--Alan Zisman

Watch out for fake chips and pricey toner
to avoid scams when buying new hardware

Buying a computer can be a pretty threatening experience at the best of times. There's the sense that by the time you get your new system out of the box, it's already obsolete.

To make matters worse, here are some outright scams and dangers to try and avoid.

* Some lower-performance Pentium II CPUs are being sold as higher-speed models. This involves resetting the speed of the 266-MHz CPU, replacing Intel's hologram on the CPU's cartridge and then selling it as a 300-MHz model for about $175 more.

Running the CPU above its rated speed will often work for a while, but isn't recommended for long-term use.

Most computers with these CPUs have been reported in Europe, but some have shown up in the U.S., as well as in Canada. This is a tough one for the user to detect, but if the price seems too good to be true, that may be the reason why.

German magazine c't broke the story, and offers a program that can often detect the scam: in English and German.

* Then there's the laser printer toner scam. Here, small businesses are being targeted by telemarketers claiming to represent Hewlett-Packard or other name-brand companies. The toner cartridges sent to the customer are actually recycled and refilled units rather than new ones.

But the real kicker comes with the bill, which tends to arrive much later, after the cartridges have already been installed. The price tag is often as much as 500 per cent of the cost of legitimate, new units.

In some cases, one company employee is offered "free cartridges," while an invoice is then sent to the company's accounts payable department, on the often justified assumption that the two people involved don't communicate and the (wildly inflated) invoice will be paid without question.

According to HP Canada, a Toronto church lost $10,000 on that one -- an amount that should have provided them with toner cartridges for the next 250 years for their single laser printer. And a public school in Nova Scotia was repeatedly billed for one cartridge at 15 times the regular price.

Retail prices for laser printer toner cartridges range from $90 to $175 depending on model. Recycled cartridges cost about 70 per cent of new prices. Be wary of any offers that want to charge significantly less -- or significantly more.

* This one's not quite a scam, but still something to avoid: Intel's new Celeron CPU. This is being marketed for the booming low-priced market segment, and the Celeron, based on Intel's higher-end Pentium-II technology, comes at an attractive price. But because it leaves out the memory-cache of the real Pentium-II models, performance is poor -- on some tests, poorer than for last year's plain Pentium models.

Competitors' models, such as AMD's K6 CPU, provide much better performance at the same low price. Intel is expected to add a memory cache to the next generation of Celerons near the end of the year. Until then, avoid them.

* The newly resurgent Apple got a lot of publicity in early May when it previewed iMac, a model aimed at the low-priced market.

Futuristic styling, translucent case, a mouse that lights up: the look has been compared to the new VW Beetle, though the teardrop shape reminds me more of a Filter Queen vacuum cleaner.

With a fast processor, a usable software bundle, and Universal Serial Bus and Ethernet networking built-in, in many ways it looks like a nice package for its $1,900 price. Less commented on, however, is what's not there: The iMac lacks such Macintosh standards as serial ports, SCSI adapters and a floppy drive.

Presumably, by the time it actually ships in August, there will be printers and a version of the LS-120 removable disk that will work with the iMac's Universal Serial Bus, but that will add to the price and make it a less usable machine right out of the box.

I suppose some people never use their floppy drive. Even though it's antique technology, I find I use it almost daily. A decade ago, Steve Jobs deliberately left out the floppy drive on the original NeXT computer. The company corrected that with the second version of the hardware. I hope that history will repeat itself with iMac version 2.

* And just in case you thought you could relax, if you're feeling like you don't need to worry about the Year 2000 crisis, the Year 2038 is just around the corner.

In this scenario, programs run on Unix computers will expire on January 20, 2038, resetting themselves to 01/01/1970.

Sounds far off, but with financial institutions trying to deal with 30-year mortgages, problems will start arising as early as 2008, pretty much right after finally cleaning up the last vestiges of the Year 2000 mess. The Bank of Montreal, for example, is starting to work on the problem now.

Then again, they started working on the Year 2000 problem way back in 1975.*

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan