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VIEWPOINTS : Strategy Helps Avoid Dead-end in Maze of Personal Electronics

November 29, 1987|PETER McWILLIAMS | PETER McWILLIAMS is the author of "Peter McWilliams Personal Electronics" book published by Prentice Hall/Simon & Schuster

Have you tried buying a TV recently? I did, about a year ago. It was the first time I actually had to shop for a TV in almost 20 years. Over the years, the main difficulty in buying a new television was coming up with the money. The choice was easy: Get the biggest Sony Trinitron around.

Until last year, my buy-a-Sony habit was challenged by TVs with larger screens, TVs with higher resolution and TVs promising "greater color fidelity" (whatever that is).

(Poor Sony. Not only is the Trinitron's supremacy being challenged, its Beta format in videocassette recorders is about to go under, thanks to the introduction of super-VHS. And even the former prime minister of Japan pronounces his name, "Knock-a-Sony.")

What to do? While pondering this, my 5-year-old CD player broke. More choices. Five years earlier, it was either a CD player or it wasn't; it either played compact discs or it didn't. Now I had a choice of how many lasers I wanted (as many as four), how many discs it would hold (as many as 10), and how much I wanted to spend (as much as $2,800).

Then my VCR went south. The repair cost would be "around $300" ($5 for parts, $295 for labor). They would have to order parts so it might take "about two weeks." I'd had enough electronic things repaired to know that "about two weeks" means "some time this year, providing it's not yet July.")

A new videocassette recorder was clearly in order but which one? VHS or Beta? Should I get a Super Beta or Clark Kent Beta? Hi-fi VHS or lo-fi VHS? And let's not forget eight millimeter.

I was doing what I always do when confused (nothing) when I decided to do something. I decided to move to Los Angeles from New York.

When moving 3,000 miles, one must question everything one owns. "Is this worth packing and moving, or should I get a new one in L.A.?" I had to re-evaluate my Mr. Coffee, my vacuum, my stereo (component by component), my microwave, my ice cream maker, my shaver, my electric toothbrush, my popcorn popper. . . .

Then it dawned on me: It's not easy buying this stuff. Deciding "Do I need it?" then deciding "Which one?" then deciding "Is it worth it?" then deciding "How do I get one (as cheaply as possible)?" was never an easy process, but somehow, in just the past few years--what with microchips and Japan Inc., and Korea Co. and the U.S. manufacturers' response to Japan Inc. and Korea Co.--the process of choosing almost any electrical gadget has become downright staggering.

So I staggered around for a few months and discovered that amid the confusion there was a lot of great stuff out there. (And a lot of irredeemable trash, too.)

I learned enough about this whole area I call personal electronics (although some call it consumer electronics and others call it home electronics) to write a book about it. (Come to think of it, I have written a book about it.)

As we approach the busiest personal electronics season of the year, I thought I'd offer a few suggestions from one who has recently been to the mountain.

1. Try before you buy. I don't care what the spec sheets or the advertisements or the salespeople say, try it before you buy it. See it in operation. "This one on sale looks just like the more expensive model we have set up," you will be told. Uh-huh. "Would you mind setting up this one?" you can ask, fingering your checkbook. (If for some reason you can't see a demonstration, make sure you can get your money back. See No. 6.)

2. If you can't see the difference or hear the difference, don't pay the difference. I don't care what the spec sheets or the advertisements or the salespeople say (is there an echo in here?), there is no point paying $700 for a TV that looks the same as a $500 TV or $1,000 for a pair of speakers that sound the same as a pair of $250 speakers. So much of video, and especially audio, is subjective. What sounds and looks good to you, not what looks good on paper, is what matters.

3. If you can see the difference or hear the difference, pay the difference. You'll be living with your audio and video purchase for a long time. To the degree that your budget can tolerate it, get what looks and sounds best to you. Home video and audio is one of the best entertainment values around. Let's take an extreme example. Let's say you fall in love with one of those $5,000 super home entertainment systems. If you finance it at 10% for three years that brings the total purchase price to $5,800. A system such as this, with proper care and repair, should last 10 years. Let's add $1,500 ($150 a year for 10 years) for repair. That brings the total cost of the super system to $7,300. Sounds high, but what it comes to is $2 a day. It's hard to find a better entertainment bargain than that.

4. Wait two weeks before buying. Never go to a store to casually shop and buy something the same day. I don't care how many sales, specials, deep discounts and

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