The best places to buy a computer – includes related article on how to buy a computer – Buyers Guide

Jack Nimersheim

Architect Paul Wright’s home office is a monument to contradiction. Gaze out the window and you’re immediately struck by the beauty and tranquility of Russell’s Point, an eclectic cluster of residential homes and vacation cottages nestled int the shores of Indian Lake in east-central Ohio. To survey his pastoral surroundings, however, Wright must stand up and crane his neck to see past an electronic swamp–three computers, one laser printer, two monitors, three fluorescent desk lamps, and a formidable cluster of power cords and computer cables that help him coordinate the day-to-day activities of Dynamic Development, the library-consulting business Wright started three years ago.

“That,” Wright says, pointing to the clear, blue water just beyond his office window, “is why I decided to move here. This,” he continues, spreading his arms over the impressive array of computer equipment spread out on the dest before him, “ultimately made it possible. But what I didn’t know about personal computers back in early 1989, when I started pulling together the equipment you see here, could have filled that lake to overflowing.”

Wright’s passage from computer ignorance to electronic productivity parallels a journey many people will undertake as they brave the path to setting up a home office. Hearing about his experiences–along with other advice on where and how to purchase a personal computer–may help you avoid some of the wrong turns Wright readily admits he made.

Although I’ll concentrate on where to purchase a computer–and the pros and cons of each place–there are two questions you need to answer before you begin your computer shopping trip: What type of computer do you need? And how should you pay for it? So check out the box “Shopper’s Horse Sense” for advice on the best ways to approach these decisions.


To keep things relatively simple–or as simple as any discussion pertaining to personal computers can be–I’ve divided the variety of outlets where you can purchase computers into five fundamental categories: traditional computer stores, alternative channels (including discount houses and superstores), local vendors, mail-order firms, and direct-sales vendors.

1. Traditional computer stores. The first category includes any place that sells brandname computers–IBM, Macintosh, Compaq, Tandy, and so on–out of a storefront. As the name implies, this type of store sells computer products only, sometimes at a discount and other times closer to retail price. Included in this category would be chain stores or franchises such as ComputerLand, Entre Computer Centers, and Tandy’s network of Radio Shack computer stores. In addition to these familiar names, most major cities contain several independently owned computer specialty stores, outlets that also sell brand-name systems but aren’t connected to national operations. When it comes to carrying a wide range of brand names in one store, this is typically the strongest category of the five.

2. Alternative channels. Have you shopped at Sears, Kmart, or Circuit City lately? If not, you may be surprised at what you can find there. Display cases that once held car stereos and calculators now also contain computers. These retail chains are but a few examples in the somewhat amorphous category called alternative channels, which includes both discount stores that sell various kinds of electronic equipment (including stereos and VCRs) and classic mass merchandisers that sell all manner of consumer goods. This category also includes membership-club stores like Costco or WalMart’s chain of Sam’s Wholesale Club warehouse outlets that, in addition to their more traditional wares, now carry computer hardware.

A vital and growing subset in the alternative-channel category is superstores, a relatively recent development. There are two basic type of superstores: Some outlets, such as CompUSA, specialize in computer products only, while others, such as BizMart, sell all kinds of office products. Another example of a computer superstores is Micro Center, an Ohio-based chain with stores located in, among other places. Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio; Atlanta; and Washington, D.C. Other office-product superstores include the Staples chain, The Office Club, and Sears (wearing its Office Center hat). It many ways, superstores provide the same advantages to computer buyers that home-improvement centers like Centers Hardware and The Home Depot offer the home-repair person–that is, the ability to find everything you need for your projects under one roof. Also, among the alternative channels, you’re more likely to find knowledgeable help at a superstore than at other discounters.

To further comlicate matters, some computer-only superstores are associated with companies that have already established their success in other sales channels. For example, CompuAdd, a well-known directsales vendor, now operates about 120 company-owned superstores. Like other superstores, each carries a full selection of software and brand-name peripherals–Hayes modems, Hewlett-Packard printers, and so forth–but, unlike the others, limits actual system choice to CompuAdd’s own house-brand IBM-compatible computers.

3. Local vendors. Local vendors–which might sport names like “ABC Computers”–differ from traditional computer stores in that they specialize in so-called IBM-compatible clones–generic systems that local vendors typically assemble onsite, using components from a variety of sources. This non-name approach allows local vendors to price their systems much lower than their brand-name-brandishing counterparts.

4. Mail order. Mail-order firms were a mainstay of the computer industry even before two guys named Steve secluded themselves in a California garage and cobbled together their first Apple computer. If price is your primary concern, it’s often hard to beat a mail-order deal from operations such as MicroWarehouse or MacLand. Some mail-order companies sell from advertisements alone; others supplement their ads with full-blown catalogs. In either case, mail-order firms specialize in mass marketing–that is, selling a variety of products from different manufacturers to a broad customer base. But as you’ll see later on, different mail-order firms provide different levels of selection, price, and service.

5. Direct sales. The direct-sales vendor is actually a variation on the mail-order theme. But instead of serving as a clearinghouse for third-party products, a direct-sales vendor manufacturers and sells its own brand. Direct-sales vendors–which include such companies as Dell Computer, Swan Technologies, Zeos International, Gateway 2000, and Digital Equipment Corporation (which recently entered the fray)–also offer more extensive after-sale support than their mail-order cousins. For instance, Dell Computer provides on-site service and extended warranties for its systems through the Xerox Corporation’s national network of repair centers.


Each of these sales channels offers unique benefits for the computer shopper. Most people who’ve ever bought a computer can relate numerous examples of what they did right, or something they did wrong, when purchasing that first (or subsequent) computer.

Listen, for example, as Paul Wright continues the tale of his early experiences: “I ordered my first computer system out of a mail-order catalog. Sure, the price was right–considerably les that I would have paid for the same components at a retail outlet. After opening four shipping boxes and pulling out a half-dozen or so different pieces of equipment, though, I realized that I had no idea how all this strange-looking technology cluttering up my floor fit together.

“I spent almost an hour talking to support personnel before I got everything hooked up and working properly,” Wright explains. “Because my order contained equipment from various manufacturers, I had to place several calls–the majority of them long-distance. The most frustrating part of the whole scenario was that in some cases, I had to play round-robin in order to solve a particular problem. I’d call one company and they’d tell me that it sounded like I was having trouble with another company’s product. The printer manufacturer, for example, referred me to the company that built my display card, which included a parallel port. The technical staff there, in turn, sent me back to the first company, where someone finally figured out that a dip switch on my printer was set wrong.”

Ask Wright if he still buys from mail-order firms, however, and he responds with an enthusiastic yes. “I know my way around the insides of a computer a lot better now than I did three years ago,” he explains. “Today, if I have a problem, I can usually solve it myself, without having to call technical support.”

Nevertheless, Wright strongly recommends that first-time buyers steer clear of mail-order firms, especially for hardware purchases. His early experiences taught him what he considers to be a valuable lesson: “Value and bargain are not synonyms. If paying a little extra up front saves you time and frustration in the long run, your money has been well invested.”


De Stewart, an independent computer consultant and corporate trainer based in the Cincinnati suburbs, sees things differently. For him, the cost of a computer can and should be an overriding consideration, with one important caveat: “If you know someone who knows about computers and doesn’t mind sharing his or her expertise, prices on the mail-order side of the fence are hard to beat. Common sense dictates that you buy where the bargains are.”

Stewart’s opinion has merit. Because they function primarily as a warehousing and distribution channel, mail-order firms don’t incur the overhead associated with maintaining a storefront. Buying a quantity, as most mail-order firms do, reduces their costs even further. Consequently, they can often sell their products at much lower prices than the competition.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, there are different types of mail-order operations. Paul Wright’s problems could be traced to the fact that he purchased what I would call a piecemeal system, one consisting of components from several manufacturers, which he then had to assemble himself following delivery. One way to avoid a similar situation is to buy from one of the mail-order firms that preassembles (and, better still, tests) its systems before shipping. If the advertisement for a mail-order firm you’re considering is not clear on this point, call its technical-support department. A quick phone call now can save you a lot of grief later should that computer arrive in pieces.

To be absolutely sure that a mail-order system won’t be mismatched, consider buying a computer from one of the direct-sales companies such as Dell or Zeos. The quality of these companies’ computers is comparable to that of other name-brand, store-sold PCs, as is their price; also, these vendors typically give you various options of system configurations to suit your needs.

As a further alternative to mail order, Stewart recommends checking out one of the alternative-channel discounters. “I was picking up some things at Sam’s the other day when I turned a corner and found myself staring at a Packard Bell 386SX system, complete with a VGA monitor, priced under $1,300. That’s an incredible deal, comparable to what some mail-order firms charge for a similar system.”

Keep in mind Stewart’s caveat, however. As he readily admits, anyone who knows little about computers and doesn’t have a knowledgeable friend or coworker who’s willing to help is better off buying from an outlet that offers support and service of some kind. In such circumstances, Stewart leans toward local vendors, primarily because they provide many of the same customer services as traditional computer stores, but at substantially lower costs.

Do the generic, no-name systems manufactured and sold by local vendors bother Stewart? “No. Not at all. Given the modular nature of today’s IBM-compatible computers, anyone with the appropriate technical know-how can combine an Intel motherboard with a Seagate hard-disk drive, which is just what the local vendors do. Then they add a few other critical components–a floppy-disk drive, a display card and monitor, a keyboard, and so forth–to build a state-of-the-art system. You may not realize it, but this is exactly how the vast majority of computers are made, regardless of which company manufactures them.”

As Stewart points out, a local vendor can provide good systems at rock-bottom prices and even throw in training and technical support to boot. Be aware, however, that local vendors, like any other small business, are extremely vulnerable in today’s sluggish economy. That attractive location a local vendor occupies today may be a vacant storefront tomorrow–a situation that could leave you out in the cold should the generic computer you bought from the vendor ever need service. From this perspective especially, traditional computer stores offer a distinct advantage for those shoppers who want support along with their purchase. Even if the franchise or independently owned computer shop just down the street folds, some store or repair center will be qualified to deal with your suddenly temperamental brand-name computer.


As mentioned earlier, superstores have staked their claim in the computer and home-office industry. Typically, prices at superstores are slightly higher than what you’d pay through mail-order channels, but they undercut those of most traditional computer stores or local vendors. However, as in the other mass merchandisers, superstores typically sell a limited range of brand names.

One thing you might get at a superstore–in contrast to most other mass merchandisers–is customer service. Like the home-improvement centers I compared them to earlier, superstores generally employ trained sales personnel. This sets them apart from classic discount chains such as Kmart, where knowledgeable sales advice and assistance can be difficult to come by, and where after-purchase support, except for the manufacturer’s own warranty coverage, is virtually nonexistent. (Lest you misunderstand, I don’t mean to imply that manufacturers’ warranties lack value. No one knows more about a product than the company that made it. In many instances the manufacturer should be the first place you call if you have trouble with a particular piece of computer hardware.) Like traditional computer stores and local vendors, certain superstores–the previously mentioned CompUSA, for example–also offer training. Be aware, however, that this often involves fees over and above the cost of the computer itself.

By combining reduced prices with customer service, superstores fill a retail gap that previously existed between the low and high ends of the computer cost continuum. In many ways, superstores represent the best of both worlds.


As is true with almost anything you buy, where to purchase a personal computer boils down to achieving the proper balance among cost and other, less concrete considerations. The less assistance you need to select and set up your computer, the more money you can save by buying from a mail-order firm or through mass merchandisers in the alternate channel. But if you don’t know a RAM chip from a rumba, the personal attention you’ll receive at a traditional computer store or local vendor will be worth the higher prices. And for those people who might need a little help but also want a low-cost deal, superstores and direct-sales vendors might be their best bet.

If you’re buying your first computer, you can take comfort in one undeniable fact: The first time’s the hardest. The knowledge you gain from using that initial system will make deciding where and how to buy your next computer a much easier task.

Contributing editor JACK NIMERSHEIM bought his first personal computer in 1981. Nimersheim claims that his recent purchase of a 33-MHz486 IBM-compatible computer, which brings to 11 the number of systems he now owns, surely qualifies him for the Computer Buyer’s Hall of Fame–or a commemorative plaque on the wall of the local bankruptcy court.

COPYRIGHT 1992 Freedom Technology Media Group

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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