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Cutting through the confusion

Shopping for a computer doesn't have to be a nightmare. Experts, and new owners, offer insight into what's on the market this year.


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 13, 2000

Shopping for a computer baffled retirees Jim and Thelma Weakland. Using it once they got it home challenged them as well. But they didn't let the difficulties stop them.

"We should progress with the times," Jim Weakland said. "We're old, but we don't stick to the horse and buggy or kerosene lights."

A knowledgeable neighbor helped the Palm Harbor couple buy the computer in June, though they still have to check the invoice if asked about the amount of random access memory they got or the size of their hard drive.

They have attended classes and computer club meetings to learn more about using their first computer. And they even called the local company where they bought it when they couldn't locate the floppy disk drive.

"We're not bashful," Weakland said. "We'll ask anyone to help us out if we have a question."

The Weaklands are not alone. Buying a computer remains a daunting task for many consumers, who have to wade through tech jargon they don't understand and sales pitches that leave them glassy-eyed to buy machines that can be maddeningly difficult to use.

But the home computer market is giving consumers something of a breather. The fast-paced changes that have produced new hardware and other devices, and new layers of confusing jargon, haven't happened this year. In fact, this year's machines are not markedly different from last year's, though they have faster processors and bigger hard drives, good for the digital music, video and photo capabilities the industry is hyping.

That doesn't mean everything is the same. Prices are up, as the market for PCs that cost less than $600 has slowed and consumers buy more expensive machines. Choices in stores are more limited, with only a few brand names available off the shelf. Rebate deals can be found, but with larger type in the ads this year to explain their true costs. The "free PC" market is almost gone. And more devices called "information appliances" have come out, offering people limited, simpler functions such as e-mail and surfing the Internet, without the headaches of computers.

The average price of a PC in August was $827, compared with $794 a year ago, according to recent figures from PC Data, a market research company in Reston, Va. While sales of machines that cost $1,000 or less doubled, the market for those costing $600 or less grew by just 14.5 percent from a year ago.

"The aggressive values for consumers are in the $799-and-above price points," said Stephen Baker, a PC Data analyst.

Machines on the lower end of the price scale have plenty of power to handle almost anything a typical home user would want, such as surfing the Internet, sending e-mail and writing with a word processor. But those who want to do graphics, serious games and digital photos probably will want to pay for more horsepower.

While chipmaker Intel pitches high-end processors to handle heavy-duty 3-D graphics off the Web, said Tracey Capen, executive reviews editor at PC World magazine, a high-speed Internet connection, such as a cable modem or the phone company's fast DSL service, may be more important for consumers.

"Without bandwidth, you're not going to get 3-D," he said. "If I were going to put something under the (Christmas) tree, it wouldn't be a new PC. It would be some kind of broadband connection."

In fact, computermakers have found 2000 to be a tough year as sales slowed, with some attributing it to a maturing market. The Gartner Group research company estimates that about 58 percent of U.S. households have a computer, a figure that will grow slowly to about 69 percent by 2004.

To entice new buyers, some experts say, computermakers will have to offer compelling new devices and persuade people that they're getting more bang for their buck when buying a computer. The public seemed to resist some of those attempts this year.

Apple Computer introduced the cool-looking G4 Cube computer, which at $1,799 (without a monitor and before a recently announced $300 rebate) didn't meet sales expectations. It contributed to a big drop in the company's stock price.

Dell Computer offered its first sub-$1,000 computer, the WebPC, which was supposed to be simpler and easier to use. Consumers didn't buy it, and Dell stopped production.

Even eMachines, widely credited for creating the sub-$600 PC market and one of the top five sellers, continued to lose money and 90 percent of its stock value this year.

Some suggest the sales slowdown may herald the beginning of the post-PC era, when handheld devices, cell phones and other gadgets play a more prominent role in consumer technology. This year, information appliances, gadgets limited to Web surfing or e-mail, have been appearing on the market regularly, hoping to attract buyers who want simplicity and lower prices. But Baker of PC Data doesn't expect them to have a major impact on computer sales.

"There are people who want Internet access but not a PC," he said. "Those people may go for an appliance, but for the majority of people the PC will be the primary access point for the next few years. These type products do not yet deliver the value that a PC does in terms of what they can do versus what you pay."

A recent survey showed that more than half the adults who are not online have little interest in getting connected.

But that wasn't the case for the Weaklands in Palm Harbor, who wanted to use the Web for research and e-mail and the computer for writing and keeping tabs on their duties for their homeowners' association.

They were uncomfortable going into a store, Jim Weakland said, "because we're so ignorant of computers" and sales clerks did not seem knowledgeable. Dave Dockery, their neighbor and president of the Tampa Bay Computer Society, helped, and Computer Pro, a local computer business, sold them a computer for about $1,100.

Many seniors have the same fears as the Weaklands, says Dockery, who does regular classes on Windows and the Internet at the Palm Harbor library. "It's very difficult when you don't have the concepts, which is why seniors require special handling," Dockery said. "I urge people in the early stages to get mentoring -- a friend, a neighbor, a class. It's very tough to get it from a book."

That, Dockery says, also can apply to the workplace, where a business may install new software in an office, one or two people will master it and they end up teaching others. "They learn just enough to get their work out, and that's a substantial portion of people out there."

It shows that the industry's promises on ease of use have not yet been achieved, Dockery said, though "each version (of Windows) gets a little bit closer overall."

- Information from Times wires and files was used in this report.

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