According to this pretty nifty infographic, it would be easier to take a head count of the people who haven't shopped online than to ask who has. And according to that same infographic, computers and electronics are the third-highest-grossing products in the online market today (although I suspect that porn and black market babies aren't far behind).
With numbers that high (about $10 billion a year), it stands to reason that a flowing, glacial shitload of people excitedly opened their deliveries, plugged those beasts in, and then immediately punched the organic being closest to them out of sheer frustration. Yes, finding out you got sucked into an overpriced piece of lifeless shit sucks, and we can blame the company all we want. But the truth is, we could have avoided the headache if we had just taken the time to keep these simple tips in mind ...
#5. Know the Numbers
Not long ago, I had to replace my five-year-old computer because it was no longer doing the job, and it would occasionally spit on me and call me racist names. My wife has since tried to convince me that it was actually one of my children doing that, but I suspect that's only because she's stupid. Regardless, I found myself shopping for a computer for the first time in half a decade, and some of the new specs seemed like magic to me.
Back in "the old days," it was a bit simpler: Bigger numbers meant more power. So when I saw that my potential tower had two graphics card options, I couldn't understand why the "bigger" 1.5GB video card cost less money than the 1GB version they had checked as the standard option. For a few moments, I had that slight panic attack that you get in school when you realize that the teacher has just asked you a trick question, and if you answer it wrong, you'll be punched in the face and called a piece of shit. Man, I don't miss school at all.
"That's it -- one hour in the feces room."
The answer is that the number the companies advertise is only one small part of what makes a component fast. Now, I won't be getting all tech-y and flooding you with math, but the short of it is this: Graphics cards have more parts than just RAM, which is basically what those "GB" numbers represent. And in my case, those other parts in the "smaller" card were better. Of course, I didn't know that at the time, and I chose the cheaper, less powerful option, because "big number mean card go big fast."
But you can apply this to pretty much any piece of electronics. Here is a pretty good guide to buying TVs that demonstrates the many factors a person forgets to consider beyond "a 52-inch screen will make average boobs look like towering monsters in a German horror movie."
No one expects you to take a college course in computer engineering before buying a new gadget, but having at least a basic knowledge of what most of the numbers mean can make a huge difference in what you get versus what you pictured in your head when you hit the "buy" button. Even if those numbers are beyond you, everyone has a "friend who is good with computers" who would more than likely jump at the chance to geek out and vomit her knowledge at you without the risk of getting a wedgie. And if you don't own your own pet geek, you'd be surprised what a few minutes of Googling can turn up. It's saved me from a shitty purchase more than a few times.
I ... sort of missed the "do not eat" warnings the first time around.
#4. Look for the Terms "Refurbished" and "Open Box"
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"Refurbished" can be a naughty word to electronics geeks, and if you bring it up in any social setting, you'll get conflicting viewpoints pretty much every time in the form of sarcastic exchanges with comet tails of Cheetos fumes. Basically, a refurbished item is one that had flaws, was returned by the original buyer, got fixed by the company, and was resold at a discount. I have had both good and bad experiences with them, but when they work, you can save a fuck-ton of money. But therein lies the problem: "when they work."
Recently, I took a chance on a refurbished laptop for my mother-in-law because she can't go more than a few days without surfing hardcore furry porn, and we got fucked the non-fun way. Within a few days, her screen started shutting down randomly, and it wasn't a software or "sleep" issue. The laptop was just bad. So now we're in the process of shipping it back to them under a somewhat tight return window so we can get it replaced, which means finding the time to get to the post office, dodging the mafia who constantly try to take her out every time she leaves the house, putting together all the correct RMA paperwork, and going however long it takes for the replacement to arrive before she gets a working computer again.
And you do not want to catch my mother-in-law bored. She starts daydreaming about biting things.
"When it works."
"Open box" discounts are a little different. They were returned by another customer, just like refurbished equipment ... but in this case, there were no faults with the product. Maybe it was a birthday gift that needed to be exchanged because the recipient is an ungrateful, spoiled piece of shit, or maybe the company just got an order mixed up because they're a bunch of dumb fuckheads. Whatever the reason, it was sent back, unused, and the company just makes sure that it's in working order before putting it back up for sale with a few percent knocked off of the price.
There isn't as much risk in open-box purchases, but that's not to say there's no risk. You never know if someone is gaming the system or if someone opened the box just to rub their balls on the keyboard before sending it back. I'm not saying to definitely buy or definitely avoid refurbished and open-box products, but just know that there is risk involved, and if you buy one from the wrong company, you could end up butt-fucked out of a couple hundred dollars.
"But will it play StarCraft II?"
That's exactly why you have to ...
#3. Know the Return Policy
Here's where things can get sticky. One of the larger online electronics stores is BuyDig.com, and they do have some pretty awesome deals. But they also have one of the shittiest return policies known to man:
"To help maintain our 100 percent customer satisfaction guarantee, most merchandise purchased from BuyDig.com may be returned within 45 days for a full refund or a replacement with no restocking fee. All product returns require a RA (return authorization) number. An RA number must be issued within 45 calendar days after the date of purchase. The RA number will be valid for 14 calendar days after it is issued."
Oh, wait, that's not too bad. You have a two-week window to return the product from the time you make the exchange request, which is pretty standard for online shopping.
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"OK, I guess that settles it. I'll just order this thing, and ..."
Oh. Never mind. It turns out you can't return the following under any circumstances:
Consumables, including but not limited to, recordable media, film, tapes, batteries, paper, and ink
Special Order Items
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NBC News claims that once you open the box from BuyDig.com, you cannot return "any DVD player, recorder, scanner, cellphone, fax machine, printer, receiver, or TV. Some video products cannot be returned even if they are defective." Now, don't misunderstand me -- BuyDig.com is still a pretty good store (it appears they've softened up on TV returns), but electronics aren't exactly cheap, and they are fragile. If I opened a box to find a $400 paperweight instead of a camera, I'd be pissed off enough to shave all of my kids bald and throw their hairless bodies at the customer service rep.
I'm only using this site as an example, though. Every online store has its loopholes, and it's important that you understand what they are before giving them your money. Don't even consider a store whose policy is "Keepsies! No take backs!" It means they don't trust what they're selling, and neither should you.
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"All set. Just sign this document saying you won't sue us, and don't open it until I get past the stop sign."