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PCs and gadgets: Gotta have them

By Harold Glicken


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editor in you

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There’s nothing quite like unboxing a computer and setting it up for the first time. The basic expectation is that it will work out of the box – and that it will continue working long after it drops off your credit card balance.

Here are some experiences I’ve had with PCs, peripherals and gadgets, all of which I bought new in the past several years. If I were superstitious, I’d just keep using the electronics and not shout about their continued good health. But superstitious I’m not. I’m a realist. If, shortly after I write this column, a component that I’ve raved about goes south, so be it. That said, here are some major purchases from the past several years.

First, a word about tech support.

Average tech support  means hold times of 20 minutes or less and competent techs. Above average means shorter hold times, and techs who know their stuff, understand a problem and solve it quickly. Below average means long hold times and  incompetent techs.

Dell XPS desktop PC. This fast, sleek-looking desktop has everything I need for  everyday computing: 16 gigabytes of RAM, a terabyte hard drive (which I’ve replaced with a 500-gig solid-state drive), an i7 quad-core processor, all kinds of USB 3.0 ports, including four on the front and top of the PC, a quiet fan and a four-gigabyte graphics card. I bought it two years ago from Costco, which often sells  high-end, loaded Dells and other brands at deep discounts. I paid $800 for this one, several hundred below what Dell was selling it for. It’s run flawlessly for two years. Basic tech support is below average; get the Premium tech support for $69 a year for above- average support.

Dell Ultrasharp 24-inch monitor. This display, which I bought on Amazon for $250, is bright, adjustable and has proven to be trouble-free. The four-gig video card on my PC definitely makes the monitor’s images look life-like. Tech support when you buy it from stores other than Dell’s ain’t gonna happen.

Epson Workforce GT-S50 scanner. I can’t rave enough about this work horse. The sheet-fed scanner runs at up to 50 pages a minute in either black and white or color. The provided software is very basic, but third-party software such as Nuance’s Power PDF Advanced, offers more choices, such as the ability to combine pdf’s from multiple scans. The scanner itself almost never jams, and has worked flawlessly for more than four years of heavy use. It was pricey -- $450 – and worth every penny. There are newer models, which I haven’t tried. If they’re as good as the GT-S50 – and I have every reason to think they are --  they’re probably a good investment. Free tech support is above average.

Epson Eco-Tank  ET-4550. This printer uses technology that will save hundreds of dollars in ink costs. It uses massive (for a printer) tanks that are filled with equally large ink bottles. Color and black and white copies look great. It’s not particularly fast – a color photo can take five minutes to print -- but it does the job without much fuss. It’s wireless, and has a flat-bed, sheet-fed scanner and fax. But ... I’m on my third one in a year. The first one, a demo, died quickly. The second was DOA, and now the third one, about a year old, works fine. I’ll grant that the demo had gone through the gauntlet, but the DOA unit was disconcerting. No complaints about the third. Tech support is above average.  This model costs $500; other  models start at about $300.

Brother model 6180DW laser printer. This wireless work horse prints beautiful black and white pages at up to 42 pages a minute. It prints on both side of the page. Toner can be pricey, starting at about $50 for a low-capacity cartridge (3,000 pages). I’ve never had to call tech support for the $500 printer, which I’ve had for more than three years.

UE Boom portable speaker. This battery-operated speaker, which is about the size of a can of Red Bull, lasts about 10 hours on a charge. Sound is remarkably good, although the bass is a little anemic. It can be plugged in all the time, too. I paid $100 for it when Crutchfield (one of the very best online stores) had it on closeout. A successor, the UE Boom 2 sells for between $150 and $200. The folks at Crutchfield are knowledgeable and patient, and never try to up-sell. So far, no problems with the speaker.

iMac. I’m very high on Apple products, and the iMac is no exception. My grandkids (oldest is 7) have figured out how to use it. The latest operating system, Sierra, is beautiful and functional. Apple bundles a word processing program (Pages) and other essential office products.  I’ve had two iMacs, and the latest one, which I’ve had for about two-and-a-half years, has been trouble-free. AppleCare tech support ($169  for three years) is stupendous (a word I almost never use). The iMac isn’t terribly fast, but it runs and runs and runs. The display is very good, especially on the high-end model with Retina display. My only complaint is the chiclet-style  keyboard, which I have replaced with a clicky dasKeyboard.  I ordered an iMac with 16 gigs of RAM (the base one comes with eight gigs of RAM) and a terabyte hard drive. Models range from $1,100 to $2,300. Add $200 for the extra eight gigs of RAM (which I recommend).

Apple Watch. This was one of those impulsive gotta-have toys. There are many  useful apps for it, including some health and medical ones, but, alas, I use it mostly as a ... watch. Prices range for $269 for the original Watch, $399 for the faster, second-generation model and way up to the ozone for Watches with fancy cases and bands. Even though I’m not using it anywhere near its full potential, I like the way it looks on my wrist. Speaking of wrists, if you have a large one, get the 42mm model. No problems in the two years I’ve had the Watch.

iPhone 7 Plus. While the display doesn’t have the wow-factor of some Samsung models, it’s more than good enough for these old eyes. The latest model is fast, lasts longer on a charge than its predecessor, is somewhat waterproof, but ... if you have the 6, you might want to wait for the next generation, since, I think, the 7 is just a 6 with a new number. There are hundreds of thousands of apps, many of them free, and the voice quality of calls (I use T-mobile) is excellent.

MacBook Air. I recently did a side-by-side comparison between the MacBook Air and a similar-featured Dell Inspiron 2-in-1 laptop. The Dell came out ahead, in both price and features. When, oh when, will Apple come out with a truly touch-screen computer? Still, the Air is an amazing, lightweight laptop. With its solid-state drive and 8 gigs of RAM it’s fast. Like its competitors and even the iMac itself  the Air doesn’t come with a DVD drive, although after-market drives can be had for as little as $25. My advice: Stick with the $79 Apple SuperDrive for its heavy duty build and reliability. I’ve had a SuperDrive for six years, and it’s run flawlessly. Same goes for the MacBook Air, which I’ve had for three years. Prices start at $999 for a skimpy 128-gig solid-state drive and reaches $1,199 for a 13-inch model with a 256-gig drive.

iPad Air 2. These can be found everywhere, from restaurants to the local meter reader. With all due respect to the memory of Steve Jobs, I hardly use mine, especially now that I have the 2-in-1 laptop with a 13.3-inch screen (as opposed to the iPad’s 9.7-inch screen). The Air 2’s display is sharp, it’s fast, but, it’s one of those gadgets I take out once a month, and wonder why I bought it. Somewhat like the Watch, which at least I wear more often. No problems so far.

Ring doorbell. This $200 gadget will show videos of who is at the door – you can even see the videos on your phone when you’re away from home. And you can talk to and hear the person at the front door. It’s a gadget, of course, but, for my money, a useful one. Works as advertised, and tech support is above average.

MagicJackGo. For $35 (when it’s on sale), you get a thumb-drive-size wireless device that connects to USB port.  Attach it to any home phone, and you can make free calls within the U.S. and Canada. If two callers have the MagicJack Go, they can make free calls internationally. Plans cost as little as $20 a year. The Go comes with 12 months of free service. Call quality is spotty, unfortunately, depending on how much bandwith is being used on your home network.Tech support is via frequently-asked questions and  chat. I use the MagicJack Go as a second landline; because of problems with call quality, I wouldn’t use it as a first one.

dasKeyboard. These expensive ($99-$170) keyboards are built to last, the keys are clicky and the keyboard can be attached to a PC only with a USB cable. The Mac keyboard lacks many of the functions of the Apple keyboard, and is not recommended, unless all you want is a heavy-duty model with clicky keys. I’ve had my PC keyboard for more than two years. The first one was warped, but the folks at dasKeyboard quickly mailed out a replacement, which works just fine. An internet-based keyboard will be available soon. Tech support, via email, is above average.

I’ve only touched the surface of my gadgets, believe it or not. I can only say that often my “gotta have it” winds up being my “glad to have it.” As for my “wish I hadn’t got it,” that is the price I pay for being an early adopter.

Stuff that still works