October 17, 2009

Why You Can't Know What You Want

Don't it always seem to go,
That you don't know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone.
--- Joni Mitchell,
Big Yellow Taxi

You can't get what you want
Till you know what you want.

Joni and Joe are both correct but there's another aspect: You can't tell what you want until you know what's available.

Some people try but they're cheating themselves. This is often when they're looking for the cheapest price today. In the prior post, we looked at why you can't (and don't) buy on price.

You can't decide without knowing your options.

An Example
Let's look at a concrete example: buying a computer. Here's a page from a old Best Buy flyer. Click on it to enlarge and take a look. Using only this ad, which computer would you pick?

You might buy based on
  • price: low, medium or high
  • brand
  • features or benefits
  • screen: size and resolution
  • performance: CPU speed and memory
  • portability: weight and size
  • intended usage: might pay more for business-grade
  • product life: more expensive might reduce the need to replace the computer
As you look at the ads, notice what's generally missing: weight, battery life, thickness and screen resolution.

What you think you want, may not be what you buy or what satisfies you. That's what happened when I bought one of those new-fangled all-the-rage netbooks.

Case Study
I thought netbooks were interchangeable and bought primarily on price (not from Best Buy).

I got an HP Mini 110 for $50 off. The price was fair, but I quickly found that what I got wasn't what I wanted. I got annoyed by the bilingual keyboard (a pet peeve), trackpad buttons on the sides instead of the bottom, the lack of Bluetooth, the weak wireless antenna, and the poor resolution anti-glare screen (1024x576).

Next, I spent a bit more for a Dell Mini 10v. This eliminated the problems with the HP but added three new ones
  1. wrong screen resolution: 1024x600 glossy instead of the advertised 1366x768
  2. a three hour battery instead of the previous six hours (assuming one hour per cell)
  3. heat: runs too hot, which can't be good for the components or your lap
Finally, I got the Dell Mini 10, costs the most but eliminates the issues above:
  • screen resolution: 1366x768 (a real joy)
  • battery: 6 hours (estimated)
  • metal case: more rugged
  • low heat: uses a more expensive Atom Z chip in place of the usual N processor
  • no moving parts: more durable
The Surprise
Here's the big surprise with the Dell Mini 10: complete silence. Portable computers are generally quiet but the spinning hard disk and cooling fan make some noise. I paid an extra $130 for a 32 GB solid state hard disk (SSD) made from memory chips instead of the usual spinning 160 GB magnetic hard disks. Frigid winters, humid summers and foreign travel are tough on delicate mechanical devices. Even if nothing goes wrong, there's the worry that something could. What do you do then?

The multi-touch trackpad is a "free prize" that did not affect my purchasing decision but is very satisfying to use.

Lesson Learned
The point here is not to keep spending more because your needs are probably different. The lesson is that I didn't realize how much I valued silence before. There's no way I would have bought the Mini 10 at the outset because I didn't know what I wanted or how much I'd pay for it.

You've probably had similar experiences. We don't know what we want until we know what is available. We can't know.

Podcast Episode 39 (5:42)

direct link | Internet Archive page

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