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Tech Talk

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 13, 2000


Choices abound on where to buy a computer

Shopping for a computer is a little different this year. Only a handful of brand-name companies offer systems at stores, including Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, Sony and eMachines. And you may find only two or three of those choices at a particular store.

In addition to retail, consumers also can buy PCs online or have them custom-built by local computer shops. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

Retail chains: Buying an off-the-shelf system is easy. Choose one, put it in the shopping cart and take it home. But this "one size fits all" may not provide everything you want in a system, and don't expect to find knowledgeable sales clerks.

"When we go into stores, when we try to seek intelligent advice from salesmen, we have more trouble than if we contact a mail-order (company)," said Harry McCracken, executive features editor at PC World magazine.

Some stores also have computer kiosks, where consumers can order a custom-built machine from Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and Micron.

Online: It's a chicken-or-egg problem. First-time buyers will need help to order online, since it's unlikely they have Internet access. More vendors offer machines online, such as Dell, Micron and Gateway, and consumers can specify what they want. Gateway has a hybrid, with "stores" that are really showrooms to check out the PCs before ordering them for shipment.

"You get a little bit more bang for your buck buying off the Web or mail order," McCracken said.

But if there's a problem, consumers may need to ship back the computer for repair, so they need to check on service options before they buy.

Local shops: In many cases, local computer shops can sell PCs for better prices than offered at major retailers and even online. Before buying from a local shop, though, it's best to check references and to find out how long it has been in business. While some local shops have been around for years, others come and go quickly, which could leave a new buyer stranded in case of a problem.

"Don't buy from the first one you come across," McCracken said. "Buy one from where friends and co-workers have been pleased."

Check out warranties and support before buying

It pays to read the fine print on computer warranties to understand what "in home" service means, what's covered and the length of the coverage, among other issues.

Some low-end machines can have warranties of as little as 30 days, while more expensive machines can cover three years. "In home" service might mean a tech comes to your house only if the problem can be diagnosed over the phone or Web. If not, you might have to take it to an authorized repair shop or ship it back to the factory.

"Computer owners are experiencing more problems, the quality of service has dropped in many instances, and fewer people are truly happy with their PCs and the companies that make them," PC World reported in its May issue after a survey of 16,000 PC owners. (See chart.)

And consumers can't necessarily expect to pick up a phone and get an answer to a problem.

"Supporting the customer over the phone costs a lot of money," McCracken said. "Supporting over the Web is very cheap. They're doing all they can to get you to go to the Web instead of call."

Of course, that works only if the computer is working and only for certain problems. If consumers can get to the Web, though, companies often can do diagnostics on the system online, even do some repairs.

Some companies are taking support a step further by offering free classes so people understand their systems better. For example, Gateway Inc. has free clinics, "Ask a tech" and training classes at its stores.

Dell Computer calls its offering the Dell Solution Center, which features Web-based troubleshooting tools and educational offerings. Micron has Micron University, a combination of classes and self-help offerings.

"A customer who knows the computer well and understands it won't be calling them with basic questions on basic tasks in Windows or the word processor," McCracken said. "If they can educate through a class or online training, it's probably a happier customer."

Customers also can find themselves out in the cold if the computermaker or business closes. If a vendor goes out of business, consumers have a few options. They can check the Web for support sites such as Tech24.com, AskMe.com and Expertcity.com. It's also likely that the individual components in the system carry warranties from those manufacturers.

'Free' PCs just aren't what they used to be

"Free" PCs seemed to be all the rage last year, but companies discovered they couldn't make money with that system.

"A lot of the hoopla about free PCs has died down, probably because people discovered all the gotchas," McCracken said. "There are still large rebates that might cover most of the cost of a basic PC, but you're tying yourself into a long-term (Internet service) contract, which is probably a bad idea."

PeoplePC (www.peoplepc.com) offers memberships that include a PC, Internet access and special merchant discounts, starting at $24.95 a month and not including fees such as shipping. People have to sign a three-year contract, which is considered a loan. If they don't like the service, they still have to make the payments. At the end of three years, they can keep the computer.

The change this year is that more companies seem to be offering free Internet access, including NetZero (www.netzero.com) and BlueLight.com. The catch with these services can be giving up part of the computer screen to advertising or turning over a lot of personal information used for marketing.

Getting online is easier, but shop around for service

Those deals allow people to check out a service to see if it's what they want. If not, users can try something new, ask friends what they use or even look for one of the free Internet access services.

The convenience may come with some fine print, however. For example, while new users can sign up for AOL on the computer, it takes a phone call to cancel the service.

It's not a good idea to sign a three-year contract for Internet service. You might hear about something better, faster or less expensive. Canceling before the end of the contract could mean a penalty, and some may require paying off the full contract.

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