Low End Theory: Vulture or Saint?


By Brendan I. Koerner

As previously discussed in this space, I tend to hold onto my electronics 'til they're pretty outmoded—why shell out $430 for the latest LG handset when my dinky Samsung is still kicking, albeit only barely? I'd rather spend the cash on a couple of these, and still have enough left over for a case of Ommegang.

But even for the most tight-fisted among us, there comes a day when the smart move is to bid auf Wiedersehen to the products that have served us so long, so well. In my case, I've finally realized that my Mesozoic Era iMac G3 (700 Mhz processor, 256 megs of RAM) can no longer hold its own. It was fun while it lasted, for sure, but the handwriting's on the wall—with some tasty MacBook Pros about to hit the sales bin (or so I've heard), the time seems right for an upgrade.

So now I'm facing that most inescapable of geek quandaries: what to do with the heavy-as-sin, dinosaured desktop that's now cluttering my office. Yes, I realize that the right thing to do is donate the behemoth. But us cheapskates, our first thought is always, Can I squeeze a little cash out of this? And so I've lately been weighing the pros and cons of selling a past-its-prime hunk of electronic goodness. The big calculation that needs to be made (with your help): Is it really worth the trouble? PLUS: Beta test my new site, win a prize!

The first step in any gadget-selling exercise is to determine the product's value. But that's harder than it sounds—comp prices are all over the price, and you've also got to factor in the role played by software. (For example, my iMac's got Photoshop and Illustrator on it.) After much mulling, however, I determined that I wouldn't be out of the ballpark to ask $125 for the iMac—perhaps a little high, given that the 700 MHz model was discontinued about five years ago, but the Adobe software should be valuable to a budding artist or designer, right? (I won't tell them that it runs slow-as-molasses on that creaky processor.)

Now comes the really tricky part: determining the best sales venue. When you're dealing with margins this thin, eBay is sorta out of the question—the iMac weighs nearly 35 pounds, making it prohibitively expensive to ship. That limits my potential customer base to locals—good thing I live in New York City. And good thing my current hometown has such an active Craigslist community—that seems like the natural place to start.

I sold my now-wife's craptacular Dell desktop via Craigslist a few years ago. There are basically two types of customers who haunt Craigslist in search of such electronic dreck: moms looking for baby's first computer, and the sorts of rabid geeks whose basements are cluttered with dismembered motherboards. As long as they're paying in cash, I'm happy to deal with either stereotype.

The downside to Craigslist, however, are the undercutters—sellers who don't do their homework, quote ridiculously low prices, and then nab your customers. As of this writing, for example, there's a $30 G3 on sale from a dude who lives in my exact neighborhood. I have to compete with that? Also, there's always the threat of meeting a creep: I once sold a disk drive to a guy who later e-mailed me to ask (how do I put this gently?) whether I was interested in purchasing some R. Kelly-themed videos from him. Ewwww—talk about violating the seller-buyer relationship.

Aside from Craigslist, then, I can only see two other options: posting fliers at a coffeehouse, or going the yard sale route. Don't scoff at the latter—at a stoop sale I held last August, I sold an analog four-track recorder for $25. But, honestly, my odds of getting an off-the-street customer to shell out $100-plus for an iMac are pretty thin.

Low End Theory: Vulture or Saint?

Which brings me back to the charity option. I'm no accountant, but the IRS rules seem to allow you to deduct the "fair market value" of your computer. I'd assume&mdash:assume!—that means I could write-off more than the $125 value I initially estimated, given the presence of Photoshop and Illustrator on the iMac's hard drive. (You can actually pay $3.99 to get your machine's Orion Blue Book value, in case you're really neurotic about being 100 percent honest with the tax man.)

Oh, yeah, and by donating the iMac to charity, I could also give myself a nice, long pat on the back for finally living up to my saintly namesake in some small way.

But to paraphrase an oft-repeated line from the underrated Idiocracy, I like money. So I'm still up in the air on this one—is it worth the hassle to squeeze a last $100 out of my fading iMac, or should I be happy with a teensy tax write-off and some minor psychic rewards? Ball's in your court, oh brothers and only friends. Please leave your advice in comments, or connect one-on-one.

TEST FOR PRIZES: I'd like to use this column's last throes to formally announce the launch of my personal site: Youthrobber.com. It's pretty basic at the moment, with updates on my other writing endeavors, links to past stories, and pictures from my book research trip to the Indo-Burmese border.

It also has some bugs—including some thorny caching issues—which I'd appreciate some feedback on. Let me know what's wrong and you can win a free copy of Best of Technology Writing 2006, edited by yours truly. Come on, how can you resist?

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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