Independent Retailers – The High Street Rip Off

Tottenham Court Road looks like a haven for those hunting a cheap computer: dozens of shops trying to attract customers with summer sales, cut-price deals and enticing freebies. But what’s it like if you’re trying to buy a cheap laptop for your mum – and don’t really know what you’re looking for?

To find out, I conveniently forgot any technical knowledge I may have accumulated over the years and begun to pound the pavement, armed with little more than a gormless expression and a cache of technical questions and clueless queries.

The first store I tried was Gultronics and, at first, everything seemed rosy – the attentive salesman quickly pounced, establishing that I was definitely after a laptop, reasoning that a netbook screen would be too small for my mum’s ageing eyes and just wouldn’t do Albert Square justice on the iPlayer.

He also mentioned that Microsoft Works came free with any of his laptops and so I didn’t need to spend any extra cash on the full Office suite.

Gultronic

All was well until he started to recommend individual laptops – and my clueless expression began to work against me. Both machines he offered me came from Toshiba: the first, a 15.4in L300-1FS, was on sale for £436 exc VAT, and the latter, a Satellite P300-1CN, was a 17in behemoth that cost £600 and had more chrome than the average souped-up Vauxhall Nova.

The salesman obviously had some heart – or the sound of a commission rattling through his ears – because he offered to knock £50 off the price of the more expensive machine if I returned to pay sooner rather than later. At that price, though, there was no chance of a deal.

Looking elsewhere

Shasonic and Computer World both offered cheaper laptops -two for £347 exc VAT and one for a mere £322 exc VAT – but none were particularly thrilling. All had 15.4in screens, all had decent-sized hard disks and all had enough memory but, in a theme that developed throughout my visits, they were all duller than extremely dull dishwater: grey, uninspired and universally without imagination.

While both these stores tempted me with good deals, they were both eager to sell me expensive – and unnecessary – software at the same time. Apparently, the full version of Microsoft Office is mandatory for writing the odd letter, and I’d also need a full antivirus suite.

Shasonic

I was offered both for £110 but, given the basic word processing offered by OpenOffice and the free protection from the likes of Avira and AVG, I wasn’t convinced that this was a worthwhile way to spend a chunk of my inheritance.

The prize for cheapest laptop went to another local Independent, Epsilon Computers. Costing only £243, the HP Compaq 550 looked and felt like a budget notebook but, crucially, could eke enough power from its Intel Celeron 550 processor to wade through Word and the internet.

The model I saw only came with 1GB of RAM, but the salesman – probably the most helpful I spoke to throughout this process, despite sporting a positively offensive goatee and pony-tail combo – offered to double that amount for another £10 and throw in a webcam for £10 more.

He also offered a more powerful Compaq, the CQ60-313SA, for £347 – the same price as the Acer and Asus machines from Shasonic and Computer World. Its AMD Turion X2 QL-64 processor was incorrectly listed as an Athlon and “writer” was spelt with two T’s but, with 3GB of RAM, a card reader, 160GB hard disk and Nvidia GeForce 8200M G graphics, it should be able to cope with mum’s extensive collection of classic games.

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