There are many reasons for purchasing a PC (personal computer): business, personal, recreation, or a combination thereof. But whether your intentions are asset-balancing or alien-blasting, the more you know about the options available to you, the more likely you'll get an excellent long-term return on your hardware investment.
The primary sources for buying a PC are: mail order firms, computer superstores, previous PC owners, and local shops. (Ages ago, computer shows were one of the best options, but such events have now become rare, largely being supplanted by computer vendors online.) I will consider some of the major upsides and downsides of all of the current sources.
Mail order vendors, such as Dell, are the dominant players nowadays. The term "mail order" has become a bit of a misnomer, since the bulk of those companies' orders are now received over the Internet and not through order forms sent to the vendor via snail mail. But the purchased hardware is delivered to the customer through the mail — usually via one of the major shipping companies.
Mail order PC firms offer the security of working with an established company, toll-free phone support, and typically a warranty period of some sort. On the downside, however, if you encounter serious difficulties in setting up or using your PC, you will probably have to endure the frustration of explaining the problem over the phone to various technicians, and even end up dismantling, repackaging, and shipping the PC back to the vendor, unless it is covered by on-site support. In addition, any sensitive personal information should be removed from the PC (if possible) and saved until the system is returned to you. A growing portion of PC owners nowadays don't know how to do that, as computers become more of a consumer commodity. Then you must wait, sometimes weeks, for them to fix the problem, without losing your PC (which has happened!). Unless you have a second system and current backups of your data, you will not be surfing the Web, trading online, or tangling with the Red Baron as you had hoped. The only alternative to this is to pay extra for on-site support (beyond what is initially included).
Computer superstores allow you to view the system before purchasing it, but as with mail order vendors, you may have to wait weeks for your PC to be repaired. Those with more courage can buy a used PC through the classified ads. This is your cheapest route, but you'll probably pay for it when you try to clean up a hard-drive filled with outdated software, X-rated image files, and the occasional virus. It's much better to start with a clean system (then fill it up with your own outdated software…).
The last option, a local shop, is usually your best alternative, for a number of reasons: You'll get more byte for the buck than from any mail order or superstore vendor, but with less risk than a used PC. Local shops pay bottom dollar for parts, and normally assemble the "clones" onsite. Turnaround time on repairs is much faster — in fact, some work can be done while you wait. They have more room for negotiation, and often provide extras not found elsewhere, such as pre-installed software and free upgrades on repairs. The components inside a clone can be just as reliable as those in a name-brand PC, and there's no point in paying for the name-brand advertising.
To find a reputable computer shop in your area, consult with PC-savvy friends and coworkers. Also, visit office-supply stores (that don't sell systems) and pick up a copy of any local computer publications, filled with ads from area vendors. These are more up-to-date than phone book entries, and provide details on features and prices.
Then visit at least three local shops and describe what you're looking for to their salespeople. Ask to see their technicians and their work area. How many years have they been in business and in their current location? Do they offer references? Visit a number of times, and watch for disgruntled customers. If anyone is waiting to pick up their PC, ask about their experiences (when the sales staff is out of earshot).
When it comes time to make the purchase, negotiate the final price. Don't pay the credit card premium; instead, pay with cash or an ATM card. Be sure to get an original copy of the warranty, which should clearly state the coverage for parts and labor, and keep a copy at your office.
Some firms even allow you to assemble the PC yourself, with their assistance. If such is available in your area, and you have the time, seriously consider it. After building your own system, you will enjoy a much greater understanding of how your new PC works and what is required to fix or upgrade it. As always, the best investment is in your own knowledge.