Saturday, January 16, 2010

Computer Shopping in Yongsan

After dithering for several weeks and investigating various options, I finally purchased a new laptop for home use. I decided to go with a Samsung Sens, though I variously considered models from LG, Sony and HP. Samsung has the best image as a durable and powerful Korean-made notebook; though LG is getting very good reviews for speed and performance, it is a relatively new player on the market and some of my Korean friends viewed it with skepticism. Samsung is said to have the best "AS" (After-Service), a Korean-English term for customer support.

In my search I first checked out English-language reviews of various products on the web, then tried shopping for them on Korean online shopping sites such as I quickly found most of the models advertised on US sites are not available (or have different names) on Korean sites. Also, many non-Korean brands such as Sony VAIO are considerably cheaper on US sites (by several hundred dollars for the same basic specs); I even considered buying from a US site despite the shipping costs. However, I tried in vain to find any online store that would ship to Korea; Amazon won't even ship to Hawaii; Compusa offered a long list of countries including Japan, but no Korea.

So I was resigned to buying in Korea. Navigating Korean sites was a challenge because of the sheer number of similar models available, as well as all the ads and extra garbage on the sites which slowed down my already over-burdened 5-year-old Toshiba (don't they know people shopping for new computers likely can't deal with that much bandwidth?!?). Also the typical PC available in Korea has way more spectacular graphics capability than I require; it is a market oriented towards hard-core gamers and people who intend to use their PC to watch TV and movies as well.

I might have bought online, but I felt the need to see and touch what I was buying. Also I suspect that if I had tried I would run into the obstacle of not having a jumin-teungnokseo (citizen registration number). This number is the bain of existence for many a foreigner living in South Korea. All Korean citizens have them from birth, whereas foreigners are given the deceptively similar but inferior foreign registration number. Any time you try to fill out an online form, pay for something digitally, or sign up for something like a gym membership or a library card, at some point in the application process you inevitably get asked for your citizen registration number. 95% of the time the system balks when you try to put in a foreign reg. number. Amusingly, the Korean customer service people often seem just as non-plussed as you are when they hit this obstacle. I wonder how much business Koreans lose every day by not having a more foreigner-friendly system. In this case, Japan definitely has the advantage; they are happy as long as you have a valid credit card number (though maybe as recently as 10 years ago there were Japanese sites which refused foreign cards).

So I went out on foot to do my shopping the old-fashioned way. I heard that E-marts have good deals on computers, but was disappointed with the small inventory of the two E-marts I went to. Eventually I ended up doing what I had been avoiding all along: I went to the Yongsan Electronics Market. This cluster of huge stores around Yongsan station has everything in electronics from high-end to budget to suspiciously marked-down used goods. I'd shopped there before several years ago for a voice recorder and remembered well how nervous I was talking to the store personnel. I was much more confident this time, at least linguistically. I enlisted my friend Hyerim to assist, and she did her level best to get the sales guys (they were all guys) to knock down the price.

The Samsung model I liked was a few ten-thousand won less than it was online, but they marked it down further if you paid in cash. So after deciding, we then had to go on an epic voyage around the Yongsan I'Park department store before we found an ATM that would allow me to withdraw enough cash. Again, this was much more difficult than it should have been in an area where people are bound to be needing cash all the time. But finally we succeeded and trekked back to our starting point, I with a big envelope of cash gripped nervously under my coat, Hyerim standing by ready to act the bodyguard.

The friendly salesman set up my computer then and there with an English version of Windows7. When I inquired if they sold an Office package, he said no, but they could install a "scratch version" if I wanted. Neither Hyerim nor I understood this term at first, but when he explained I realized this is the Korean-English phrase for free imitation programs like OpenOffice.

I probably could have gotten a better deal if I had searched longer on US websites, but so far I am happy with my decision and I don't want to hear about other brands for a while. Compared to my last computer, which was purchased in Japan's Akihabara electronic market, this one is rigged up like Fort Knox with every imaginable security and backup program. I don't know if this is because the Japanese environment is more trusting or because the world has just gotten a lot scarier. Probably both.

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