Use reasonable caution in shopping online Risks about same as in using a credit card to buy over the phone

Your computer

December 14, 1997|By MICHAEL HIMOWITZ

DECEMBER and January bring a flood of calls and e-mail from computer shoppers. In December, they're looking for PCs. In January, they're buying software, accessories and gadgets that they didn't realize they'd need in December. So here are answers to some of this season's most common questions.

Q: Is it safe to order merchandise online?

A: There's a risk in any credit card transaction. I don't think online shopping is inherently more dangerous than catalog shopping by phone -- if you follow some common-sense rules.

First, don't do business online with someone you haven't heard of, or someone who hasn't been vouched for by a friend.

It doesn't take much to set up an online business -- a computer, $20 a month for an Internet account and a 15-year-old nephew who knows how to create a Web page. On the other hand, there's no reason to be gun shy about buying from an established company, or even an upstart that has developed a reputation for good business practices. Many old-line retailers are setting up shop on the Web -- in part to meet competition from a wave of new electronic entrepreneurs

For example, and CDnow shocked the book and record industries by attracting thousands of customers with low prices, an enormous selection of titles and entertaining Web sites. Other booksellers and record distributors are now joining them.

A psychological stumbling block for many shoppers is credit card security. They've read about hackers who lurk in the crevices of the Web, sniffing out credit card numbers that pass between buyers and sellers.

A lot of this is media hype. If you want to steal credit card numbers, there are easier ways to do so. There are documented instances of Internet credit card theft, but you're probably in just as much peril from face-to-face or telephone sales.

Even so, the latest versions of Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer have built-in security features that encrypt information during online sales. Most responsible online merchants have Web sites that support these transactions, and they'll advertise that fact. If you're not sure about a Web merchant's security, use e-mail or the phone to ask about it before you buy online.

Q: I've seen great prices offered on modems. Is this a good time to replace an old one with one of the new 56K models?

A: This isn't a bad time to wait. For the last year, two warring industry groups have been selling so-called 56K modems that use competing and incompatible communications standards called x2 and K56 Flex. That's why prices are low -- both sides are trying to gain market share.

Meanwhile, the International Telecommunications Union has been hammering out a worldwide industry standard for 56K communication. Most 56K modems sold during this transition period can be upgraded to the new standard once the issue is settled, but, unless you absolutely need a modem now, it might be better to wait a few months for one that has the ITU's blessing.

On the other hand, the chances of most users actually being able to communicate at 56K aren't very good -- even with the new standard. That's because your Internet provider has to have the right equipment, too, and even then you'll need near-perfect phone line conditions to make these modems work together at high speed.

Testers have rarely exceeded 43 kilobits per second with the new hardware. That's only a third faster than the 33.6K modems that have been standard equipment for the last two years. All modems are compatible at 33.6K, so the odds are good that you won't lose much in the long run if you get a good buy on modem today.

Q: I see a lot of ads for inexpensive computers marked "closeout" or "remanufactured." Is there anything wrong with them?

A: Retailers and manufacturers usually have "closeouts" on existing models when they introduce a newer, faster PC, or even a whole new line of computers. They lower prices on the old models to get them off the shelves.

These are often perfectly good machines -- particularly if you don't demand much of a computer. It doesn't take a screaming, 300 Mhz Pentium II to run a word processor, spreadsheet or Web browser. A model that's a notch or two behind the curve will serve you well. But if you're into games or multimedia entertainment titles, it's worth paying a few hundred dollars more for an up-to-date model.

One closeout to avoid: computers with older, standard Pentium processors. These don't have new MMX technology that Intel introduced almost two years ago to speed up graphics and multimedia programs. Over the next few years, most games and graphics programs will be optimized for MMX technology, and eventually you'll find that most software requires it. You can find plenty of cheap PCs that have MMX Pentium processors. Don't bother with an old one.

I'd also avoid a "remanufactured" computer unless you're certain of its pedigree. Most of these had at least one component dead on arrival and were returned. If you can't be sure that a PC was repaired using new, factory parts -- and unless it carries the manufacturer's original warranty -- skip it and buy a new machine.

Pub Date: 12/14/97

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