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Where to Buy a Computer/System

John Henshell magazine article sample

Deciding where to buy a computer can be as difficult as deciding what to buy. Determining value is a subjective, personal decision, and no single source is ideal for each consumer’s needs. The products manufactured exclusively for business use differ from those intended primarily for family or small business use, and are generally distributed differently as well. You should select the type of dealer or supplier that is most appropriate for the type of system you (or you and your family) desire. Price is an important consideration for most people. However, service before and after the sale can be equally or more important. Two types of service must be considered: technical and physical. Both types of service range from none to a comprehensive guarantee. Technical support is highly dependent upon the expertise of your salesperson or supplier and the manufacturer. Physical support can include setting-up and fine-tuning the system in your home, and maintaining and repairing your hardware. 

The cliché, “you get what you pay for,” can apply to buying a computer, but you must be able to trust your supplier. Value exists only if the supplier will deliver on all promises made to you. Many hardware and software manufacturers have earned reputations for not answering questions or solving problems quickly. Have you ever dealt with a manufacturer, retailer, or service business that you will never patronize again? If so, you must consider the honesty and reliability of a prospective supplier as part of your buying decision. 

The following sections cover the advantages and disadvantages of the most common sources for computer systems. Many of these advantages and disadvantages will be irrelevant for certain types of buyers, and what may be an advantage for one type of customer could be a disadvantage for another. For example, someone buying a family computer would appreciate a fully loaded consumer model, while a hobbyist wouldn’t want to pay for extra “bells and whistles.”

Specialty Store

Specialty stores sell only computer products, and should (in theory) offer the highest level of expertise. They frequently stock a limited selection of products, but employ experienced or highly trained salespeople with strong knowledge of both hardware and software. 

Specialty stores sell the professional lines of familiar name brands. These retailers usually charge list price for models that are more expensive and better built than their consumer cousins. Most also offer custom configurations of those models. Specialty stores are often prepared to support large sales to businesses. You should expect that some amount of free, accurate technical support is built into the price from a specialty store, and that they provide both in-house and on-site repair services. However, consider that specialty stores are generally subject to all the factors that threaten small businesses. 

Discount Chain/Consumer Electronics Store

Big chains such as Circuit City, The Good Guys, and the Tandy (Radio Shack and Computer City) stores, offer the price advantages made possible by the volume of their business. Additionally, they must compete with each other and other computer retailers, so prices are low, often within a few percentage points of the chain’s cost. 

The chains sell name-brand, consumer models loaded with hundreds of dollars of software that doesn’t add to the price. However, they are not able to alter packages put together by the manufacturers. Those packages do include everything a novice computer user needs, and the retailer can provide the necessary accessories. Chains or “superstores” offer cost-effective, long-term service agreements. 

Different chains or even individual stores may or may not have knowledgeable salespeople. The size of these operations and the other products they carry allow the chains to offer interest-free financing promotions. You can save at least $50 in interest by financing a computer system. 

The big stores carry proprietary consumer models, which may not be suitable for a hobbyist who wants unlimited upgrade or modification capability. Consumer models will not meet all high-end or demanding business needs. The stores sometimes “bundle” combinations of computers, monitors, and printers in packages that may not satisfy your needs. Bundles rarely offer the best value, as at least one low-end product is usually included. 

Limited Service Discount Chain

Other chains, such as Costco and Fred Meyer, also sell some of the same consumer products as the “full-service” chains, but don’t employ commission salespeople. The limited service means that if you prefer not to deal with a salesperson, you probably won’t be approached. You might also get a better price, as these chains purchase huge quantities of a few models. 

The “pick-up-your-own-box” stores stock a limited selection, offer neither technical support nor repairs, and do not employ salespeople who can answer your questions. 

“DIY” Shop

The Portland area has many independent businesses and chains that build their own computers. Some build stock models; others custom-build to your specifications. Check the ads in this issue of Computer Bits. The “DIY” (do-it-yourself) businesses build “IBM-clones” with custom configurations; you can choose the exact configuration you want, and often specify the parts you want (sound card, video card, modem, etc.). Clone computers provide a simpler path for future modifications than what you get with a consumer model, and more types of modifications are often possible. Clone prices are generally lower than consumer models. 

Clone machines generally include only Windows 95, which can be an advantage or disadvantage, depending on your needs. The “manufacturer” is your only source for technical support (you may not even get a manual). The builder will provide a warranty or limited warranty with one or a few locations for service. You are dependent on the builder staying in business for all service after the sale. 


A surprisingly high percentage of computers is sold through the mail. Dell and Gateway, among others, have well-established reputations, and sell many computers to businesses. You’ll find ads in the major computer magazines. Many Macs are also sold through the mail. Please consider that using a commission salesperson or small business proprietor as a consultant and then buying from a mail-order house is analogous to refusing to pay a doctor for services. 

The mail-order manufacturers (selling just their own computer brand) and mail-order houses make or carry familiar and reputable name-brand products, and most offer specific models for businesses. You have shop-at-home convenience. Some mail-order businesses provide (or sell) telephone and on-site service after the sale. By eliminating the “middle-man” (the retailer), any business need to stock and sell low-end “loss leaders,” and, perhaps, commission salespeople, mail-order businesses can easily charge 10% less than retailers for comparable or identical models. 

Buying major computer hardware through the mail confers all the risks that are inherent from buying anything through the mail, and then some. Your salesperson/clerk may not determine exactly what you need over the phone and cannot show or demonstrate models before you buy them (seeing a monitor is a very important part of the buying decision for most people). You must trust the business over the phone. 

Mail-order businesses present a major hassle for bad-out-of-the-box products (monitors, in particular, do not ship well), and may make you pay the cost of shipping defective returns, or charge a restocking fee for other returns. Make sure you are satisfied with their policies before you buy. 

Student or Employee Purchase

Many schools and employers offer purchase plans through their vendors that offer a better-than-retail price. Frequently, you can get the same model you use at work. 

These special offers often limit purchases to certain periods, and your hardware may be delivered long after the sale. The vendors offer a limited selection of products and are unlikely to offer any service after the sale. 


Buying a used computer makes sense when price is your primary consideration and you can at least diagnose problems yourself. Computers devalue quickly, and used Pentium® and PowerPC® machines are available for two-thirds of the price of new ones. Be aware that people selling computers privately often do not do their homework, and therefore ask exorbitant prices. Many models or configurations advertised in classified ads are available new for a lower price! One of the best places to scout for used hardware is the Computer Bits classifieds. 


A used computer, monitor, or printer should cost no more 

than  70% of a new one, if the model is current. Once the model has been discontinued, the value is lower. A model that is not in the current generation of products (a 486 PC or a 68040 Mac) is worth a third of the cost of a new machine at most.

The seller may include valuable software (although you have no legal right to use it), and ideally, a transferable warranty or service agreement. He or she may require you to buy a complete system. 

Even if you aren’t buying problems along with the equipment, your hard disk and other mechanical drives and your monitor tube will have a shorter life span than new ones. 

buying a Macintosh

Most of the sources above apply equally to Macs or PCs. However, Macintosh users have fewer choices of dealers because of the proprietary hardware and Apple’s market stratification. If you want the Mac operating system, you are once again limited to Apple-made products. Professional models are available only from specialty stores and mail-order houses. Other retailers sell just the consumer line, which generally consists of a few models.


If you are an expert at both using and servicing computers, a DIY, mail-order, or used computer will probably provide your best value. If you lack expertise in either area, buying a value-added product from a specialty or discount store makes more sense. Expect to pay much less for just an extended warranty or a “warranty-gap” policy than for a comprehensive service agreement. Extending manufacturers’ exclusions and limitations has less value than a full-service agreement that includes maintenance, service, and other benefits, as well as repair. PC Magazine subscribers reported that 32% of their computers needed repair in the past year. Only 28% needed repairs in the first year of ownership. With normal wear and tear, that percentage would increase during each year of the life of the product. A good service contract can save you money and offer peace of mind. The magazine says, “Top-notch service and support is no longer a wish-list item for prospective PC buyers– it is a must-have.” 

Consumer-model computers always include a CD-ROM drive, a fax/modem, a keyboard and mouse, and a package of relatively inexpensive software. Because of the manufacturer’s buying power, these items cost you much less in a package than buying them separately. However, those add-ons mean that a DIY computer can cost less. 

Just as your software and usage needs should direct you to the right computer or configuration, your hardware and service needs should direct you to the right type of dealer. If you are not confident that the dealer will support the products they sell, check with the Better Business Bureau for a record of complaints. Weigh that information against the volume of computers you think the dealer is selling. 

If you are upgrading from an old computer, the speed and multimedia capabilities of your new computer will be a treat. If you are buying a computer for the first time, you will be delighted with the ways a computer can enhance your life. By choosing the right dealer, you can be as happy with where you bought the system as you are with your new equipment. 



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