I started writing this post few months ago, when I switched from desktop computer to notebook/laptop (whatever you wish to call it). I used notebooks from time to time, but this time I’m going full…monty would that be applicable in this case? My old desktop - AthlonXP 2500+, 1GB RAM, SATA RAID0 7200rpm disks, Radeon9800 - is packed and awaits new owner.
This was far from easy decision to make and I thought about it for a very long time. Eventually, I decided that much higher cost of buying powerful laptop vs powerful desktop will be justified with increased versatility and freedom of movement. The laptop was bought in UK and it proved to be a real eye-opener regarding business practice of some of the IT shops in London. A fishy practice.
I live in Belgrade, Serbia’s capitol city. I was not born here though and my mom lives 300km south, in the small town of Pirot. Chances to go there are rare, due to high volume of work. It would be much easier if I could bring my work with me.
Until recently, I used shitty modem connection (ADSL finally arrived) and in Pirot I also only have modem connection. Some of the stuff I do would be done much quicker if I could get my computer somewhere where I have faster Internet connection (not viable with full tower case).
Using laptop as my main and only computer means that it should be blazing fast, durable and stable. I do web design / development work, but that does not mean just web server, editor and Photoshop. It’s IIS/ASP, Apache/PHP, Photoshop, MS SQL Server, MySQL, TopStylePro, virtual machines (through VMWare Player) and all kinds of auxiliary utilities. It also means DVD/CD read and write, movie play with 5.1 surround audio and music listening on external 5.1 speakers. It means bluetooth connections for my phone. And all the other things one could think of doing on the computer.
Important details was that I did not want to drag some large brick around. I toyed with idea of 17" laptop (since I would mostly be using it at home) but few company trips during which I either used 14" iBook G4 or 15" Dell Latitude D600 was enough to convince me against it. First it’s heavy. Second, bulky enough to not be able to open them in bus or plane seat.
Hence, 12-13" range. Which means small screen, possible lack of all required ports and high price. As designer, I need lots of desktop space. As movie fan, I need large screen to properly enjoy epic spectacles I’m into. Which naturally leads to external display, where I settled in on 23inchers which I still have not bought, which is another story.
Oh, the choice…
Here in Serbia, market offer for both high-class laptops and large monitors is close to non-existing. One can get HP, Dell, Asus and Fujitsu Siemens with hit and miss chance to buy some other brands. 90% of the models are the cheapest ones. There was no Sony, no Samsung, stronger Asus models in traces, few LGs which became obsolete by the time they finally appeared here. There are Apples too, for something like 30% higher price than in UK.
It’s really depressing, hence I waited for a chance to go abroad and buy there. It eventually happened in the first half of May when I went to UK on business, for 10 days. More than enough to lurk around, try out models and decide.
For months before, I scoured notebookreview.com and all other hardware sites looking for possible candidates. I can’t even remember for how much models I said “this is the one!” :), only to change my mind two days after. Eventually, I settled with Samsung X11, Asus W3J, LG T1, Sony SZ and…Apple MacBookPro. Oh, Apple…somewhere in the back of my mind, a dark force was calling me to switch. Reasonable part of me told me that Windows on Apple hardware is not ready for prime time yet, but the possibility to use both OSX and Win at the same time was really, really tempting. Even if it was above my screen size target.
So, naturally, I went to Apple Store on Regent Street and anchored at the MBPs. I first wanted to check the much publicized heat issue. Oh boy, was it easy to check - place your palm on top left corner of the keyboard and if you can keep them there for more than 15s, I salute you. Reviews was chock full about the high working temperatures of MBP, but this was just too much. I don’t really care if Apple thinks it to be normal or does they call MBP notebook computer and never a laptop - that thing is scorching.
So scratch Apple. After much checks and tries, I settled on Sony SZ1XP/C, a wonderful beast with some nasty tentacles, of which I already wrote.
Tottenham Court Road in London contains 40 or so IT shops and it’s a natural place to go when you want to buy or simply check the notebooks in person. I think I made at least 3-5 visits to each store, checking and re-checking my target notebooks. Although I initially wanted Samsung X11, somehow it did not lure into buying after hands-on tests. I don’t know exactly what, but I think that the fact it had worse spec than Sony SZ1 and plus being larger drove me off.
Thus I bought SZ1, with free 3-year business next-day warranty being thrown in by the salesman at MBA store. MBA…or Microworld 2000…or I have no idea. While the salesman was very helpful and the entire shopping was a pleasant experience, the stuff that happened later on added a really bad smell to it all.
Since I’m from outside EC, I’m eligible for VAT refund. In UK, that’s 17.5%, which is added to original price. In case of this purchase, that amount was something like £230. Salesman told me that there is an administrative charge of £10 - I got used to the fact that most shops in UK do this and which I classify as screwing the customer. I have already shopped in several UK stores, and I know for a fact that this admin charge is nothing but a way for them to retain some of that money - since few shops do return you entire amount.
VAT refund in UK is similar to any other country - you get a form where seller fills up details about the shopping + shop details. Then, when you go to the airport or leave UK any other way, you pay a short visit to HM Customs which stamps the form and you send it back to the shop by post, along with your details filled in. Sometimes the Customs officer keep the form and send it himself/herself. When it gets to the shop, they pay you back to your card.
I believe you noticed the subtle fact that you will receive the money based on business honesty of the shop. And that is where MBA shopping went fishy. Because money did not show up on my card account for the next 3 months.
As it happens, I made copies of the form before sending it and in August, when I went for another business trip, I brought the papers with me and visited the shop. I asked for the manager, showed the form and ask them what happened - did the form not arrived or there were other problems. The guy went to some other shop, returned after 10 minutes and told me to comeback in the morning, they will sort it out. Sounded fine.
In the morning, he walked me to nearby shop which I thought is the administrative office. Actually, it turned out to be a place where 5 different companies are located, one desk and few drawers. Here is where I started to think something unusual is happening. I thought that the form was lost in post (I sent it form Serbia) - but they actually pulled a very large register and located my original form. It did arrive but they simply filed it and forgot about it.
Second thing is that instead of mentioned £10 charge, they charged me 3.5% of the entire price (with VAT included) which turned to be £50! I complained about it, but the guy told me the salesman got it wrong in the first place. I thought about pushing that issue but realized I have no time to spend for it. He gave me the cheque and told me I can cash it in nearby Lloyds bank office. I went there and the clerk told me that it is personal cheque and that I can only put the money in my accont in the same bank, but I can’t receive cash. The MBA person knew very well that I could not use the cheque (as I can’t possibly open an account in the UK) but still gave me that.
After this, really pissed off, I went back to the shop and demanded to be payed in cash and not be walked around anymore. You should see the charade happening then. A new guy showed up, then he called another one, all three of them talked quietly and in a dialect (or language) I did not understood a single word of (it reminded me about Snatch scene when Brad Pitt’s gypsy character is speaking very fast and Turkish asks the other guy did you understand anything he said). After 6-7 minutes of this show, the first guy finally picked up an envelope and payed me in cash.
They actually counted on the fact that with enough fooling around I would give up.
After all this, I strongly recommend to stay out of MBA shops (although the receipt and the bag said Microworld 2000 - could be the same company). The way these people operate is very, very fishy. I wonder is there’s an office one could report such practices, because they are basically stealing the money. They should have payed the VAT to the state, but with my form properly filled and stamped they could keep the money and still say to the tax office (I don’t know its name in UK) look, we did pay it back through this.
The way VAT refund scheme works in UK really opens up such possibilities. It would be better if VAT refunds would always be given back at the airports, and the shops always pay the tax. Sadly, it is not the case.