These days there are almost as many ways to buy a personal computer as there are ways to configure one. You can buy from a computer superstore; small local computer retailer; office supply, electronics, department, mass-merchandise, or warehouse store; computer show; value-added reseller; mail-order catalog company; or directly from the manufacturer. To make things even more complicated, a number of vendors in the above categories now let you buy through the Internet. How do you decide where to get the biggest bang for your buck? Much depends on your particular situation. But each buying channel has its advantages and disadvantages, and some have more advantages than others. Buying Retail
Despite the newer whiz-bang buying options, walking into a store, sitting down in front of a number of display PCs, and taking a system back with you is still the most common way to buy a computer. Buying from a retail outlet can be reassuring if you don't have previous experience buying a computer. Looking at a monitor, testing out the feel of a keyboard, and seeing how much space the system takes up can be important clues to how you'll like the system once you get it back home or in the office. On the other hand, you might think that being able to look your salesperson in the eye will help ensure that you get a good deal. But some computer salespeople have little knowledge of computer technology besides which models the store has in stock and their prices. This is particularly true for stores that don't specialize in computers. Likewise, you likely won't get expert support after the sale from department and discount stores. Still, there's something to be said for the instant gratification of picking out a system and taking it with you. Many people have had good experiences with smaller computer stores that others have recommended or that they've built relationships with over the years. Some of these stores sell their wares on weekends at computer shows held at racetracks and convention centers. Consider getting a recommendation first before buying an expensive system from an unknown vendor. Value-added resellers are vendors that add value to the hardware they sell by including configuration, installation, or training. You'll pay a bit more, but if you have specialized needs, the money spent can save you headaches later. Buying By Phone
Since the mid-1980s the most intrepid computer shoppers have saved money by going the mail-order route. Though still commonly used, the term "mail order" is a misnomer because you'll most likely use your phone to order your system and have it delivered through a courier service rather than the postal service. There are two main ways to buy through the mail-order channel--directly from the manufacturer or from a catalog company that offers wares from different manufacturers. In both cases, it's a smart move to stick to the better-known players. Top direct-to-consumer companies include Dell Computer Corp., Gateway 2000 Inc., and Micron Technology Inc., while the best catalog companies include PC Connection, PCs Complete, Insight, and Computer Discount Warehouse. More manufacturers are getting in the direct game, including Apple, Compaq, and Sony. Buying directly from a manufacturer usually means you can choose which components go into your PC rather than having to take a preconfigured unit. And it often means that the manufacturer saves money by not having to warehouse preconfigured systems. On the downside, it can take a few days to a few weeks for you to receive your PC. Buying By Internet Net shopping is the latest option in buying PCs. Many PC vendors now offer Web-based shopping, including Dell, and CompUSA, which both provide excellent sites. Some Web sites make it easy to price-compare similar PCs from different manufacturers. Other sites offer a "configurator," an online tool for adding or subtracting components and quickly calculating the resulting price. On the other hand, some sites provide only a moderate amount of detail about the systems offered, and they might not list all the available configurations or provide delivery dates. This forces you to phone a salesperson. If you'd like to hear about others' experiences in shopping for PCs or share your own experiences, you can start or join a discussion in a relevant Usenet newsgroup, such as comp.sys.ibm.pc.hardware.systems or comp.sys.mac.hardware.misc. Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] or http://members.home.net/reidgold.