Buying a Computer Locally

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2213, 2004-03-26, as the cover article, in both their print edition (on pages 16 and 18) and their website.

When you are in the process of buying a computer nowadays, there is undoubtedly one thing you will not be lacking: options. PC or Mac, new or used, Intel or AMD, countless brands of motherboard — the choices are limitless, though the same probably cannot be said of your computer budget or your time available for shopping.

But once you have made the decision to replace your current computer, or get your very first one, you should begin thinking about the more common sources for buying a system. Some computer shoppers respond to the dizzying array of choices by simply settling for the first one that sounds adequate. This is a shame, because those buyers are often disappointed, and yet likely would have secured a much more satisfying purchase had they only put some effort into considering their options.

This article will not explore the less common alternatives for buying a system, such as computer shows (which seem to be going the way of the dinosaur) or private parties selling their used computers (for reasons that they do not always wish to reveal).

Chip-ed and Shipped

To any TV addict, the best source for a new system would appear to be one of the big mail-order computer vendors, such as Dell and Gateway. These firms spend a tremendous amount of money running advertisements on television, in the hopes of convincing viewers that mail-order is the best way to get that brand-new PC, and for it to be tailored to the buyer's exact needs. By mass producing PCs on their assembly lines, these firms hope to offset their marketing costs, and to be able to sell their systems at competitive prices.

However, it is important to look past the silliness of the "Dell Dude" and the "Dell Interns", and determine whether or not it makes sense to order your new PC from a distant manufacturer. For one thing, those mail order companies are able to reduce their costs by not maintaining a storefront (other than the virtual "storefront" of a website). But the net cost to you is probably greater, since they must ship your new system to you individually, and thus cannot take advantage of the far lower shipping costs enjoyed by local PC stores, who are able to receive a truckload of new computers and components all at once. One might argue that most mail-order companies are now offering "free" shipping, but the consumer eventually pays for the shipping, in the price of the system.

A second disadvantage is that, if and when your new system develops a problem, the process of getting it fixed will likely prove much more painful than if the computer needed to be returned to a local computer store. This is true regardless of how much the marketing campaigns of the mail-order vendors claim that you will receive "award-winning service and support" if needed. Even if a year of on-site support is included in your purchase price, you will not be able to avoid slogging your way through the various levels of technical support on the phone, as you try to convince the support representatives that the problem is caused by computer error, and not user error.

These sorts of ordeals occur much more frequently than the vendors' marketing departments would want you to believe. For instance, a member of my family spent weeks trying to convince Gateway that the motherboard on his new system was truly defective. Eventually they admitted that the problem was a hardware issue, and ended up having to replace the entire system. That experience alone made him much more reluctant to invest a lot of time and energy into learning to use his computer.

One frequently cited advantage of mail-order PCs — no sales tax — is now disappearing. Just recently, Dell announced that they would begin charging California sales tax.

Go… Local

Purchasing a new computer from a firm in your area is of course no guarantee that the process will be pain-free, or that the system you get will be perfect. But the odds of having a better buying experience, are probably much greater if you go this route. There are many benefits to getting your new system from a local shop.

One economic advantage is that you will be supporting your own regional economy, and helping to keep your dollars in town. Another economic advantage is more immediate: You will likely find that they can beat any mail-order price.

Also, you will probably find that the sales staff is more willing to spend time with you, explaining the various options, and trying to match you up with a system that best fits your needs, current and future. This is especially true if you opt for a small shop, as opposed to an electronics superstore, where the sales staff seem to have less time to be attentive to the needs of individual customers.

A third advantage to going local, is that you will have an opportunity to examine your new system ahead of time, in person, and not be limited to one or two photographs on a website or in a glossy catalog mailed to you. This gives you a chance to determine, for example, whether or not the system case will allow for easy access to the components, should you or someone else need to access them or add additional components in the future.

Lastly, should your new system develop any problems, you will be able to more easily obtain technical support over the phone. That help would be provided by a computer expert who is quite familiar with your system configuration. In fact, he or she may even have been the one to assemble your computer! If support over the phone is not sufficient, and the system needs to be examined in the shop, you can get the machine to them in hours, instead of days, and more than likely will get any issues resolved within a day or two.

Doing the Due Diligence

To find a quality shop in your area, you can check the ads in a regional computer publications, such as ComputorEdge. To learn more about those shops on your eventual short list, be sure to check their websites, call them a few times to get a sense of how accessible they are via telephone, and, time permitting, visit their shops in person to see how they treat potential customers, and the quality of the components and complete systems that they have on display.

Also be sure to get the opinions of hard-core techies that you know, because in most cases they will have had personal experience with one or more local firms, and will know other people who have dealt with the computer vendors you might be considering. When you are in the process of discussing computers with techies, there is undoubtedly one thing they will not be lacking: opinions!

Copyright © 2004 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.