From the December, 1998 issue of PC Alamode
Holiday Buying Guide:
Buying a New Computer in 1998
 
by Vade Forrester

Itís that time of year again! Letís suppose you have succumbed to the many ads urging you to buy a new computer for the holidays. Although I seem to say this every year, it really is the best time in history to buy a new computer. Prices have fallen dramatically since last year, making it possible to buy a decent computer for under $1,000. And if you want the latest and greatest, thatís better than ever, also. 

This article was composed in October 1998 in order to meet the PC Alamode deadline. Prices will probably be lower in December.

 Buy for the future Although a computer will be obsolete as soon as you unpack it, with careful planning, it can be useful for much longer. My recommended basic buying strategy is still to buy a computer that will provide useful service for two years, then plan on replacing it. 

What makes a computer useful for an extended period? Speed, amount of memory, drive capacity, and components. A high-end machine will provide useful service for several years, especially if itís easy to add more memory. Keep in mind whatís coming in the way of operating systems. Windows 2000 (formerly known as windows NT 5.0) was supposed to be out by now, but whoís surprised when Microsoft is late with a new operating system? Itís not supposed to be out in mid-1999. It will demand lots of memory and a very fast machine. Meanwhile, Windows 98 is Microsoftís most advanced operating system, and while not as demanding as Windows NT 4.0, still benefits from all the speed and memory you can afford. More expensive, faster computers have features like AGP graphics, DVD drives, 100-MHz front-end bus motherboards (a bus is the circuit on the motherboard through which information passes), and even slots for two or more processors (this last feature requires Windows NT 4.0; Windows 98 will not use multiple processors). Check for such features before buying.
 
 

Laptop or Desktop

? Desktop PCs have plummeted in price during the past year. Laptops have also dropped in price, but have not seen the same dramatic price decreases. In 1999, several new developments are expected that will reduce laptop prices much more, but thatís for next yearís article. 

Laptops are small, cute, increasingly powerful, and use very little power. The growing availability of Universal Serial Bus (USB) peripherals makes it much easier to add functionality to a laptop. Tape drives, scanners, cameras, printers, speakers, modems, mice, keyboards - all these now come with USB connections. You can add up to 127 USB devices to a computer, so expansion should be essentially unlimited. And USB devices can be hot-plugged, i.e., you can plug them in and unplug them while the computer is running. You will probably need to install a driver for a USB device the first time you use it, but thereafter, plug and unplug it as you like. If you acquire several USB devices, you will need a USB expansion box.

 Laptops are getting faster. Intelís 300 MHz mobile Pentium II is the current speed king, but look for competitors to raise the mark soon. And laptop video is improving, also; Dellís Inspiron 7000 line has models with a 15-inch screen, about the same effective size as a 17-inch monitor. And 8MB of video memory drives its big screen very rapidly. 

Laptop hard drives are getting bigger, also. Eight gigabyte (GB) drives are commonly available. But laptop drives are usually slower than desktop drives, probably to save power.

 Laptop computers are using design features borrowed from desktop computers, like Accelerated Graphic Ports (AGP) and faster bus speeds. Intel and its increasingly competent competitors rush new, fast chips to the market to make laptops ever faster.

 But the bottom line is: while laptops are improving dramatically, they still cost a lot more than equivalent desktop machines, and are not as easy to expand. If you need portability, or have a serious space problem, a laptop may be your best choice.
 
 

How fast is fast enough?

Old adage: You can never have a computer thatís too fast, has too much memory, or too big a hard drive. However, the good news is that even todayís slower computers are pretty darned fast. Even Intelís budget central processor unit (CPU) chip, the Celeron, is quite speedy as long as you donít get one without a built-in cache, which are slugs. These include the 266 MHz and uncached 300 MHz versions; a cached 300 MHz version is available. And they are designed to build into a $1000-computer. At the high-end of the speed spectrum, we find 450MHz Pentium II or the even faster 450 MHz Xeon chips (mostly in so-called workstations). These chips should easily be fast enough for a couple of years. And Intelís competitors (AMD, Cyrix, and others) struggle hard to produce faster chips which usually undercut Intelís prices by at least 25%. They are very worthy of consideration, and are found in many mainstream computers, like Compaq and IBM. They are starting to show up in laptops, as well. Most non-Intel chips donít perform as well as Intel on floating-point math calculations, but are very comparable elsewhere.

 Processor speed is only one factor that determines how fast your computer responds. Other factors are drive speed, amount of memory and memory bus speed, video speed, and communication speed. Letís look at each of these.
 
 

Drive speed

Most consumer PCs use the common and cheap Enhanced Integrated Drive Electronics (EIDE) interface. This interface has improved to include bus-mastering capability which takes over control of the drive from the CPU, so it doesnít have to work as hard. That give it more time to spend on computing. However, the Small Computer Support Interface, or SCSI (pronounced ďscuzzyĒ) interface is even faster, although more expensive. EIDE drives typically rotate at 5400 RPM. A few newer ones spin at 7200 RPM, which should be perceptibly faster. In contrast, SCSI drives typically spin at 7200 RPM, with a few even running at 10,000 RPM. But SCSI drives cost more, and are typically used for servers or workstations where data throughput is critical. 

The SCSI interface is used for external device connections as well as internal. Many scanners use SCSI connections, which are the fastest currently available. Only the IEEE 1394, or FireWire interface is faster, and itís very uncommon so far. Eventually, it may replace both SCSI and EIDE as the preferred connector; but today, itís not a consideration.

 The rotation speed determines how fast a drive will pump data into the computer, but thatís not the whole story. Another factor that affects drive speed is the average access time. Thatís how long it takes the drive to find a file on your hard drive. Most drives today have quite fast access times; donít consider anything over 12 milliseconds. The best drives have access times of 8.0 milliseconds or less.
 
 

How much memory?

Although it is the CPU that ďthinksĒ for your computer, the random-access memory (RAM) is where the CPU stores information while it thinks. Consisting of integrated circuit chips mounted on a long, slender circuit board, these single inline memory modules (SIMMs) or dual inline memory modules (DIMMs) provide a place for the CPU to work. Although the RAM is much slower than a CPU, it is much faster than a hard drive, so the more RAM in your system, the more fast workspace your CPU has. When a CPU runs out of space in RAM, it writes to the hard drive, a much slower process. Today, the minimum RAM you should consider for Windows 98 is 32MB, while 64MB is a worthwhile and cheap upgrade. 128 MB is even better. Windows 2000, which will eventually replace Windows 98, is a memory hog, and its speed is directly proportional to the amount of RAM in your computer.

 The fastest processors use a faster bus on the motherboard to pass information from RAM to the CPU. The so-called 100MHz front-end bus found on motherboards which use Intelís 440BX support chips is a faster circuit, so data flows faster between CPU and RAM. It is used for Pentium II chips running at speed of 350MHz and faster. It requires special, very fast RAM chips, so be careful if you try to add RAM to a computer with this type of bus.
 
 

Video speed

It doesnít matter how fast your hard drive and CPU are, itís really how long it takes to display information on the screen that determines how fast your computer responds. Fortunately, video technology has kept pace with CPU advances. The AGP graphics bus, especially with its 2X drivers, provide a special fast path for information from the CPU to the monitor. Running even faster than the memory bus, the AGP bus uses specially designed graphics chips to speed up both two-dimensional and three-dimensional video. 3D video is especially important in games, which are one of the most demanding applications for a computer. Also speeding up the video is the practice of using more video memory. 

Two years ago, a 4MB video card was considered all youíd ever need; now, itís common to see 16MB on a video card. Larger screens and 3D video demand more processing power, and moving the video processing off CPU into the specialized graphics processing chips on a video card speeds things up considerably. Although the 2X AGP bus is the fastest video system, Peripheral Component Interface (PCI) bus video cards also benefit from 3D chips and more video memory. In many cases, particularly with 2D graphics, the PCI bus will be effectively as fast as the AGP bus.
 
 

Communication speed

We spend a lot of time online these days, and our communications circuits slow down our operations a lot. If you are using a modem to connect to the Internet, even so-called 56KBps modem, you experience delays when your computer dials your Internet Service Provider (ISP), or when you download large files, including graphics. Although someday, weíll have faster Internet service, today it requires an Integrated Service Digital Network (ISDN) connection, a Hughes Satellite connection, or a really expensive T-1 data line (usually reserved for corporate LAN connections to the Internet). These are all very expensive in San Antonio. Someday, Paragon Cable may decide to offer Internet connections via cable modem, which should be much cheaper and much faster. Call and tell them to hurry.
 
 

Other equipment considerations

Hard drive size

Weíve already discussed drive speed, so letís talk about size. Itís hard to buy a hard drive thatís too small today. Manufacturers seem to be in competition to see who can offer the biggest hard drive, and prices are amazingly low. I have a lot of software installed on my computer, and have been unsuccessful in filling up a 4GB drive, so I really wonder who needs a 16GB model? Heck, I donít see a need for an 8GB drive for most folks, unless you want to store a huge clip art collection or have a huge collection of downloaded ZIP files. Buying advice: your individual needs should determine what you need in a drive. I would pay more attention to getting a faster drive, say a 7200 RPM model, than buying the biggest drive I could find. A 4 GB drive should suffice for most users.
 
 

Floppy drives

Most everyone agrees that the standard 3½ inch floppy drive is too small to be useful anymore, but there has been no new standard agreed on. Buying advice: stick to a regular 3½ inch floppy drive for now, then replace it with whichever of the above drives when something becomes standard. If you need a medium-sized removable cartridge drive, the Zip drive is the de facto standard. A USB version of the Zip drive should be available by the time this appears in print.
 
 

Video system

Video card

Weíve already discussed what makes a video system fast, but speed is not the only thing to consider. You spend your entire computing experience looking at your monitor, so it needs to be good. The image on the screen should be stable, with no ghosting or flicker. Your video card and your monitor need to be chosen to complement each other to prevent flicker while displaying the resolution you need.

 The video card must be able to generate a video signal to the monitor that has a fast vertical scan rate. That tells how fast the card repaints the image on the screen from top to bottom. To prevent flicker, the vertical scan rate should be at least 72 Hz, or 72 times per second. Faster is better. The video card must be able to sustain a high vertical scan rate at the video resolution you want to see. For a 14-inch monitor, that means 640 by 480 pixels. A pixel stands for a picture element, the smallest element of a display that the video card can control. A 15-inch monitor can support up to 800 by 600 pixels, while a 17-inch monitor can handle 1024 by 768. A 19-inch monitor can handle 1152 by 864 or higher, while a 21-inch monitor can handle up to 1600 by 1200. 

When I say ďhandle,Ē I really mean display items at a size thatís comfortable to view; many can actually display higher resolutions than I listed. The resolutions I listed are conservative; your eyes may be able to handle higher resolutions. 

Buying advice: buy a from a major company like ATI, STB, Diamond, Matrox, or others. If your motherboard supports AGP, get that type of video card. Avoid no-name cards that may have poor driver support. Get at least 8 MB of memory on the card, and be sure it supports a vertical scan rate of at least 75 Hz at the resolution and color bit level you want to use. 

Monitors

Monitors are the primary means a computer has of communicating to you. The monitor must be able to handle the signal from the video card combining a high vertical refresh rate with the resolution you want to view. There is no substitute for monitor size when working with a graphically-intensive operating system like Windows. Like so many computer items, monitors have dropped in price dramatically over the past year. Seventeen-inch monitors can now be purchased for $300, so I recommend that size for any computer except a very basic budget model. And if you can afford it at all, this is a good place to consider upgrading. Nineteen-inch monitors cost around $1000 or more last year, but now can be purchased for $500. That makes a good upgrade for more advanced systems. Twenty-one-inch monitors are great for precision graphics work, but still cost a lot, are heavy, and take up a lot of desk space. Their cost has dropped along with everything else, but are still usually $1000 or more. 

Flat-panel monitors are beginning to show up in stores. These use LCD screens like laptop computers, which save power and space on your desk. But they are still very expensive compared to CRT monitors of equivalent size, and have slower response times. They will get better and cheaper, but for now, I advise sticking to a CRT monitor.

 Buying advice: unless you are on a bare-bones budget, get a 17-inch monitor or larger. Your eyes will thank you.
 
 

Input devices

If the monitor is how your computer communicates to you, the input devices are how you communicate to your computer. Included in this category are keyboards, mice, trackballs, joysticks, graphics tablets, voice input systems, etc. Youíll spend all of your computing time manipulating one or more of these devices, so itís very important to get devices that are comfortable to operate. 

Keyboard

The most common, and probably most used, input device is the keyboard. Be sure your computer keyboard feels comfortable to you. Does the key action feel positive? Do you like the arrangement of the Backspace key? Is it large enough? Is the Enter key large enough, and in a comfortable location? If youíve had physical problems using keyboards (like carpal tunnel syndrome), consider using one of the ďergonomicĒ keyboards, which are curved to accommodate the natural position of the hands and wrists. 

Iím typing this on a Microsoft ergonomic keyboard can attest that it doesnít take long to adjust to one of these, and isnít too hard to switch between normal keyboards and ergonomic ones. Some keyboards now use the USB interface, but that system doesnít recognize the keyboard at bootup, so doesnít let you make changes to your CMOS data or for that matter, work in the DOS mode. I recommend steering clear of USB keyboards as a primary keyboard.
 
 

Mouse

The mouse is the second-most popular input device. There are countless numbers of mice out there, and you should find one that feels good to your hand. Many are now ergonomically shaped, with odd contours that are supposed to be comfortable for your hand. These ergonomic mice are usually designed for the right-hander, so lefties should give such mice a hands-on trial before making a decision. Mice from Microsoft and Logitech command premium prices, but in my experience, last longer than cheaper mice.

 A relatively new feature on mice is a scroll wheel. Rolling a small wheel between the major buttons lets you scroll up or down a document or a web page without using the scroll bars. Thatís a major convenience when browsing Web pages, and working with long word processor documents like this one. You can also press down on a mouse wheel to click, making it a third button. Using the wheel to click lets you scroll sideways on spreadsheets, another real convenience.
 
 

Trackball

Some people prefer stationary pointing devices called trackballs. Functionally, a trackball is like an upside-down mouse, where you roll the ball with your fingers instead of pushing the mouse around your desktop. A trackball takes up very little space on the desktop, and can even be held in your lap. There are many different designs of trackballs. Some now offer scroll wheels like the newer mice.
 
 

Graphics tablets

We spend years training ourselves to write with pens and pencils, although you couldnít tell it by looking at my handwriting. And for many people, a pen-like device still gives more control over fine drawing details than a mouse. A graphics tablet is a pad that you can write on with a pen-like stylus, which translates the motion of the stylus into graphics or text in your computer. Most of these styluses (stylii?) are cordless, so they feel just like a pencil. Most have buttons to press to emulate a mouse, so you actually perform mouse functions by moving the stylus around the writing surface (the tablet) and clicking as needed. Although graphics tablets cost more than mice or trackballs ($100 up), they may be more productive if you do a lot of drawing.
 
 

Voice operated inputs

We once dreamed of operating our computers by talking to them, and now we can. During the past year, voice-input software has become a big hit. Allowing you both enter text and issue computers commands, voice operated input software is now feasible, if not fool-proof. Check out the four companies that sell this type of software and see if it is compatible with your applications software. Todayís extremely fast computers make all this feasible. 

Although I havenít tried any of the voice recognition software, articles I have read say the accuracy still has lots of room for improvement. You get to read to the software to train it to recognize your speech patterns. The manufacturer gives you a printed selection which takes about 15 minutes to read aloud, telling the computer how you pronounce words. Several users can establish profiles for their voice patterns, so the software can be used by lots of people.
 
 

Joysticks

A necessity for games; try them out for feel in a computer store. 

CD-ROM drives

Since CD-ROMs are now the preferred medium for distributing software, theyíre essential features on new computers. There seems to be a competition among the CD-ROM drive manufacturers to see how fast they can make their drives. Drive speed is indicated by an ďXĒ factor, with ďXĒ representing the data transfer speed of the original CD-ROM standard (150 KB/second), and numbers indicating the multiple of that speed. For example, the common 32X drive should be able to transfer data at 32 times 150 KB/s, or 4800 KB/s. Thatís 4.8 MB/s, a pretty fast rate. That would imply the CD-ROM drive is as fast as a hard drive. Ha! Iíve seen drives claiming speeds of 48X.

 Unfortunately, since the ďXĒ factor is the only number used to describe a CD-ROM, it has become wildly inflated and does not give an accurate picture of the true speed of a drive. The speed rating is only good for data recorded at the outer rim of a CD-ROM, and then only after the drive has spun up to its maximum speed, which takes 10-15 seconds. Since data is recorded beginning at the inner rim of a CD-ROM, near the hole, you seldom see data at the outer rim. Most CD-ROM drives realistically achieve speeds of 12-16X. And donít forget the longer time it takes the drive to locate the information.

 Still, since there is a slight correlation between the ďXĒ factor and a driveís useful speed, and since thatís the only information you get about most drives, itís probably not a bad idea to make that the discriminating factor in choosing a drive. Just donít expect to see much difference between a 32X and a 40X drive.
 
 

DVD drives

The Digital Versatile Disc, or DVD, was designed for two purposes: to provide a medium for pre-recorded movies, and to store computer data. So far, the latter use has not seen great commercial support in the form of actual computer-related material on DVD. However, as the prices of DVD drives drop and as the drives themselves mature and become easier to use and configure, itís likely that more titles will be released for computers. And a DVD drive plays CDs and CD-ROMs just fine. So although there is no compelling reason to buy a DVD drive today, there may be in the future.

 If you plan to use your computer as a television and play movie DVDs, you will need an MPEG2 decoder card. DVDs store video information in a compressed format, and this card decodes the movies. Software MPEG2 decoders are not as smooth as those on hardware, and demand a lot of processor time. You can buy a perfectly good DVD movie playback deck for $400 that connects to your TV like a VCR, so Iím not clear why you would want to use your $2000 computer as a substitute TV, but there may be some reasons that I havenít considered. DVD movies have excellent fidelity and sound compared to video tapes and even laserdisks. They also record the sound in digital Dolby AC-3 format, a big step up from earlier sound schemes, but one which requires a home theater sound system with five channels and a subwoofer to get the best in sound.

 For those interested in DVD, Sony has recently released a 5X DVD drive, which runs at five times the speeds of the first DVDs, and plays CD-ROMs at a 24X rate. Other manufacturers have announced or released 4X DVD drives, including Samsung and LG Electronics. Digital Video Systems has a 5.1X DVD, which plays CD-ROMs at 32X speed.

 Recommendation: getting a DVD in a computer now is not really essential. Consider instead a fast CD-ROM drive, which is much cheaper, and then replace it with a DVD drive later when more computer DVDs are available. Youíll probably get a better, cheaper DVD drive then.
 
 

Sound systems

There are two parts to a computer sound system, just like a video system: the part inside the computer, and the part on your desktop. The inside component is the sound card (which may actually be in the form of chips on your motherboard), and the speakers, which sit on your desktop, usually. Both components have seen some serious developments over the past year. 

Sound cards

Sound cards have historically been notoriously hard to install and set up. They tend to create conflicts with other hardware, and require several drivers for different functions. The de facto standard for sound cards is the Sound Blaster, produced by Creative Labs. Most cards use Sound Blaster commands for compatibility purposes. Over the past year, the thrust for sound cards has been to use the PCI bus. The PCI bus, especially under Windows 98, gives the computer more control over hardware interrupts, which should make hardware conflicts much less common. 

However, using a PCI connection doesnít automatically provide great sound; several PCI sound cards produce rather distorted sound. They may be adequate for light use, but serious gamers and those who use their computers to play back movie DVDs will want the best. Creative Labsí top models and Turtle Beach cards seem to get the best reviews. I wonder how long it will be until a serious audio company like Krell or Audio Research decides to produce a really good-sounding sounding card? Iím probably dreaming.

 For the serious game player, several companies offer sound cards which can drive multiple speakers. Surround sound can add to the gaming experience, and youíll need at least four speakers and a woofer cabinet (usually called a subwoofer, incorrectly; itís really a woofer), and several sound cards from Creative Labs and Diamond Multimedia offer those. If you want to play DVDs seriously, youíll need a so-called ď5.1Ē channel setup, which means you have left and right front speakers, a center speaker, and surround speakers which go beside or behind you. A single subwoofer is also a part of the system, which is where the ď.1Ē part of ď5.1Ē number comes from. A Dolby Digital decoder and external amplification are needed to play the 5.1 channel audio. 

A recent new development is the USB-connection for speakers. This eliminates the need for a soundcard for playback by sending digital audio signals to speakers equipped with digital-to-analog decoders and amplifiers. Of course, you would still need a sound card for a microphone input and line input and output. Weíll discuss USB connections in more detail in the next section.
 
 

Speakers

Speakers have been steadily improving for several years, but still have a long way to go. Most speakers that come with computer systems are adequate for light business use, but not for serious sound reproduction. Three-piece speakers, with satellites reproducing the midrange and high frequencies sitting near your monitor, and separate cabinets (usually, but erroneously, called subwoofers) handling bass frequencies, often provide better sound, but some of the budget models leave a lot to be desired.

 Now, several companies like Altec Lansing and Cambridge SoundWorks (sold by Creative Labs) have multimedia speakers that provide or emulate multichannel sound appropriate for home theater use. My personal favorite is the Cambridge MicroWorks system, but Iím sure there are other good units.

 One of the totally new speaker developments is the USB speaker. Altec-Lansing, Philips, and Microsoft (really!) make USB speakers, which donít need a sound card, only a USB connection. Reports I have seen (PC World, November 1998 issue) donít rate USB speakers too highly, but these are new and can only improve. On the other hand, Windows Magazineís November 1998 issue finds the Microsoft speakers the best they have ever heard, and gives them their top rating. 

To make a buying decision regarding speakers, there is no better way other than listening for yourself. Many computer stores have an assortment of computer speakers set up for comparison, and thatís a good place to start. Unfortunately, you canít take your favorite CD along to listen to, so you are stuck with their choice of music. It may be wise to opt for cheap speakers with your computer system, and then replace them with better ones later.
 
 

Fax modems

These gadgets let you send and receive messages, data, and faxes from your computer. The V.90 standard for 56KBps communications is now official, and the FCC is planning to revise the telephone standards so you can theoretically actually connect at 56KBps speeds. Iíve seen one modem that uses a USB connector, but havenít seen any reports on its performance. Since a modem is not a demanding load for a computer, the USB connection should not, in theory, improve performance. But it should free up a standard serial port. Buying advice: do not accept a modem that does not meet the V.90 standard. 

Avoid WinModems, which are cheap but often problematical. Major companies like 3Com (US Robotocs), Hayes (currently in bankruptcy again), Zoom, Diamond, and others provide the best support for their modems in terms of driver updates and warranties, so itís safer to stick with one of those.
 
 

Year 2000 Certification

Any computer you buy now should include formal certification that the hardware and included software will work without problems as the year changes into the year 2000. Sometimes this is called Y2K compliance.
 
 

Software

Your buy your computer to run application software. Maybe that purpose is recreation, or maybe itís work. The PC world is rich in software, which should give you many choices for each type of program. A few years ago, manufacturers included tons of software with their computers as a value-added feature. That practice has almost vanished over the past few years. Be attentive about what software you get with your computer, since additional software can cost you hundreds of dollars. 

All computers come with an operating system. For PC users, that means Windows 98 or Windows NT 4.0. Windows 98 is aimed at the home or small office, while Windows NT 4.0 has the corporate computer in mind. Windows 98 is more compatible with a variety of hardware, while NT 4.0 is faster and more stable. NT 4.0 demands more resources, but computers and memory are really cheap right now. 

I encourage you to buy a virus checker program as your first software item. Viruses continue to proliferate and a virus checker can save you a lot of unpleasantness. Make sure your virus checker program frequently updates its virus list so your computer will be protected against the latest nasties. Then go buy your office suite, games, graphics programs, and utilities. Make sure they support the operating system you use.
 
 

Where should you buy?

There are several different channels in which to buy computers. All have advantages and disadvantages. 

Electronics/Office Products stores

Stores like Best Buy, Circuit City, Office Depot and OfficeMax have fairly good selections of computers and software. Some also have maintenance shops which can fix your computer when it breaks, and install expansion device for you. Their prices are highly competitive. Their employeesí knowledge of computers is often limited (even nonexistent), so donít expect much help explaining the features of different models.
 
 

Computer Superstores

Due to the closure of Computer City, San Antonioís only computer superstore is CompUSA. It deals only in computer hardware and software, and has a maintenance department. CompUSA invented the superstore concept, and offers a huge selection of computers and software. It used to offer special pricing for Alamo PC members, but stopped as soon as its major competitor, Computer City, went away. Weekly sales produce some exceptional buys. Employees are more knowledgeable than the general-purpose electronics stores, but not all of them are equally well-versed in all products. It also offers training courses. 

CompUSA offers its own brand of computer, made to your order at competitive prices. I have no information on their performance or reliability, since they are relatively new.

 Check on return policies at local stores; some will charge restocking fees like 15% of the purchase price if you donít like the computer. Steer clear of those. Find one that doesnít require that fee; point out that mail-order companies allow a 30-day return period if you donít like the computer.
 
 

Mail-order

Successful mail-order companies like Dell and Gateway donít build a computer until you place your order. That lets you specify the exact features you want in your computer, and not pay for other features that you donít care about. Direct marketing (another name for mail order) has been so successful that Dell is the leading computer manufacturer. Gateway has a local demonstration shop where you can go try out some of their computers and get advice before ordering your own. Better mail-order companies have excellent tech support, often open 24-hours a day via a toll-free number. Prices are very competitive, and because of their relations with suppliers, new features usually appear in mail-order computers first. If you buy mail-order, insist on a 30-day no-questions-asked return privilege, which all reputable mail-order companies offer. 

The principal drawback to mail-order sales is that if your computer truly breaks, you may have to ship it back to the manufacturer, although some companies offer on-site service. Another drawback is waiting time for tech support. Itís not uncommon to hear of hour-long waits. Some companies do better than others; see my NewsScan article in last monthís PC Alamode for a comparison of two 

reliability surveys. 

Local computer specialists

These small shops, many of whom advertise in PC Alamode, build a computer to your specific requirements. I have bought two computers from local shops, and have received the best tech support I have received from any source. But one of them is now out of business. Local shopsí prices are generally quite low, and if your computer breaks, you have a local repair shop to deal with. Since they built the computer in the first place, they will be familiar with it and should be able to fix it easily. Local shops also perform a service that no one else will: upgrading your motherboard. Perhaps you donít need a completely new computer, when a new motherboard will give you the performance you want. They will also install new drives, video cards, etc.

 Drawbacks? Because of distribution channels and relatively small order quantities, local builders are last to get the latest technology, so if you want to be the first kid on your block with the newest technology, look elsewhere. On the other hand, that may be an advantage, because by the time technology reaches a local dealer (and Iím not saying itís a long time), bugs have been worked out. Another potential drawback is the longevity of the shop. There has been a fairly high mortality rate for small computer businesses in San Antonio, and it would be nice if your dealer was still open for business when you need service. On the other hand, local manufacturers use standard parts, so other shops can provide service. Ask someone who has a Compaq or Packard Bell computer how easy it is to find their proprietary parts, and how expensive those parts are.
 
 

Caveat Emptor

I believe that most of the local merchants you will encounter are honest and do their best to help the customer; however, I have encountered a few that were not. A member once called me to ask my opinion on whether a store was charging her a reasonable amount for a hard drive upgrade. The storeís maintenance shop technician told the member that they also had to replace her video card. I called the store manager and asked what the rationale was, and he agreed that seemed wacky and promised to look into it. The video card upgrade went away.

 The bottom line is: be careful when you make a purchase anywhere, big store or little store. A salesperson who gives you bad information may not be trying to cheat you, but just be ill-informed. Service technicians move from store to store, so if you have the misfortune to encounter one that tries to bilk an unsuspecting customer, it may not reflect store policy, only the personal habits of the technician. So before you make a buying decision, ask friends and other members of Alamo PC. 

Extended warranties

Many stores offer extended warranties for extra money. There is a huge profit margin here, since most such warranties never get used. Should you buy one? Maybe. Many manufacturers already offer 3-year warranties, which should cover most expenses. Ask about the manufacturerís warranty before considering an optional extended warranty. A laptop computer has many proprietary parts and replacement LCD screens and batteries (which have a relatively short lifespans) are expensive. Count on replacing a battery annually if you use your laptop a lot. My Dell laptopís battery costs about $250, so thatís a big expense. LCD screens are about $1000 to replace, or even higher for the new larger screens. So for a laptop, an extended warranty may be justified. For a desktop computer, you can probably donít need one. Repairs probably wonít be as expensive as the warranty.
 
 

Buy or lease?

Computer manufacturers are starting to offer leases. Leasing may offer a more favorable upgrade path than buying and reselling. Compare the cost of the lease against the anticipated resale value for your two-year old computer (probably not much) to see which would be a better deal.
 
 

Summary

Every time I write one of these annual buying guides, I say ďWhat a great time to buy a computer!Ē Guess what: itís now the best time in history to buy. Performance is excellent and prices are dramatically lower than ever. Iíll probably say the same thing next year. I hope so. Good shopping! And remember: once you get that new computer and software, Alamo PC study groups (SIGs) are ready to help you learn to use it.