PC novices should avoid cut-rate PCs

Sunday, August 30, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Today, this page discusses what computer to buy for the student. But after the question "What should I buy?" comes the question, "Where will I get the best deal?"

Too many people think the best computer is the cheapest computer. Analysts say the computer market is a "commodity market," meaning that the lowest priced product is the best buy.

For those who know computers in and out, bargain hunting may be a good idea. But if you're new to computers, cheap can be dear, very dear.

If you believe the ads and media hype, you might think personal computers are a mature, reliable consumer product, like a television set. They're not. They're complex, finicky beasts prone to a great number of ills, mostly user-inflicted.

Translation: If you don't know what you're doing, you can screw up your computer, assume it's defective, and spend many frustrating hours on the telephone trying to get someone to help you fix it.

Support often lacking

Dell Computer, which sells millions of dollars of computers daily on its Web site (http://www.dell.com), has said that it's not going to be offering sub-$1,000 PCs any time soon, since they're too costly for the company.

The problem is support. Buyers of cheap PCs are usually first-time computer users -- who expect the company that built the computer to teach them how to use it, over the telephone.

Such support can be costly. To cut prices, some companies cut support staffs. That means longer waits, or paying for support.

Another way some companies cut prices is use off-brand components such as video cards or modems. They may work fine, but just try to find the latest driver software.

Beginners should probably stick to a store that sells and services computers. Prices are competitive with the cut-rate dealers, but you can bring the computer back when something goes wrong. Before buying a system, check to see if repairs are done in-house. Some stores also offer classes in using the computer.

If you are a true bargain hunter, the best deals can be found on the Internet. However, heed the warning caveat emptor (buyer beware).

First, watch out for auction sites. Here, you'll think you can pick up a name-brand Pentium II system for a couple hundred bucks -- until the last few minutes before the auction ends, when the price will suddenly skyrocket.

Many auction sites are simply agents, selling merchandise for other companies. While the auction site charges your credit card, it cannot promise delivery of the goods.

Complaints about online auctions are flooding into the Internet Fraud Watch (http://www.fraud.org), according to the National Consumer League.

Some auction sites can be very liberal with their description of computer equipment. I once bought a Compaq computer from a site that claimed the computer was factory refurbished with a "manufacturer's warranty." It turned out the computer was simply used, and the "manufacturer" was a small computer company in Atlanta.

Watch out for shipping and handling fees. You may pick up a printer for only $100, then be stuck with a $50 handling fee.

Refurbished equipment can be a good value, but make sure the it is refurbished by the original manufacturer and carries a real factory warranty. (A properly refurbished computer should look new from the box.) And before buying any used or refurbished equipment, make sure you can return it, no questions asked, if you don't like it.

With competition so fierce, new systems can be as cheap as refurbished. Online retailers Gateway 2000 (http://www.gateway2000.com) and Micron (http://www.micron.com) sell reasonably priced computers, and Gateway sells refurbished computers online.

MicroCenter, a Columbus-based computer retailer with a store in Cincinnati, sells its own PowerSpec line of low-cost PCs. They can be purchased online (http://www.powerspec.com) or in MicroCenter stores. CompUSA, which also has a Cincinnati store, has a "factory outlet" online (http://info.compusa.com/outlet/default.asp) that sells refurbished computer parts and systems. The Mac-inclined can find Apple computers at both local stores as well as online (http://www.apple.com).

Send e-mail to Charles Brewer at CBrewer@enquirer.com.