Finding the right computer is easier if you ask the right questions.
Posted July 5, 2009
Buying a computer can be a daunting experience. In future columns I'll explain more about computer features to look for, such as memory, peripherals, and processors; but for now let's look at some of the basic questions you should ask yourself before you go shopping for a computer. How much do you want to spend? How will you use your computer? Are you more comfortable shopping in a brick and mortar store or online? The answers will help you take the first steps in finding the computer that's right for you.
You can buy a computer for anywhere from US $250 to $5,000 or more, depending on your budget and computing needs. You may start with a base model, but extras such as a larger monitor or higher-end graphics card can soon add hundreds to the base price.
So where do you start? First decide where to shop. You can look in a retail store for a computer or shop online using a friend's computer (and perhaps get his or her help if you're brand new to using a computer). Consider researching different models and prices online and using that information to negotiate your purchase in the store if you prefer shopping at the mall. Be aware, however, that most retail stores have a small selection compared to all you can find online on a Web site such as Dell.com.
Buying a computer can be confusing, but here are some guidelines to help you find a computer at the price that's right for you:
• Determine how often you will use your computer. If you'll be working on it eight hours a day running a home business, you will need a better quality computer to withstand the use. If you turn on the computer once or twice a week, it doesn't have to be the priciest model in the shop.
• Consider the features that you need. Do you want (or have room for) a 20-inch monitor? Do you need the computer to run very fast and run several programs at once, or do you need to store tons of data? (Computer speed and storage are covered later in this chapter.) Understand what you need before you buy. Each feature or upgrade adds dollars to your computer's price.
• Shop wisely. If you walk from store to store or do your shopping online, you'll find that the price for the same computer model can vary by hundreds of dollars at different stores. Consider shipping costs if you buy online, and keep in mind that many stores charge a restocking fee if you return a computer you aren't happy with. Some stores offer only a short time period in which you can return a computer, such as 14 days.
• Buying used or refurbished is an option, though new computers have reached such a low price point that this might not save you much. In addition, technology gets out of date so quickly, you might be disappointed buying an older model. Instead, consider going to a company that produces customized, non-name brand computers at lower prices — perhaps even your local computer repair shop. You might be surprised at the bargains you can find (but make sure you're dealing with reputable people before buying).
• Online auctions are a source of new or slightly used computers at a low price. However be sure you're dealing with a reputable store or person by checking reviews others have posted about them or contacting the Better Business Bureau. Be careful not to pay by check (this gives a complete stranger your bank account number) but instead use the auction site's tools to have a third party handle the money until the goods are delivered in the condition promised. Check the auction site for guidance on staying safe when buying auctioned goods.
Finally, do some online comparison shopping: some Web sites, such as Epinions.com, allow you to compare several models of computers side by side, and others such as Nextag.com allow you to compare prices on a particular model from multiple stores.
Nancy Muir is the VP of Content and Curriculum for Look Both Ways, an Internet safety company (ilookbothways.com) and the author of over 50 books on computers and the Internet. Nancy has taught technical writing and Internet safety at the university level, holds a certificate in Distance Learning Design, and has been a senior manager in both the software and computer publishing industries.