In today's marketplace, you can buy a personal computer in almost as many places as you can buy a cup of expensive coffee. The big office-supply chains all offer computers and accessories in the next aisle beyond the paper clips and pencils, and the electronics retailers in every shopping mall are ready to sell you a computer along with your home entertainment system. Or if you prefer, you can go to a smaller computer specialty shop where they assemble each computer to order in the back room. And then there's the Internet, where dozens of manufacturers and thousands of retailers are waiting for your order. Are some of these places better than others?
Yes. Or at least maybe. It depends on how much you know before you walk into a store or fire up your Web browser, and whether it's important to take the computer home this afternoon. You can get a fine computer from any of those sources. But you can also end up with a system that is either wildly beyond what you and your business or family will ever use, or one that won't keep up with the everyday demands you place on it.
There are at least five different kinds of big-box retail chain stores that sell computers:
Office-supply stores, such as Office Max, Office Depot, and Staples
Home electronics retailers such as Best Buy and Future Shop
Discount clubs such as Costco and Sam's Club
General merchandise places such as Wal-Mart and Target
Computer specialists such as CompUSA and Fry's
These are all North American examples. You can substitute the names of similar chains in your own country.
Except for the computer specialists, these stores have two things in common: high volume and limited selection. If they have exactly the computer you want in stock, you can buy it at a fair price, take it home, and install it the same day. Most of them offer one or more national brands (such as Compaq, Sony, or Hewlett-Packard) along with their own less-expensive house brands.
What they don't always offer are knowledgeable salespeople who can answer all your technical questions. Even harder to find are sympathetic salespeople who understand that an elderly widow might only want to exchange e-mail with her grandchildren and maybe do some genealogy research on the Internet she doesn't need the same computer with all the latest bells and whistles that her 15-year-old grandson is using to play video games and download MP3 music files.
Because they're often working on commission, the sales people in big-box stores are often more interested in selling you something than learning what you really need. If a manufacturer is offering a cash kickback to the sales staff this month on every one of their computers sold, that's the make and model that is (surprise!) exactly the one the sales folks recommend.
So you should not expect any kind of useful assistance in one of these stores. But if you prepare yourself with the information in this chapter, and you don't allow the salespeople to "up sell" you to a computer with features you don't want or need, they can often be decent places to buy a computer, especially one made by a major manufacturer.
There are some decent salespeople out there. Working retail can be a tough way to make a living, and many stores don't provide adequate training to people trying to sell complex equipment. So you should be nice to them, even if you don't buy anything.
When you do get a good salesperson, remember his or her name. If you decide later to go back to that store to buy your computer, make sure the original good guy (or gal) gets the credit and the commission on your sale. The salesperson appreciates it and will probably go out of his or her way to help if you have to return something for service or credit.
The big computer-specialty stores are a class of their own. They offer everything from fully assembled computers to obscure adapter cables and books like this one. Some of their sales people may know more about computers than their colleagues across the road at the discount store, but may still be working on commission and suffering from poor training. But you can usually find more choices in a specialty store, and many manufacturers offer attractive rebates that are not always available at other stores.
Screwdriver shops are retailers who assemble desktop computers from parts. They are different from other businesses that sell computers because they are often small local operations, and because they are frequently flexible enough to build custom computers to meet their customers' specific requirements. When you want a computer with an extra graphics controller to support a second video display, an extra-quiet case, or an ergonomic keyboard, a screwdriver shop is the best alternative to assembling the computer yourself. And if you're buying multiple computers over time, a continuing relationship with a good screwdriver shop can be a huge asset to your business.
But remember that screwdriver shops can suffer from all the hazards of small businesses in an extremely competitive marketplace. Don't be surprised to discover that a shop that appeared to have been thriving six months ago has disappeared from the face of the earth because the owner received a better offer, or the competition from discount retailers has driven them out of business.
Screwdriver shops have lower overhead than the big chain stores, but they can't buy their stock in the same kind of volume. Therefore, the cost of a white-box computer is probably comparable through either channel. If a price seems unreasonably low, look for a reason; it could be either cheaper parts or inadequate service and support before and after the sale.
A screwdriver shop might be a one- or two-person business operating out of the owner's basement, or a somewhat larger operation with a dedicated sales force and a retail store in a strip mall. Even if you don't need a custom design, a good screwdriver shop can be an attractive place to buy a computer because it offers personal service from a local business. If you ask, the sales people can probably explain exactly why the shop has selected the particular motherboards and other parts they're using. If there's a problem, the service technician can easily consult with the person who put the system together in the first place. However, these are generally small businesses that can't always afford to provide the same kind of 24-hours-a-day support available from a major corporation.
To find a good screwdriver shop, ask friends and colleagues for their recommendations and look for advertisements in local computer publications. Before you buy, it's worth a telephone call to the Better Business Bureau to learn if the shop has a record of complaints from previous customers. In the end, it's important to trust your own instincts about whether or not you want to do business with them.
When you talk to sales people from a screwdriver shop, you should expect them to ask how you plan to use your computer and recommend a system that meets your specific needs. If you have done some homework first (meaning, you have read this chapter), you should be able to tell if the proposed package is right for you or if the sales person is loading it with features and options that you will never use.
All the major computer manufacturers and many other suppliers sell computers through Web sites and mail-order catalogs. You can buy a brand-name computer directly from the maker or importer, or a white-box system from a dealer who can pack and ship the computer to you overnight or within a few days.
Ordering a computer from your home or office via catalog or Internet offers several advantages:
Access to more brands: No retailer offers every one of the dozens of different makes and models that are available through the Internet. If you're located far from an urban center, your local options might be restricted.
Choice: When you order a system directly from the maker, you can specify exactly the configuration you want. You're not limited to the features and options in a local retailer's inventory.
Special offers: Web and mail-order dealers might offer bundled upgrades or accessories (such as extra memory or a bag for your new laptop) or discounted prices that are not available from local retailers. Many manufacturers also offer factory-rebuilt systems, often with full warranties, at substantial discounts.
Support: When you buy directly from the factory, their customer assistance center is your first line of support. You don't have to take the computer back to a store, whose staff may or may not know how to help you.
Convenience: When a manufacturer or retailer ships a computer to you, it is delivered directly to your door or your company's loading dock. You don't have to load it into your own car or truck and back out again.
The disadvantages of Web and mail order include:
Delayed gratification: You have to wait for delivery after you order your new computer.
Added cost: Most Web and mail-order places charge extra for shipping, which can increase the total by 10 percent or more, depending on the speed of delivery. If you can find a special free-shipping promotion, it can sometimes make a big difference.
What you see is what you get: Unless you can find a similar item locally, it's not possible to examine a computer before you buy it through the Web. This is particularly important on laptops and the human-interface portions of a desktop system such as the keyboard, video display, and mouse. If you don't like the look and feel of a new computer, you have to pack it up and return it, which can be both costly and time consuming.
Difficult returns: If part of your order has been damaged in shipping, or if a computer or component is defective or it's not the one you ordered, it's usually necessary to telephone or e-mail the seller, describe the problem, and request a return authorization. Depending on the company, you might have to pay for return shipping and wait until it arrives at the warehouse before they send out a replacement. If you're dealing with a particularly uncooperative (or dishonest) dealer, you could be in for a very long wait or worse.
When you're dealing with a distant business, it's even more important to take some time to investigate the company's reputation before you trust them with your order. Several independent Web sites offer ratings and comments from past customers, so a Web search on the name of the company combined with the word "ratings" or "review" usually produces pointers to useful information. Once again, the collective wisdom of the Internet can reduce the risks involved in buying by mail or through the Web.
For some users, assembling your own computer from parts is a legitimate alternative to buying a preassembled system through any of the retail channels discussed here. If you have some experience and confidence working inside a computer case and if you are prepared to provide much of your own technical support, a home-built system can allow you to choose exactly the set of features you want and maybe reduce the cost of your computer without a sacrifice in quality or performance.
Building a computer from scratch is probably not worth the time and trouble involved if your only objective is to save money. You can probably find an inexpensive brand-name or white-box system at a local retailer or through the Web for about the same price as the total cost of all the parts you would have to buy. But if you already have an accumulation of usable spare parts or if you want to choose the particular components and features in your computer, a home-brew system might make sense. There are many more variations available in things like cases and graphics controllers than you're likely to find in any retailer's inventory. Once you move beyond the low end, you can often build a computer with better performance or special features for the same amount of money that an off-the-shelf system might cost.
For example, the manufacturers of desktop and tower cases offer many variations and options in their product lines, but most white-box assemblers limit themselves to one or two generic models. When you're building your own system, you can choose exactly the size, shape, and color you want. You can choose a compact case, or one with extra space for additional hard drives. If you want a silent computer, you can even choose an ultra-quiet case from Antec, Zalman, and several other suppliers.
When you compare the cost of buying versus building, don't forget the price of a new copy of Windows. Most store-bought computers include Windows as part of the package, but if you're building your own system, you have to buy the operating system software separately-you can't just install the same copy you already use on another computer. One reason the big manufacturers can offer such low prices is that Microsoft charges them a lot less than you must pay when you buy one copy of Windows at a time.
Assembling a new computer out of parts is not something you might ever want to try, but if you do, there's a special kind of satisfaction when you turn on the power switch for the first time, and-there it is!-data begins to appear on your monitor screen. But if it doesn't work, remember that you have to find and repair the problem yourself; you built it, so you get to fix it. Before you start, you may want to read a book about building your own computer, such as Building a PC For Dummies, 5th Edition.
Building a usable PC is not usually a project for beginners. But if you enjoy that sort of thing, it can be a legitimate alternative to buying a new computer that has already been assembled and tested.