On a lovely, sunny Saturday afternoon where better to be? Not on the beach, in the park or even paying some long overdue attention to the bindweed-infested garden. Instead, we're jostling for elbow room in a sweaty subterranean hall on London's Tottenham Court Road. Resembling the jumble sale from hell, it's British Computer Fairs' regular Saturday at the Embassy Rooms. But why, in an age of fast-plummeting prices and air-conditioned computer superstores - in a week when Dixons has just proudly unveiled its new £400 PC and predicted a £200 computer by Christmas - would people put themselves through this? And doesn't a computer sale in the heart of London's budget consumer electronics street rate with shipping cargoes of anthracite to Geordieland? The reason people are putting themselves through this is two-fold - price and choice. Prices may be tumbling by the day, and traders' margins with them, but the combination of low overheads (many of the traders rely on fairs, escaping the costs of fitting out shops in prime High Street locations), and economies of scale (a busy fair might deliver more customers through the door in a day than many stores would see in a week), means that dealers can afford to shave prices to the bone. To the stallholder, a fair combines the cheapness of running a mail-order operation with the volume sales of busy High Street retailing. And it's a market in a very real sense. While we shopped, we saw AMD K6 III 400MMX processors marked down from £120 to £110, as traders clocked the prices their competitors next door were asking. Of course, you'll quickly learn to give the process a little helping hand. Nick Beamon is a veteran of London fairs. Today he's in search of an external 100Mb Zip drive. His policy is to go through the classifieds and find the best price for what he wants before he sets out for a fair. '£70 seemed pretty much rock bottom, but I've found two stalls selling them here for £60. I bargained with one of the guys and he chucked in a couple of free Zip disks,' says Nick outside the show. There are limits, of course, to how much you can save on state-of-the-art equipment in such a price-competitive market. Where fairs really come into their own is with 'obsolete' kit. Most people are buying 250Mb Zip drives now, driving the price of the old 100Mb drive right down - the traders themselves may well have bought them as clearance stock, so they can afford to offer them for a song. As you would have been pretty pleased with a 100Mb hard drive not so many years ago, and the disks may be way big enough for your needs, it's worth looking out for bargains like this. The other area where the fairs really score is on ex-demonstration hardware. You won't see this on sale in the PC reseller's shed in your local retail park as the big companies don't like to underprice their stock - and the manufacturers don't take too kindly to it either. Fairs are the Battersea Dogs Home of the monitor world. Not only will you be giving an ex-demo screen a good home, you can save hundreds on name brands; they look as good as new and, to be honest, they probably are. Planning those purchases The key is to do the planning before you leave home - it can save you a lot of time, money and foot leather later on. Whether you're buying a single piece of kit or putting together a system, you'll doubtless root through the ads to get a feel for the current best market price. Make your shopping list - with maximums you're prepared to pay - before you go. That way you'll spot the bargains more quickly and you won't be furiously flicking through the classifieds in the middle of a hot, sweaty bazaar. And while shows are no longer the preserve of the dedicated computer buff as they were a decade ago, it still pays to know what you're looking for - especially if you're on the hunt for memory and you're confronted with a trestle table groaning with mixed boxes of the stuff. And while some of the best savings are on second-hand memory, processors and hard drives, these are probably only for you if you know exactly what you're looking for. On the other hand, you don't want to be so tied to your list that you miss out on a stupendous bargain - usually the appetisers at the very beginning of the show or the titbits at the end that the stallholders would sooner give away than take away. We couldn't resist a doorstep-sized HTML tutor book, good as new, selling at half its UK list price (so making it about the same as the US price, but that's another story). We spotted a BT cordless phone/answerphone, list price £139, on sale at £99. A quick trip out to Tottenham Court Road established a best price of £129, and we got the stallholder down to £90. We also picked up a 10-pack of no-name CD-ROM blanks for £7, beating mail-order prices and no waiting for the postman to arrive. But don't get carried away. The worst thing that can happen with our phone is that no-one will call, but there's little point saving yourself an arm and a leg on a memory card only to discover, when you get home, that your machine doesn't actually have a spare slot for it. Similarly, ensure that what you're buying is actually compatible with the system you have. But as headline prices inexorably tumble, will there be any margins for the stallholders left to shave? Trader Colin Vere has no doubts: 'We'll always be able to buy up old stock, overstocks, shop-used stock. The day Dixons brings out a £200 PC, we'll be able to do it for £190.' Safe shopping People have an understandable fear of buying untried consumer goods off a bloke at a trestle table in a hall. After all, you know a PC superstore is still going to be there in the High Street on Monday should your Saturday-bought monitor give up the ghost on Sunday. The bloke at the show, meanwhile, might now be at the other end of the M6. But there are a few simple precautions to making it a safe and painless exercise. Try to pay with everything on plastic. First, you've got a record of who you bought the stuff from should it go wrong. Secondly, your goods may be insured by your card issuer - check with them if you're unsure. Thirdly, if he takes credit cards, he's likely to be an established and bona fide business. Ask if the goods come with a warranty. Admittedly, this isn't really feasible or reasonable if you're buying ex-display or second-hand stock. But if it's new, then your Dell monitor should be covered, irrespective of the fact that it cost you £50 less than in the shops. Finally, ask for the trader's VAT number. It's a further confirmation of their trading status, and if your system is for business use you'll be wanting to claim the VAT back, won't you? DIY - a PC from computer fair parts We put it to the test, assembling our own PC from parts available at the fairs we visited. Then we compared prices with those you could find, not in your local computer superstore, but in the classified ads of magazines like What PC? - a tougher test, but these are the most competitive prices, and the ones to beat. The parts we used aren't really important - you may be able to buy cheaper, better or just plain different, but it shows just how much you can save, especially on items like monitors. A case is simply a box for holding the whole deal together; we're talking cheap and utility here. We picked out a no-name ATX full-tower case for £30. We reckon you'd be doing well to pick one up for under £40 elsewhere. We picked up a TX Pro II motherboard, 512Kb of cache, onboard 3D sound and video for £39, another saving of around a tenner. An Intel Pentium III 500MHz processor (512Kb of cache) set us back £300, a saving of around £20. We fitted 128Mb of SDRAM memory, costing £65, knocking around £15 off the usual price. We picked up an 8.4Gb Fujitsu hard drive for £90, a saving of £15, a floppy drive for £8, which is about as cheap as you're likely to find, and a Philips 40-speed CD-ROM drive for £25, a saving of another fiver or so. For sound we went for a Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live PCI - £90 against an anticipated £100, and for graphics we picked up a 3Dfx Voodoo 3 2000 graphics card at £65, saving another £10. Finally, we chose an ex-display Iiyama 17in Diamondtron SVGA monitor. It looked as good as new, but only cost us £199, against a normal price of around £320. A PS/2 mouse set us back £3, a 105-key Windows 95 keyboard a big £5, and with 10 minutes rummaging we picked up all the requisite cabling and leads from a heavily-laden stall at the back. Let's say we saved £15 on that lot. The whole shebang came to around £930, a saving of around £220. The only other ingredients we needed to add now were a free afternoon, a Philips screwdriver, and an inexhaustible lexicon of swearwords for when we'd set it all up and noticed the video card was still lying on the carpet. FINDING THE FAIRS Abacus Computer Fairs: 0151 548 172, www.fairs.co.uk (Liverpool-based. Shows in North-West of England and North Wales). Advance Computer Fairs: 01744 601139 (Based on Merseyside. Shows around the North-West). All Formats Computer Fairs: 01572 757818 (Regular shows around the UK). British Computer Fairs: 01943 602784 www.computer-fairs.com (Weekly show at the Embassy Rooms, Tottenham Court Road. Also at Croydon, Ruislip and other venues in South-East). EB Computer Fairs: 0191 488 9889 (Newcastle-based. Regular shows around the North-East). Northern Computer Markets: 01706 299902 (Oldham-based. Shows across the North and the Midlands).
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