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Where to buy?

Mail-order, retail stores and neighborhood ""clone'' shops each offer advantages and disadvantages.

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 1999

Julia Whiting, 5, of Seminole, checks out the displays while her father shopped for a computer recently at Best Buy.
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
As if it's not enough of a challenge to choose a new PC, consumers must decide where to buy one.

Do you go to a national retail chain? How about mail order? Or the shop just down the street that assembles "clones"?

Each has advantages and disadvantages, so comfort may be the deciding factor for a first-time buyer.

"In general, of the companies we have seen, the mail-order shops are slightly more reliable and are providing better service" than retailers, said Brad Grimes, senior features editor for PC World magazine. The magazine does not rate clone shops.

Service can be an issue anywhere a consumer buys, and the size of a company may not make a difference. For example, major chains such as CompUSA and Best Buy provided inadequate service in an undercover examination last year by PC World magazine. The chains acknowledged the problems and promised to do better.

Another point to consider is refund: Some places charge restocking fees of up to 15 percent of the purchase price. Make sure you know what the policies are before you buy.

Here's a quick rundown on each option:

Retail: If nothing else, it's easy. Just go to a computer superstore, an electronics store, an office supply chain, a warehouse club or other retailer, choose the system and take home the boxes.

Many manufacturers use a system of color-coded wires and provide easy-to-decipher charts to assist people in setting up their system. If that's not reassurance enough, some stores offer setup service in your home for a fee that usually starts at $75.

One of the trade-offs for buying off a retail store's shelf is that the system may have some cheaper components or a minimal amount of RAM (random access memory, which the computer uses to run programs and work with data). It may mean an otherwise good system lacks the horsepower the buyer wants. In addition, some systems sold at stores may have shorter warranty periods than those offered by mail-order companies.

It's also important for the consumer to find out whether the store, the manufacturer or someone else will handle service problems.

Mail order: The buyer controls the configuration. Either by the Web or by phone, the customer puts in a specific order and within a couple weeks the system is delivered to his door.

Mail order used to be the choice mainly of experienced computer users familiar with what they wanted and the companies that made the computers. More newcomers are discovering that they like the flexibility in configuration and that they generally get more PC for the price.

Such "direct sales" have powered Dell Computer's rise to the biggest seller of PCs.

One mail-order company, Gateway, has showrooms where consumers can check out systems before ordering. Compaq has PCs set up in stores such as Radio Shack and Best Buy that customers can use to order a customized PC that will be shipped to their homes.

However, buyers need to ask questions about service: Who pays for the shipping if something needs to be sent back for repair? What does "on-site" service mean? Might the user have to open the computer to help diagnose a problem?

Clone shops: Many small local computer companies make build-to-order systems at prices that often beat both retail and mail-order prices. In addition, these shops can offer more personalized service that bigger stores or mail order.

Again, it's important for buyers to ask questions: What kinds of parts are being used? Are they mainstream or off-brands? What is the warranty?

Most important, however, is to check references. How long has the company been in business? Will it give you names of other customers? How does it handle support?

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