Morning, all. I told myself I was going to try to do these Etc. posts more often, but I've been failing lately. Doh.

My topic for today, though, is quite timely for the season: friends and relatives who solicit computer buying advice. I know many of you are with me on this. Every year about this time, a few people hit me up for advice on buying a new system. These days, it's usually a laptop.

I've had this happen for years, and over time, I've learned a few things. My advice is very practical, and it almost always starts with questions about the person's intended uses and budget. Depending on their level of technical expertise, which I try to discern, I'll either recommend an outline of basic specifications as a minimum or I'll point to one or more specific models—maybe even a particular system deal at one retailer. All depends on the situation, but I'm trying to help the person asking from avoiding some annoying technical pitfall, a poorly balanced config, or just a raw deal. In some cases, there are obvious good deals toward which I want to point them. Of course, computers keep getting cheaper and better over time, so it seems like each time these questions come up, finding a good recommendation is easier and the prices are lower.

Some folks are pretty good about taking my advice, but wow, many are not. What invariably seems to happen with a lot of them is this: once I've gathered all the info and laid my cards on the table, they immediately begin bargaining, either to spend less money or to find out whether some system they'd already picked out is "a good deal." Some people simply are playing a game in which they wish me to bless a decision they've already made, usually not a great one. Others would rather get a "deal" than a good value—saving 50-plus bucks off of list on a particular system is the main goal, not finding the right computer. I'm then left struggling to explain what I've tried to avoid: esoteric discussions of technical issues, like why 1GB of RAM in a system with 512MB soldered onboard isn't a good idea, or why upgrading from Vista with a coupon for Win7 might not be a fun afternoon. Eyes tend to glaze over at this juncture.

Of course, one has to handle such situations with a healthy measure of grace and forbearance. You can't club people over the head with your superior knowledge, or it helps no one. But I can't tell you how many times folks have left conversations in which I gave them specific advice tailored to their needs, tried to explain key technical issues in a basic way, offered to answer any questions they might have later, and received an apparently positive and thankful response from them. Then they went out and bought some dog of a system that was a "deal," what they'd already picked out, or something entirely mismatched with their stated needs.

The phone calls I sometimes receive after such purchases are really uncomfortable.

The one advantage of such a situation is, once that happens, I am generally not asked, nor do I feel obligated, to help with any friendly technical support. That's somewhat liberating. But one is left wondering why they solicited my advice and occupied my time in the first place. And the cycle repeats itself again with the next person.

Does this happen to you? I know many geeks are brash and unconcerned about offending people. So maybe not! But I suspect some of you have seen this, no?

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