High tech for the holiday season

What does everybody want most when they go shopping? Advice! What is it we ask friends, colleagues and store clerks who were hired just two days ago? Whaddaya think we should get?

In fact, this quest for advice is so universal that we have placed it into the basket of “basic human needs.” It goes right in there alongside food, shelter and betting on sports events. The Web, fortunately or unfortunately, is full of advice. We do a little bit in that line ourselves.

Amazon lets any visitor list an opinion of every product it offers. Several other shopping sites do the same, and there are other places you can go, like Epinions.com, whose whole purpose is to give advice.

For electronics, one of the oldest advice and ranking sites is CNET.com. We recently found a new site we like, DigitalAdvisor.com, which brings together user remarks and reviews from several shopping sites plus comments submitted directly.

Stop right there. Big, big point to make about all the advice we read on shopping sites and advice sites: Is it the straight stuff? This will come as something of a shock to you, but some of the advice is given by people who have another agenda — like they work for a manufacturer’s competitor, or the manufacturer. Some of these people use fake names to look like different voters, sort of like elections in Chicago.

Comparison shopping

Our new favorite online tool, for shopping or whatever, is Kaboodle, found at Kaboodle.com. You can gather items from many sites and create a master list that contains a small picture and a summary for each item. Click on that and it takes you to the full site.

You can create many lists this way. Those lists can be public or private. You can have a wish list, for example, where friends and family can take a look at things you’d like as presents. This is a lot easier than sending them off to Amazon, Best Buy, and wherever else you’ve stored your wishes.

You can post your vacation plans; one woman posted her whole European travel itinerary. It’s going to be expensive, because she’s staying at Claridge’s in London. She even included a picture and herself and her interests.

Kaboodle can turn the sites visited, plus information you added, into a slide show or collage. A quick glance at the screen and you get the picture, so to speak. You can add Kaboodle as a button bar on your browser screen, and any time you see something you like, pop it into a list.

A new site called Dealio.com does comparison shopping and can be added to your browser. It searches 30 million products offered by over 100,000 merchants. There are also tabs for searching Google and eBay.

An “alert” button provides comparison prices at leading retailers. There are several other sites, like Google’s own Froogle.com, that scan the Web for best prices. Which brings us to a big, big point about best prices.

Big point time again: The best price isn’t always the best deal. And furthermore: Will you actually get it?

We have found that we often get close to the same price and sometimes even lower prices by shopping at stores. And there’s no shipping.

One of the things you face with online shopping is that sometimes the merchandise doesn’t arrive for weeks, and sometimes never. This is a regular complaint about eBay, for example. Fraud, and simple incompetence, is extremely difficult to police.

Another problem with low online prices is shipping costs. Some sellers will quote absurdly low prices on merchandise and then charge big bucks for shipping. This can happen even with well-known, reputable retailers.

Hammacher Schlemmer, for example, an old-line provider of gadgets and stuff, recently charged us US$12 to ship a pair of socks. Ouch. Bookseller Barnes & Noble, on the other hand, charged us less than US$30 to ship the 20-volume set of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), which weighed over a hundred pounds.

So, as usual, buyer beware, as the Romans used to say. We prefer “buyer be aware.” Be aware of hidden costs and aware of whose advice you’re reading. One of the nice things we like about adviser comments on Amazon is that if someone seems straight and reliable, you can look for other advisory comments by the same writer. You would quickly be able to tell if this person had a bias.

Speaking of bias

The bias in many reviews often has nothing to do with company connections, but what matters to the reviewer. You can read reviews that pan a product because they didn’t like the packaging, or the USB ports were hard to reach, etc. Ask yourself if these things matter to you.

We recall a famous columnist’s negative review of XyWrite, a word processor popular with academics, because he didn’t like the way it handled the “print” command. We agreed with his objection, but it had little or no bearing on the value of the program.

Our own bias in reviewing products leans toward ease of use. We’re real big on simple.

Now, for some people and products that doesn’t matter. If you’re a professional graphics artist, or even a dedicated amateur, the fact that Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw or most animation programs require a long learning curve doesn’t matter. You’re going to do it anyway. Caveat emptor, as those guys used to say.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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