We sometimes get questions related to cost; some remain open and some are closed. But especially the ones that are closed lead to arguments in the comments because there is a gray area where cost isn't well defined as to whether it's an on-topic subject. This question is an attempt to elicit community input to provide more clarification on the context in which cost is an on-topic subject.

There has been Meta discussion on "cost", and variants of it, as a tag. That has consistently been treated as not a tag topic. The gist of the logic is that the site focuses on technical issues. If someone has a technical problem to solve and cost is a constraint or criterion, they can add that to the description in the question. Our subject matter experts are experts on the technical topic, not experts primarily in cost. So cost, as a consideration in a technical issue, isn't excluded if the subject of the question is the technical issue.

But what if cost is the technical issue? That's where the grey area comes in.

  • We have occasionally had questions like this one from five years ago (recently reactivated with additional answers), that asked why a CPU costs more than RAM. Our subject matter experts know that the explanation is entirely in the technical realm, and within their area of expertise. It attracted several downvotes but was never closed.
  • This Meta question almost five years ago asked about the closure of a question concerning the relative costs of workstation graphics cards vs. consumer graphics cards. The question focused on, and speculated about, technical reasons. That one was closed by a moderator and reopened by the community. The rationale for reopening was that it could be answered by the community.
  • This recent question asks why DVI KVM's are 10x more expensive than VGA KVMs. The question, itself, implies that the reason is likely not mostly technical factors. That one is currently closed.

These questions are all similar in that they ask about the relative costs of computer hardware, but they received different receptions. The primary difference I can see is the degree to which the community viewed them as having answers that were technical and within the community's expertise.

Can we provide some guidance for questions where cost is the subject?

  • Is it the case that it is generally off-topic unless the community makes an exception (I couldn't find anything in the Help guidance that specifically excludes cost)?
  • Is the on-topic criterion the degree to which the answer (not the question) is within the purview of the community (which drives the community's judgement regarding closure)?
  • Is it a case where "we know it when we see it", and the community needs to decide on a case-by-case basis?
  • Is it that cost isn't really the topicality issue at all. The question just needs to not violate any of the other rules (opinion-based, too broad, etc.)?
  • The third example you mentioned has an answer suggesting that the cost is, after all, determined by technical issues. – einpoklum Jul 30 at 8:16
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    Also, I think it's not appropriate/useful to bunch together questions such as "I found item X for price P, is that too expensive?" And "why are the prices of a category of products high/low compared to some other category/point in time/place in the world?" – einpoklum Jul 30 at 8:18

Let's start with the Help section. It says that the site is focused on problem solving. Its guidance:

  • You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face.
  • Avoid asking subjective questions where there is no actual problem to be solved.

Based on that, cost is not a problem to be solved on this site. That was easy -- cost questions are off-topic.

However, the community often makes exceptions for questions that are not actually problem solving. But if a question is allowed as an exception, that means that it is on a case-by-case basis, and not covered by official guidance. To avoid closure, it can't violate any of the closure reasons. Beyond that, it's a community decision; it's on-topic if the community says it's on-topic. In other words, we can't create (or document) guidance that governs exceptions.

So is there anything we can do to help users who want to ask a cost question? We can only try to understand the community expectations, and try to satisfy those. That isn't always easy because community expectations include differences of opinion on many things. Whether or not an exception is made is somewhat of a crapshoot. There's no formula for an exception. The closer you are to being on-topic, and the more people who think so, the better your odds for an exception.

So what can we do to improve the chances for an exception? For one, we can observe the characteristics that seem to be common to successful exceptions.

  • In some cases, what seems like a semi-off-topic question attracts an exceptional answer, and the answer is the reason the community keeps the question. In a similar vein, the question may tickle the interest of a wide audience and attract some answers that people find interesting. A good response to a question influences the community's perception of its value and whether to keep it around. Those situations are a matter of luck, so there's no advice we can offer there.

  • Successful exceptions often have these characteristics (not a comprehensive list):

    • The question directly supports an on-topic, problem solving subject. For example, the answer will help to understand the subject -- why and how things work; perhaps allowing the OP to answer some of their own questions.
    • The answer is fully within the purview of the site's subject matter experts (SMEs).
    • The answer is verifiable (e.g., publicly available sources)
    • The question is likely to help other readers.
    • The question has lasting value; it isn't something transient, and the answer won't quickly be out-of-date.
    • For cost questions, the question doesn't seem limited to supporting a purchase decision.
    • The question is high quality and is likely to attract high quality answers.

We can't predict the odds of an exception being made for a specific question. But here are some hypothetical examples; we can look at how some voters might view them, and some of the aspects they might consider when weighing whether to make an exception:

  • I found item X for price P. Is that too expensive?
    This is a request for purchasing advice and off-topic for all the reasons those are off-topic.

  • Why does it cost more to produce a CPU than RAM?
    This is a technical question and answerable within the purview of our SMEs. It's general background information that's useful to understand if you work with computers.

  • Why does it cost more to buy a CPU than a RAM module?
    This is asking about pricing, not cost. Worded this way, it is less on-topic because pricing gets into factors outside the purview of our SMEs.

  • Why does professional equipment cost more than consumer equipment?
    This is driven by factors known to our SMEs. Those factors are important to understand when assembling a system, which is an on-topic subject.

  • Why does a brand X consumer widget cost more than a brand Y consumer widget?
    If the only variable is brand, this would seem to relate only to a purchase decision (off-topic). It is also open-ended and the brand focus is likely to attract opinion-based answers.

  • XYZ gadget is expensive; ABC gadget is inexpensive but performs a similar function. What benefits do you gain with XYZ; when is XYZ required because ABC is not suitable?
    This could easily be too broad or appear to be a purchase recommendation, but it could be made a focused question. In that case, it's a request for technical information, and the kind of information that would be applied to a technical problem.

  • Why is the XYZ gadget so much more expensive than the ABC gadget?
    This is open ended, not clearly a technical question, not clearly within the purview of our SMEs, and it isn't apparent how this information supports an on-topic subject.

  • Why does the XYZ gadget cost so much?
    It costs what it costs. Knowing why it costs what it costs doesn't help solve a technical problem. It's an open-ended question, and it isn't clear that the answer is entirely within the purview of our SMEs.
    However, the question could be framed differently, as a technology question. In that case, understanding how it works and why that technology is expensive is a lot closer to on-topic.

Obviously, some of these questions would be more likely than others to get an exception. A big part of that is how they're framed.

Translation: avoid the closure issues, and frame the question in a way that makes it easy to recognize its value to a general audience and its connection to an on-topic subject. In the words of an old song, "you got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative." That's not very specific advice, but I'm not sure we can do better than that.

Cost should never be the primary focus of a question. Cost is not actually a problem with computer hardware or software.

Cost might be a factor in choosing between two ways of doing things, but any question asking about the different ways of doing things should be reasonably scoped to keep it within the rules of the site.

You might ask if cost would be a factor when choosing between two specific ways of doing something and to me that fits within the scope of the site. A subject-matter expert would be able to say whether one thing might be more difficult (or effectively cost more) than another way while keeping it within the context of how computers generally work. It can be kept reasonably focused and not too broad.

Asking why some complicated thing costs so much probably will be too broad. It can depend on a lot of things that have nothing to do with the device in front of you, including human factors such as supply and demand. It would be hard to keep a question of that sort focused and would be too broad.

Those two examples sound quite similar I will admit, but there is a fine line distinguishing them.

To me your last point is the key one. Could you remove "cost" and substitute some other definable characteristic of the things you are comparing? Are you focused closely enough on a small enough part that its "cost" can be well defined and compared to another part?

So long as the question is not too broad, is on topic for the site (computer hardware or software), isn't asking for the actual cost of particular products (shopping recommendations) and it is clear and well asked then cost can be a thing we can look at, even if only really from a technical perspective.

At the end of the day though this could be a subjective thing and questions would have to be vetted to make sure that they are keeping to the spirit of the site.

Even when technical aspects play a significant role in the price of an item, it is never the ONLY aspect. Source materials cost will always play a significant role, as will market forces.

Source materials can be empirically defined and explained, perhaps even better or more easily than technical reasons, but market forces are subject to interpretation and opinion and often involve less rational discussions, in addition to being very much time-locked.

Though, frankly, all these factors are time-locked:

  • Source material costs fluctuate on their own markets, as well as due to advancements in collection methods.
  • Technical complexity is only a problem until a better widget or process is discovered that either lowers the complexity or simply makes it more attainable.
  • Market forces change on a whim, though they can also be longer term (look at the video card market).

Finally, the question is: What's important about this question? Not only is the answer going to be valid only until the next change in technology or markets or supply, but the answer is of little value right now besides as the introduction to a shopping recommendation.

It's not that discussing the reasons for a given items price is not a worthwhile discussion, but it is too broad, too time-locked, and too opinion-based to be an acceptable discussion here, regardless of whether the answer is or is not primarily technical.

Questions about costs can very well be problem-solving questions.

You see, when a person is faced with two apparently similar pieces of computing hardware , but with a great disparity in cost, it is often (though not always) the case that there are some significant technical differences between the products. These differences have bearing on the usability of these products for the person - speed, reliability, durability, flexibility - and maybe even their very compatibility with user's setup to begin with.

Thus, helping a person understand differences in cost, or in some cases, surprisingly high or low cost of a product, helps the user solve the problem of deciding on the appropriate piece of hardware to use/buy. And this can well be done without deteriorating into opinion-based product recommendations.

More generally, it helps improve readers' understanding of the kind(s) of hardware being discussed, their inter-relations and their inner workings.

Note that such questions appear to be primarily focused on the costs - that's what the question text may mention exclusively - but they really aren't.

  • You've hit on the key, and that's exactly what I try to do to when editing these kinds of questions to fix them. If what is really underlying the question is technical differences, focus on that. Framed that way, it may be on-topic. But that only works if you are comparing classes of equipment, like industrial grade vs. consumer grade. If you are comparing model ABC to model XYZ, in most cases, the information is too transient. It's equivalent to a shopping question. (cont'd) – fixer1234 yesterday
  • Apply this to your question on the KVMs, which probably could be asked in an on-topic way (and maybe we can figure out how to reword it and get it reopened if you're still interested; it would be a substantial rewrite and it didn't seem appropriate to do that pervasive an edit). It is about classes of equipment. It had a few problems as written. It focused on cost instead of technical differences, and that is easy enough to fix. The bigger problem was that it speculated about technical reasons and ruled them all out. (cont'd) – fixer1234 yesterday
  • If it isn't technical reasons, the reasons are off-topic or out of scope. It received an answer that talked about some technical differences you weren't aware of (or at least didn't mention in the question). But that didn't actually address whether it would account for a 10x price difference (and I'm guessing not). But if you want to pursue modifying the question so it can be reopened, I'd be happy to help if I can. – fixer1234 yesterday

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