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Published: Saturday, 11/3/2001

Get the most computer for your money

The 2001 holiday season may be the best ever for people with the need - and the money - for a new computer.

Prices are at rock-bottom levels and deals abound as manufacturers and retailers scramble to boost sales slowed by the economy and other consumer concerns.

Good basic models are available for $600 to $700. About $1,000 will buy an upscale computer with a larger monitor, better audio, and features like a CD-R drive for “burning” music and data discs.

Consumers, however, may be wary about making major purchases this season, and unusually value-minded when they do.

Most people probably don't need a new computer. Consumers often buy because they're tired of the old computer and want the latest technology. One of my home PCs is 6 years old, uses Windows 95, and has a 200-megahertz (MHz) processor. Yet one family member still uses it, quite happily, for word processing, e-mail, and Internet work.

A new PC can be necessary for people who:

  • Face a big repair bill for an old computer. Just getting a repair estimate may cost almost $100. Add parts and labor, and the bill could reach several hundred dollars. A repaired computer, especially a laptop, may never work right again. In a few weeks, something else may break. In the end, you've sunk a lot of money into a worthless junker.

  • Want to move beyond the basic trio of e-mail, Internet, and word processing. That might include storing and playing digital music files; getting involved in digital photography or movies; and individuals who want peak performance from new computer games.

  • Plan to buy a new printer, scanner, or other add-on device. These devices may not work well with an older computer.

  • Use their PC as a home entertainment center. PCs are assuming that role, with the ability to play stereo music, intricate games with three-dimensional effects, feature-length movies on DVDs, act as electronic photo albums, and much more.

    To get the most value for your money:

  • Consider a national brand name. Nonbrand name “clone” computers may work fine. Major manufacturers, however, usually mean a better chance of getting a quality computer with a good warranty and decent technical support.

  • Check the advertisements. Compare prices and features in local retail stores with those from the big online computer retailers. They include Dell (www.dell.com), IBM (www.ibm.com); Gateway (www.gateway.com); Sony (www.sony.com); Hewlett-Packard (www.hp.com), and Compaq (www.compaq.com).

  • Buying online generally allows a greater degree of customizing - selecting and paying for only those features you want. Buying locally allows you to test the model in person; take immediate delivery; and avoid shipping charges, which can approach $100.

  • Check shipping charges and policies on returning a defective computer for a refund or replacement. Some stores may charge a “restocking” fee just to take the computer back.

  • Buy early. Popular models often disappear from the store shelves before the holiday rush. Online companies sometimes experience parts shortages that can delay shipment.

  • Be sure the computer can run Windows XP, the newest operating system, or master control program.

    Finally, take a look at the Macintosh models made by Apple Computer (www.apple.com). They are famously user-friendly with their own new operating system, OS X, that in some ways tops Windows XP. Remember, however, that Windows PCs account for more than 9 of every 10 computers in use today.

    Michael Woods is the Blade's science editor. His column on computers and technology appears each Saturday. Email him at mwoods@theblade.com.



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