I recently followed the experience of new buyer, Wendi Jackson, a 29-year-old tennis instructor from Devon, PA, who gamely agreed to share her story. Her buying experience may shed light on what you, or a family member or business associate, likely will go through, and what you should look out for.
Wendi wanted a computer primarily to "get on the Internet." She asked her friends for advice and decided to buy a Windows 95 machine from one of the nation's largest chain of computer superstores.
Wendi is fortunate to have an interested and generous father, who offered to pay for the computer. Harold Jackson, a businessman from Havertown, PA, did research by talking with people he knew and checking advertisements in the local newspaper for three weeks.
Wendi and Harold decided on which computer they wanted to buy (a Compaq Deskpro), which was being advertised for $999, along with a Hewlett Packard color inkjet printer. They went to the store on a Sunday at 2 p.m.
"It was a nightmare," said Harold. "The store was so crowded, it felt like entering a zoo where everybody was running around not knowing where to go."
"The computers were really close together," said Wendi. "It was hard to know which was the right one to look at."
What's more, all the salespeople were busy, and they had to wait an hour and a half to talk with someone. "Still," said Wendi, "the crowd made me feel good, in a way. I felt that if all these people are here buying, what I'm doing must be a good thing."
Once they met with a salesperson, she persuaded Wendi and Harold to buy a computer costing several hundred dollars more than the one they had planned on. The salesperson said the $999 PC would have met her needs for the present, but it wasn't very upgradable.
It's always a tough call deciding to buy for the present or the future, particularly if you don't know what your future needs will be. Wendi's foreseeable needs are modest, and she likely would have done fine for the next three years with the less expensive machine. But she's happy with what she has. "Eventually I'll grow into it," she said.
The salesperson showed them many different PCs, but "it was all pretty confusing," said Harold. Eventually, they went with what the salesperson recommended, an IBM Aptiva. The computer came with a Pentium-compatible 233 megahertz AMD K6 processor and was fully loaded with 32 megabytes of memory, a 3.2 gigabyte hard drive, a 24x CD-ROM drive, a 15-inch monitor, 3-D surround sound, two universal serial bus ports and a K56flex modem. (Unfortunately, the K56flex modem is an older one that doesn't support the latest modem standard, called V.90. This means it may not connect at top speed to all Internet service providers without an upgrade.)
The computer also came with software: Windows 95, Lotus SmartSuite, Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator, plus anti-virus and diagnostics utilities.
Sell, Sell, Sell
Wendi and Harold also bought an Epson Stylus printer instead of the Hewlett Packard they originally wanted. An Epson salesperson in the store at the time convinced them the Epson was a better buy. With all the confusing options, it's sometimes just easier to relinquish choice to a salesperson. They were a little disturbed though that the printer didn't come with a cable to connect it to the computer-they had to buy it separately.
Their salesperson did a good job in helping Wendi choose the supplies she would need, including a surge protector and printer paper.
One of the biggest mistakes newcomers make when buying a PC is not accounting for the "learning curve." Even the latest Windows 95 and Macintosh computers, which are easier to use than ever, require you to learn new procedures, and some people spend a lot of money for a machine they never take full advantage of.
Wendi and Harold wanted to ensure this wouldn't happen. They bought a voucher for a six-hour computer training course for $100. For another $100, they paid for a tech support card, which entitles Wendi to call 24-hours a day for one year whenever she has a question or runs into a problem.
With her Dad's help, Wendi set up the computer system. She already is on her way to becoming a geek. "I was kind of intimidated at first," she says. "But it's really not that difficult once you get started."
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or members.home.net/reidgold.