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 email@example.com.