To bundle or not to bundle

— 1:37 PM on October 27, 2006

Sometimes, inspiration comes when you least expect it. As I type this, I'm sitting on a flight down to Intel's Portland facility for a super-secret mission that I'll be able to tell you about soon. However, my in-flight experience thus far has me thinking about something I encounter on a regular basis reviewing motherboards and graphics cards.

Flying from Vancouver to Portland is a short one-hour hop, which might just be enough time to crank out a blog post. I usually try to avoid the unpleasantness of air travel by sleeping through it, but since I only have an hour—and all the noise and turbulence you'd expect from a small prop-engine aircraft—I'm wide awake. So far, being awake hasn't been all that bad. The seats aren't all that comfortable, but I have more legroom in this little kite than I had in my last flight, which was in a 747. What's more, the stewardess just served me a decent-sized bag of chips, a packet of salsa, and a complimentary beer.

Normally, the best I can do for an in-flight snack is a tiny plastic cup of Coke and a handful of stale peanuts, and that's on a flight that lasts several hours.

In the grand scheme of things, this better than expected in-flight snack probably won't have a huge impact on my satisfaction with the flight. It is a nice little perk, though; a bundled extra, if you will.

Bundled extras are everywhere in the graphics card and motherboard worlds. They're a key component of product differentiation for some manufacturers, actively avoided by others, and a seemingly thoughtless throw-in for a few. Obviously, the latter isn't the best approach. Far too many cutting edge graphics cards have been bundled with games that are two to three years old and woefully outdated for the hardware in the box. If a game is old enough to be in the bargain bin, or even too old to still be on store shelves, it certainly isn't going to add much value to a product.

Thoughtless extras wouldn't look so bad if there weren't so many good examples of bundling done right. Plenty of graphics card manufacturers have included popular games with their products, and although it's may be tough to settle on a particular title or even genre that will appeal to every consumer, at least you're getting something worthwhile. The same goes for good DVD playback software, and even some of the more basic video editing suites that have come with VIVO-equipped graphics cards and ATI's now-defunct All-in-Wonders.

Good extras aren't always software, though. We've been impressed by graphics cards that have come with a whole range of more tangible goodies, including t-shirts, game controllers, Teflon mouse feet, cooling fan cleaning brushes, and DVD movies, just to name a few. Plenty of motherboards makers are in on the action, too, although their extras tend to be more technical in nature.

Sorry to interrupt, but the stewardess apparently noticed that I've finished my beer, and she's come by to fill the glass again. This is better service than I get in most bars.

Anyway, back to motherboards, and more specifically, the wonderful little extras that manufacturers sometimes include in the box. We've seen it all over the years, from rounded IDE cables, drive bay port clusters, and USB Bluetooth adapters to spare BIOS chips, front panel port blocks, and webbing that allows you to easily tote a PC case to a LAN party.

However, as much as I love the idea of freebies in the box, it's difficult to judge the value of an extra that won't necessarily have universal appeal. That USB Bluetooth adapter sat in the box for months before I actually unwrapped it to test PC syncing with new cell phone I'd bought. Then it went right back into the box, not because it didn't work, but because if I sync over a USB cable, I can charge the phone's battery at the same time. A bundled extra only has appeal if you really want it, need it, or can regift it to someone who does. Otherwise, it just adds to the manufacturer's cost, which will likely be passed down to you as a higher price tag.

No one wants to pay for something they're not going to use, which is why white box products devoid of all but the bare essentials can be so enticing. I'm more than happy to sacrifice an extra goodie I'll never use to save a few bills on a motherboard or graphics card, not because I can't afford the additional cost, but because I'd rather spend that money on something I'll actually enjoy. Unfortunately, it's rarely that easy. White box products, or at least those completely devoid of extras, tend to be pretty budget fare. For graphics cards, that means stock clock speeds and a reference cooler that's all but guaranteed to be much louder than what's available if you're willing to spend a little extra on a more premium card that just happens to come with a couple of extras. In the motherboard world, manufacturers tend to bundle as much on the board as they do with it. A barebones board might be a significantly cheaper option, but in addition to missing out on extra goodies, you tend to lose out on a lot of onboard peripherals and BIOS features.

In a perfect world, motherboard and graphics card makers would sell retail and OEM versions of their products with identical hardware in the box. The OEM box would just be a lot smaller, filled with fewer ancillary extras, and ideally cost less. Until then, it looks like we're stuck with bundles that might be neat additions for some, but probably won't appeal to all. One thing's for sure; someone's getting a USB Bluetooth adapter for Christmas this year.

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