How to buy a computer

A computer buyer’s guide for non-experts.

Buying a PC once meant swimming in shark-infested waters. You only had to wade into a computer store and sleek-looking creatures would circle, hoping to sink their teeth into your credit card.

These days the bites you’ll encounter when shopping for hardware are more likely to be those that are spelt with a “y”. That’s because computer retailing has grown-up; respectable stores have learnt how to sell computers and customers know to avoid the rip-off retailers. Even so there are still predators, so go ahead with caution.

Most independent specialist computer stores in Australia and New Zealand are small fry. While there are swept-up specialist showrooms in swish retail areas, most are in run-down shopping districts, or located at industrial or retail parks. You’ll often find them tucked away in suburban backwaters, on the wrong side of the tracks or in the creepy subterranean areas of shopping malls where you might expect to run into a party of orcs. The key word here is low rent.

Inside, store décor can range anywhere from the neurotic tidiness to health-hazard squalor. There might be a few nerdy looking guys working out back in what looks like a pigsty. This is called the engineering department. Amongst empty cola cans and fast food wrappers you’ll find state-of-the-art processor chips and disc drives which may end up inside your computer.

Unbranded hardware

As a rule small specialist stores offer unbranded hardware. Or at least unbranded desktop computers. In the trade these are known as white boxes. Wall stains are hidden by posters for companies you’ve never heard of. While brand choice is limited, these guys can often tailor a system to your exact specification or budget in a matter of hours.

And it’ll be cheap. If you’ve already got a monitor, mouse, keyboard and speakers, you’ll find good basic desktops start at around $500. Spend $1000 and you’ll have something better than 99 percent of corporate office workers will have on their desks.

In the past small specialist stores sometimes offered unbranded or obscure-brand laptops. These days the portable computers are almost always from well-known multinational companies, though you may see some unfamiliar names.

You’ll find the sharpest prices at the small specialist stores – often saving more that 20 percent on prices elsewhere – but there are risks:

  • First, you need to check that the hardware you paid for is exactly what you got (the section at the bottom of this post tells you how to do this). This check applies applies to all computer purchases from any type of supplier.
  • Second, a small store might disappear before your computer’s warranty expires. As a rule of thumb, a store that has been around for more than three years is unlikely to close overnight. With the economy the way it is, small stores are probably no riskier than some of the big ones.
  • Third, most of the prosecutions for software piracy involve smaller specialist stores. Make sure you get certificates and boxes for all the software included in your purchase. Be wary of unexpected applications pre-loaded on to the hard disc.
  • Fourth, brand name manufacturers often spend a lot of time and effort matching components and fine tuning their hardware. El cheapo computer makers might just visit the lucky dip barrel and shove in whatever parts come to hand causing problems down the track. You might even find second-hand components in your machine. Of course, the big brands often play similar games with their discount product lines.
  • Finally, don’t part with your money until you have the hardware.

Bigger range, less choice

Larger electronic retailers such as Dick Smith and Harvey Norman tend to carry a lot more stock than the specialists. They often offer a bigger range of prebuilt systems as well – though this may vary depending on store size. You’ll find the brands are mainly recognisable and although they may offer limited flexibility, you are usually restricted to buying complete systems with all the extras. Don’t expect to choose from a smorgasbord of components either. Prices tend to be higher than elsewhere.

Electronics retailers tend to keep machines on shelves and are less keen to let you test drive, especially when they are busy. Their focus is on a quick turnover of stock so expect to find less emphasis on customer service and a more intense emphasis on selling: touch a machine and a sales rep will approach you. You might find slightly more pressure to buy.

In some cases sales staff are ‘incentivised’ to push certain product lines. For example if they sell so many models in a particular range, they’ll get a free holiday in Fiji. So treat brand recommendations with caution. The sales reps are also often expected to flog you extra stuff once you’ve made a big decision – it’s the computer retail equivalent of “do you want to upsize?”

Variable after sales support

After sales support varies drastically from retailer to retailer so check individual store reputations with your friends before buying. You may find support is referred back to the manufacturer, but legally the store has the obligation to satisfy the customer.

Watch out for the special deals in the electrical stores. Sometimes old stock gets shifted at exceptionally competitive prices, but some so called bargains are the rubbish products more savvy consumers have left on the shelves for a good reason.

Smaller independent specialist stores are far more common on the ground in Australia than in New Zealand, which is dominated by a handful of big chains. Australia also has large specialist outlets like Sydney-based Harris Technology where you’ll find neat rows of computers and printers along with other bits and pieces logically organised around the store.

In practice they offer a far more comprehensive range of hardware, a wider choice of brands, lots of small extra components and, usually, better sales advice. Prices are comparable with elsewhere.

Staff in the big specialist stores are better informed than in the electronic retailers. Not only do they know more about the items they sell, but they know about what is going on in the industry. What’s more, because they offer a wider range of hardware they feel less pressure to push something inappropriate. You’ll get good after sales support, these stores have proper workshops, but if you invalidate your warranty it may prove expensive.

Buying PCs direct from the manufacturer

If you already know exactly what you want and have better things to do with your time than listening to sales patter then you may prefer one of the direct sales operations.

The largest and best known direct PC sales operation is run by Dell. Apple, Acer and Harris Technology also offer direct online sales, although Harris doesn’t make its hardware. Some of the specialist stores also offer direct sales.

When you buy a computer from a direct sales operation you can usually chose a basic model and then customise it to your heart’s content. Dell’s team will then assemble your chosen hardware and deliver it directly to your home.

Buying direct is convenient and, in general, you have a lot more flexibility than buying a brand name PC in a store. That’s because the machine is assembled to your specifications. It can be hard to choose components online if you’re not technical, but telephone sales people can walk most beginners through the process.

One word of warning though, many direct sales companies speak in a strange coded language that isn’t immediately obvious to consumers. Some years ago, I purchased a Dell via telephone after visiting the web site I thought I was buying a computer complete with a DVD burner. When the computer turned up, it couldn’t write DVDs. The sales critter (probably in some far flung third world country) didn’t make it clear that a ‘combo’ drive could read and write CDs and only read DVDs. My complaints were not accepted.

Dell can be a mixed experience

Personally this experience, along with a few other problems, means I will never buy from Dell again. However, many of my friends and colleagues are happy with the company.

One other thing to watch with Dell is that the company’s special offers are good value, but once you alter the specification, the costs quickly rise.

Many computer makers, including direct sales operations like Dell, offer telephone after sales support – mainly during office hours. They’ll help you set up the system and troubleshoot problems; if something needs fixing you’ll have to courier or take the machine to their warehouse and wait for a few days while it is fixed. You may be able to pay extra for on-site support. Specialist computer stores usually offer their own in-house after sales support.

Don’t underestimate the need for support. Everyone buying a new computer needs some help at one stage or other – even experts. It’s worth paying a few dollars more for your hardware if you can get someone to hold your hand while you set things up.

Finding the right sales person

Finding the right shop is hard enough, but for most people finding the right sales critter once you reach a store is even more important.

If you’re a seriously techno-savvy consumer, the last thing you need is someone who talks like a kindergarten teacher on mogadon. Some insist on explaining everything as if the words are written on flashcards. On the other hand, if you’re a novice, excitable nerdy guys with cartoon ties speaking incomprehensible jargon can be off-putting.

Older readers might remember the TV comedy sketch where Rowan Atkinson goes into an electronics retailer and asks for a ‘gramophone’. The smart-alec sales assistant then spends the next few minutes giving the customer a hard time because he doesn’t know the meaning of terms like woofers, tweeters and Dolby. If this still exists on videotape it should be mandatory viewing for everyone who sells computers.

While there’s still a tendency for some retail staff to patronise customers, the good news is that these days they are much better trained. Individual sales people may have difficultly getting the balance right, but in most places there should be at least one person who can communicate with you on the right level.

Things to watch for

The other thing to watch for is over-zealous sales people. Some retail computer stores put their staff on group bonus schemes; others operate on an individual commission basis. This means the more they sell, the more they earn. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you need to be careful.

Avoid being hurried into purchase. In particular avoid anyone who tells you that a particular price is “only for today”. Watch out for any extras, only buy what you know is necessary. Retailers earn wafer thin margins on hardware, but the profits on additional items can be sky-high.

In some small computer stores, the person who runs the shop is the owner. Sometimes they will haggle. Don’t expect to negotiate a significantly lower price if you’re just buying a PC – specialist stores typically already have rock-bottom prices, work off tiny margins and have little room to move. However, if you want to buy a bundle of stuff in a single transaction, they may be able to offer a good deal.