Do we allow alternatives to the requested hardware to remain as valid answers? I believe we allow a wide variety of hardware to be an "answer". Not all of the hardware can fulfill all requirements, thus we keep the alternatives around to allow the OP to determine which features they want/don't want.

What if the alternative is software, though? A recent meta post brought this issue up when an answer was deleted. There is at least one other answer on the site that proposes a similar alternative - software instead of hardware.

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Should we allow software alternatives to a hardware request to remain on the site?

In both cases, the software proposed does solve an underlying problem posed in the question.

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Official decision

Taking into account the answers in this question and the answers here, answers recommending anything (hardware, software, etc.) that isn't directly asked about in the question will be treated just the same as any other answer in terms of content and quality.

To use the original situation as an example, if an answer is posted recommending a software alternative to a question asking about hardware, the fact that it recommends software won't be grounds for deletion. The answer will only be deleted if it is found to fall into a flaggable category (e.g., not an answer, link only, very low quality, etc.). And it has been determined that these answers do answer the question asked, so the "not an answer" flag does not apply.

Disclaimer: this is a modified version of my answer here because the question is closely related.

I think this kind of answer falls into a grey area when it comes to determining how it should be treated. The problem is how the information pertains to the question asked.

An answer recommending software doesn't recommend something that is asked for and instead recommends a good alternative with its own pros and cons. On one hand, this can be seen as "not an answer" because it doesn't address the question. On the other hand, it is perfectly fine because it addresses the underlying problem the OP wants to solve.

This brings the situation to a fork in the road where we have to decide if we will accept any answer that solves the problem regardless of what the solution is (desired hardware, undesired hardware, software, etc.) or if we will only accept answers that recommend the item asked about in the question (which has to be hardware of course).

I'm thinking we should allow this kind of answer simply because it provides a solution to the problem, which is ultimately what people want out of a question.

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  • A question is phrased the best way the asker knows how, using terms and concepts they understand. They can't ask about something of which they are unaware, and that info is useful. With respect to the original, the reply was absolutely not an answer, but it was a feasible alternative. How about "alternative solutions to the question should be posted as comments instead of answers" that way the OP can explore and research those to see if they suit the requirements. – Criggie Nov 4 '15 at 10:43

Deletion should occur if, and only if, the provided answer doesn't meet guidelines we've set out. There are 3 criteria we've established, at this point:

  • It's not link only/"I Googled this for you"/Answer without explaination
  • It needs to be verbose and explain how/why this meets their requirements
  • It's nicely formatted

An alternative can meet all of those requirements, with the second bullet being "Your requirements may not be what you think they are, and here is why...". The second part of that sentence is important. An alternative should explain why this answer will help a user meet their end goal even if they don't purchase hardware they were expecting to get.

An example of an alternative is in the Baby Monitor question. The alternative explains how a software alternative exists to a (possibly) non-existant hardware request. It is verbose enough to explain how the set up occurs, while not going into explicit software configuration details.

I disagree with the Not an Answer assessment in Adam's response. The Not an Answer flag says:

This was posted as an answer, but it does not attempt to answer the question. It should possibly be an edit, a comment, another question, or deleted altogether.

An alternative is attempting to answer the question. It is not answering it in a way that is expected (ie. "gimme the hardwarez plz"), but instead offering a way to perform the same underlying goal without certain hardware. This is definately an answer.

Sometimes, a user needs to know alternatives exist because they simply don't know they can do something with software. Other times, they may not know what they are actually asking for, and an alternative gives them a way to see multiple ways of accomplishing their goal. We allow alternative hardware - not all of which may meet all of the user's requirements - I think we need to allow alternative software as well, if it meets a majority of the user's end goals.

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Sometimes the answer to a hardware question is software. For example, one answer to "I want a low-budget computer-connected oscilloscope for measuring signals in the kilohertz range" could be "this software oscilloscope permits using your computer's microphone jack as an input".

A pure-software answer should be subjected to the same criteria as hardware answers: does it meet the asker's requirements.

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