Tips for Buying a Computer Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Tips for Buying a Computer

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A computer screen with someone handing over cash in the foreground

To the uninitiated, buying a computer can soon become a series of headaches - there is so much to consider besides the price. Before you even look at a model, you'll have to think what you will use your machine for - is it for business, for pleasure, or for home organising? What software will you need? How much disk space will you require? And what about Internet connection and modem speed? The list is endless, which is why we turned to you for help, our computer-savvy Community. This is what you told us...

Operating Systems

So which to choose if you are buying a new computer, and are not already married to one OS? Ask yourself who you will turn to when the computer does not work right (out of friends and family, don't count the guy who sold you the computer or the technical support number). Buy what that person uses. When it is 11pm and you are desperate to get the thing to work, you don't want to call your friend and have him or her say 'I don't know how to fix Macs' or 'I told you not to buy Windows'.

The next consideration is the software that you need to run. Most productivity software has both Macintosh and Windows versions or there are equivalent competing products on the other OS. Many games do not have Macintosh versions, but the most popular ones generally do, and there are some games that do not have Windows versions. However, a few people will have a need to use a specific program that only runs on Mac or only runs on Windows, and you need to consider this if you have something like that.

You may also have industry considerations if you are using the computer for work. Many businesses standardise on Windows, and if you accidentally bring a Mac-formatted disk to work you will be stuck. On the other hand, companies that work in graphic design, advertising, publishing, printing, web design, and other arts are often standardised on the Macintosh.

Macs are not perfect, but they do crash less often, are still easier to use than Windows, and have not been targeted by as many computer viruses (a couple of dozen Mac viruses compared to tens of thousands of Windows viruses over the last 15 years).

Which OS to choose

Well, you basically have three or four different operating systems. Note that this is very important. First off, Macintosh X OS. Macs are quite nice, stable, but only have a small percentage of the software/hardware market and are generally incompatible with PCs.

Linux is an open-source OS (meaning you could download a free copy off the Internet) that is used a lot by programmers, Microsoft haters, and other anarchists. (It's a joke, come on!) And there are several companies that distribute professional-quality Linux OS (RedHat being the first that comes to mind, and it is a very stable OS). It is worth noting that Linux has a very small share in the software market, though it can use the same hardware as a PC, if there are the correct drivers for it.

Finally, Windows 9x/ME, NT, 2000, and XP. The newest, XP, was just rolled out. It is basically a castrated version of 2000, with a very annoying product-activation scheme, in-your-face tactics to sign up for a Passport account, and a pretty GUI and software that's not hard to find somewhere else, preferably free. Very stable (as it's built on the NT kernel) and a memory hog. 2000 (otherwise known as NT 5) is just an upgraded version of NT. Very stable, though there are conflicts with some drivers and software programs. Not a bad choice as you get the same stability as XP.


Any software needed to run your computer (device drivers, operating system, etc) should come with your computer. New computers usually come with some form of virus protection as well, although how long you will receive updates for will depend on the deal you strike.

New computers often come with a 'bundle' of software too - a couple of games, a word processing program and spreadsheet are fairly common. You may have to pay extra for this - but it should be cheaper than just buying the software. Look at what software you'll be getting, and think about how much of it you will use. It's pointless paying for four programs if you're only going to use one or two - you may as well just buy those two separately.

'Specialist' software, such as music composing/typesetting programs may be harder to find. They probably won't be cheap, either. Shop around, and don't be afraid to ask the salespeople. If you go to a computer fair, you may also be able to get a discount.

For those who have the time and inclination, there's a lot of free software available out there, either by downloading from the Internet or by buying 'just the media'. Just a note to say be aware that if you pay for and download something off the Internet from, say America and you are in the UK, and they send you a back-up disc through the post, you will be charged duty by customs on it. As you have already paid for it, it is cheaper to make a back-up of your own if you have a CD re-writer - sometimes it will even fit on a floppy.

Be extremely wary of CDs on the cover of magazines offering '1000 free hours at not a penny's cost' or some such - the packages make 'adjustments' to your operating system which make any other ISP's connection run sluggishly or not at all. Either this is deliberate, in which case you shouldn't deal with such people, or they've failed to fix this bug through at least six different revisions of the software, in which case you shouldn't deal with these people.

A tip for newbies is to set up a webmail account with someone other than your ISP and make sure your friends know that address. There's a good chance you'll work your way through three or four ISPs in your first year or so, and if you don't have a fixed email address you'll have to irritate everyone you know by constantly sending 'my address has changed' messages...


Don't try and buy the 'very best' hardware out there. There are several reasons for this:

  • The newest hardware is the stuff that can still have 'problems' (overheating, etc).

  • The newest hardware also has new drivers, which won't necessarily be tested well enough in combination with other hardware. Or even be available for all operating systems.

  • It's usually unproportionately more expensive than the previous version.

Even if you buy a complete PC which comes with everything installed, you could still have problems. Conversely, don't get the oldest hardware or PC with the least features. When buying a complete PC, it's cheaper to get it with a modem than add later.

What hardware you need depends on what you want your computer to be able to do. If you're just getting something for word processing/accounts, you could easily get away with a very basic machine, such as an old 486 or Pentium model. You can often find these at computer fairs for around £50.

If at all possible, go to a showroom and try out a machine with the same/similar specifications as the one you're thinking of buying. See exactly what it can and can't do. Don't be afraid to ask questions! And don't be afraid to shop around for a better deal either.

Imagine if a computer comes 'free' with a printer worth, for argument's sake, £200, a scanner worth £150, a video thingy, £50 and a digital camera worth £100 - that's £500 worth of technology not in your main machine. Think like separates in Hi-Fi systems; one CD player could be as much as a similar model that incorporates CD and tapes or mini-disk or something. The components inside the single item will be just that little bit better. The value is singled on the main electronics not spread out over multifarious extras.

This isn't a hard and fast rule but it's worth bearing in mind when offers are giving away so much more than the main base model of the computer stereo or whatever - what are they trying to hide? That's not to say that the computer makers are being dishonest at all but when your buying it may pay to look at the stand alone models and buy the extras you want separately - you get what you pay for more often than not.


While the core specification of the unit (processor, disk space, etc) is important, don't forget to look very carefully at peripherals. Here are the basics:

  • Monitors - Usually a computer will be advertised with a '17 in monitor (16 in viewable)' or something. Avoid PCs where there is no brand and model given, or where the company's own badged monitor is used. After all, the monitor is what you spend all day looking at, so it may as well be up to the job. Search online for reviews of the monitor in the specification. A Trinitron/Diamondtron monitor of at least 17in size will do most things. Sony's range is pretty good, and the Mitsubishi Diamontrons are not bad value.

    The monitor is the thing you'll be working with no matter what you're doing at the computer. It's the bit that loses its value very slowly. A good rule of thumb is to spend at least a third of the whole cost of the computer on the monitor.

  • Keyboards and Mice - Make sure the keyboard is of a brand that you recognise. Intellimouse (with a scroll wheel) is really useful, but not essential. Optical mice are great, but expensive.

  • Printers - Buy a printer separately - bundled printers are, almost without exception, basic and slow. Have a look around - read reviews, look at magazines. It'll help a lot.

The following fun things, especially if you're going to college, can make any computer a really multi-purpose machine:

  • A TV Card
  • A Video-capture card
  • A CD burner
  • All the RAM you can get

Bit for Bit or Shelf vs Assembled

What should you do: buy the computer from one of the large Music-Video-Household Appliances-Computer-Hi Fi Stores or go to a computer shop to have a system assembled for you?

The Hardware Store will offer something that costs x-amount, which features impressive amounts of impressive numbers. The price looks nice for what you get. The machine should work fine if you are looking for an non-specialised computer. Something to be used as a typewriter, some surfing and the occasional CD copy. It should also spare you any trouble by just working. The difficulties usually start when you try to add new hardware to the system. Why? Well, you have no idea what's really inside the grey box. Yes, there's a motherboard (the bit to which all the hardware is connected to). If you want to change the Central Processing Unit (CPU, the bit that says 'Pentium' or 'Athlon') you need to know which motherboard you are dealing with exactly. You want to add RAM to your 256 MB machine? Fine. Until you open it up to discover that all the RAM slots are taken already... Install a new driver for that Video Card? Sure. Oooops... a no-name XY-compatible card... sorry, no drivers.

That's why the computers offered in the large chains are so cheap. The components are not necessarily the best quality or sensibly assembled. The RAM example above illustrates the point. There's a decent amount of RAM but assembled in such a way that no further RAM can be added without having to remove some of the old. Also, RAM can differ. There are lots of different 'flavours' not all of which go well together with the motherboard. Mind you, they all work, but some types of RAM might slow the overall speed of the computer compared to some other type of RAM. And you have no idea what stuff will be in that machine. This practically applies to all the bits of hardware. Generally you will end up with a machine that works. Just don't expect it to be easy to upgrade. The advantage is that you can walk into the store and buy one within 15 minutes without having to worry about much.

The small computer shop gives you the opportunity to select all the bits that go into the machine. That motherboard, so-and-so much RAM of this and that kind... This should keep you safe from any of the upgrading difficulties because you know what's inside. Here it helps if you know what you're buying. But even if you don't you can explain what the machine will be used for and the guy from the shop will tailor a system to your needs. This adds flexibility and may save you some money. Go and ask more than one shop for a quote.

Do not be fooled by huge numbers in the advertisements. A Pentium IV with 1.7 GHz might be outrun by a well assembled 'slower' system. The following example illustrates this point:

I (still) own a Pentium I with 90 MHz (six years old), all the components selected by hand. Running a benchmark test to determine the system's overall performance it came out better than a Pentium with 133 MHz bought straight from the shelf.

Some advice on the different kinds of components:

  • CPU - Easily one of the most expensive parts of the system. Also the one that loses value rapidly. The way things are, a CPU bought at the beginning of the year is so out-dated by the beginning of the next that you will have difficulties to buy the same again. The only applications that really make use of the CPU are games. If you don't intend to run the latest ones on the machine go for a CPU that is about three to six months old. They have enough power behind them to make any office package run smoothly. Also, don't let anyone tell you that you need a Pentium IV (or similar) to surf the net. Just buy the cheapest one available if you want to use the machine just as a typewriter, for some surfing and the occasional CD copy.

  • RAM - There is no such thing as too much RAM. Make sure that you have RAM modules as big as possible to have some open slots for later upgrading (eg, 256 MB in one module rather than 4x64 MB)

  • Modem - That would depend on the telephone system you have. Consider something with a flat-rate and maybe DSL (about ten times faster than ISDN).

Often, the cheaper, ready-built systems are cheaper for one very good reason. The sound card, the graphics card, and in certain cases, even the modem, are built directly onto the motherboard. This is fine for a while, but the moment something goes wrong, or you want to upgrade the graphics card to play the latest game, you're in big trouble. It involves digging around the insides of your computer trying to find a 'jumper' switch to disable the on-board graphics, which, if it exists at all, will probably be hidden under a mile of cabling and the hard drive, and will require you to completely disassemble your computer.

There's a lot to be said for separate cards; if they break down or you just want something better, you open the top of you computer, pull the old one out, put the new one in, turn the computer back on and throw the CD that came with it into the drive. (OK, it can be a little more complicated than that, but it's a heck of a lot easier than changing a motherboard.)

A Word about Macs and Other Things

Speed, as a general factor, takes on different forms, and is generally only helpful to those doing very intensive things on their computers: games (especially the high-end video experiences), multimedia, web editing, video capture, animation, etc. Word processing isn't so dependent on it and Internet stuff - that is, web browsing - doesn't require so much speed on the part of the computer itself, but more on the speed of the connection. And remember, if you are a speed junky, and you want the fastest, don't just look at the 'megaHertz' speed. Set a Pentium III next to a G4 of the same clock speed (ie, 700 MHz), and the G4 will actually be quite a bit faster because of the way it's put together. (Intel actually did the tests on this, and posted the results on their website.)

The primary use of the computer is also a consideration; if you're doing stuff like spreadsheets and other business-y things, a PC is probably your better bet, as it has many components that are easy to swap out with newer ones if you know what you're doing (which isn't too difficult to learn and can, in some ways and in the long run, be cheaper). And as for OS (Operating System), if all you're doing is business-y things, look into Linux as opposed to anything in the Microsoft family; Linux may be a bit more difficult to set up (though it isn't too difficult to find someone who will do it for cheap or free in most places on the globe), but it is actually easier to maintain and is a more stable system. And it is open-source, which is wonderful for all that licensing stuff.

If you're going to be doing graphics, sound, putting movies together, or any of that, a Mac or Apple of sorts really is your best option. The entire hardware set-up is made for it; you will find no other affordable desktop or laptop computer capable of the feats that a Macintosh can do with multimedia, and OS X (Apple's newest operating system) is inspired by Unix, the uncrashable system. It can handle amazing amounts of things, and hey, if it gets confusing (not likely), there's always still their old, familiar OS still embedded in the new one. The other advantage of a Macintosh is that it is possible to run any application on a Mac that can run in a Windows or Linux environment. There are programs available for that sort of thing, and more and more software companies are making Mac-compatible or even Mac-native versions of their programs. And a Mac will run Linux or Unix, as well.

If your only use is going to be word processing and email, you could 'build your own' computer. If you know what components are needed, and you know where they go and how to fit them together, going with a PC and making your own may be a very cost-effective option. Do some shopping online; look at what company makes the best of a type of hardware and how well it works with other things (other hardware, different OSes), and put it together yourself. It will also be cost-efficient down the line, when you want a better video card but don't want to have to call a technician or replace/upgrade the whole computer. The second route is the iMac - its whole purpose is the simple stuff, like word processing and email; it's also made to make web-connecting easy, and if you're uneasy around computers they tend to be very friendly. They are easy, and simple, but if you learn the machine well, you can do more and more amazing things with it. You won't be able to just swap things out as needed, but hopefully, you won't need to for quite some time with an iMac.

As far as software is concerned, Macromedia products for web-stuff are fast becoming the standard. Adobe also has some good stuff, especially if you're a Mac-user (or a control freak that likes to create worlds with absolute detail and efficiency); Star Office by Sun Microsystems is a good all-purpose word processor, spreadsheet, and database program (and also presentations and graphs); on a Mac, AppleWorks would be the equivalent for a good word processor/presentation/etc program.

The amount of memory you need depends both on what you're doing and what computer you've got. For example, though Mac programs, including the OS, tend to run on leaner memory than PCs, multimedia and graphical work is very memory-intensive as well as processor-intensive, so if you're doing multimedia you'll want as much as you can squish into the machine. (Remember that different machines, even within the same type of computer, have different maximums that the machine can handle. Find out what the maximum memory is before adding memory.) Memory can also be a tricky thing because of how the OS and the hardware handle memory; some systems will handle memory very efficiently while other systems have memory management issues.

Hard drive space depends on what you'll be doing. Again, multimedia things require a lot of space, especially if you want to keep it high-quality, whereas the normal run-of-the-mill such as email and word processing don't take up very much space. Also, different OSes have different space needs. Again, Macs tend to be leaner with the amount of space needed by the programs, but if you're doing multimedia, you'll use up the space you save with the things you create.

Desktop Publishing

If you're thinking of getting into the world of desktop publishing, Macintosh is the way to go.


  • Computer - The PowerMac (nothing older than a PowerMac 7300) will read PC or Mac disks, usually has a CD drive already installed, and is fast enough to deal with process colour. They're pretty easy to find in the classifieds. Quite often they'll have programs/applications on the hard drives that can come in handy and save you some bucks, too. Computer stores will make sure that it runs properly, they will also remove all the programs and most likely reformat the hard drive, so that all you'll get is a Mac with the current system software. If you're wanting something a little newer and more compatible with current systems, the iMacs are pretty nifty - the cheapest one runs on a 500 Mhz G3 processor with 64 MB of ram, and comes with a CD rom drive. If you get an iMac, get a USB hub to add more ports, especially if you want a scanner and a storage device.

  • Storage Device - While being able to burn a CD to give to your customer looks pretty classy, it's not very cost effective. Alternatives include zip drives or external hard drives to add more storage space. You won't need it on an iMac, but the PowerMac has a small hard drive by today's standards.

  • Scanners - You have to ask yourself whether your work will require a scanner. If you have web access, logos and artwork can be downloaded from customer websites. If you need clip art, there are many stock photography websites available. But if you need a scanner, it's possible to get a good one without spending a lot of money. If you have a pre-USB port computer, then you have a good chance of finding a used scanner. Check your classifieds and your local Mac store for leads.

  • Graphics tablets, trackballs, and other gimmicks - While these might look interesting and fun to play with, a good mouse is the way to go. The new optical mice are extremely efficient, very precise, and can be used anywhere without needing a mouse pad. Most Macs are sold with a compact keyboard; and what is recommended is getting an extended keyboard with a number pad on the right as his keeps your hands from getting cramped.


Publishing software for the Mac is pretty expensive, and most of it's made by Adobe. Which is why if you can find a Mac in the classifieds with these programs on it, purchase it quickly! The advantage to purchasing the programs from the companies is that you can buy upgrades when they come out, for much less than the original - and if your hard drive goes down, you can reinstall with very little trouble. However, if you're purchasing a PowerMac, the chances of your hard drive crashing before you decide to upgrade the computer are slim (not impossible - so always back up your system!)

Necessary software:

  • Quark XPress - one of the best publishing program around

  • Adobe Illustrator - a vector-based illustration program

  • Adobe Photoshop - raster image/photo manipulation program

  • Adobe Publishing Collection - This package includes Photoshop, Acrobat (for sending PDFs), Illustrator, and Pagemaker. Pagemaker is another publishing program that isn't as versatile as Quark XPress, but is capable of getting things done. Quark used to offer a competitive upgrade from Pagemaker for around $200, and if they still do, this is ideal for the budding desktop publisher who wishes to save some money.

  • Typestyler - Text shaper and effects creator

  • Extensis Suitcase - Keeps your computer from slowing down when you want to have more than ten fonts in your system. It allows you to add fonts temporarily to your system and close it when they're no longer needed. It also allows you to have several different font sets that can be opened on start-up, but aren't in your system folder.

  • A good virus program - Virex, Norton Utilities, and MacAfee all produce good virus detectors. Recent is better than used in this case. Macintosh has a much lower occurrence of viruses than the Microsoft platform computers. However, accidental viruses can develop, so make sure you have a good virus protection program installed.

If you are just starting out on web design, various magazines have been carrying full copies of Macromedia Dreamweaver v1.2 for both Mac and PC - it's perfectly useable.

Finally, on the software front, a good trick for legally getting the latest software cheap is to search the 'remaindered' pile of your local computer store for a (sealed) copy of a much older version of the software you need, buy it for pennies and register it, then legitimately take up the manufacturer's generous 'upgrade pricing'...

When an Experienced Consumer Speaks...

... we should listen.

Okay, I want to say right out that I'm not a programmer. I can't even program in LOGO, much less C or even old BASIC, and I don't really care how it works as long as it does. Also, I've been using a computer since the first one my dad brought home - an IBM 286 machine with an EGA monitor. I learned how to navigate in DOS when I was five or six (c:/ CD games, CD mustang (or whatever) mustang (or whatever)), and I can remember when Windows was Windows 3.0 (not any earlier, of course), seemed to run like any other application accessed from DOS, and was a GUI for DOS without pretending to be a whole new OS. I think I have a pretty good handle on computers and how to use them, even if I don't get into all the intricate detail. So, some basic advice:
  • Be more of a traditionalist - Some things are worth embracing right away. Some aren't, especially the OS. I was the last person who wanted to change to Win 95 in my house. Some things are good in theory, but it couldn't hurt to wait a generation or two for the bugs to be worked out and for the price to drop. I remember when a 4x CD-ROM was blazing fast. Now it seems like my DVD-ROM isn't fast enough.

  • GUIs - Graphic User Interfaces are not that hard to use, that's why they exist. Try navigating in an MS-DOS window and you'll see what I mean. With the ability to see hidden files/folders in Windows, you have great control over your machine. Don't be afraid to change things, just get some advice first on how to do it. And always make back-ups.

  • Building a computer - Unless you really know what you are doing, don't try building a computer from the ground up. The last computer my family bought was a Gateway 486 in a tiny case. Needless to say, the only part left of that computer is the keyboard, and it's starting to go. Because we have combined parts, sometimes not always used the best stuff, and made some just plain weird trade-offs, these computers are not as reliable as a well-made store bought system. Spending a week trying to get the computer working properly is not many people's idea of a good time.

  • Virus - Get an antivirus program. This is the most important protection you can have. I use Norton, but MacAfee's just as good. Similarly, I would suggest getting a firewall. There are plenty of free software firewalls out there today, and they work just as well as an expensive hardware or software firewall. Download and try a couple. It's not as important to have a firewall if you are on narrowband, but if you have something like a cable-modem or will be on another always-on service, it'll protect you.

  • RAM - RAM is good. Get as much as you can as long as you don't actually slow down the computer. Windows is a RAM-intensive program, and I recommend at least 256 MB of high-quality RAM to do just about anything. Even so, I still run out of memory sometimes.

  • Hard drives - Big hard drives are nice, but unless you plan on storing a lot of MP3s, movies, and games on that hard drive, 40 gigs of HDD should do you.

  • Software - Do not pay for software you will never use. I'm still not sure what I'll do with the eSupport application from Dell (to be fair, I didn't have to pay for it), the Camio Viewer, and some of the other stuff it came with. Similarly, there are very good programs out there that are either free or open source. A short list of things I have: MP3 players (WinAmp and MusicMatch Jukebox); GetRight, a download program that will resume downloads and even segment them, really handy on a DUN; Eraser, an overwriter program that will overwrite data deleted on your hard drive 1, 3, 7 (DOD standard), or 35 times; End it All, a very handy program, it'll shut down everything that's not protected, great if there are odd conflicts or some unknown program is eating up memory; Pop-up Stopper, eliminates annoying pop-ups when surfing the Internet, note that this can work against you if you are in a site where you want pop-ups; and a whole host of other programs. There are programs out there that are just as good or better than what you can buy for free, and it is a good idea to go looking for them.

  • Zip - Get a Zip drive, preferably 250 MB. The 100 meg drives are becoming more common, the 250 can read and write 100 meg discs, and they are very handy for transferring large files, storing stuff in a private place (very important if you are on a multi-user machine), and are hardier than a CD-R.

    They may be very useful, but everyone I've talked to seems to be 50-50 as to whether or not they are likely to fail or mess up. If it works for you, great, but it's something for others to keep in mind, as losing precious data can be very bad. If you've got the cash, an Orb drive or similar thing is definitely an option; it's like a removable hard drive - its disks are basically hard drive disks, they can store up to a few gigs on one disk and the disks run about $20 each. Not a bad idea. And they're re-writable, just like a normal hard drive. Though Zip disks have that nice thing where most people do have a Zip drive and not everyone has an Orb or Jazz drive, there is also always the option of finding yourself a cheap CD-RW somewhere and just throwing your info on a disk. I haven't heard much about the rewritables, but I know they're infinitely rewritable (or near it; up to a thousand times, I hear.)

  • DVD - A DVD-ROM drive will read a CD-ROM. Similarly, a CD-burner will read a CD-ROM. If you can only afford one, get the CD-burner, if you can afford both or do not plan on burning any CDs, get the DVD-ROM. Do not let some salesman try to talk you into a CD-ROM drive, as they are, for all intents and purposes, obsolete with CD-R and DVD-ROM.

  • Hardware - If a higher-quality, faster, etc, piece of hardware is available for not much higher of a price, get it. Better to spend a little more now for that extra life.

Finally, protect your computer. Antivirus software is common sense. A firewall is nice but not completely needed. More importantly, make the computer lock itself down. While this isn't needed in a home, if you are living in a place like a dorm, where you are the only user and someone could get on and trash your files and do all sorts of other nasty things, it is a necessity. My suggestions:
  1. Put a password on the screensaver. This, however, will not stop someone from unplugging your computer and turning it back on.

  2. To prevent that, create a user profile and password protect it. Make it so that you have to use a profile to get the computer to finish booting up. Make sure this password and the screensaver password are different.

Sure, maybe it sounds like I'm being paranoid, but think of it this way: Your computer is just like your car or house. You wouldn't leave them unprotected. Why should your computer be?

When a Former Computer Salesperson Offers Tips...

... we should all pay heed.

You have three main avenues for purchasing a new computer. You can buy from a superstore, choose a small local computer shop, or order a computer from the Internet. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Superstores and local shops are easier to deal with if you get a lemon, because you can simply return the machine for a refund. Local computer shops and mail-order companies can custom build you a machine - a very fun prospect for a seasoned computer user. Large chains often have good starter computers that come with lots of new software to try.
In all cases, you should be careful to buy from established dealers and computer makers. Don't purchase from local shops that just opened, nor from mail order Internet companies nobody's ever heard of before. Nothing's worse than getting a lemon, only to discover that you can't return it because the company went out of business.
In general, never take an offer that seems too good to be true. Equipment that is far more expensive than the competition may be plagued by quality issues or could even be used equipment that's been repaired. You'd be surprised what's in the fine print on 'super' deals.
Don't purchase service plans unless your time is far more important than your money. The profit for computer service plans is usually above 75%. Also, don't take a rebate that locks you into a particular Internet service provider unless you already use and like that provider. Usually the contract you are locked into is expensive. And what if you don't like the service?
So purchase a little more than you think you'll need right away. Remember that computers get faster and better over time. Chances are good that you will want to upgrade to better software as time goes forward. Buying a little bit ahead means you won't have to replace your computer or upgrade it for longer to run new software.
However, don't buy the fastest, flashiest thing on the market just because you can. The premium charged for 'coolness' in the computer trade isn't justifiable. The fastest computers are often jacked up at least $200 above what the equipment warrants. This is especially silly since the 'fastest' computer today will typically stay the fastest for six months tops. Then something faster comes along.
Always purchase based on your specific needs. If all you need is a word processor and email, don't let a salesman bully you into something with features you'll never use. If you're going to play the hottest games during your evenings after work, don't bypass the fun features you'll want just because you're afraid someone will see your purchase as frivolous. Be honest.
Finally, do see your computer purchase as a start of a journey. Your computer will probably be upgraded with software and hardware many times. You may purchase fun add-ons along the way. After all, that's part of the fun. And chances are good your computer will need maintenance or repairs someday. Eventually, your computer will seem too slow and limited. And then you'll do all this again! So don't stress too much about your purchase, okay?

Find a Local Shop that Will Build One for You

There are many 'good' makes of PC around and a lot of the big manufacturers may appear to offer good deals. But don't forget, it's not just the deal you make when you buy the thing that's important, it's the after sales service that can make the difference between a good and bad experience.

The big manufacturers have help lines you can ring when you get into difficulties, but they can be at premium rate and you can spend ages on the phone to them and still not get a satisfactory solution to your problem (assuming that you're not 'on hold' because their call centre system is jammed with callers who don't know what to do having got the thing out of its box). Persuading them to send someone out to deal with it can be very difficult, unless it has completely broken down.

Find a local PC shop that's been around for a few years and isn't likely to go bump in the night, and tell them what you want the PC for. Be realistic. Don't tell them you want to learn programming or sort out your home finances if you're really going to spend most of your time playing games or surfing the net. They can offer you a range of options and then build a PC to meet your agreed needs, and won't include things you don't need, like a flat bed scanner or other peripherals you have no real use for but that the chain stores include automatically (at a cost). Don't be afraid to ask 'daft' questions. It's a good idea to write down your questions before you go to the shop so you won't forget them when you get there. Your local shopkeeper will have heard them all before and should be able to answer in layman's terms. If they blind you with science, be wary. A PC can be a big outlay, so you need to be sure you're getting the right one for you. Usually you'll end up with one that's the same spec as one from the big manufacturers, probably with many of the same components, but at a lower price. It probably won't be in as fancy a case as the major brands, but that's not really important.

Check what after sales service they offer. If they're only round the corner you can take the CPU back to them instead of having to arrange to ship it to some remote service centre. Your local shop may be more likely to fix it on the spot or within a few days. Small shops rely on their reputation, so giving you good service is more likely to end up with you going back to them for upgrades or your next computer, so it's in their interest to keep you happy.

Another advantage with small shops is they usually know what they're talking about. The chain stores seem to employ salespeople who just want to sell you a box full of stuff, but may not know much about what's in it, other than what's in the marketing blurb.

And if you're really adventurous, buy the components and build it yourself. If you make friends with the local shop folk they'll be only too happy to advise you how to do this and help when things don't go according to plan.

Computer Fairs and Other Pearls

Computer fairs can be fantastic places to pick up bargain machines and components, but they are not for beginners. If you are new to computing then an independent shop would be the best place to shop at. Smaller shops can offer you just as much advice, usually more so, and offer better rates. Independent shops have to be cheap and helpful to survive.

If you are bit more experienced then the computer fair avenue is a useful route to a bargain machine. The main thing to remember is get a receipt. Also, buy from the stalls that are backed by a shop so that if something does go wrong, you have some kind of comeback.

Make sure you haggle with the stall owners. Get a price and then go to a competitors stall and say 'well that bloke over the there said I could have it for this price, can you beat it?'. Continue this until you get the best price.

On a general computer note, buy the best you can afford at the time as computer technology advances so quickly you will soon find it is out of date. However, do not buy the absolute cutting edge machine, buy the next one down as the latest advances are marked up considerably and are you really going to notice a marked difference in performance between a 1.9ghz CPU and 2ghz CPU?

Related BBC Links

  • Discover how a home computer helped Jason Ball become one of this country's top Drum & Bass producers.

  • Buying a home computer can be a confusing business, but don't panic! Computers don't bite.

  • Become WebWise with the help of Bruce the Spider.

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