Extended warranties make you feel protected But trouble most common in PC's 1st year, while still covered by maker

Your computer

March 22, 1998|By MICHAEL HIMOWITZ

THIS IS about a snow blower, new boots and extended warranties on personal computers. Yup, it's one of those columns -- but bear with me.

Back in November I resolved that for once, I would get ready for winter ahead of time. So I had the snow blower tuned up and bought a new, easy-lift snow shovel. I also bought a pair of waterproof boots to replace my old galoshes, new heavy-duty gloves, a genuine G.I. Joe camouflage ski mask, and nylon snow overalls that made me look like the Pillsbury Doughboy dressed up as Li'l Abner. The total came to $120 or so.

The result of my preparations: we haven't seen more than a couple of snowflakes all winter. The boots are still in the box, the overalls are hanging in the closet, and I've never had to put gas in the blower. The weathermen say El Nino is responsible, but know better. It was the money I spent getting ready, and it was worth every penny. If I'd done what I normally do, which is nothing, we'd have had at least three blizzards and four ice storms.

This is a long introduction to a message from a reader who spent weeks meticulously researching the purchase of a PC. Satisfied that he'd wrung every dollar from the deal, he was running the new machine through the checkout at the computer store when the salesman asked, "Would you like an extended warranty?"

The reader was dumbfounded -- he'd never considered the possibility. The salesman explained that his computer had a one-year warranty, and that for a couple of hundred dollars, he could extend the warranty to three years. His question to me: Is an extended warranty worth the money?

The answer depends on what you think is responsible for our mild winter -- El Nino or my investment in bad weather gear. Under this voodoo theory, if you buy an extended warranty, you guarantee that nothing will happen to your computer. But if you don't buy the policy, you guarantee that your PC will explode the day after the original warranty expires. It's a sort of metaphysical protection racket.

There's a good reason for computer stores and manufacturers to push this little angst button. They make a lot of money on extended warranties. That's because PCs are pretty reliable. The outfits that back extended warranties get your money up front, and if nothing goes wrong with your computer, they keep it.

Engineers and technicians know that if your computer doesn't break down in the first couple of months, it's likely to keep running till it dies of old age or -- more likely -- till you decide to buy a better PC.

During the first year of ownership, when something is most likely to go wrong, your computer is covered by the manufacturer. The extended warranty doesn't kick in until the original expires. So you're not really paying for a three-year policy, but a two-year policy. And your chances that you'll need it are relatively small.

This doesn't make an extended warranty a bad deal. Consider what might go wrong with your computer. The two most expensive components are the main circuit board (known as the motherboard) and the monitor. These are the least likely to fail, but if you have a powerful and expensive system, they can be expensive to replace. You'll pay considerably more for a policy on a high-end system than you will for a bargain-basement model, but you'll eliminate the risk of a $500 to $1,000 repair bill.

If you're considering an extended warranty, read it carefully and ask questions. First, what's covered? Does the policy cover just the system unit (the box), or does it cover the monitor, too? Are parts and labor covered? If the warranty covers parts only, what's the labor charge? Anything more than $75 per hour is too much.

Who does the work? Many buyers assume that the store or manufacturer is responsible. But that's not necessarily true. The store may be an agent for a large service company, taking a commission up front for selling a contract between you and someone you've never heard of. If that's the case, what happens if your service provider goes out of business? Will the store still honor the warranty, or are you out of luck?

Where will the repairs be performed? Many warranties call for "on site service," which means a technician will visit your home or office. That's great in theory, but taking half a day off from work to wait at home for a repairman may not be as convenient as dropping the machine off on your way to the office. Is there a walk-in center nearby?

Finally, find out if the repair center stocks parts for your computer. If not, repairs may require two or three visits by a technician -- or tie your computer up in the shop for days or weeks while parts are ordered.

In the end, an extended warranty really buys you peace of mind. It makes you feel better to know you're protected. Just make sure ahead of time that if something goes wrong, your repair service can deliver.

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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