So You Want a New Computer

Part Three: Stores, Brand Names and Support

by Kevin Jay North, 09 Oct 99

In part 2 of this series, we talked all about the various features and options of computers (processors, hard drives, memory, monitors, etc.). Now that you have a good idea of what you're looking for, the next question is: where do you buy your computer? And what brand do you get? There are basically five options: 1) from a discount store; 2) from a computer shop; 3) directly from a manufacturer; 4) from a discount mail-order place; 5) from a friend. There may be other options, but any other options should be similar enough to these five that you can make a good judgement yourself once you have my advice. Let's look at these five options, and after that, we'll carefully discuss the important issue of support.

1. From a Discount Store

Discount stores didn't used to sell computers, but now that they are so common place, this is becoming an increasingly popular choice. Stores like Wal-Mart, CompUSA, Best Buy, Staples, etc. now regularly advertise computer specials, and the selection seems to be getting increasingly better. You will find name brands such as IBM, Compaq and Packard Bell, plus semi-generics such as eMachines.

Should you go for the cheapest machine, or should you get a name brand? This is a hard question to answer. To make it more understandable to you, just consider buying another household appliance. For example, would you buy a name-brand microwave or a cheap generic Chinese model? People have differing opinions here. Some people always go for the cheapest; others look for the cheapest name-brand as kind of a trade-off between price and quality; others go only for the brand name they trust or are used to.

There is an old saying, "You get what you pay for." No matter what the category of product, this is typically true, and it also holds for computers. The name brand computer is probably built better, is more durable, will last longer, was more thoroughly tested at the factory, etc. If you're concerned about reliability, go for a name brand. (My personal favorite is IBM.) But you don't have to go for the $1700 computer will all of the extra bells and whistles; the lowest-end machine of the name brand of your choice will do. If you're not worried about an occasional hiccup that you might have to bring your computer back in for, or if you plan to replace your machine after a couple of years, you can go for a cheaper model.

I recommend that you actually see and test out the machine you want to buy before buying it. This way, you will know what to expect when you get yours home. You can also see for yourself what software is on the machine, see how fast the computer "goes", and you can even try out software, inspect the quality of the keyboard and mouse, etc. Also, it's good to talk to a sales representative who can answer your questions. But be prepared -- YOU ask HIM the questions, don't let him talk you into some more expensive machine that you weren't expecting to buy. For example, "Does this machine come with a Word Processor? Which one? Is there a warranty on this machine?" Or, "What's the cheapest machine you have with a 56K modem and at least 64 megabytes of memory?"

With this in mind, it's probably better to go to a place like the Staples office supply store, which has a bunch of computers on display for you to test out and sales representatives specifically hired for their computer department. Wal-Mart is a good store, but you'll probably run in to a situation in which the store is understaffed, and there's a young person there in the electronics department who is fairly new, and there are two other people waiting in line to talk to him. If they have a computer on display, maybe you can try it out for yourself and answer your questions by reading the computer's box. Or perhaps you can go to Staples to see what kind of computers are available and to try a few out but you actually buy your computer at a different store.

2. From a Computer Shop

By "computer shop", I'm thinking of a small, local business who services computers and also sells them. Most often these places sell generic computers which they have assembled themselves from various parts. This doesn't mean they've actually soldered components to a circuit board; usually they buy a motherboard, a power supply, a case, a monitor, a keyboard, a mouse, a modem, a hard drive, operating system software, etc., then carefully put it together and test it.

The advantage is that often you can get a very cheap computer this way because it's generic. But the system may not be as reliable as a name brand. Usually the shop buys quality parts, so don't expect a system that will fall apart after a month, but still, there may be unusual compatibility quirks. Also, there is no master instruction manual with the computer (apart from cryptic manuals from the various assembled components); all support for this computer rests with whoever you bought it from.

So... whether it is a good deal or not all depends on the quality of the shop. Is it one of those shops that opened overnight and is likely to disappear overnight also (along with your support)? Is the dealer honest, or does he attempt to sell you software on your computer that hasn't been paid for (demand to see the original proof of license for the operating system and all installed software)? Or has the shop been around a while, with a good community reputation and training classes offered, with a nice guy who will probably fix your computer for free if something goes wrong with it during the first month?

3. Directly from a Manufacturer

Gateway, Dell and Compaq are large companies that will sell you a computer directly and ship it to you in the mail. In fact, Gateway sells exclusively by mail; other companies like Compaq sell both by mail and at stores. This is another popular way to buy a computer, and frequently you can get good deals because there's no middleman -- and you get a name brand computer besides.

The only big disadvantage is that you can't see and test out their computers before you buy... unless you happen to have a friend who bought one previously. Also, for support, you may have to call a long distance number and be put on hold... as opposed to simply driving to a local place. But, these are good, name-brand computers, and usually the companies do a good job of elaborating the options in their flyers, so this is an option to consider.

4. From a Discount Mail-Order Place

Most everyone knows of those mail order discounters who offer computers and other merchandise (usually electronics) ultra cheap. Sometimes the merchandise is new, other times it is reconditioned; usually, it's not name brand stuff. People have different opinions of these places. Some say they're great -- and they will tell you stories where they were shipped something that was bad, they sent it back, and the company sent them a replacement without any hassle. Others will tell you horror stories.

Since you are very unfamiliar with computers, I would recommend that you avoid discount mail-order places. A computer is a complex thing, and you're going to need support, and these places usually offer almost no support. Even if they do, it's inconvenient. I think it's better to get something from someone you trust. A discount mail-order place can be great for someone who loves to tinker with electronics: often these places sell the parts for computers, and you can build one yourself, and, yes, you often will have lots of problems putting it together, but for these people, that's half the fun. But you instead should be looking for a complete computer that you can plug in and be ready to go with -- you will have a ton to learn as it is!

5. From a Friend

Finally, you can get your "new" computer from a friend... which is really their "old" computer. Either he sells it to you cheap, or he just gives it to you. Well, nothing is truly free, so you may be worse off with a free computer than just buying a new one. For example, maybe you'll end up with a slow computer with a slow modem (making internet connections slower, possibly costing more) with old software you can't get support for, especially since the person who sold you the computer lost the manuals.

Think of it as buying furniture or something else from your friend. If you buy a piece of furniture new, it's ready to go, but if you buy it used, you'll have to clean and vacuum it, get that pesky stain out, fix the chipped corner, etc. It's more work. The new one may be worth it even though it costs more -- "you get what you pay for."

That doesn't mean you can't get a good deal. If you have a friend who took good care of the computer, and kept all manuals and receipts (for service contracts), and installed only the basic software on the computer and didn't radically customize it, and who is willing to help set it up and make sure you can get connected to the Internet... well! Good deal! But more often than not, you get it from some teenage computer guru who's off at school and doesn't have too much time to help you with it other than a one-shot deal, and has lots of pirated (not paid for) games and other software on the computer, and the modem is kind of flaky, etc. If you have time to deal with it, great, but otherwise, I'm telling you, consider just buying a new computer! The $1000 investment may save you tons of hassles and make your computer experience much more enjoyable and less intimidating. And you'll get professional support instead of erratic support from a know-it-all kid.

The bottom line: Consider your friend, but just be careful. Also consider your needs. Put the money issue aside for the moment. The computer you're going to get from this friend -- does it really meet your needs? Are you sure about that -- can your friend help you with it? Or is this some ancient computer that can barely connect to the Internet that you're just picking up to be nice to your friend? In Part 1 we discussed your needs... make sure this computer meets all of those needs!

The Support Issue

You will need support for your new computer... count on it. So whatever computer you get, wherever you get it from, be sure you've got the support you need. Some of the support will be easy questions, such as how to use some program on your computer; these can often be answered by reading documentation (assuming it's not over your head) or asking someone at work. Other times you'll need much more difficult support, such as: your modem won't connect to the Internet and you don't know why. Sometimes a component in the computer might go bad, and you'll need to get it replaced. Sometimes you might not even know if it's a hardware component that went bad or just a software "bug" (design flaw) that's causing the problem.

I hope I'm warming you up to the kinds of support that you'll need. If you get an opportunity to use a neighbor's computer for several hours before buying a computer yourself, you'll have an idea as to what kind of help you're going to need. Heck, you might even be scared enough to forget buying a new computer but to go for an easier option like Web TV instead!

When you go to buy your computer, consider what kind of support you will get with that computer. If something in it breaks, can you take it back to the store to get it fixed, or will you have to mail it back to the manufacturer, or will you have to take it to a local shop in town? If you have a question about operating the computer, can you talk with someone locally, or will you have to use the telephone? If the phone, is it free or charged per incident? Is it a toll-free number or long distance?

You might end up in a situation where you've found the perfect computer, but you won't have good support for it. Get the kind of support you're comfortable with. If you don't want to have to mail your computer off to a manufacturer for over a month but would rather buy one you could take to some local place, get a different computer that's close to the "perfect" one.

You can ask your computer sales representative (if available) what kind of support comes with a computer. Grill him with specific questions if possible, like "Suppose my hard drive stops working. How can I get it fixed?" Hopefully he'll answer specifically, like, "You'll have to buy a new one; but we do sell them and we can even install it for you at a small cost" ... or ... "if it happens in the first three years, we'll replace it for free, you just bring it back here" ... or ... "we can't help you there, but there's this place on Main Street that can help you." Any answer is a good one if it's an honest one. If the sales representative doesn't seem to have a clue, forget it -- go somewhere else.

Some support comes in the form of documentation. Do you get a nice, printed manual with your computer? Or is it just a single sheet translated from the Chinese? Is there a large, easy to use "on line" manual with your computer? (That means an electronic manual you can read on your own computer's monitor.) Does the company have a web site on the World Wide Web with lots of questions answered?

If you know a teenage computer guru who can help you, you could potentially save money by buying a computer that doesn't have a lot of support but by using the teenager's knowledge instead. Probably he can easily answer all of your software use questions and can even potentially help with harder problems such as hardware not working properly. But be careful... will this person always be around? Two years from now even? You don't want to be left in the cold without support. Is there someone else, or even a local computer outfit, that you can fall back on if the guru takes off?

Support Contracts

Many stores now offer support contracts with computers. You pay an extra amount, such as $100, with your computer, and you get extended support for 3 years. Usually these cover a lot of stuff... for example, if a hardware component goes bad in the 3 year period, they will get the new part for you for free and they will fix it for free. You may have a choice of taking your computer back to the store, or, for a slightly higher cost, having someone come out to pick up your computer.

People have mixed feelings about these contracts. Some think they're great, others hate them and think they're a big rip-off. But again, we can just compare this to something else to get a clearer view of what we're dealing with. This time, let's just compare it to insurance. Essentially we're buying insurance with our computer.

The good rule of thumb about buying insurance is this: You should buy insurance when there is a chance that you would suffer a loss you can't afford. For example, if you are married with children, then you probably want life insurance. If you were to unexpectedly die, that would be a tremendous loss that you're family couldn't afford. Hence the insurance. If you're not married, life insurance probably isn't worth it, unless you want some money around to cover funeral expenses.

If something were to go wrong with your computer, such as something really wrong, like a hard drive "crash" (in which the hard drive permanently stops working and all data on it is lost)... could you afford this loss? Think of it in both money and time. Is this something you can fix yourself, or will you need someone else to do it? Can you afford going a month without Email as you scrounge around for options about how to fix it, or will you need someone to stop by to pick up your computer right away to fix it?

If you do go for an extended service contract, be sure to read all the terms very carefully before you sign the agreement. Is software covered, or only hardware? Can you take the computer in to the store, or will it have to be shipped off? Or will they come to your house? How long is the coverage for? If there is an overlapping warranty with the computer manufacturer, who covers the computer in that case, and what do you do with the computer then?

If you decide not to go for the contract, here's an interesting idea: Ask the sales representative which computers coverage is available for. If they are willing to sell an extended contract for a computer, then it means they have confidence that it's not a computer that's going to be breaking down all the time. Not sure about that semi-generic computer? Ask the sales representative if coverage is available. If it is, then perhaps it's a pretty reliable little cheap computer for you. If there is a computer that you can't get an extended service agreement for, watch out!

Still More to Come

We're getting there, but there's still a bunch more about computers to talk about. Once you get your computer, you need some tips about how to use it, such a how to choose an Internet Service Provider (ISP) and how to get connected to the Internet. Also you need to know about computer viruses and Email hoaxes. See you in Part 4!

Click here for part 4

Document last modified 09 Oct 99. (C) 1999 by Kevin Jay North; see also full copyright notice & disclaimers..

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