Los Angeles -- Are you in the market for a personal computer because prices have been looking good lately? Wait a week or two and they're likely to look a lot better.
Manufacturers, both large and small, are locked in a price war that has driven the cost of personal computers down 50 percent during the past 12 months. And there's no indication the price slide will end soon. A variety of personal computers are in the $1,500 range and could fall below $1,000.
Still, buying a computer can be confusing -- the industry is rife with technical jargon -- and there are other factors to consider besides price.
"Scary" is how Richard A. Shaffer, an analyst at Technologic Partners, a New York-based consulting firm, describes a typical first visit to a computer store.
So what's a novice computer buyer to do? In a word, research.
A good place to start is with industry publications, such as PC Magazine, PC World and MacWorld. And talk to the experts, either at work or at the manufacturers.
Once you've decided to buy a computer, the most crucial step is deciding what you are going to use it for -- well in advance of that first shopping trip.
Prepare a list of all the things you want a computer to do. For instance, do you want a computer to play video games, prepare income taxes, write business reports or run a small business?
Such information is important because it will give you and the salesperson a better idea of how powerful a machine is needed to meet your needs. The more powerful the computer, the more data storage space it has and consequently the more it will cost.
"Look at the applications that you want," recommended Calvin Sheilds, corporate business technical director at Personal Computing Magazine. "That . . . can dictate what kind of computer you are going to want to buy.
"Obviously, somebody interested in putting out a newsletter for their kid's softball team is going to need more [storage] capacity than someone who is going to run spreadsheets."
It's also a good idea to talk to friends and co-workers who have recently bought personal computers. That can give you an idea of systems to consider or avoid.
If you use a personal computer at the office and plan to work at home, make sure the machines are compatible.
Mr. Shaffer suggests that consumers buy a computer in the same way they would a new car. Shop around, compare models, and don't get overwhelmed by technical mumbo jumbo.
"The machines are pretty much all alike," he said. "A computer is just a fancy business tool. The technology is interesting but it really doesn't matter how it works. You almost certainly don't know how your VCR works, so why do you care how a computer works?"
Personal computers today are "bundled," sold as systems that typically include a processor, the system's brain; a disk drive that stores memory; a keyboard; a high-resolution monitor and a mouse. The last device enables a user to select computer functions by pointing an arrow at a picture on the computer screen and clicking a button.
Systems on the market typically come with a software package built in that allows the user to perform a variety of functions. Additional software costs more.
Bundled systems often run in the $1,500 range -- a bargain price considering that computers cost $4,000 to $5,000 just a few years ago.
"My advice," Mr. Shaffer said, "is to go for the best value, the cheapest machine from the best company. Stick with a well-known name [and buy] from a knowledgeable retailer, if you can find one."
Consumers might want to spend a little more money to buy from a company that stands behind its products with a warranty and service department. Some companies have toll-free service numbers, for example, and others offer next-day on-site repair.
One reason computers are so cheap is that many manufacturers make clones of the IBM PC. Clones run the same programs and perform the same functions, but they cost less.
Here's why. Companies buy components -- microprocessors, circuit boards, cases, keyboards and monitors -- from overseas suppliers and then assemble the machines themselves. They are known in the business as "vanilla" systems.
Mr. Sheilds believes there is no reason for consumers to shy away from off-brand computers. "A clone is by far the best way you can spend your money when you are talking about a smaller system. You can save thousands of dollars by buying a clone rather than a true-blue IBM or [Apple] Macintosh," he said.
Virtually everyone interviewed said these systems usually work fine but that getting service can sometimes be a problem.
One hedge, experts agree, is buying from a system made by such "second tier" clone makers as Dell Computer Corp. or Compaq Computer Corp.
These companies frequently are mentioned as having good service departments. They also fired the latest salvos in the price war.
Last month Compaq introduced its newest line of machines, priced 32 percent below those that were on the market. Dell soon responded, slashing its prices to 27 percent below those of Compaq's.
This poses another potential problem for first-time buyers: buying a system that's priced low because it's already outdated.