Hardware prices - a mystery
Every hardware enthusiast has no illusions about the money he spends for his hobby. We all know that if we spent a month's wage of our hard earned money on new shiny hardware, seemingly weeks afterwards it's already old and dull and boring and the addiction calls for new injections of hardware.
That's hardly something new.
We all know, too, that our hobby is expensive. Whether we try to justify new acquisitions with the ever mounting needs of modern 3D PC games or whether we're numbercrunchers in a Distributed Computing Project such as SETI@home, the song remains the same: it seems we are contantly investing in assets with an even less promising revenue than Government loans issued by Argentina. That's without even taking into account inflation, folks.
This is also hardly anything new, you will supposedly all nod and say, „yes, true, but we hardly have any choice do we“? That's true, we don't. Addicts aren't addicts for nothing, after all.
But this article will be about something else. A mystery so mindboggling and utterly incomprehesible, that it really needs a name as a phenomenon. There's a book called „The Meaning Of Liff“ by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd in which things that do not yet have names, though in bad need of a name, get a name. A name that used to „spend (its) time doing nothing but loafing about on signposts pointing at places“. Yes, precisely that Adams you're thinking of, who just now will probably be revolving in his grave given that lousy film in the cinemas. But that's another story.
Now, what is this all about, the hardware price mystery? I'll tell you, be patient.
This article is about the mystery that some parts of hardware which are truly „high tech“, with chips and microtechnology invented by true geniuses and all, are after all not that expensive, while „low tech“ such as a few bent sheets of metal, held together by rivets and some welding done by workers with little or no education is expensive– and it's a PC case I'm talking about.
Yes. Processors and Ram are relatively cheap, PC cases, keyboards, mice and cables are relatively expensive if you come to think about it. Relatively, I repeat, in terms of technical value for money.
How come the latter are so off balance in their pricing?
I mean, I do not ask, how come they have such price tags – this is just because in a free market world, things have just those prices the buyers are ready to pay, otherwise the manufacturer goes bankrupt (or the taxpayers' money, our money, is used to subsidize that firm – but we'll do as if there was a real free competition). No, that's not my question.
I ask, aloud, how come that we, the people who are responsible for the fact that a few bent sheets of metal with some rivets is more expensive than a mid-range Athlon 64 CPU, decide to buy such – in relation - expensive things anyway.
Some quick math (shhh, dont hiss at me):
PC cases are priced in, say, Europe, between 19-935 € (the equivalent of 23-1122 US-$ at today's rates). If the cases happen to be aluminium ones, the price tag varies from 30-315 € (36-378 US-$). If you wonder what cases are bearing the top notch price tags, it's the Zalman TNN500A and the Lian Li PC-V2100B respectively.
True, some cases are really very very cleverly designed and a pleasure to build a system into, but then again, even the most tricky box is really just a metal box with a few holes for screws and ventilation. Low tech. Something you could do, too, given a little time and the raw materials, you will think.
Whereas a processor took hundreds, if not thousands, of engineers with countless diplomas ages to develop, has thousands of patents implemented and needs clean room assembly by skilled workers with high wages, and millions worth of machinery to produce.
Now, processors are priced, using the same price search engine as before, in the European Union between 109-1083 € (130-129 US-$) for Athlon 64s on Socket 939 and between 59-360 € (71-432 US-$) for Socket 754-CPUs.
Now I didn't say you couldn't easily buy a CPU that's more expensive than a deluxe PC case, but was referring to mid-range processors. Let's single out the entry-level CPUs on Socket 754 and the smaller Athlon 64s on Socket 939, leaving out Venice, San Diego, Turion, Manchester, Toledo and all A64 Mobile models. What's left is not any more a match for big brand name cases.
Before this turns into case-producer-bashing, let's have a look at PC mice and keyboards. Prices vary as much there as between the cheapest and most expensive processors, if you multiply the cheapest price by 15 you just about get the top level price tag.
If some models have optical sensors and cost no more than 5 Euro, then those mice with a high two-digit-price have some trouble explaining their hefty cost, one should think. Keyboards or mousepads and so on are no difference.
But we enthusiasts buy that quite non-cheap cheap stuff all the same.
These thoughts struck me when assembling some systems for friends who needed sort of internet-ready electrical typewriters, if you know what I mean, nothing near to what the local supermarkets where you buy your toothpaste and apples. Offline-apples, like bananas.
Those supermarkets sell every now and then PCs for almost always exactly 999,- € (or, if the competitors are about to release such an offer at the same time, sometimes some few Euros less), systems grossly oversize for that kind of user.
It's not that hard to build a PC on your own that's better suited for such people, you all know that. But you repeatedly experience the fact that among the bigger numbers on the invoice the PC parts dealer gave you are not the usual suspects like CPU or RAM but the case or a keyboard-mouse-combo with a nice finish, silent, ergonomic keyboard and a rechargeable mouse. And nothing in them that you wouldn't assume to be tiny parts bought in huge numbers and assembled for very small amounts of money in very poor countries.
And that effect doubles if you keep in mind that the perhaps most important investment in your system should go into those parts that last longest and are in most contact with you like your screen and input devices.
So what now?
So, will this end with a sad „I found out something goes awfully wrong all the time but I don't know at all how to change it“?
Keep on looking for quality input devices. Keep on saving time and nerves by buying a good PC case that won't cut up your fingers or create a healthy climate for lemon growth where there should be Patagonias icy plains.
But bear in mind that you are just about to spend a lot of money for really nothing special in terms of our beloved high-tech gadgets – but at the same time you help fund some poor workers in far away countries who just quit their jobs at the tractor firm to start assembling PC cases for us.
Agree completely! Maybe I can add some of my own experience: I tried to cut down costs and buying a cheap keyboard (20EUR range). I was back in the shop the other day, because 2 of the keys were already stuck. I returned the keyboard and got a "quality" keyboard for 50EUR, which has a way better feel, btw.
Unfortunately even the life of keyboards and mice is not infinite. Not because they break (although mice tend to break, esp. in the hands of my father ;-)). No, the reason is the change of plugs which happens every few years. The former DIN plug, changed to PS/2, changed to USB. Same for mice: serial, PS/2, USB. Admittedly, you still can use PS/2 with USB using an adapter. The change of motherboard standard to ATX prevented the use of cases and power supplies a few years ago.
Not only cases, keyboards and mice are expensive: I suspect that many companies get rich by selling cables at ridiculous prices. Just recently I bought an ATAPI UDMA/100 cable, round profile for 7 EUR. The flat cable would have been 2 EUR - a reasonable price. I only bought the round cable because the employee told me it was shielded (which it was not). It's simply a flat ribbon cable with a few cuts between some conductors and some plastic tube holding the stuff at a round profile. Extremely low tech - but sold at 3 time the price.
Concerning cases being expensive: sometimes I think that generally big things cost more. It may be simply the raw material costs (need some kg of steel or expensive Al to make a case). It may also be storage or transport costs for these bulky items. I also suspect that for HiFi audio equipment the cost of the (very nice) cases is not negligible.
Generally I think that we are quite lucky with the prices of high tech gear. A graphics card which costs just 200EUR, a DVD burner which costs just 50EUR, is amazingly cheap! I am working in a research lab at university and the prices for non-consumer electronics are waaay higher. We bought a DC power supply 0-250V, 0-16A, which costed 3000EUR. This was the cheap option! It's just a rack mount box with some analog electronics. If you buy a oscilloscope with a bandwidth above 500 MHz, you have to think in the range of several 10k-EUR. Some of them have actually a windows PC built in. Some years ago we bought a PCI card which can measure the dime delay between logic pulses with an accuracy of 0.25 ns. It costed 60k-EUR (including a dual Pentium-III PC as a "goodie"). Admittedly probably only a few hundred of these cards are sold worldwide, if at all.
Compared to this, the price of consumer stuff is really ridiculous low. Obviously the economies of scale kick in here quite efficiently.
The very last phrase bears a strong political accent, which I dislike: "But bear in mind that you are just about to spend a lot of money for really nothing special in terms of our beloved high-tech gadgets – but at the same time you help fund some poor workers in far away countries who just quit their jobs at the tractor firm to start assembling PC cases for us" I mean people do not quit steady job at family farm to work like a monkey on the assambly line. Man, you never worked at the assembly line :D . Some people would be happy to still be farmers as they do not give a shit about PC cases for remote, well-fed corners of the globe. But they have to, because the world ecomics is knocking at their door and no-one needs their beef, rye, potatoes and so on anymore as e.g. rich countries are exporting food at dump prices... Quite selfish I am not trying to critisize that otherwise I could not afford my PC. I am just saying the last bit of this article lacks some sensitivity and could be rephrased or taken out. You know, if you buy coffee you can always go for fairprice option. There is no fairprice option for electronics. The price we are paying here in Europe or in States does not include externalities (costs to the environment, social insurance etctera) Bear that in mind when going for another gorgeous piece of hardware made in China...
You got something wrong there :) "Tractor firm" obviously meant a factory which assembles tractors, and workers shift from the "old economy" to, well, also old economy firms which produce flashier (PC) products as those countries became more and more the focus of outsourcing electronics assembly. No political implications intended...
Boruvka I appreciate you replied. Allthough I got carried away with farms: tractors or rye, this does not really matter if you accept one fundamental truth: there are no fair prices for electronics or any other 99% of goods made in developing countries, as what we are paying does not include externalities. So: the very sentence at the bottom I got so agitated about is superfluous. Closing the whole article with the the idyllyc picture of some poor lads happily throwing away their tractor factory tools to join hi tech plant is naive. Do not get me to unwind on that. Other than that I very much appreciate you article and enjoyed reading it.
yes somthing are pricy but u can build or buy a computer with lower qualty parta every fue years or buy a high end system and it will last much longer so the parts are priced acordingly but yes some are over priced but y do u need those parts when u can buy somthing smaler and oc to the other one so u can save money or spend it thats my say
I dunno, I seem to have no trouble recycling a case through two or three motherboard upgrades, so the price of the case really doesn't balk me if it has what I need and isn't cheaply made. Additionally, ATX power supples and PS/2 keyboard/mouse connectors may be headed out, but they are sure dragging their feet and I don't see them becoming unusable for at least another year or two.
Sure. But don't you share my point, that if you compare different components as to whether they justify their price and look at a PC case, it's just a few bent sheets of metal and some plastic pieces. Technology that in fact end users master, too. Case modders (TRUE modders, not those kiddies that just drill holes and deploy silly blinking lights in existing cases) build cases. It takes some time, but it's nothing you could not manage in your hobby room with a few standard tools.
Now, show me someone who builds his own GPU.
That's why I think that some cases are overprized while processors are relatively cheap.
GPU and CPU production is pretty much concentrated while manufacturers of cases are relatively scattered. This means they have relatively less barganing power when negotiating prices with suppliers, that's probably one of the reasons cases are - as you noticed - "overpriced".
Porter's market model kind of explains a lot in a scholar way (that can be and is disputed)
Nevertheless it is handy to use;)
To ilustrate that take a recent example of Ipod nano prices (just to keep me away from my beloved tractors:banghead:...
So, nanos are quite cheap compared to other flash based mp3 players, but the reason behind it is the overwhelming bargaining power of Apple on the supply market. Samsung had to give them tremendous discount to have the deal that keep them breaking even while Apple can flourish at the cost of supply chain, ergo: developing countries.
Samsung has a strong position in their own market so they wanted to pass the costs on their suppliers, but they are about to get their butt kicked by the local fair trade commision
It is good to be able to afford new GPU avery 6 months if you are living in the privilliged corner of the world, but the price is paid by those, most of us do not give a damn about, i.e. people in developing countries, that's my point....
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