Expensive

On the wake of Gigabytes, a nice piece by Marco Arment, an observation about my perception of expensiveness.

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05 Nov, 2012

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In his latest article, called Gigabytes, Marco Arment explains the correlation between gigabytes and pricing in today’s tablet scene and how it can manipulate the perception of expensiveness in the eyes of the consumers:

It’s far easier for the Surface to appear to be cheaper than the iPad by starting at 32 GB than by starting at $399.

This is also why the iPad Mini starts at $329 for 16 GB, rather than a cheaper 8 GB model: people said it was only $80 more than the Nexus 7, because they were comparing its price to the $249 16 GB Nexus 7 instead of the $199 8 GB model. A few days ago, Google played the game in the other direction, widening the gap considerably, by doubling the capacities at the same price points. Now, the 16 GB Nexus 7 is $199, making the $329 iPad Mini seem considerably more expensive.

This game works, especially in the downward-price-pressure direction, because consumers and the press overemphasize specs when comparing tech devices. In practical use, though, most people don’t need more than the entry-level capacities. The gigabyte-matching tricks cloud these comparisons, but in reality, the entry-level price is what matters most: it will be advertised most, it will get people into the store, it’s the best value, and it’s the hardest price for the manufacturer to drop because it’s the least profitable.

And concludes:

The Surface is a decent deal, but it is also expensive: not compared to the iPad at the same storage level, but relative to the market. That’s what customers see, and that’s how the Surface will be compared.

There’s another point I wanted to make as regards to (the perception of) expensiveness, which has to do with value and user experience. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious here, but, at least for me, a way to establish whether a device is expensive or not — no matter its price tag — is how much it proves to be useful and how quickly, and how it fares from a user experience standpoint.

In my perception, a device whose user interface is difficult to master, a device whose setup and learning curve get exceedingly time-consuming and ultimately frustrating due to poor design, questionable UI choices, mediocre usability and so forth, such a device is expensive, even if its mere price tag makes it affordable for me. Yes, in simpler terms, it’s how much the device is worth.

I’ll make a probably silly example, to demonstrate that a device doesn’t need to cost hundreds of Euros to prove to be ‘expensive’ or ‘cheap’ (= great value). I own both a Mighty Mouse and a Magic Mouse. The Mighty Mouse cost me 60 Euros, the Magic Mouse 71. You look at the price tag and the Magic Mouse is the most expensive of the two (and is perhaps more expensive than other non-Apple mice in the same league). My user experience with these two mice, however, tells a different story. The only positive thing about the Mighty Mouse for me has been how good it feels in the hand. As for usability and other design choices, it has soon proven to be a bad purchase. First I had to disable all the programmable buttons except the primary (‘left’) and secondary (‘right’) button, to avoid unwanted clicks or calls to Exposé, Spaces, Show Desktop and assorted functions. Then the little scroll ball didn’t take much time to reveal its horribly flawed design: it attracted dirt inside the mouse, was difficult to clean properly, and despite trying all the tricks I found on the Web, I couldn’t get it to work as before. For a while I could scroll downwards but not upwards, leftwards but not rightwards. Frustrating.

I purchased the Magic Mouse as soon as it was available, after trying it at an Apple reseller to check if its slimmer design would cause me trouble when handling it. I was eager to get rid of the Mighty Mouse, and very attracted by the touch gestures the Magic Mouse offered. And the absence of a physical scroll wheel or scroll ball is, for me, the best design idea Apple could implement in a mouse. No moving parts make the mouse consistently reliable over time, and also easier to clean. Two and a half year after its purchase, my Magic Mouse is as good and as functional as new. To those who think that spending 71 Euros on a mouse is too much: it’s not. The Magic Mouse definitely won’t appeal to users who prefer mice with multiple physical buttons, but if you’re okay with its shape, it’s really worth every penny.

Conclusion: the Mighty Mouse has proven to be an expensive mouse, even at the patently affordable price of 60 Euros. I believe it’s not worth the price, considering its design flaws. (Now Apple sells it as the “Apple Mouse” for just 51 Euros, but I still consider it a bad purchase.) Conversely, the experience with the Magic Mouse, its reliability, ease of use and ease of maintenance, all contribute to perceiving this device as a bargain.

Now back to Microsoft’s Surface and the iPad. When Microsoft announced the Surface back in June, I was really intrigued and hoping that Microsoft could propose a fresh, original take on the tablet concept, making the Surface a worthy alternative to the iPad and to other Android tablets. I’ve been reading a lot of different hands-on reviews of the Surface in the past days, and almost everyone seems to agree on one point: great hardware, but disappointing software (and UI, once you start digging deeper). I like the Windows Phone 7 (and 8) UI and I had hoped Windows RT would be as daring, but when I read Jean-Louis Gassée’s impressions in his Tablets Trade-Off and Compromises Monday Note, and see screenshots like the one he posted, it’s clear that under the surface (no pun intended) we’re dealing with good old Windows. Or rather, just old Windows.

And that alone, for me, means inconsistent UI design, frustrating user experience, questionable usability and the like, which in turn translates into too much time wasted to figure out the device in a way that it can be useful to me. Which in turn translates into perceiving the Surface as an expensive device, even if it looks more affordable than an iPad. The question How much does it cost? — especially with devices like these — should really go beyond the mere financial aspect and encompass the experience as a whole. In terms of money, time, personal energies, learning curve, productivity gain, entertainment value, a device may turn out to be way more expensive than it seems at first glance. One more reason to avoid the easy and equally misleading tech specs comparison game.

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