Buying a Personal Computer

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2203, 2004-01-16, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 24 and 26) and their website.

There are many ways to go about purchasing a personal computer. The most popular sources are computer superstores, computer shows, mail-order firms, and local computer shops. We will explore these options in detail, and discuss the positive and negative aspects of each approach.

Purchasing one's computer brand-new is clearly the most popular choice these days, if recent sales figures are any indication. Many consumers, particularly those not comfortable with buying electronics over the Internet, choose to visit one of the large computer superstores in their area. There are several benefits of going this route: You will be able to see the computer in person, try the keyboard and mouse for comfort, see the quality of the monitor, and hear music played through the speakers. You can interact with the sales staff in person, which may have entertainment value. For example, you can listen to them read the sales brochure to you when you ask a technically challenging question, or watch them squirm as they tell you that the overpriced item on sale is honestly the best deal in town for your hard-won dollars. Of far more value, the store probably offers a reasonable return policy — which is true of all of the new purchase options considered in this article, but to varying extents, depending upon the vendor.

Computer superstores also have their downsides. You typically pay top dollar for your new machine, largely because the computer manufacturers tack on all kinds of bells and whistles to justify the high price — many of which you will probably never use. This is similar to buying a new car, during which the salesperson will try to convince you that you are saving money by paying less for things you do not need. Speaking of sales pressure, if the megastore salesperson proves especially persistent, he or she may be harder to shake off, unlike their pushy counterparts at a mail-order outfit, who work for commission over the phone. Lastly, one reason why the prices are normally higher at the big stores, is that you are forced to pay for an operating system, such as Microsoft Windows, which you may not want. If you plan on running Linux, for instance, on your new machine, a superstore would not be cost effective.

Years ago, the sports section of major metropolitan newspapers invariably listed advertisements for local computer shows. These were large events held in convention centers, and featured countless booths organized by vendors of complete systems as well as individual components. The shows were quite popular, particularly among computer geeks, because the wealth of choices forced the vendors to minimize their profit margins in order to move inventory. In fact, savvy computer buyers could wait until just minutes before the show's closing, and then make an offer to one of the vendors, who often would rather sell an item at a very small profit than have to load it back into their van and haul it back to their store. With the advent of the Internet, and the ease of shopping on the Web, computer shows are much less common nowadays.

Cast Your Net

Speaking of which, another option is to check the website of a mail-order firm, or call their sales phone number. There is a benefit to this approach: If the vendor does not have a presence within your state, you do not pay sales tax (though this is pending Congressional legislation). But this may be largely offset by the shipping cost (assuming it has not been waived, a common marketing ploy).

However, the Internet-based computer sellers certainly have their downsides. For instance, it can easily take up to a week for you to receive your new computer through the mail. Assuming that it has not been damaged in transit, you may open all of the boxes and set up the system, only to discover that it does not boot properly, or the flat-panel monitor has dead pixels, or the keyboard is rather uncomfortable to use. Purchasing items through the mail, sight unseen, can easily result in nasty surprises. If you need technical support with a malfunctioning system, you will quickly find yourself slogging through "phone menu purgatory" and layers of technical support, all designed to keep you away from the vendor's most knowledgeable and costly support staff. When you finally get through to them, and convince them that, yes, you did try rebooting the computer, you may have to repackage one or more items (you did save those boxes, right?) and ship it back to them.

The final option we will consider, and the one I recommend, is to call or visit a local small computer shop. This offers most of the benefits, with far fewer disadvantages. You will likely get a brand new system at the lowest cost. This is partly because the local shops do not have to invest tremendous amounts of money in television and radio advertisements. (The "Dell Interns" may be free, but telling you about them is not.) Another big advantage is that the sales/support folks at these shops tend to be far more technically knowledgeable than the salespeople at electronics superstores and mail-order companies. If your new system has a problem or you need hardware technical support, you will probably receive much more useful advice from your local shop.

In addition, do not let the diminutive sizes of these shops fool you. Most of them carry peripherals and replacement components, at prices that the megastores cannot beat or even match. Just because a small shop does not have space to display all of its wares, does not mean that they are unavailable. I learned this the hard way, after purchasing a new heat sink from a big store, only to later discover that a local shop carried the same component at two-thirds of the cost. Thank goodness for liberal return policies!

But the key to getting a great system and the best after-sales service, is to locate a quality shop. In addition to asking your local geek (assuming that is not you) for his or her opinion on what is the best shop in town, you can make good use of the Internet to: locate and peruse these companies' websites, read the comments posted by previous buyers in Internet newsgroups (try http://groups.google.com/), and use a search engine to find any pages on the Web in which the vendors in question have been mentioned by the press. In addition, regional computer publications (such as ComputorEdge, of course) usually have a section on their websites that list computer shops in their areas.

So as you surf the Internet to find information about your local computer vendors, just be glad that your current computer is not sentient (at least, to the best of our knowledge…), and thus it cannot protest or sabotage your efforts to find its replacement.

Copyright © 2003 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.