Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Not an early adopter

A year ago I set a fiscal limit. No electrical, or electronic goods, or household appliances e.g. fridges or washing machines, or anything like that for more than £200. Sceptics droned that this would be impossible, that my business wouldn’t survive, that I’d be forced to rely on almost caveman-like technology and living in the Outer Hebrides would be miserable.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

It's been remarkably easy. Surprisingly, living in the sea air, nothing major has gone wrong with appliances, which has helped. Though even if they had things like fridge-freezers can now be replaced for under £200. Existing PCs work fine; Windows XP has proved to be stable, and I'd like to keep these running for a few years yet. My ageing laserprinter is spluttering, but there's many options for a replacement for under £100, let alone £200. Video game stuff? I have the Wii and DS, both good value, and some game stuff I get for free from clients (which I guess is cheating a bit).

Televisions? Two that are seven years old. Music system? One that is (thinks hard) 11 years old. The washing machine (5 years old), fridge freezer (unknown; it came with the house before last). Non of these items were vastly expensive, but they all seem to have lasted. When they break, they'll go for recycling; when they need replacing, it'll be on ebay or in whatever charity shop will take them.

Having this limit has some side benefits. If disaster occurs, I haven’t lost a fortune, and neither is it worth claiming on my household insurance and suffering increased premiums. I can check on eBay in a years time and not find, unlike the digital camera I bought for £650 in 2000, that several hundred pounds have already been lost in depreciation. That was a bad day. As was April 15th for many people who had just bought an iphone. Once the early adopters dry up, the price heads for the cliff edge.

And so, the latest toy within the £200 limit arrived today; a Sony DCR-DVD110E handycam. I'd been waiting out for the prices of camcorders to come down for a while, and had shortlisted three. This was the first one to fall under £200, so it was duly purchased and arrived by courier today.

After being shocked at how small and light it was (it fits in my coat pocket), a few hours were spent grappling with some of the touch screen options. From my office, I was able to zoom in on someone wandering near the youth hostel, picking their nose (that one won’t be making it onto YouTube). On top of Borve Hill, I could pick out geese flying over the sea. I can burn movies onto mini-DVDs within the camera, or download to the PC and do all manner of magical things with them.

The total cost? Handycam and a box of mini-DVDs for under £200. Just a few weeks ago, this would have cost a lot more. A few years ago, and probably the same functionality would have cost a four digit amount, or not been commercially available. Even though I think of myself as a citizen of the 21st century (last century was just a mainly dull warm-up for the technological, information and communication possibilities of this one), I’m still amazed at what this bundle of tricks can do.

Here's pretty much the first attempt with the camcorder, of some seals on rocks close to Seal View bed and breakfast down the road. Quality mangled a bit by YouTube:


The downsides of the £200 limit. I don’t have the latest technologies. Um, that’s about it. Prices of electronic items fall so quickly now that, if you’re willing to wait six months to a year, then you’ve a fair chance of getting what you wanted. And certainly not everyone wants the “latest, now”; see for example the strong movement to hold on to Windows XP (which I like) over the newer Windows Vimto as long as possible. Okay, I’d like a Nikon D300, but I can make do with the “crappy” 6Mb camera I have at the moment. Which, three years ago, was wow-ing people.

The next items on the hit-list are a spare, light, laptop. Asus are starting to sell Linux-based ones at sub-£200. I have a multi-country trip later in the year, and don’t need a high-tec machine with me. Just something to check email, twitter, Facebook, keep in touch with the events I’m at, and upload pictures to Flickr will do, especially if delayed for several hours and when on a plane for several hours more (the boredom of the long-distance journey from Europe to California is stressful). So at under £200, if disaster strikes in some airport security clearance then it’s not a fiscal tragedy.

But it’s projectors that have got me intrigued of late. For years, the cost of projectors has remained stubbornly high, while those of other electronic items have fallen. But, no longer. Good quality home cinema projectors are coming in at less than £400 and falling rapidly in price. My TV viewing is minimal, with DVDs taking up the large bulk of screen time, so a home projector would provide a much bigger picture for the DVDs, as well as for the Wii and going online. Frans in Tampere manages this quite well, as does Doctor Kate the scrabulous fiend down South Uist way.

(Though if lots of people did this, where will the BBC get its licence fee income from a few years from now? Ditching the TV and the saving from the TV licence and subscriptions to Sky TV will quickly pay for a projector. The profit will cover extra DVDs. You've suddenly got a cinema screen instead of an inconvenient box that is the focal point of your living room. Nearly all of the content you'd miss out on is available online, on DVDs, or in the pub e.g. footie matches. Do the math. I wonder if BBC accountants have "done the math" and are having sleepless nights?)

But back to that £200 limit. Unfortunately it can’t be applied to all of life’s luxuries or necessities. The price of a tank of heating oil has risen by 50%, from £280 to £420, in three years. Airline tickets are expensive (please, any budget airline, start flying out of Benbecula). And every year or so I look at the cost of buying a car, keeping it on the road, and filling it with petrol, shake my head in bemusement at why the vast majority of my fellow Brits do this and stick with public transport. But for everything electronic or electrical, I’m sticking with my £200 limit for the next financial year. Hasta la cheapskate.

(Though having said all that, I'd be more than grateful for any benevolent reader buying me a present from my Amazon Wish List!)


  1. An interesting post, John. I look forward to seeing more video clips from around Berneray, and don't forget Flickr can now show 90 sec vids which are less compressed than YouTube. The trouble with video is the extra demands it puts on ageing PCs, especially if you go along the HD route.My fridge is around 10 years old, the freezer 15+ (bought from a relative) and the washing machine must be around 15 years old also, but will need replacing soon.

  2. Have to agree with your mindset on the cost of 'things' - maybe it has something to do with those who want to live in 'remote' or far-away' places (you know why the quotes are used).It's a little unfair though to put down a car because of running costs when you don't include electricity and consumables costs for the other items. Granted the costs of running a car are not cheap but then I wouldn't pay £420 for a tank of heating oil! We have a single gas fire and our gas bill last year (including cooking) was £123. (We also have lots of jumpers!)Our last car was a VW Passat estate which cost £200 and which lasted three years - and would have lasted much longer - until some drunk teenager smashed into the rear and it was written off. He ran off leaving his mate to give a false phone number but I tracked down the vehicle through the DVLA and got his dad to send us a cheque for £500! Not a bad deal! Our current car is a Volvo 740GLE estate which cost £150. It's not exactly pretty but it runs well and that is all that matters in a car. We have had this for three years now and hope to bring it with us when we move to The Western Isles in a couple of years.So the capital cost of a car for us over the past six years is minus £150. Beat that!

  3. Les. Eh? So you won't pay for a tank of heating oil, but you're happy to pay for gas and run a car? we noticed you conveniently forgot the cost of tax, insurance, MOT, maintenance, tyres etc. Think you're in for a bit of a wake-up call economically if you move here. Especially when you fill up for the first time at the pumps. Get knitting and buy a bike :)

  4. Andrew .. I said 'Granted the costs of running a car are not cheap' which includes all the things you mention but I don't follow the logic about 'an economic wake-up call'. A lot of fuss is made about the cost of fuel in The Western Isles and the last figure I read was that petrol was £1.19 a litre (Stornoway Gazette 30th April). In many parts of middle England it's £1.12 a litre (not as cheap as you might think). My wife uses the car mainly to go to work and we spend about £50/£60 a month on petrol. We don't really expect to drive many more miles in Lewis and a quick calculation suggests that a fill-up might cost something like £3.22 extra a month. Hardly a shock! So how to make up that £36 a year? How about the Band B council tax and water rates there being £1091 whist we are paying £1410? And I see from the Comhairle website that there was no increase in council tax this year while ours went up by over 10%. I know that there are extra costs for fuel and food there but I am not sure that it is as economically gloomy as you seem to make out. Besides as we will no longer be able to shop in Waitrose our food bill will probably drop by half!The car/public transport argument doesn't stack up either. To travel the (under) 3 miles into Stafford and back on the bus costs £2.60 a day. Petrol costs £1.33 (free parking at place of work). To travel down (and back) to see my mother-in-law in Essex costs £56 in petrol whereas on the train it's over £90 for the two of us. Sure running a car is not cheap but neither is the myth of public transport.All in all I can't wait to save loads of money by moving there ;)

  5. My car cost me nothing (14 year old 106 cast off from my dad). I put £15 worth of petrol in it evey week. Insurance costs me less than £100 quid a year, and road tax for my wee motor isn't much more than that. Not too expensive, I'm sure you'll agree. And it's a rather fetching (and fairly unique) shade of minty blue.It goes, it's easy to fix (mostly!) it gets me to work on time, and gets me home again at a sensible time, which is more than I can say for public transport here. Sure, if I was willing to get into work half an hour earlier, and leave half an hour later and spend over £2 every day for the priviledge, I could ditch my car and take the bus into Stornoway every day. Which I don't see as a very attractive option.If you're willing not to drive a huge, inefficient, brand-new, high-insurance vehicle, driving a car can be the economically sensible option. And when you've kids to take to nursery a few miles away, it's the only one.