Friday night topic: Commodity or worth the fuss?

— 6:19 PM on March 4, 2011

We've been hearing an awful lot in the past few years about the personal computer becoming a commodity. CPUs like Intel's Atom and AMD's, uh, "Zactario" processors have been poster boys for this trend, examples of what some people might consider "good enough" computing devices.

Of course, for many of us, that seems absurd. A great many computers aren't nearly as good as we'd like, and even the best could be better, faster, and more capable. But to somebody like my mom, hey, a netbook will do the trick. She just needs to access the web and send e-mail.

Beyond computers, a whole host of other goods and services can be perceived as either fungible commodities—"good enough" options that are largely interchangeable—or as something much more interesting, an item worth fussing over to ensure you've obtained the best quality.

For instance, many folks view cars as transportation appliances and purchase them largely on the basis of utility. They'll pony up for a Camry or a Civic and be done with it. Others spend countless hours choosing, driving, maintaining, and thinking about their automobiles.

I'm deadly serious about getting a good, whole-bean, fresh-roasted coffee with the right roast. I know folks who practically prefer buying a giant tin of pre-ground Folgers at the discount club. Ugggh.

Geoff is our resident cyclist, and he collects cool bikes. I'm quite happy with my Target special, which gets the job done. I expect that's horrifying to Geoff. I even feel a twinge of shame admitting that, but at the end of the day, I'm glad I didn't have to spend more.

Other products that inspire similar divides: beer, wine, phones, all sorts of foods, audio equipment, clothing, specialty magazines, PC hardware reviews(!), and more.

Among the sorts of products that could go either way, which ones do you most consider to be interchangeable commodities—or at least not worth bothering over the differences between them? What sorts of things do you consider to be the most highly differentiated? Are people crazy for drinking Miller Lite and wearing Wranglers, or are the beer and clothing snobs wasting their time and money? Discuss.

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