A RECENT survey of 18,000 PC Magazine readers showed that 40 percent reported having problems with their computers during the previous year.
While the poll was not a truly scientific sample, its size and the consistency of its results show that PC buyers had better be prepared to deal with trouble.
In a large corporation, which is likely to have in-house computer support or a contract with a service company, a PC that goes on the blink may not cause too many problems. It can usually be repaired quickly, and spares may be available.
But small businesses that depend heavily on one or two PCs, or home computer owners who use their computers regularly, may face considerable inconvenience and expense when a PC goes south.
Let's say you have a small retail business that depends on a PC for cash-register transactions. This is an increasingly popular application, because the software prints a customer receipt, logs the sale in the books and may even update inventory records automatically.
If the PC goes down, you're back to writing manual sales slips. While this won't necessarily affect sales, you'll have to enter everything you missed once the PC is fixed. At best it's a pain in the neck; at worst, it could mean costly overtime.
Or, to meet your obligations as parent and chauffeur, you may be used to leaving the office at a normal hour and taking work home that you can finish when the kids are in bed.
If that home PC isn't working, your whole schedule can be thrown out of whack until it's back on line.
There are two ways to deal with the issue. The first is to buy a PC that's less likely to break down in the first place.
PC Magazine readers gave Hewlett Packard equipment the highest marks for reliability, although you'll pay a premium for HP equipment. IBM ranked in the middle, while others were spread all over the field. For details, get a copy of the Sept. 25 issue.
The second strategy is to buy a machine that's easy to fix and backed by a service organization that can fix it fast.
Unfortunately, computers are becoming more difficult to repair. A few years ago, most PCs were true IBM "clones," hardware lookalikes that used standard, off-the-shelf components. A PC designed this way can be fixed quickly and cheaply by any competent repair shop.
Now, to save space and give buyers more bang for the buck, manufacturers are shifting to proprietary "motherboards" (the main computer circuit board) that include video adapters, disk drive controllers and communications ports.
When a single component, such as the printer port, develops a problem, you may have to find someone who stocks specific parts for that computer -- or can get them. Technicians may require specific training, and because the parts are proprietary, repairs are often more expensive.
When you buy a computer, make sure the retailer can fix the
machine. Ask about parts. If he stocks them, he can probably turn the machine around in a day or two. If he has to order them, you could be without a computer for weeks.
Mail order firms have been dealing with this issue in two ways. Some offer 24-hour exchange on defective parts, which is great if you have a little technical savvy and can replace the component yourself.
Large mail-order firms now offer on-site service in most large cities through national repair organizations such as Xerox or TRW. That means someone will come to your home or office to repair the computer. Other dealers offer only walk-in service, which may be better if you have a home computer that breaks and you're not in the house during the day.
Once again, ask in advance about parts. A friend once waited almost three weeks to get a floppy disk drive replaced because the manufacturer refused to stock the repair center with parts. It required defective parts to be shipped back before exchanging them. This is intolerable.
Once your machine is out of warranty, you may want to consider buying a service contract with your retailer or a service company. While these aren't cheap ($200 to $1,000 a year, depending on your equipment), they can pay off in time and money if they get your PC back on line quickly.