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Questions to Ask Before You Buy

With a view to encouraging Considerate Design and other good practises.


As a customer, a potential buyer of products, you have power which you may not realise. There are implicit things about your actions which may help to influence the behaviour of companies for better or worse. It's in the interests of the public good to encourage Considerate Design by manufacturers, and that can be influenced by asking the right questions. This has the biggest impact in high-tech manufacture, where things should be designed well, but are sometimes made on-the-cheap to save small amounts in the initial production cost, but producing products which will later self-destruct and be uneconomical to repair.

You might be wondering how a customer asking a sales rep a few odd questions can make a difference, but here's an illustrative allegory:

Supposing a company opened up a restaurant in a new area and people came along to eat food. If the clientele was as common-as-muck, without class or refinement, the proprietors would soon realise that nomatter how finely the food was made, it was not appreciated, and they might as well have opened a fast food joint! However, if the locale was frequented by food connoisseurs who knew the finer points of good food, the proprietors would endeavour to create food to the highest standards of quality cuisine. In effect, the quality of the customers has influenced the quality of the restaurant.

Now applying this principle to sales of new cars, it's important to be clued-up about the nature of the product. The quality of a new car is not simply a matter of how snazzy it looks and how fast it goes, but some more pressing long-term things. So, when buying a new car, here are the sorts of things to ask the car salesman:

* Can you get a Haynes manual for this?

* How economical is the car to run, in typical conditions?

* Can you get at everything for easy maintenance?

* Will this car run on alternative fuels after oil has run out?

* How much do the spare parts cost and how easily available are they?

* Are any special tools required, and if so, will you please include them in the original purchase deal?

* Is the electrical wiring fully-documented and easy to follow?

...and so on.

The point about this is that if enough people ask "Can you get a workshop manual for this car?", manufacturers will start seeing the importance of making the car maintenance-friendly and possibly even advertising the fact. Also, if it's obvious customers are looking ahead because they know a car should still be some good after 5 years, 15 years, 25 years... it may result in cars being better made in the first place.

A spectacular example of bad design that's already coming back to bite people is the thing about sat-nav where there were patent-encumbered problems and the devices in effect expiring within a couple of years. The question to ask to avoid this is: "Can this sat-nav have Open Streetmap loaded into it, or is it stuck with short-term rented expiring maps?". Note: If you buy an Ordnance Survey map that folds up, it will never "expire".

When buying a digital camera, don't just ask "How many megapixels is that?". Instead, you need to ask or find out...

* What is the effective optical lens aperture?

* Is it Linux-compatible (with gphoto2, for example)?

* Are the batteries standard inexpensive rechargeables, or is it some funny expensive patent-encumbered system?

* Are the interface cables standard?

* What is the true Optical Zoom, (never mind digital zoom).

* Can automatic features be turned off?

When buying a washing machine, here are some questions to ask:

* What is the rated mean-time-between-failures of the main bearings?

* What speed does the motor run at? (note: faster RPM motors are less reliable)

* How much water does the machine use per wash?

* What is the cost of consumables (including soap and electricity) per cycle?

* Are spare parts easily available and inexpensive, and is this likely to be the case in five or ten years?

* How easy is it to remove objects that have got into the pipework?

When buying anything with a GPS in, here are some things to ask:

* Can I get the GPS information?

* Are there any things about this device which can expire? If so, what ways around this are there?

* This device knows where I am. Can I make sure that it does not reveal that private information to anyone else?

When buying a flat-screen TV, especially a large one, here are things which need to be asked:

* How long is this rated at in terms of lifetime under normal use?

* If/when there is a failure of some part of the device, how easy is it to repair?

* Are the electronics made in a modular way so that parts can be replaced?

* What types of capacitors are in use, and are they placed a safe distance from any surface-mount components?

* If a cosmic gamma particle where to knock out one of the pixels on the screen, would it just be one dark pixel or would it produce any annoying line (lit up) across the screen?

When buying a computer, here are some things to ask:

* Is all the hardware Linux-compatible?

* Is the machine free from unfair encumberments such as UEFI secure boot?

* Is the BIOS fully-operable independent of the operating system?

* Is the computer properly programmable?

* How fast can it complete this [show example] mathematical compute-intensive task?

For more about computer buying, see Proper Computer Shops and the pages about Linux

And when buying furniture, the thing to ask is:

* What will this be like in a hundred years' time?

(In other words, will it turn into a much-treasured antique, or will it turn into a heap of sawdust chipboard pulp?).