For better or worse, computer-buying rules have changed

Personal computers

July 27, 1992|By Michael J. Himowitz | Michael J. Himowitz,Staff Writer

Not long ago, the type of computer you bought depended largely on the type of store you patronized.

If you wanted a True Blue IBM, Compaq or other high-end machine, you shopped at your local Computerland or other full-service dealer and paid the premium.

If price was all that mattered, you paid a visit to Kal's Klone Kloset and bought whatever his 17-year-old nephew was putting together in the back shop at the time. If it worked, you got a bargain; if it didn't, that was the gamble you took.

Today, it's hard to tell the players without a score card. You can pick up an IBM portable on the Home Shopping Network, or put one in your shopping cart along with the paper clips and copy paper down at the office supply store.

You can dial the phone and buy a state-of-the-art screamer from a big mail-order company such as Dell and often get better service than the high-priced stores can offer. And chances are that Kal's nephew, a few years older and wiser, is putting together clones that can match the best of the big brands for a fraction of the cost. In fact, he may putting together hundreds of them for some of the biggest businesses in town.

Everybody is hawking computers today, and at prices that were unimaginable a few years ago. The public has caught on to the fact that it doesn't take a rocket scientist to put together a workable computer. As a result, there's a price and marketing war that has upset all the old rules of buying and selling computers.

For consumers, this represents good news and bad news. The good news is that computers don't cost very much. The bad news is that it's hard for new buyers to tell the good stuff from the bad stuff -- and it's often hard to get the kind of advice and service you need.

A few words about hardware are in order here. If you're buying an IBM-compatible machine, the name on the box doesn't mean much. Computers are made from components, much like stereo systems. If you have a couple of screwdrivers and a little technical knowledge, you can purchase a mother board, case, power supply, disk drives, video board and monitor and put together your own PC from scratch in a couple of hours.

What you're really buying today is computing power, which means speed, memory, disk capacity and video quality. When you spend more, you're buying more of one or the other. Even the smallest shop can assemble a superb computer if the owner is willing to use high-quality components and match them properly.

So where do you shop? It depends on what you're looking for. If you're basically familiar with computers and you're looking for a PC that will let you bring home work from the office, a local dealer who assembles his own machine may be fine. Just don't expect much hand holding or software support. These guys sell hardware -- but they're usually willing to build just the PC you want.

Look for a dealer who's been in business for a few years, and always pick one with a service department that can fix your machine during normal business hours (part-timers operating out their garages are still bad bets). Most decent-sized cities have a handful of good small dealers. Many of them got their start running repair services and figured it was just as easy to make computers as it was to fix them.

In fact, the local clone maker may be your best bet if getting a computer fixed quickly is important. Most of these dealers use generic components that are easily replaced by any service department. Many brand-name computers contain proprietary hardware that may be difficult or expensive to replace in a few years.

If you're looking for more variety or the comfort of a brand name, you can try an office office supply warehouse or consumer electronics dealer. Many of these businesses have put in large computer departments stocking everything from no-name clones to low-end computers from top manufacturers.

How much help you'll find at these stores depends completely on the local operation. Some are well-staffed with knowledgeable computer salespeople, while others just sell boxes of hardware. Likewise, some may have in-house service departments, while others rely on third parties or make you deal directly with the manufacturer if there's trouble. Check this out carefully before you buy.

Whether you're starting out from scratch or you're an experienced user, one of the new "superstores" is certainly worth a look. These huge warehouse-like operations are dedicated solely to the computer market, and they carry an enormous variety of equipment and software at reasonable, if not rock-bottom prices.

If you're a new user, you're likely to find a knowledgeable tTC salesperson here who can help you set up a system to meet your needs (although you shouldn't expect miracles). Experienced users or businesses who want to add equipment can usually find what they want at a decent price and walk out the door with it.

For business people who are serious about installing multiple, networked computer systems for critical applications, such as billing, accounting and payroll, the old-line, full-service dealers are often worth the premium they charge.

Networking brings out the worst in computers, and these dealers usually have the expertise and hardware to create a system that works and service it. Many of these dealers will also train your personnel -- which may be as important as setting up your hardware and software.

You'll pay for all of this, but the productivity gains and peace of mind you'll gain from a well-constructed, reliable system are well worth the cost.

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