled me to write about this particular subject and I am busting to let loose a volley of verbiage.

First let me start off by saying I loathe retail PCs. Not only do they generally suck, for lack of a better description, but these products are all part of seedy economy that exists within the back alleyways of the retail world. A world where the unknowing consumer is molested by con artists wearing red polo shirts and name tags.

Allow me to illustrate my point.

Earlier this week my sister’s shiny new iMac, which is no more than six months old, mysteriously took a dump and refuses boot properly. Upon booting to the desktop, OSX fails to responds to user input. No mouse cursor, no keyboard commands. Nothing. The damn thing just sits there staring back at you, expressionless, like a wax figure with lifeless icons for eyes. Since I live fifty miles from my sister’s home and have a busy schedule I didn’t have time to rush in vein effort fix a comatose iMac. That left her with no computer, and in just two days hence DirectTV installers were coming to out rig her home for Satellite internet. What to do.

So she opted to buy a new machine rather than wait on Apple or myself to fix the iMac, in order to have a working PC in time for the arrival of broadband internet. But she no longer wants a Mac (who can blame her). Now, I love my sis to death, but she is completely clueless when it comes to computing, and refuses to learn something new. After more than a decade her online browsing experience still revolves around IE and Outlook Express. She is in every way a very old school Microsofty. So in some small way the tragic death of her iMac was a blessing in disguise as it provided with a return path to Windows.

Now she just had to buy a new desktop PC. Here’s where the fun begins.

Being the family IT guy, I am the one everybody solicits for technical and purchase advice. I build my own systems, but for pre-built desktops I normally recommend Dell, even despite their flagging reputation. Unfortunately sis is the type of consumer that commissioned retail salespeople love – a sucker the kind who insist on purchasing products in a brick and mortal store where she can be conned see what she is buying before making a purchase. When I recommend ordering a computer from an online vendor, she just stares back at me in stunned disbelief as if I had suggested drowning kittens.

So, Mrs. Impatience narrowed her options to only retail PCs. That left only one brand – HP. I have as much appreciation for HP’s line of Pavilion desktops and notebooks as I do for a misplaced package of expired lunchmeat I might find hidden in my refrigerator – I’d rather not look at or touch either one. Truth be told the lunchmeat is probably crawling with fewer bugs. But, she wanted a computer NOW, and this was the only option available. So what could I do. Since Circuit City and Best Buy are near her location, I clicked my way through both retailer’s online stores and took a quick gander at HP’s desktop line, eventually settling on one particular model that had the right features for her budget. I selected a matching 20” widescreen flat-panel HP Pavilion monitor to go with it (this is a critical point that will become important later), called my sis, gave her the model numbers on each component, and told her what to ask the salesperson.

I should have known this was all too easy.

One hour later I get a phone call from sis. “Ok, I just got here (Circuit City), now what do I do?” Oh God, I thought. She’s going to keep me on the phone throughout the entire purchase process. As politely as could be expected I said to her, “Karen, sweetheart…I don’t have time for this. I have work to do.” A futile excuse. She begged and pleaded with me like a lost puppy looking for a new home, so I acquiesced.

Step one: Find a salesman. This is a classic example of Circuit City’s retail experience at its finest.

Now, you might think in a store that had less than a half dozen customers in the entire building (including her) that she would be eagerly embraced in the awaiting arms of a red shirt. Au contraire. I directed her to the computer department to look at the machine I referenced. No one came by to assist her, she had to find the system herself (with my help). “Now what”, she asked. “Get a salesman to wait on you”. After waiting all of fifteen minutes for a salesman to approach her, none did. So I told her to go to the customer service desk and ask for a salesman. She did that and was told that only a computer dept. salesperson could assist her. That person had been with another customer prior to my sister’s arrival and was therefore unavailable.

So back she goes to the computer dept. to wait in the queue. As added insult, upon her return she discovers the only available salesperson now helping a customer who entered the store after her. She must now wait another 15 or so minutes before the salesperson finally gets to her. We’re up to thirty minutes total, in store, but at least she is finally getting waited on.

Problem solved, right? Wrong.

Bear in mind that I am still on the phone the whole time. My arm is beginning to hurt from holding a phone to my ear for so long. So, I tell Karen to give the little sheet of paper with the Pavilion model number and SKU to the nice salesperson. The salesperson looks at the sheet of paper and tells her Circuit City’s computer network is down at the moment – they must search the stock room, manually, to check the availability of this system. Imagine, buying a computer from a retail store whose own computers aren’t functioning - a bad omen.

Nearly ten minutes later the salesperson returns, confirming the model is indeed in stock. But genius came back without said computer. Apparently common sense isn’t a prerequisite for employment at Circuit City. Hey at least we’re one step closer to escaping the store with a computer in hand. Now for that matching HP Pavilion monitor. Rinse and repeat. This time the salesperson is able to put two and two together, and returns with the monitor. Ah…he’ll be store manager in no time.

Now we have the computer. We have the monitor. We have a credit card in hand. We pay now, right? Not so fast, madam. You’re not leaving the store until you’ve heard the sales pitch.

Do want to sign up for a Circuit City card?

No.

Do you want to buy an extended warranty?

No. Do you want to buy on site service and installation?

No.

Do you want to buy security software for your machine?

No. It already comes preloaded on the machine, yet he is trying to peddle MORE?

Do you want to schedule on site or in-store training on how to use Windows Vista?

No.

Do you want to purchase accidental damage insurance for this system?

No.

(I’m not making this up by the way, this really is how the pre-sale process works).

How do you want to pay for this?

Oh…so there is a chance we can actually buy this machine today?

Credit card. Ok. Uh…the store computer system is still down. We’ll have to do this at the service desk.

So, you get the idea. This retail purchase experience was a painful and unpleasant one. Little did I know the ordeal was only half finished. Now it was HP’s turn to victimize my sister and erode my already thin patience.

She eventually manages to leave the store as the proud owner of a shiny new HP Pavilion desktop, with matching 20” Pavilion flat screen monitor. She’s happy, my ear and left arm are sore, and we are both relieved its over. I still have the arduous task of walking her through the setup process, so my ear will only have a few moments respite. Setting up a new PC couldn’t be simpler, even my niece can connect cables to ports without any problem, which she did in yeoman fashion.

Now arrives the moment when my senses come completely unraveled.

My niece asks..”Where do I connect the monitor cable?” Into the DVI port located in back of the machine, of course. One problem - there was no DVI port! This Pavilion, like so many other retail PCs, has onboard video with only one legacy VGA connector. LCD displays use DVI. PC makers love to fit their systems with low-end integrated graphics, even on high-end systems, because a.) it cuts costs and raises profit margins, and b.) consumer ignorance allows them to get away with this shameless act of fraud. This isn’t suprising really, as this has been the practice for years. What shocked me is that OEMs are now doing this even on high-end machines. Once upon a time, only low-cost or entry level systems were crippled for the sake of profit margins. Now it has become almost common across entire product lines of every price tier, from low-end to high-end. I was stunned.

VGA, for those who don’t know, is a connector native to CRT monitors, both of which are going the way of the Dodo. And yet even system vendor’s market self-branded LCD displays with DVI connectors that can’t be paired with their own computers. The solution to this mismatch is a VGA to DVI adapter which can be found in any consumer electronics store for about $10. It works, but there is one very serious side effect with this solution – it converts signal formats by truncating DVI’s digital signal to VGA’s analog. The result is a noticeable loss in overall picture quality. Where native DVI will offer a bright, vibrant picture with fast pixel response, converted VGA will look lossy. So, picture quality is sacrificed for the sake of saving a few bucks on component costs for OEMs. This is completely unacceptable. How HP can even sell a line of displays designed for its own Pavilion desktops, that cannot connect out of the box is beyond me. They don’t even include VGA to DVI adapters with the monitor. Amazing.

That being the case, I advised my sister to return the machine to Circuit City at once and make them install a dedicated video card at no additional cost, or at least offer a discount for selling her two incompatible components. So, I’m back on the phone again playing tech support. Now she asks me to speak with the salesperson. The last thing I want is to waste my free minutes bantering with a clueless retail lacky who doesn’t know DVI from VD. As expected he advised her to purchase a DVI to VGA crossover connector. No way! I gave him an education on display technology and what happens after digital is converted to analog. He didn’t understand a word of what I said, but knew enough not to argue with me, so I explained that what this system needs is a dedicated video card with DVI support. That shouldn’t be a problem considering it has three available PCI-x ports, and good Nvidia GeForce cards can be found for $50 or less.

I knew this wasn’t going to be easy when the store manager entered into the equation. He told me that a video upgrade would be no problem at all, but first we need to ensure this system’s power supply can handle a video card upgrade. Uh..huh? Even if the damn thing is a lowly 250watt power supply it can still handle a basic low-end Nvidia GeForce Card. I knew exactly what their answer would be before a response came.” Yep, this system will need a power supply upgrade as well.” Total cost $250. I was irate, and did everything I could to contain the rage I was feeling inside. “Ok”, I said, “here’s what I want you to do - I want you to take this machine back and provide my sister with a system that has built-in DVI output. Are we clear?”

“Yes, no problem. Let me just look and see what we have available.”

As I listened to the charming sounds of the manager grunt and moan as he crawled behind each Pavilion desktop on display, searching for a machine with an anomalous DVI port, I sat in awe of the sheer insanity of this ordeal. This is why I recommend Macs. My sister said in an appreciative tone, “this is why I need your help…it’s so complicated.” But it shouldn’t be this way. Buying a desktop PC should be every bit as simple as buying any consumer electronics device. No wonder consumers increasingly choose laptops – integrated systems offer less confusion and simply selection.

Eureka! He found one. Just one? You mean to tell me that out of HP’s entire line of Pavilion desktops, only one system has a DVI connector…and the only reason for its presence on that machine is because it is a Media Center PC? All the rest are VGA?

“Yes, sir.”

This is a God damned joke! Why does HP even brand these displays as Pavilions if they aren’t designed to work with Pavilion desktops? This is insane! It’s like General Motors developing a line of cars without steering wheels.

So, my sister walked out of Circuit City, twice in the same day, with a new computer - this time the proper computer. A happy, if disjointed, ending.

The moral of this story is stay away from retail desktop PCs. Do your research, shop online, and be sure you are really getting what you pay for.

As for HP, they can shove its Pavilion desktop line. I’d rather eat that moldy lunchmeat in my fridge.

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There are 8 comments. Add yours.

Fluke says:

This is why I have a brother who is a Windows nerd. I'm a Mac nerd, so anytime someone comes to me with a Windows related request, I immediately say "talk to my brother", hang up and run away from my phone as fast as possible.

admin#IM says:

Consider yourself lucky. Unfortunately for me I am a geek in both camps, so I'm that guy who everyone comes to for advice, be it Mac or PC.
Give me your brother's phone number. Is he looking for work? I would be more than happy to "share" my friends and family. ;-)

AdamJ says:

I would also say I'm a guru for both sides, three if you include Linux.
That experience, as rough as it sounds, would have been worse at Best Buy, er Worst Buy. Neither store is much appreciated or helpful, but CC is definately the best of the worst.
I've had alot of hardware related problems with hp 'retail' computing equipment. When I'm forced to purchase retail I try to go with Sony or Toshiba, only because they seem to have a slightly better quality control, although you pay for it with a usually higher price.
Although I WISH VGA connectors were going the way of the Dodo, they are still very commonplace in the world of PCs. In fact, every LCD monitor I have purchased either has both DVI and VGA connectivity, or some type of an adapter. Actually, most of them come with the VGA cable and no DVI cable, very frustrating!
The time crunch put on this whole situation was unfortunate as it really caused one somewhat bad decision after another. I wouldn't be surprised if a boot up of the iMac on the install DVD, and a OS reinstall would have resolved all the iMac problems!

Mark says:

I am a former software executive, and thus assumed to be the neighborhood computer expert. As a result I was asked by my wife to help a neighbor with a PC problem once ... well the flood gates opened. Then all the neighbors and neighbor's kids asked for help and tech support. Then about 2 years ago I saw the light! After 23 years of PC (starting with a TRS-80) I bought a Mac. It is night and day! I am now a fanboy. Now when I get asked for help I play PC dumb and convert them to Mac as a replacement machine. This is usually easy as the neighborhood PC by Dell and HP seem to blow power supplies and hard drives frequently and thus the machine appears to be a "lost cause". I have converted 9 of 11 in twelve months. Net, I have been able to shut down my free tech support and avoid trips the the "hell holes" known as "big box" retailers.
My advice, share your story with as many people as possible and offer tech support to only to Mac owners which means a 93.267% (not scientifically proven) reduction in time wasted fixing "crap" for friends and family.
Cheers,
Mark
PS-I bought a headset for my phone in order to help my mom and sister-in-law who live out of state. It saved my arm and ear! M

admin#IM says:

In fact, every LCD monitor I have purchased either has both DVI and VGA connectivity, or some type of an adapter

This came as a mystery to me since every LCD monitor I have purchased, from Dell, came with both types of cable. Even as far back as 2003. I assumed all vendors followed this practice. Little did I know, but as I said I build my own desktops so I do not have many dealings with retail PCs, other than notebooks.
I agree with you about Sony, however my only concern with Vaio desktops and notebooks is that Sony is notoriously bad when it comes to support. Great hardware, not so great at warranty service.
With HP there is the assurance that help is a phone call away.
As for the iMac, I concur. My suspician is that, at worst, a reinstall of OSX will resolve the problem. It almost has to be a software issue because the machine boots properly, and loads the desktop. So something chokes after the desktop loads.

Andrew says:

Last time I checked, most major computer retail stores, such as Best Buy and Circuit City, are non-commission.
Also, HP does not typically load licensed anti-virus/anti-spyware software onto their computers, nor do most other vendors that sell in retail stores. It's usually a demo/trial piece of software that expires in 30 to 60 days. It's usually Norton, or as you'll hear it called by it's street name, "Crap."
If you or anyone else you know is going into a retail store to buy a computer, these are things you should keep in mind. The employee most likely wasn't trying to push/pedal. He was offering the products and services his boss instructed him to, and in the process, trying to make sure your sister is getting everything she needs to make sure she doesn't trash the computer in a week (which is astoundingly common.)
Retail stores make money off of high-profit sales, which, just as a btw, is never a computer.
They're out to make money. Welcome to world.

admin#IM says:

Unless Circuit City has revamped its sales program, the last I checked their sales staff work on commission. Best Buy is non-comm, that I do know. But whether the case or not isn't really relevant to my experience. The staff merely adheres to a sales policy established by the store. They're simply doing their job, and I don't fault them for that.
My exasperation comes from the collusion that exists between PC makers and retailers, with both entities acting as partners in crime. HP other retail box makers cut corners on components that dramatically impact the user experience, and do this because they can get away with it under the assumption that consumers are too stupid to know the difference. It’s an attitude of…
“Instead of selecting motherboards with DVI chipsets for our desktops, to compliment our line of LCD displays, thereby offering the very best picture quality possible, we’ll just use the cheapest onboard video we can find and throw a VGA adapter in the box. They won’t know the difference. “
I consider such attitude to be ethically irresponsible.
Unfortunately most consumers don’t know the difference. It’s for their sake that I wrote about this intolerable practice, and to brush it off simply as a reality of the world we live in is no excuse. As I said before, I don’t mind crippling low cost desktop computers with the cheapest components in order to deliver more affordable PCs to low income users, but to do so in systems priced at over $1,300 is reprehensible. To use an analogy it would be similar to buying a high performance sports car with a low performance four-cylinder engine under the hood. When paying top dollar for a new computer, there is an inherent assumption that one is getting the very best technology for that premium price. It is a misguided axiom of capitalism; the more money you pay for something, the better it is. As in this case, it’s not always true. But the fact that this assumption exists, however flawed, I think gives retail PC vendors a tool for pulling the wool over the eyes of unwashed consumers. After all, who but a geek would know the difference between DVI and VGA?
My sister’s poignant remark to me brought the entire episode home..
”This is why I need your help buying a computer, to figure all this stuff out.”
When she said this to me I was outraged, not at her but the PC industry as a whole. Buying a PC should not require the aid of a geek anymore than buying a new car requires the advice of a mechanic. In a perfect world, consumers should be able to choose the product they want, and walk away knowing they are getting the very best experience for their money.
I’ve always questioned Apple’s all-integrated approach to consumer desktop design. But after this past week I have but to wonder if maybe this is the best way to market computers for consumers. No guess work involved, everything is right there inside one beautifully designed package working together seamlessly.

Michael Webb says:

My father has been the resident computer geek for the less technically inclined parts of the family since the early 80's. After moving out, I carried the torch further out into the world. My father started giving me really good advice on how to handle being the computer geek that everyone comes to a few years ago.
"Send them to Dell.com"
I now live by this rule. Everyone is much happier.