My Five Tech Buying Mistakes

You read all the reviews, you ask all the right questions of all the right people, and you still sometimes come unstuck when it comes to tech shopping. Even the biggest geeks can make stupid mistakes, so I've picked five of my gadget goofs to show how simple it is to get things wrong. And, just so that this isn't one long self-flagellatory pity party, I've slotted in the five tech shopper lessons that I've learned along the way.

Sony Ericsson P800

On paper, Sony Ericsson's P800 was the smartphone to have in 2002. The UIQ 2.0 OS was ahead of its time, its 156MHz ARM9 processor speedy for the day, and the clever hinge-down numeric keypad – which could switch the P800 from a one-handed device to a two-handed MID, complete with snap-off stylus – automatically flipped the phone UI to suit. It was futuristic enough to show up in a James Bond film; surely it was also slick enough to end up in my pocket?

I certainly did end up carrying the P800, but even as I was signing the contract renewal forms I knew it was probably a mistake. Spawned by Ericsson and then delayed – in part – by the Sony Ericsson merger, the P800 promised hugely at its original unveil and then promptly failed to meet various launch dates. When it finally did reach stores, months later, rivals were already ramping up to compete.

Problem was, I'd already mentally committed to buying it. I'd hoovered up every piece of news, every preview, every magazine report on the P800 that I could find; each delay only fueled my desire. The P800 would be my next cellphone, the best one around, and I was damned if I was going to change that opinion, even if by the time I could carry it out of the shop there were not-so-quiet voices in the back of my mind asking whether it was still the right choice.

What I learned: Beware mental lock-in. Back in 2002 I probably wasn't a Sony Ericsson fanboy, but I was certainly a P800 cheerleader. I made my decision early on and then didn't bother to reassess it along the way, even when I was playing with the smartphone in the store. Too stubborn to back down, I ended up with a buggy, frustrating first-gen handset back in the days when firmware updates were not only few-and-far-between, but something you most likely needed to send your phone off to a service center to have installed.

Fujitsu LifeBook U810

Woot has a lot to answer for. Most times I go gadget shopping, I do my research – even if sometimes I end up over-invested, as with the P800 – but I'm a sucker for a perceived "bargain" too. The LifeBook U810 wasn't even new when I spotted it on Woot, but it was something I'd coveted from afar for some time. What can I say, tiny touchscreen convertible tablets that squeeze full QWERTY and gobfuls of connectivity into a 5.6-inch form-factor appeal to me.

Sure, I didn't need one, but Woot's price was good and I convinced myself I could always eBay it later (despite knowing that I'm never motivated enough to bother with online auctions). It arrived, I spent hours fettling Windows to run at more than a snail's pace on the 800MHz processor, and then promptly ignored it from thereon in.

The U810 hasn't been my only Woot mistake. I've got a cut-price Chumby and a too-cheap-to-miss refurb Kindle waiting at the US postal address I use (Woot won't ship to the UK), and previously bought a WowWee Rovio that got used for all of an hour.

What I learned: Resist impulse shopping. Just because something is cheap, that doesn't mean it's a bargain. True bargains are things you need that you save money on. If it's a whim and you can afford it, sure, go ahead: just don't be surprised if you look back later on and think "I should've saved that cash for something I really need."

Eye-Fi card

It's magic! Take a photo, glance over at your computer, and there it is! Screw you, Polaroid, I've seen the true wizardry of photography and it's Eye-Fi. Thing is, all too often my Eye-Fi functions when I'm in the comfort of my own home office, and then promptly decides not to play when I'm out, actually needing it to work.

I'm not the only one. Vincent Nguyen has had untold Eye-Fi problems when trying to cover events, and it's almost become a tradition to hear "the damn Eye-Fi isn't working!" five minutes before Steve Jobs takes the stage at an Apple keynote. We persevere because the premise is so alluring.

What I learned: Simple is sometimes better. Maybe it's the huge number of WiFi networks confusing the Eye-Fi at events, but all I know is that I can't rely on it unless I only ever want to take self-portraits while at my desk. I don't.

Korg Trinity

Think of me as a frustrated electronic musician. Actually, no, think of me as someone frustrated he hasn't the skills to be an electronic musician. Anyway, in the late 90s, the Korg Trinity was the synthesizer to have. Its silver fascia punctuated with the bare minimum of controls, just about everything was handled by the glowing, blue-backlit touchscreen: this was, needless to say, back in the days when a touchscreen was not just unusual but downright space-age.

I wanted one like crazy. I'd persevered through piano lessons as a child, but with pricing in the thousands of dollars, no Korg was ever likely to end up at my fingertips. Then, in 2002 with a student loan burning a hole in my pocket, I gave in to nostalgia and picked up a second-hand Trinity along with the extra PBS sampling board (another few hundred for all of 8MB to load your own WAV or other files).

Unfortunately, even though I had the touchscreen lust and could recite three-quarters of the spec sheet off the top of my head, I didn't have either the talent or the patience to actually figure out how to get the best out of the Trinity. Meanwhile, the digital music world had moved on: physical controls were back in fashion, and you could recreate the Korg's swooping pads and sampling skills with super-cheap PC or Mac software.

What I learned: Accept what you are – and what you're not. I may love glitchy electronica but that doesn't mean I'm any closer to recording it myself. Nostalgia can get expensive, especially when the warm, fuzzy feeling of indulgence quickly gives way to frustration. I could've bought a whole lot of Amon Tobin CDs for what I spent on a synth I never used.


There was plenty of competition for this particular spot – and this specific lesson – but the LaCie drive won because it not only shows how poor planning but how laziness combined to double-bite me. This was a review unit that I went on to buy, a 320GB ethernet-connected hard drive I thought would be a good place for multimedia storage and backup.

Over the course of the review I'd already transferred the bulk of my digital content over to it, and so in the end – even though I suspected 320GB wouldn't really be sufficient – laziness won out. The LaCie wasn't a bad product in itself, but its lack of drive redundancy meant I didn't trust it for data backup purposes, and my suspicions over its capacity soon proved accurate.

What I learned: Digging deep now may save you later. Compromising on functionality may mean you spend less today, but if you end up having to replace that gadget sooner as a result, the overall cost could end up higher. Being realistic about your needs and expectations cuts down on throwing good money after bad.

So there's my five, and I'm pretty sure that – even knowing what I know now – I'm going to end up adding to that list sometime soon. What tech shopping blunders have you made, and has it been a learning experience or just a bad blip on your credit report? Let us know in the comments!