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The happy tightwad strikes back

Our Advisor reveals a few of his tech bargains…along with an honest assessment of whether he paid too much attention to the price, and not to the goods.

There are those who call me a tightwad. A skinflint. The Man with the Padlocked Wallet. Scrooge McScrooge. And I call these people my family and friends. They are right. I would rather not go into hock buying things I don’t need or overpaying for things I do need. And with an ever-wary eye on the price tag, I’ve been out accumulating things for less lately. But like a true believer, I don’t just buy tat at knockdown prices. I examine my purchases carefully over the medium to long haul…then decide if I made the right choice.

What follows are a few of my tech bargains…along with an honest assessment of whether I paid too much attention to the price, and not to the goods.

Narrow-budget Wi-Fi

Like everyone on the planet in 2005, I’m on the wireless wagon. I tap into 802.11b and g networks free at my workplace and at Panera cafes across the States (yes, you read that right…Panera cafes provide free wireless network access…and some great soup-and-sandwich combinations). I’ve even been known to pay for $10 day passes at T-Mobile hotspots in Borders Books and Music and Starbucks, though the price of the caffienated syrup drinks and the cooler-than-thou clientele at Starbucks do put me off a bit.

But there’s one thing about workplace Wi-Fi that bugs me, it’s the range. Try as I might to get coverage, I find that I turn a corner with my signal-monitoring notebook and I go from 4Mbps to zero in two steps. While waiting for the 802.11n standard to be ratified next year (wait a few months for a price break), I need to boost the range and strength of my Wi-Fi signals.

So did I go for Belkin Wireless Pre-N router, a $149 802.11n-ready router? Did I go for the Buffalo WRB-G54K router-and-repeater kit, a snap at $110? Did I plug an $89 Hawking HSB1 signal booster into the antenna extension of my Wireless G base station? No…of course not. I spent twenty-some bucks on a seven-inch solid metal mountable antenna from a company I never heard of.

Was I happy with my purchase? Strangely enough, I was, but not enough to name the brand of the device I tried. I actually tried three external antennae, two omnidirectional ones that boost the signal in all directions, and one unidirectional one that spreads a stronger signal in a pizza-slice formation of about thirty degrees. They all worked the same way–you unscrew the antenna from a dual-antenna base station and screw in the signal booster. In each case, I got somewhat stronger signals with a somewhat larger range. But the round-the-corner cold spots remained a problem that only a router-and-repeater combo could solve.

Was this a wise investment? Probably not. Next time I’ll quadruple my budget and get a Buffalo WRB-G54K. Or wait to see if 802.11n signals solve the problem.

Free domains…sort of

To get a .com or .net after your name, you need to spend somewhere between eight and thirty dollars every year, depending on the domain registrar you pick. (To price-compare, scope out the price tables at regselect.com). To get e-mail and a Web site at that domain, you could be staring at anywhere between $35 a year to $100 a month, depending on how demanding you want to be. That is, unless you want to go on over to OneSite.com and score a domain with hosting for your Web site and one e-mail address with Web mail reader…for nothing. This service of domain registrar Catalog.com comes with a full complement of Web hosting options, including a template-driven web site builder, a blogger, and when you sign in at your own domain, a customizable portal page with news, online calendar and scheduler, and other My.Yahoo-style features. There’s a little advertising, including a can’t-shake-it promotional sig at the bottom of all your outgoing e-mails, but it’s nothing too nasty at this point.

Now, this is all free for the first year, or for up to five years if you register as a student at a .edu e-mail address. After that, you will get charged at Catalog.com’s full $35 rate. But even that’s pretty reasonable for a full-on domain registration and hosting package.

So how does OneSite rank on the Tightwad happiness scale? I’ll give it a solid 8 or 9. It would be nice to have it all for nothing for ever…but even I realize you can’t expect that.

Free cards…sort of

So now that I’ve got a new domain and a custom e-mail address courtesy of OneSite, the first thing I want to do is publicize it. What better way than to print up some business cards? I could stroll down to a local print shop or Staples, but … what’s this? More free stuff online. VistaPrint.com has been providing free business cards in full color for years now, and they also do postcards, fridge magnets, and other stationery with your name on it. Now, like all free stuff, it’s not actually free, but it’s not far off.

VistaPrint provides high-quality card stock, sharp text and vivid color printing, and some colorful templates. But you do have to pay postage on them, so 250 cards will set you back about ten bucks. And there is an ad for VistaPrint on the back, which is the first place I go on any business card to write details about my meeting with the card donor. The freebies are, therefore, not high on the Tightwad value scale. However, you can pay a bit extra to take off the VistaPrint mention (and upload your own logo or picture) with a Premium Business Card. This runs at about twenty dollars per 250 cards, plus postage.

VistaPrint premium business cards are nudging the ceiling of what I’d call a bargain, but I’ve been very happy to hand out a make-it-in-five-minutes personalized color business card. And in the end, the idea is only to be a tightwad, but not look like one.

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