First-time PC buyers: Time is money

Sunday, October 4, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

My columns are usually for folks who own computers. This one is for folks who don't.

Every year at this time the computer industry begins a marketing blitz. It's because the majority of computers each year are purchased between now and the end of December, for the start of school and the holiday gift season.

Despite all the computers that are sold every year, still only about half of American homes have a computer. This year, the computer industry hopes to change that.

In past years, the buzzwords were bigger, faster, better. This year the buzzwords will be cheaper, faster, better. Emphasis on cheaper.

Computers will be cheaper than ever. Families that could never afford a PC will be able to buy one for not much more than they would spend for a large television set.

No experience with PCs

According to a new report by Forrester Research (, these low-cost PCs will entice a large number of first-time PC purchasers.

But the report sees a problem: Many of these first-time buyers will be low-income households (those earning less than $35,000) and 72 percent of these first-time buyers will not use a computer at work.

As the report notes, "Until recently, more than 70 percent of PC owners had computer experience before buying a home PC. Now the primary objective for many first-time buyers is to learn the technology. Because these consumers are PC neophytes, PC makers. software vendors and Internet service providers should be prepared to help these new users via their call centers and help lines."

And there lies the rub. Support is expensive, but cheap PCs have a thin profit margin. So while the report urges PC makers to prepare for this onslaught of support calls, it's unlikely they'll listen. Which means these first-time buyers -- indeed, all PC buyers -- will find it harder to get technical support. We'll be saving money, but increasingly we'll be on our own to figure out how the PC works.

Think before you buy

Which brings us to my advice for the first-time buyer.

First, understand what you're getting into when you buy a PC. A computer is not like a television set. The Internet is not like cable. Buying software is not like renting a video.

Imagine this:

You buy the video of Titanic, bring it home and stick it in your VCR. A message appears on your TV screen, "In order to fully enjoy the special effects in this movie, new video and sound drivers must be installed in your VCR. Would you like to do that?"

Of course you do, you just spent $20 on the video. So you click "Yes" and sit back and enjoy the movie.

The next day your kids come to you in tears because their favorite Scooby Doo video no longer plays. Seems the old video doesn't like the new drivers that Titanic installed in your VCR.

Or imagine this:

In order to watch the new season of NBC's Frasier, your TV set says it needs a new comedy "plug-in." It tells you to download the new plug-in from the NBC Web site. Downloading and installing the plug-in takes an hour, and when you're done, the sound cuts in and out when you're watching ABC's Drew Carey.

All this sounds silly, except to those who spend a lot of time with PCs.

A computer is not an appliance, like a toaster or a radio. Those things you bring home, plug in and they work. If they don't work, you return them.

A computer is more like a musical instrument. You will either spend hours learning how to make it work, or you will find someone to "play" it for you.

The best way to learn about computers is to take a class. Another way is to read computer books. Some subscribe to computer magazines. Some just tinker. The worst way to learn about a computer is to call technical support.

All this learning takes time and commitment. And as everyone knows, time is money.

So when getting ready to buy that first PC, consider the hidden costs of PC ownership. Maybe the buggy things aren't so cheap after all.

Send e-mail to Charles Brewer at