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Personal Computing: Where Should You Buy Your Next PC?

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These days there are almost as many ways to buy a personal computer as there are ways to configure one.
You can buy from a computer superstore, small local computer store, office supply store, electronics store, department store, mass merchandise store, warehouse store, computer show, value-added reseller, mail-order catalog company, or directly from the manufacturer. To make things even more complicated, a number of vendors in the above categories now let you buy through the Internet.
How do you decide where to get the biggest bang for your buck? Much depends on your particular situation. But each buying channel has its advantages and disadvantages, and some have more advantages than others.

Going Retail

Despite the newer whiz-bang buying options out there, walking into a store, sitting down in front of a number of display PCs, and taking a system back with you is still the most common way to buy a computer today.
Buying from a retail outlet can be reassuring if you don’t have previous experience buying a computer. Looking at a monitor, testing out the feel of a keyboard, and seeing how much space the system takes up can be important clues to how you’ll like the system once you get it back home or in the office.
On the other hand, you may think that being able to look your salesperson in the eye will help ensure you get a good deal. But some computer salespeople have little knowledge about computer technology, aside from which models the store has in stock and what their selling price is. This is particularly true with stores that don’t specialize in computers. Likewise, you likely won’t get expert support after the sale from department and discount stores.
Still, there’s something to be said about the instant gratification of being able to pick out a system and take it with you, which you don’t receive when shopping with your phone or over the Internet.
Many people have had good experiences with smaller computer stores that others have recommended or that they’ve built relationships with over the years. Some of these stores sell their wares on weekends at computer shows held at racetracks and convention centers. Try to get recommendations from friends and associates before buying an expensive system from such a vendor.
Value-added resellers are vendors that add value to the hardware they sell by including configuration, installation, or training. You’ll pay a bit more, but if you have specialized needs, the money spent can save you headaches later.

Using the Phone

Since the mid-1980s the most intrepid computer shoppers have saved money by going the mail-order route. Though still commonly used, the term “mail order” is a bit of a misnomer these days, since you’ll most likely use your phone to order your system and have it delivered through a courier service rather than the postal service.
There are two main ways to buy through the mail-order channel-directly from the manufacturer or from a catalog company that offers wares from different manufacturers.
In both cases, it’s a smart move to stick to the better-known players. Top direct-to-consumer companies include Dell, Gateway 2000, and Micron, while the best catalog companies include PC Connection, PCs Complete, Insight, and Computer Discount Warehouse. More manufacturers are getting in the direct game, such as Apple, Compaq, and Sony.
Buying directly from a manufacturer usually means you can choose which components go into your PC rather than having to take a preconfigured unit. And it often means that the manufacturer saves money by not having to warehouse preconfigured systems. On the downside, it can take a few days to a few weeks for you to receive your PC.

Surfing the Internet

Net shopping is the latest option in buying PCs. Many PC vendors now offer Web-based shopping, including Dell, at http://www.dell.com, and CompUSA, at http://www.compusa.com. Both Dell and CompUSA provide excellent sites.
Some websites make it easy to price-compare similar PCs from different manufacturers. Other sites offer a “configurator,” an online tool for adding or subtracting components and quickly calculating the resulting price.
On the other hand, some sites provide only a moderate amount of detail about the systems offered, and they may not list all the available configurations or provide delivery dates. This forces you to phone a salesperson.
If you’d like to hear about others’ experiences in shopping for PCs or to share your own experiences, you can start or join a discussion in a relevant Usenet newsgroup, such as comp.sys.ibm.pc.hardware.systems or comp.sys.mac.hardware.misc.Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk about the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@voicenet.com or http://www.voicenet.com/~reidgold.

This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor March, 1998, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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