Thursday, November 22, 2012

Black Friday Deals

Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at UCC. We know that some of you are going to be heading out this weekend to stock up on the Thanksgiving weekend savings. We just wanted to give you a quick reminder of how to make sure that you're getting the most for your money when it comes to electronics.

The first thing to realize is that just because something is advertised as a Door Buster doesn't necessarily mean that it's a great deal. I have been researching the advertisements and have spotted several “deals” that are actually full priced. This is usually done by advertising an older model of a popular product knowing that people will become confused and buy it without realizing that they have last year's model. The products that I'm seeing this the most in is tablets. Companies often release new tablets every year with very similar model names in order to capitalize on brand recognition. I've seen last year's iPad, Kindle Fire, and Samsung Tab all marketed at their full retail price and labeled Black Friday Specials. Electronics always get less expensive as time goes on. A store is able to give an inflated retail price by going off of the manufacturer's original suggested price even though that price hasn't been used any time recently.

Another thing that many people don't realize is that while products may be marked down from last month's prices, those prices are often times marked up from where they are at other times of the year. For example, many electronics stores are advertising high definition televisions in their Black Friday ads. If you need that new TV for the holidays these can be great deals. However, research has shown that if you wait for the Super Bowl sales that happen in January you can save even more. The new models of TVs come out in the spring and the stores are looking to capitalize on the popularity of the Super Bowl to clear out last year's models. The same is true for digital cameras. The new cameras come out in spring, so shopping in January and February can lead to better deals than Black Friday has to offer.

The last thing that I want to mention is to watch for cheap imitations. Some stores will try to pass inferior electronics off because they can claim to have ridiculously low prices for items that common sense says should be way more expensive. The general rule of thumb is that if you don't recognize the name of the company that makes a product stay away. Tablets seem to be the hot item for this trick, though I have seen it with laptops and TVs. A store will advertise an “Android tablet” for $80. They don't make the specifics immediately obvious, and further research shows that that tablet is a cheap Chinese knockoff that's only worth $80 to start with.

The trick to getting great deals on electronics on Black Friday is to do your homework in advance. If you see a deal that looks too good to pass up make sure you get a specific model number. Then go online and check what that model is selling for at other stores, don't trust the regular price that's shown in the advertisements. Price tracking sites such as can be great as they will show you the current price of a product at multiple stores. They can also show you a history of what a particular item's price has been over the last year. This can give you an indication of how good of a deal you're actually getting.

There are definitely good deals to be had on Black Friday. Unfortunately, there are an equal amount of sales that are made by preying on people getting caught up in the hype. By following these tips and doing your research you can make sure that you're getting the most bang for your buck during this year's festivities.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Too Much Power?

The least thought about computer component is the surge protector. Most people put careful consideration into how much processor power or how much memory they need in their system, but protecting those components is an afterthought. It's not uncommon for people to let us know that they can get power strips for their computers at Wal-Mart for five dollars, and they work just fine. Unfortunately, these are usually the same people who are coming in with hundreds of dollars in damage to their systems caused by power surges.

The first step to understanding why we need to invest in quality surge protectors is understanding why we need them at all. Everybody understands that if a bolt of electricity hits a power line near your house there will be a large electrical jolt. What most people don't realize is that there are smaller power fluctuations that occur in our electrical systems every day. These surges are usually small and short lived, so most electrical devices are unaffected. However, electronics such as computers and TVs have relatively small and delicate components that can easily be damaged by these fluctuations. When contemplating power fluctuations, it's usually easiest to compare electricity to something we have more experience with. I like to use plumbing as an example. Everybody is familiar with the idea that as you turn on more faucets in your house the water pressure to each individual faucet will drop because the pressure is being divided between the open faucets. We also know that if we shut off all of the faucets except for one that single faucet will have a sudden spike in pressure. The person that is using that faucet will recognize that they are all of a sudden getting a lot more water than they expected, and they will turn the water down. However, there is a short time between the water pressure jumping up and that person turning the water down where the water was gushing out of that faucet way faster than was needed. The same thing happens with electricity. When your refrigerator or air conditioner is running your electrical system will draw extra current from the power grid to compensate. When those appliances kick off there is a small delay where your system is suddenly getting more power than it needs. That electricity has to go somewhere, so everything that is still plugged in and turned on will experience a surge in electrical power.

A large power surge, like a lightning strike, can be dramatic and the effects immediately obvious. When you hear thunder and all of a sudden there is smoke pouring out of your computer, it's not too hard to guess what happened. However, smaller power fluctuations can have a cumulative effect on your system. While the effects are not immediately visible, over time they can do the same amount of damage. If we go back to the plumbing example, an average home system is designed to withstand 80 psi of water pressure. A large burst of 1000 psi of water pressure will produce immediate and dramatic results. Usually this would look like all of your pipes simultaneously bursting. However, having the water pressure spike to 100 psi several times during the day won't have any immediate noticeable effect. That doesn't mean that the damage isn't being done. Sooner or later all of your fixtures will start to fail, and if left enough time your pipes will begin leaking as well. Likewise, the circuits in your computer's components are designed to carry a certain amount of electricity. A lightning strike will cause many of them to burst dramatically and at the same time and routine but smaller fluctuations will cause them to fail one at a time.

If these fluctuations are happening constantly in most homes, how do we protect our computers from them? The answer is surge protectors. A surge protector is really just a power strip with an extra circuit that can absorb sudden bursts of electricity. This energy is then either released into a grounding wire or gradually released back into the main circuit depending on the design of the surge protector. These extra circuits have a rating of how much electricity they can handle. This rating is measured in joules. I would recommend purchasing a surge protector with a rating of at least 3000 joules. This will protect you from the small to medium power surges that are seen most often in people's homes.

The last point I want to make is that surge protectors work by sacrificing their own circuits in order to protect your electronics. Every surge that a power strip absorbs lowers it's performance rating for subsequent strikes. Over the course of four or five years, the protection of a surge protector can be completely exhausted even if you've never noticed a serious power surge. For this reason, most quality surge protectors on the market today will have an indicator light to let you know if they are still operating at an adequate level to protect your components. I would strongly recommend replacing your surge protectors every two to three years and making sure that any new surge protectors purchased have an indicator light so that you can visually see when they need replacing again.