Computers: Concorde costs a little bit extra: David Hewson travels through seven circles of hell to check the virtues of Morgan's, the discount reseller

Click to follow
The Independent Online
There is an old saw among American computer people: no matter when you want to buy it, no matter what brand catches your fancy, the computer you need always costs dollars 5,000, while your bank account stands invariably somewhat short of that sum. In other words, sure, the price of personal computers falls, but as it does the kind of machine you want gets more sophisticated. So you had to pay through the nose to get a PC- compatible based on a 486 processor chip when it was top of the tree two years ago and now you are expected to do the same for a PC based on the state-of-the-art Pentium chip.

There is another way of looking at this argument. When Digital launched its Vax minicomputer in 1975, Concorde took three hours to fly from London to Washington. Digital's current work stations use a chip called the Alpha, which is cheaper and faster than the one that powered the Vax. Concorde still takes three hours to cross the Atlantic. If its performance had improved at the rate seen in the leap from Vax to Alpha it would be making the journey in a little over two minutes.

PCs have raced up what the business calls the 'price-performance' curve over the last decade. Why do you think they crash so quickly? You could spend a good 15 minutes with an early PC trying to get it to give up the ghost. Give me the right package and a 486 DX66 processor system and I can bring it to a halt in a matter of seconds. But are we grateful? Not a bit of it.

The problem is not that the PC you need always costs more than you can afford. The problem is that whatever the price, it is still too much. If Pentium-based PCs with a massive 16 megabytes of main memory sold at Tescos for pounds 399 inclusive we would still be sitting around dinner tables counting the number of packets of Special K and bottles of Gordons you could get for the same amount of folding stuff.

This innate meanness on the part of PC purchasers leads directly to 42nd Street syndrome. You see it everywhere: the proliferation of shops, like the string of 42nd Street discount stores in Manhattan, that have windows full of electronic goods covered in paper tags that reveal everything but the price.

In London, the home of the quick deal is that outer ring of the seven circles of hell, Tottenham Court Road, where, as a rule, finding something with an advertised price is as likely as spotting a mermaid under Vauxhall Bridge. Doubtless if you have a skin like a rhino's hide and are willing to haggle with the tenacity of a Marrakesh street trader there are bargains to be had in this unlovely stretch of officedom.

There is one shop, however, where the prices are both visible and unshakeable and for the hardened and knowledgeable PC buyer it is rapidly becoming something of a Mecca. Those with a reasonably long memory will recall Morgan's as a small second-hand camera shop within stumbling distance of the bars and restaurants of Fitzrovia. Today the ageing Leicas take second place to computer stock, most of it brand new, often from big manufacturers and marked down to advertised price levels which are frequently well below those found even in American discount stores.

Morgan, which now has branches in Birmingham and Manchester, makes its bread and butter out of a product line that changes constantly, but almost always makes enticing reading. At the moment, for example, you can pick up a beautifully made Apple PostScript laser printer, sold not long ago for pounds 3,000 (all prices include VAT), for a mere pounds 530. A Kodak photocopier and laser combined, launched for pounds 4,700, goes for pounds 704. Amstrad's little Notepad, the NC100, is less than half price at pounds 116, a 386-SX20 IBM PS/1 PC with an 80-megabyte hard disk drive and colour monitor costs pounds 586 and an 18-pin colour dot matrix printer from Oki a mere pounds 116.

There are some interesting notebook computers, including Dell's very light, though commercially disastrous, 325Sli from pounds 728, which may be a bargain if you can live with a rather poor screen display. For pure nostalgia, Morgan must also be one of the last places to offer the truly dreadful (in my view) Amstrad PCW 8256 word processor and printer package which was the first introduction to computer technology for a, sadly, large proportion of the typing public.

Morgan is not alone in dealing in this kind of stock. Shortening product life cycles - few models now make it much beyond a year before being replaced - probably mean that the discount PC is on the way up. You have to do something with all those unsold machines and dumping them into the market to people like Morgan's is the easiest solution.

We are suspicious souls, however. One question begs an answer: is this all too good to be true? In a sense, there is no such thing as a bargain in computing. Models which are popular sell for the price they are supposed to fetch for the best part of their product cycle. The most current PC in Morgan's list of the moment is a Tandon 486DX-33 system costing pounds 1,175, which is reasonable but hardly stunning.

The cheap stuff is, almost invariably, yesterday's model and fitted out as such. A depressing number of the cheap 386s have only 2 megabytes of main memory (ram), which is useless for running Windows, the PC's now standard point- and-click operating system, so you need to allow for another pounds 130 or so to upgrade to 4 megabytes. Some of the screens sold with systems are less than impressive and I would advise anyone thinking of buying a Morgan system to see it in action first, rather than just ringing up the mail order department.

Nor does Morgan try to disguise its role as a discount reseller. The company normally buys out the guarantee for the computer, which means you have to return it to Morgan for service under the one-year warranty. In the case of the Dell notebooks, people buying them through Morgan have no right to Dell's well-known and excellent free life-time technical support service, though a few other models come with on-site support.

Tom Willett, Morgan's general manager, says that most of his customers are people who know about computers and are sufficiently canny to pick their way through the technical specifications to find out what they want. Complete novices are unlikely to find much joy.

If you understand that buying a 2-megabyte PC will not let you run Windows well, that a Cyrix 486 processor chip is not the same as an Intel one, and that there is a big difference between Lotus Ami Pro Version 2.0, sold by Morgan for pounds 57.57, and the current Version 3.0, which it flogs for twice that amount, then fine. If you do not, then find out fast.

Or buy a big name from a big name - think about Concorde and the Vax and stop moaning about the cost.

VITAL STATISTICS

Morgan has two branches in London at:

64-72 New Oxford Street (071 255 2115);

179 Tottenham Court Road (071 636 1138).

There are also stores at:

Edgbaston Centre, Hagley Road, Birmingham (021 452 1141);

11-12 Station Approach, Manchester (061 237 1111).

Equipment can also be ordered by post:

Mail order: 021 456 5565.

IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing

Comments