APCUG April Articles


1. My Favorite E-Mail Program by Sigrid Foreman, Tyler  Computer Club email sigrid@tyler.net

2. As Bold As Seybold, by Ron Feiertag.  This one is a bit long.  Ron is an interesting writer.  

3. The Plain Truth about Casual Software Piracy, by Matt Slot, Ambrosia Software.  Here's a fascinating article about piracy and how it affects a  small software firm.  

4. Shopping Tips for Internet Shopaholics  Byline: By Steve Bass, Pasadena IBM Users Group  


1.      My Favorite E-Mail Program  by Sigrid Foreman, Tyler Computer Club email sigrid@tyler.net


Many of us use e-mail on a daily basis and we use different e-mail  programs depending on what we want from it.  Here are a few that are  available.  


Free Programs...such as Juno do not require you to have an internet  account with anyone.  They simply let you send and receive e-mail  (including attachments) without any internet surfing.   This means that  you have no monthly or hourly charge to worry about.  


E-mail programs that require an Internet account. this is what most of  use, be it thru providors like AOL, Prodigy, MSN or an independent  internet providor such as Gower, Ballistic, Flashnet, Cox-Internet etc..  where you would use programs such as Outlook Express, Netscape  Messenger, Eudora or my favorite Incredimail.  


http://www.incredimail.com/  Many of you have not heard of it, and I would like to take this  opportunity to speak a little about it.  Incredimail is provided to you  free of charge...unless you choose to get the full program ($29), which  basically provides support (which I have used and is pretty good) and  allows you to preview your messages on the server prior to you  downloading them.  It comes with a demo program of Letter Creators  (you're allowed to make 1-3 letters before you have to purchase the full  version at $39...or get both for the price of $49).  IM offers you  e-cards, letter backgrounds, sounds and animation that you can add to  personalize your e-mail. It also come with an mail notifier   (of your  choice) which will tell you when you have new mail.  You can even make  your own handwritten signature to add to your mail.  


The thing I like about Incredimail (IM) is that I have such a large  variety of letter backgrounds to choose from that I can add to  personalize my e-mails.  Besides the basic ones that come standard in  the program, there are many more backgrounds, e-cards, animation and  sounds that can be added (all free of charge) without having to make  your own...if you're not talented enough like me...by going to  Incredimails's multimedia web gallery, or to one of the many IM websites  where you can find a variety of all of these plus help with problems you  may encounter.  These sites also list other sites where you can learn  how to make your own backgrounds using either Letter Creator or using a  different program such as Paint Shop Pro.  


One of the IM letter sites I went to  (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/A_S-A-F-E_Place/) offers a link to  tutorial classes at http://enchanted1designs.com/abcs/about.html that  have at least 2 tutorial links every week for the following subjects:  psp (paint shop pro), eye candy (plug-in for psp), blade pro (plug-in  for psp), sig tags, making letters for LC/Incredimail & 20/20. Classes  last for 8 weeks & have a top limit of 30 "students" per class. The  owners of this tutorial site, Becky & Candy, said,  "We have had great  success with the classes so far & have high hopes of it's continuous  success!"  Hey... If I'm in the class, they can't be bad.right???  So  check it out!!  


Ok, some people (I won't mention any names Wayne) don't like me to use  this program because it takes a little longer to download than a  standard e-mail, but at least I don't use sound which DOES take a long  time to due to the midi or wav file attachment... All you have to  remember is that the more you add to an e-mail, the longer it will take  to download.  If someone does not like receiving these "stationary"  e-mails, ask them to let you know and you can then select a "no  background" and they will receive a standard e-mail with a white  background.  Most people do not mind that it takes a little longer since  there are so many neat backgrounds or sidebars (including your own  pictures) that can be seen and that they can "snag" or add to their own  collection just by viewing yours.  


One thing about e-mail programs, you **do** have a few choices. you do  not have to stay with the default selection that is given you.  Use your  imagination. use it in color. use it with pictures...it's all up to  you!!  


There is no restriction against any non-profit group  using the article  as long as it is kept in context, with proper credit given to the  author.  This article is brought to you by the Editorial Committee of  the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG), an  International organization to which this user group belongs.  


2.      As Bold As Seybold, by Ron Feiertag  


Holding a major computer show in America two weeks after the attacks of  September 11th was bold, but Seybold was never known for timidity.  Seybold is widely known as the conference and expo to visit for previews  of new products and insights on trends concerning web, print, and  cross-media publishing.  Extra security was understandably on hand for  this event in San Francisco, but it was reassuring, not troubling,  because it provided both safety and peace of mind.  


Someone from the management team at the Seybold Summit said "We really  didn't know what to expect this week.  We were really pleased with the  turnout, given the circumstances."  Then he began a discussion of how  publishers and their production teams covered the tragedy in New York.  The ability of the people at CBS MarketWatch to quickly rise to the  occasion merited special praise.  


Seybold showed its heart with one final gesture in remembrance of the  recent traumatic events on the east coast: it displayed two huge  postcards addressed to the people of New York City, care of Mayor Rudi  Giuliani, and they encouraged attendees to use magic markers to record  our sentiments there in various colors.  People at the expo wrote many  comments including "Our prayers and thoughts are with you" and "We will  design a new future and build it together."  


Adobe Systems is a good friend of computer user groups.  Its President  and CEO, Bruce Chizen, made an impressive keynote speech where he  observed that the events of the last couple of weeks made the need for  global communities across borders more important than ever.  He and his  staff showed us how Adobe products, such as Adobe Illustrator 10,  continue to improve.  He mentioned that more than one million copies of  the Acrobat Reader for the Palm operating system have been downloaded.  He also discussed how we can be inspired once and publish many times by  repurposing content.  


Months before their event, Seybold's boldness could be seen in the  futuristic images of cartoon-like icons that illustrated everything that  they printed about this conference.  People attending Seybold could  choose to attend any one of three or more sessions that took place at  the same time during the five days of this conference.  They ranged from  topics as bold as "Learning from Pornography" to "Integrating Flash and  Fireworks with Dreamweaver", "Design Convergence in the Multiple-Media  World" and "Putting the 'Eye' in Interface: Effective and Beautiful  Interface Design".  


The session titled "How to Find Where You're Bleeding Money" began with  the moderator asking us to "speak with and introduce yourself to someone  next to you."  That proved to be a good way to begin a lecture.  The  answer to the session topic was to map the steps in your company's  process, identify the costs of each step, standardize when possible, and  look for improvements that could be made at each stage to reduce costs  and prevent problems.  Then the speaker went into greater detail to  explain and illustrate what each of these steps involves.  Another interesting session had the title "There's No 'You' in 'User':  Tools and Tactics for User Centered Design".  The speaker suggested that  web designers try to occupy their user's mind and ask themselves "what's  my motivation?"  Describe your typical user including his or her name,  appearance, and background.  Interview some of your users in a focus  group to find out what they are looking for.  Their wants could be  wizards, lots of icons, Boolean searches, a command line interface,  large typefaces, floating tool palettes, or other useful features.  Document your research.  See people in their working context: are they  fully focused or do they get interrupted often?  Interviewers asked a  beautician how many different ways does she hold a brush.  She said two,  but a videotape showed that she held it five different ways.  Then tell  a story to your clients with images.  And realize that what motivates a  purchase decision is often different from what results in end user  satisfaction.  


I also attended the session titled "Selecting the Right Content for Your  Audience".  We were urged to be customer-centric and ask "What does my  customer want or need?"  A customer wants you to improve his life by  satisfying some of his needs, and respect his time by providing an  experience that is faster, simpler, and more convenient, and save him  money.  If you show a potential customer that you can do these things,  you will move him from awareness to evangelism.  Then there is the  problem of how to "monetize your customer".  An online encyclopedia  could allow microtransactions where you could look up an article after  you pay for it with a micropayment, but they said that the technology to  allow this to happen is not here yet.  Napster provided music and  enjoyment to millions of people, but a judge put Napster out of business  because not enough money changed hands.  When they saw the  "Napsterization of music", movie companies were afraid that the same  thing could happen to films.  Considering that a single movie,  "Titanic", earned more than two billion dollars worldwide, movie studios  have a lot at stake.  Their solution for now is to use a DVD (digital  video disk) with encryption and copy protection.  The studios are  working on solutions that would allow them to provide video on demand  without their risking unauthorized copying of their content.  


Here are highlights of some of the many companies that participated in  the Expo.  Corel demoed some of its products, including the CorelDRAW  Graphics Suite.  This Suite provides vector illustration, layout, bitmap  creation, image-editing, painting and animation software all in one  package.  It includes Corel R.A.V.E., which stands for real animated  vector effects.  In a class that they gave us, we used it to create  graphic effects that changed over time.  Different cool things happened  on screen at different times, based on what we did with this software's  timelines.  


Cannon, Epson, Hewlett-Packard, and Ricoh were some of the companies  whose booths featured their own printers.  Cannon had a selection of  samples that were being printed from its wide format printer.  ContentGuard is a digital rights management system supported by Xerox,  Microsoft and Accenture.  It provides a way to design, manage and  deliver content while protecting intellectual property from piracy. It  is promoting XrML as a digital rights language that will allow  interoperability between systems.  I guess you could call this hardware: Mercedes Benz had eight models of  cars in the expo hall.  They were there to call attention to the  computers inside their cars.  We were told that if your Mercedes is  stolen from you, call them and they will locate the vehicle for you  using the car's global positioning system and other technology.   Connectix had crossplatform solutions.  Its Virtual PC software allows  the Mac to run software that was designed to be run on the Windows  operating system.  


Microsoft promoted Publisher, its desktop publishing solution.  


San Francisco State University was there to showcase its multimedia  training programs.  


Copyright Clearance Center serves as a middle man to license and sell  the content of other authors and companies.  Printing on demand allows  the continued availability of titles that were backlisted or out of  print.  


A Digital Art Gallery displayed the work of people who used computers to  create art.  I was most impressed by a work titled "Drive Tray" by Bonny  Lhotka.  It was printed using a Greytag Lightjet and it had a 3D  hologram-like appearance.  You can see her "Art At The Edge" at  http://www.lhotka.com.  


People attending this conference enjoyed the pleasures of Club Seybold,  a special area that included computers that we could use to access our  e-mail accounts, sofas, music, an air hockey game, a pool table, and a  free massage.  During the massage we could reflect on what we learned at  this conference and contemplate SeyboldSF2002, which is scheduled for  September 9 through September 13, 2002 in San Francisco, California.    


3.       The Plain Truth about Casual Software Piracy  Byline: by Matt Slot, Ambrosia Software  Subhead: Here's a fascinating article about piracy and how it affects a  small software firm.  


It's a rare day when a shareware programmer gets firm statistics  on the  extent of software piracy, but just recently, I got that  chance.  


You see, the company I work for--Ambrosia Software--writes and  publishes shareware--software that encourages users to make lots  of  copies and share them with friends. It works like this: we  write a game  or utility and make it available for download and on  low-cost CD, so  you can install it and try it out for a while-- kick the tires and drive  it around the block a few times, so to  speak. If you like it, you can  buy the product; if not, just  delete it or pass the CD on to someone  else. http://www.ambrosiasw.com  


We make money, and stay in business, by selling software that competes  with commercial products for quality and entertainment value, while  remaining priced so that it doesn't stretch the pizza-and-beer budget of  the average college student. There's no bait-and-switch going on: you  get a fair chance to try out the product and decide if your $25 could be  better spent elsewhere. We think our software is competitive--$25 will  cover a burger run and movie ticket for about three hours entertainment,  but a good game can entertain you for days or weeks--and we won't make  you watch Jar Jar Binks.  


A few years back, Ambrosia's software was distributed on the honor  system. You could download the software and use it forever, scot- free  except for the friendly reminders that you had the software for 1,500  days and still hadn't beaten level 6. This was obviously a big leap of  faith on our part, but it built up an almost cult following among Mac  users. What we lost in sales, we made up in good will. As a business  model, the honor system wasn't ideal, but it certainly was idealistic,  and it helped put Ambrosia's founder, Andrew Welch, through college and  kept Ambrosia's employees supplied with pizza and beer. (I think there's  a law of conservation at work there.)  


This was all fine and good--except that eventually Andrew graduated and  everyone else got sick of pizza and beer. Ambrosia grew from an  interesting sideline into a full time place of employment. The company  became an entity with its own purpose, its own office space, and its own  gravitational pull. It also developed an insatiable appetite for cash,  because as any MBA will tell you, the lifeblood of business is green.  


This period of growth and rampant consumption was constrained only by  the limited diet afforded by the generosity and honesty of others.  Basically, money was tight. One way we encouraged users to pay for the  game Escape Velocity was to introduce the character of Captain Hector,  who would remind (and eventually harass) players who were still  unregistered after an extended period of play. When we compared sales of  Escape Velocity to those our previous products, it became apparent that  either pizza and beer had become a lot more expensive or that some  people needed an extra nudge--such as from Captain Hector--to do the  right thing and pay up.  


Locking the Front Door  Shortly after I joined the Ambrosia team, Andrew forwarded me an article  that illustrated the benefits of crippling software. In short, the  author of a shareware program found that people were five times more  likely to register and unlock a crippled version of his software than  they were to register software that came fully functional from the  outset. It was the final straw in our camel-breaking, decision-making  process. We would still make shareware, but we would no longer stand  there waiting for handouts on the street--we'd charge admission.  http://hackvan.com/pub/stig/articles/why  -do-people-register-shareware.html  


Let me tell you, we heard about it. Many who had praised us for our  idealism were now calling us sellouts. It didn't matter that little  changed for our paying customers--they still got their codes quickly,  and had unlimited access to the game--it was the principle of the thing.  Okay, it was a little inconvenient if you'd lost your code or wanted to  install it on your new Power Mac 7500, but we could resolve that quickly  in response to a phone call or an email.  


I mean, we like being cool and fair, but even a cult following can get  tiresome (cultists don't shower, they track in mud, and they leave you  to pick up the check). Besides, the mantra kept repeating in our heads:  five times as many registrations, five times, five times. I don't think  it ever was quite that good for us, but we definitely saw an increase in  sales that helped Ambrosia weather some tough times. (No, we never  actually ran out of pizza, but there were times when we had to mop up  spilled beer with borrowed rolls of toilet paper.) It was a hard  decision, but it was a business decision, and it turned out to be the  right one.  


Time passed. Our staff continued to grow and evolve, and my wife and I  begat our son Luke. Nothing brings home how untenable your professional  and financial situation is like having a family. When it was just my  wife and I, we could fool ourselves into thinking that we were just coed  roommates living on a college budget--but no more. Pizza and beer had  given way to diapers and life insurance.   Diapers and Life Insurance 


So I'm working for this shareware company, and I want to make sure that  my job is secure. You have to understand that even a 10 percent variance  in Ambrosia's registrations means that someone may need to start  checking the employment classifieds. At the same time, it's becoming  more evident that people aren't just not paying for our  software--they're actually going out of their way to share license codes  with others over the Internet. Some ingenious folks have even  reverse-engineered our software and figured out how to generate their  own license codes.  


We don't live with our heads in the sand. We knew what was happening.  The Internet was the great facilitator of homework assignments and world  peace, but it had also become a way for people to get registration codes  for any software they wanted. We felt action was required, but we  remembered the trauma of our last change in policy when we required  people to register the software instead of just asking nicely.  


So over the course of numerous lunches (many of which didn't include  pizza or beer, but did involve some yummy sandwiches from Arby's), we  discussed various ways for improving the whole registration system from  our standpoint without making the process onerous for our loyal  customers. Simplicity was the keyword. The final piece of the technical  puzzle fell into place one weekend as I drove through Canada, when I  recalled a bit of algebra that would make our license code algorithm  quite secure without violating any treaties or munitions bans.  


When I finally contacted Andrew, I said to him one word: polynomials.   The blank look on his face continued for a long time as I explained how  we could factor the serial numbers, secure our products, and even  distribute codes that would expire and stop working when exposed to  prolonged sunlight. With his grudging consent, we sketched out and  implemented the first pass at the "new Ambrosia registration system."   The fundamental change we made was to build the current date into the  license code itself. That timestamp is then used at just one point in  the process: it forces the user to activate the product within 30 days,  or the code expires and won't activate anything, Now, and this is  important, the timestamp has absolutely no effect on the operation of  the software after the code has been entered. Once personalized for the  user's computer, it remains fully functional forever (unless someone  wipes the system clean).  


Snapz Pro X  The first product to use the new registration system was the latest  version of our flagship utility, Snapz Pro X, which started shipping in  June of 2001. Over the course of the summer, the system silently and  steadfastly worked as intended. Most people didn't care that the license  codes were now 12 digits instead of 8, and registrations continued  apace. It wasn't until September that we received any negative feedback.  http://www.snapzpro.com  


You see, in September Apple upgraded Mac OS X to version 10.1, and many  people were paranoid enough to reformat and perform a clean install.  That meant the data file containing the software registration was lost,  forcing most people to reenter their license codes. It also meant that  anyone whose serial number was generated before August needed to contact  us by phone or email to get an updated code. Of course, these people had  paid already, so we renewed their codes quickly and free of charge.  


It's been our experience that people are often too busy or forgetful to  store their license codes in a safe place, so it's inevitable that every  major system release is followed by a barrage of requests for missing  codes. To handle the tremendous load of people who had misplaced their  codes (as well as those who saved them only to find they had expired),  we created an email address--lostcodes@ambrosiasw.com--dedic ated to  generating new codes. When Joe User entered the expired code, he was  prompted to send us an email (it required only a click), and someone  would respond to the request as soon as possible. Yet we were  constrained by the laws of time, space, and the New York State  Department of Labor, so our staff was available to answer requests only  during regular business hours.  


After several customer complaints, we decided to remedy this problem by  automating the process of renewing an expired code. When an expired code  is entered for Snapz Pro X, the user is encouraged to request a new  license code from our automated server--right then and there! Renewing  the code takes only two extra clicks, maybe an extra 30 seconds overall,  but it puts the power back in the hands of the user. He can decide when  to update his system, install software, and renew his license code at  his leisure. Even at midnight just before a four-day weekend.  


So you are probably curious about the benefits of expiring codes--why  would anyone want this hassle? Let's look at the three categories. For  paying customers with an Internet connection, the extra work is minimal:  an email sent to Ambrosia that's answered within one business day. For  those organized enough to save their original codes, there isn't even a  wait: they get the code on the spot. The only inconvenience comes to  those people trying to enter a pirated code.  


Which brings us back to the question, "How many people are using pirated  codes?" The plain fact is that most people are honest unless given a  chance to be dishonest. If they stumble across a working license code  for software, or do a quick Internet search, then they can quickly enter  the code and cover their self-loathing with the adrenaline rush of  blasting aliens and squishing fish. Only the most hard-core computer  user will try to reverse-engineer the software and crack the copy  protection--and I'll be honest, there's isn't much we could do to stop  them. Crackers enjoy the challenge itself--the tougher the better--so if  they want it badly enough, they'll find a way.  


Historically it's been difficult to measure software piracy, but our  experience is that the vast majority of users lack the time or  inclination to modify software to bypass license checks. Here's the rub:  these users might actually buy the software if it weren't so easy to  find pirated codes. Thus, expiring codes are a good way to defeat (or at  least hamper) this kind of casual piracy--the serial numbers stored in  databases and posted to the Internet are viable only for a short while  before they must be renewed.   Ironically, it's these casual pirates who are helping me measure the  impact of piracy on our sales.  


You see, to renew a stolen code, Joe User must contact a computer in our  office. There's nothing nefarious about it--he sends us the user name  and expired code and gets back a new license code or a suitable error  message. We don't encrypt the data, we don't grab any personal  information, and we don't even open a connection without explicit  permission. But when Joe User clicks that bright shiny Renew button, our  server records the product, user name, and the Internet address he came  from.  


For the first two days after we posted the latest update to Snapz Pro X,  our server was busy. Of the 194 different hosts that tried to renew a  license code, 107 of them sent in pirated codes (click the URL below to  view a screenshot of an actual server log file; the entries highlighted  in red are attempts to authenticate pirated license codes). Incredibly,  more than 50 percent of the people installing the update entered one or  both of the pirated codes we've known about for months.  


Some of these people even tried several different variants on the names  when the server refused them access ("maybe I misspelled it"), and one  guy got so frustrated he pounded the Renew button over and over every  four seconds ("WHY _click_ IS _click_ THIS _click_ NOT _click_  WORKING???") until our server blacklisted him for flooding.  http://www.tidbits.com/resources/620/pir ate_log_red.gif  


You don't have to remind us that the sample isn't statistically valid.  Nevertheless we think it's a reasonable approximation of reality--if not  a little conservative. It certainly reinforces our perception that  casual piracy is both significant and widespread.  


Hopes for the Future  Maybe I didn't look these people in the eye, but they know I'm watching  them. They indicated a real interest in our software when they thought  they could use it for free, and this gives me hope that some may yet  decide that registering is easier and more satisfying than stealing our  hard work. If not, then either they were forced to stop using the  software or they'll likely encounter me again, somewhere down the road.  Next time, I'll bring Captain Hector.  


I also hope this article explains to our customers (and other computer  users out there) the impact that piracy has on small software firms like  ours. I hope they can appreciate our decisions regarding the  registration system and agree that the extra 30 seconds and two clicks  are a minor inconvenience. If everyone pays for the products they like  and use, companies like Ambrosia can stay in business and continue  making cool products for everyone to enjoy.  


Finally, I hope that these changes give me a little more job security,  so I can continue doing what I love with some of the coolest folks I've  ever met. Because I plan on working here as long as I possibly can,  making great software and saving enough money so my kids can eventually  go to college, where they can enjoy their share of beer and pizza.  


Reprinted with permission of the author. Matt Slot has worked for  Ambrosia for nearly five  years, but life isn't just fun and games for  the Bitwise Operator. When he's not calculating polynomials and fighting  off pirates, Matt enjoys reading a good book (Terry Pratchett), watching  a  little television (24), and playing with his two kids (Luke and  Kaleigh). You can reach Matt at fprefect@ambrosiasw.com or visit the  Ambrosia Software site at www.AmbrosiaSW.com. This article originally  appeared in TidBits, a Mac newsletter. (www.tidbits.com/tb-issues)    


4.      Shopping Tips for Internet Shopaholics  Byline: By Steve Bass, Pasadena IBM Users Group   


Last month I described my experience spending over $150 to save about $4  on vitamins I bought on the Internet. This column takes care of the  other side of the story: Tips on tackling the problems of Internet  buying.  


Fighting the Free Syndrome  How much do you make an hour? If you're clocking more than, say, $5 an  hour, don't waste your time hunting for discounts that come and go. The  worst ones to try finding are free shipping or $10 off with your first  order. A better strategy? If you bump into an offer from Half.com, say,  and you're in the market for a bunch of used books, it's a slam-dunk.  Otherwise, don't bother tracking them down.  


Factor in Shipping  Paying attention to shipping costs may seem obvious, but there are  variables to consider. You might think you'll save on shipping by  choosing a site that charges a flat fee for shipping no matter how many  items you purchase. That's likely true unless the site's products are  inflated to cover the shipping costs. With some items--vitamins, for  instance--that's not such a big deal as most sites charge a flat $4.95  for standard shipping. (One exception, though, is AdvanceRX; they charge  a flat fee of $3 for the entire order, and the product pricing is lower  than other drug sites.)  


Listen to Users  The wealth of opinions on the Net is overwhelming and you need to tap  into it before making any major purchase. There are two spots I listen  in on, are useful in its own way. First try the newsgroups and do it  using the Google.com search engine. When I was interested in a  camcorder, I typed "Panasonic Camcorder" into the Google search field  and clicked on Groups. Google will provide a list of groups that contain  the two words. It's a little daunting from here because you'll face at  least 10 groups. Choose the one that's closest to your search. For  instance, "Humanities" (Fine art, literature, philosophy) and "Misc"  (Employment, health) won't fit while "Comp" (Hardware, software,  consumer info) sure will.  


You'll then see a dozen or more sub-groups belonging to Comp, each with  a green bar showing the likely hits in the groups. Type "Panasonic  Camcorder" into the field again and choose "Search only in comp."  


The dilemma, as you'll soon find out, is there's a lot to sort through  in order to find the recommendations and discussion you're looking to  read.  


The other spot I really like is Epinions.com. It's filled with people  like us providing their observations and experiences with products.  Don't be put off by thinking these are just willy-nilly opinions.  Granted, some are, but most people are careful and thorough in their  reports, few seem to have an ulterior motive, and those that do are easy  to spot.  


Try Epionions by typing, "Choosing an Air Conditioner" into the search  field. Scroll down to "Member Advice" and you'll get a sense of what  Epionions offers. Better, search for an item you're very familiar with  and see what others have to say.  


Make those Comparisons  You're crazy if you shop on the Internet without using a price  comparison site. There are many available, and here's a sampling:  

** Mysimon.com 

** Dealtime.com 

** Pricingcentral.com 

** Bizrate.com 

** Smartshop.com 

** BuyBuddy.com  


If you're wondering which sites I use regularly, take a gander at some  of my favorites:  

** Pricescan.com: A neat site with an assortment of ways to search for  products and spots to purchase the item. The site does an exemplary job  at digging up pricing for a myriad of products including for books,  computers, office equipment, home and garden, and other categories.  

** DestinationRX.com: Does a remarkable job at neatly displaying a grid  with product, vendor, price, estimated shipping, and total cost. Great:  Sorting by column-cost or price-is easy, and getting details about the  vendor is a click away. Not so hot: "Total Cost field" doesn't take into  account price per unit, so comparing a bottle of 100 60milligram  vitamins with the same bottle of 100mg vitamins isn't accurate.  


Canada.rx: A member of another user group told me about Canada.rx. She  said, "I thought you might be interested in this solution for  prescription drugs. A friend is diabetic and has who knows what else.  His doctor faxes his prescriptions and he receives a package a few days  later with no hassle from the post office. (His only real difficulty lay  in convincing his doctor to send the fax and that only had to be done  once.) His credit card is charged approximately one-third the price he'd  pay locally. I asked him for the URL and this is his response:  


`It's CanadaRx. No www, no .com, nothing but CanadaRx. They keep  changing the entry screens, making it sometimes difficult to find the  screen one wants. But it's all there. All that's needed in patience.  Persistence helps some too.'"  


I checked and the prices really are substantial lower than most discount  pharmacies.  

** Pricewatch.com: This site has been around the longest and provides a  fast, convenient way to find the best prices on computing hardware.  

** Addall.com: Think Amazon has the best prices in town? Nope. Half.com,  BooksAMillion.com, and others often beat Amazon. The saving are enough  that it makes using Addall.com a must every time you shop for books.  

** PCworld.pricegrabber.com: I'm a little biased here, so pardon my  conflict-of-interest for a minute, and try PCWorld's Product Finder.  Primarily hardware, software, and electronics, it gives you a way to  find products, and check and compare their prices. Three things I like  better here than the other sites: I can easily track a product, watching  for price changes, just by supplying my e-mail address. Next, if the  product's been reviewed by PC World, one click gets me to the article.  Finally, the site gives me access to the full spec sheet of the product,  something I find invaluable.  

** Cnet's shopper.cnet.com: Does a decent job with hardware and software  but only so-so for consumer electronics. It's sometimes difficult  separating ads from product reviews.   


Steve Bass is a Contributing Editor with PC World and runs the Pasadena  IBM Users Group. He's also a founding member of APCUG Write to him at  Steve_bass@pcworld.com. Check PCW's current edition at  http://www.pcworld.com/resource/toc/index.asp and sign up for the Steve  Bass online newsletter at www.pcworld.com/bass_letter.