Buying frenzy!

John Saxon explores Southern California’s largest computer marketplace

NOTE: This was written when the exchange rate was Aus $1 = US $0.73 :-(

So here we are - it’s about 9:30 am on a fine Sunday morning and I’m cruising along the 210 freeway eastbound from Pasadena on the way to the computer marketplace at Pomona. The traffic is light, moving freely down the 6 lanes between 70 and 80 mph (forgive the non-metrics, there’s a lot of catching up to do here). The speed limit was increased from 55 to 65 mph after the oil crisis was "over", and the highway patrol tend to frown on anyone faster or slower than 65 to 80. The radio is tuned to K-Earth 101.1 "Oldies" radio (appropriate for me), the Big-O is extolling the virtues of Pretty Women, and all is right with the world.

I’ve done my homework the day before by visiting FRYS Electronics in Burbank - a huge high-tech megastore with a computer section roughly the size of DJs. They are generally in the lower range of computer retail prices - so it’s worth seeing how they compare to values at the Pomona marketplace.

Some example of prices at FRYS (for some things I was thinking of buying) are:

Tape Backup units: Iomega Ditto 2Gb - $150 (Aus $207 after 8.25% CA sales tax and conversion at 1.275)

Connor 3.2Gb - $229 A$316

H.P, Colorado 3,2Gb - $209 A$288

Parallel port TV cameras: Colour - $249 A$343

Greyscale - $110 A$151. Saw them by mail order at $79 A$101 (no tax)

8Mb 72pin EDO SIMMs: 70ns - $40 A$55

60ns (1 year Warranty) - $35 A$48

60ns (Namebrand lifetime warranty) - $44 A$61

Sony Web TV (WWW + Email via your TV - No PC required) - $290 A$400

Back to Sunday, and the hardest part of the trip is the U-turn into the LA County fair ground’s car park - there are 6 entrance lanes with only 2-3 cars in each, so getting to park is pretty painless, except for the $5 parking fee. Ouch! A dollar up since last time. Then another shock to the wallet - entrance fee has increased from $7 to $8 for adults (and no senior discount!). So a total of $13 A$18 before making it into the first hall. A friend and I discussed the entrance price and concluded that it might be a cunning psychological plot - It’s cost so much to get this far that one should really buy plenty to make it all worthwhile. Everybody wins, organisers and dealers that is! But it’s certainly possible to recoup the entrance money with the first purchase of a $2-50 CDROM. M$ Encarta-97 was going for $26 A$36 for example.

There’s at least one and sometime 2 computer shows somewhere in LA each weekend, but this one is the biggest I think. It’s held in two large halls (sometimes three). Each hall is capable of easily accommodating around 150 largish stands with 10-15 foot aisles. There’s 4 or 5 radio stations here - at least 2 broadcasting, and the rest handing out various "freebies" while relaying their station over loudspeakers. Add various sprukers shouting their wares - "No CDs over $5 on this table", "Lowest motherboard prices at the show", numerous "multimedia" demos, and a few thousand people trying to make themselves heard - it’s pretty noisy. I checked with the organisers and they said that they average around 8,000 attendees per day - so up to 20,000 over a good 2 day weekend show. It surprised me that is was that low, it can get really crowded (2 or 3 deep at some stands).

There are over 300 dealers today - about average. Every 2-3 months they run 20-30 short seminars as well at the Sheraton suites on the fairground complex - then the attendance increases by 30% or more.

So why do people keep coming back to these shows? Are the prices so much better? Here’s a bunch of examples:

Motherboards: Intel VX chip set with all I/O 256 Kb Cache - $84 A$116

Intel HX chip set 512K - $110 A$152

Cheapest Pentium MB I saw (Opti chip set) - $65 A$90

Tyan Tomcat 3 with 512K - $145 (the one I paid $220 for 4 months ago - Oh well, that’s life at the bleeding edge)

RAM: 8Mb 60ns EDO - $35 A$48 (Brand name $2 more)

16Mb 60ns EDO - $74 A$102

CPUs: Pentium Pro 150 Mhz - $179 A$247

Pentium MMX 200 Mhz - $538 A$742 (prediction - $300 by Dec 97)

CDROM Drives: 6X - $55 A$76 (Untested - as is)

X12 Acer - $100 A$138

X2! 7 disk changer - $50 A$69 (Untested - as is)

JVC X4 read X2 write - $259 A$357

X16 (LiteOn = no name? Nice box!) - $108 A$149

HDDs: WD Caviar 2.5 Gb - $225 A$311

Maxstor 1.3 Gb - $170 A$234

Modems: US Robotics Courier 56 Kbs + Voice - $163 A$225

No name 33.6 Kbs + SVDS - $67 A$92 (and going down!)

Odd stuff: 2 Mb VGA cards as low as $45 A$62

Cheapest parallel port flatbed scanner - $203 A$280

Stocking stuffers: 230 Watt power supplies - $17 A$23

IDE HDD mobile rack with lock - $12 A$17

TEAC 1.44 Mb FDD - $20 A$28

Etc.

The only direct comparison with FRY’s prices was for the HP 3.2 Gb tape backup unit - $209 at FRYs - $149 at the market. So it can definitely be worth the trip. BUT some of the dealers may not be around too long to honour warranties, and there are some definitely "shonky" practices going on. An example is the almost universal practice of breaking up CDROM "bundles" to sell separately, a practice much frowned upon by OEMs. Caveat Emptor

So what was hot or different at this marketplace?

Well the new ATX format motherboards and cases seemed to be selling well. For those who don’t know - ATX is the new mechanical layout with some electrical improvements agreed by the major manufacturers (the first major mechanical change since the original PC?). The most obvious difference in the MBs is on-board connectors (Including USB and IR), and externally removable panels on the cases (You need a new case and Power supply with the new MBs). But there are many more changes in functionality, including "green" system Power supply control - never turn the system off (except by unplugging it). Boards were $150 A$207 and up, and cases with PSUs around $75 A$104.

Recordable CDROM drives were selling well, with media down to $8 A$11. Didn’t see any DVD stuff, but these shows are not generally "cutting edge", more concentration on lower (slightly trailing edge) prices.

But I tried on a great pair of LCD 3D glasses with modified game software - very impressive results. The glasses switch 48 times per sec (some noticeable flicker) and come with a CDROM which include drivers and some modified "shoot-em-up" games. Descent, 3D Nukem, Doom, etc., for a total of $99 A$137. The same stand also sold a 4 MB 128 bit Video card with hardware MPEG2 decompression for $159 A$219. Terminator-2 at full screen and full rate, looking better than your average TV.

I even saw a $999 A$1,378 home use, 2-axis VR chair controlled by the joystick! It is quite quiet (as far as I could tell in amongst the racket) and apparently air driven, with 50 degs movement in pitch and 55 degs in roll. The monitor mounts in front of your knees, and the keyboard (for an optional operator - or simulation controller) behind the seat back. There were speakers and joystick built in also. It seemed to be very fast and was quite nauseating to watch! Combine this with the 3D glasses for a total experience (if your stomach could take it!).

There are probably more software than hardware stands with CDROMs from $1-99 up to $199 A$275 for Office 97 Pro upgrade (probably another un-bundling job). Also 3 or 4 book stores - cover price -25% for one, to -35% for 5 or more.

Not all the stands are totally computer oriented. There are a fair sprinkling of chiropractors (on the spot diagnosis!), "self defense" stands (Mace & pepper sprays, electric stun guns, and (strangely) large knives). Cell phones, pagers, cigars and jewelry, etc. - you name it! A pretty large curtained off area (over 21 only) had several dealers selling thousands of "adult" CDROMs and videos. A nice change from the "old" days when that stuff was included on most stands. One of the radio stations was giving out "Earthquake preparation" leaflets - modern times in LA.

What did I buy? Well - very restrained for me. Only 16 Mb (2 X 8 Mb EDO SIMMs) of RAM - name brand (Toshiba) at $38 A$52 each. Also an HP Deskjet printer colour refill kit. At $55 A$76 it was pretty expensive, but it is supposed to refill colour cartridges up to 24 times, and B & W up to 6 times, so it could well be worth it - came with a package of business card paper (my choice parchment!) also. Oh, and a W95 or 3.1 Wincheck Vrs 4.0 S/W package at $14.95 A$21 - couldn’t resist.

So after 2 hours I had taken a quick check around all the stands, with no repeats, and I was out of there - all computered out (at least for one day). I’ve been to that show at least 6-8 times before, plus others around LA, and I still get a mild adrenaline rush when going in! - calculated to cause shopping frenzy?

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