How / Where and When should I buy a computer? How much should I pay? Frequently asked questions – certainly for us. When I started my Computer Science degree in 1984, one of our lecturers told us (even then!) that we’d be asked this question a lot. It would usually be in the form of “What computer should I buy little Johnny for Christmas”, and, we were advised, the best answer would always be “Get him a bicycle”.

Over 25 years later, the question is still the same. Now we don’t advise on buying bicycles, however (perhaps we should – it may make some of the little darlings a bit fitter?). But you want a computer, and you won’t take any excuses from us.

So, without further ado, here is a list of things you can do to ensure that you buy the right computer for you, your family, and your wallet.

What To Buy

Your first job is to decide what to buy; you’re the only person who knows exactly what you need and how this new little addition will fit into your business and lifestyle; big screen or little? Apple or PC? Do you need an optical drive? Do you play games, or watch Blu-Ray discs? Do you edit videos, or write school documents?

It’s easy to answer “Well, of course I want to do all of those” – and, of course, you can. With enough money, you’ll get a machine that can take in its stride everything that you can throw at it. But we need to welcome you back to the real world, where you have a fixed, usually limited, budget. You may have to make a compromise or two.

This article will have a shelf life of 12 years (we don’t delete things often!), so I won’t recommend a specific machine, but I’d recommend that you buy a few magazines, search a few websites, and see which machines are commonly always found at the top of the review sites. A reviewer will see far more machines than you or I, and more even than Joe who sits in the next cubicle emitting words of wisdom such as “Dell are rubbish. I had one, and it overheated. Never buy Dell! Now, Apple are perfect, they never break down, never get viruses…”. In short, trust the review sites more than the chap next door who just happens to own a computer.

If you’re searching for review sites, I’d recommend (look for the A-List items), and UK and US based respectively, we’ve consistently found over the years that their reviews and recommendations pretty much agree with ours.

How Much to Pay

Once you’ve identified the actual machine, set your budgets. Your real budget, and the buying budget. For example, I may have a real budget of $1,500, but a buying budget of $1,300. When the salesman wants to know how much I have, I’ve got $1,300. He’ll be trying to get you to spend as much of that as possible, and you want to spend as little as possible. For a great machine, I have a $200 buffer – so he can sell me something nice, and I’m still within budget and don’t have to apply to anyone for more money.

Who Not to Buy From

There are a few places not to buy a computer from…

1. Avoid any store which sells computers alongside groceries. Trust me – they won’t be employing business experts who want to fully understand your needs and wants, and who will recommend the right solution even if it loses them a sale. (if you do want someone who will give you unbiased best-advice, see KP Direction…<g>)

2. Avoid the large Computer Chain Stores. You’ll get better advice than at the greengrocers, but their stock will have a similar shelf life; they have stock in the back of the store – it may have been there 2 days, or 2 months. The assistants there are working on minimum wage or commission – they’re there to sell machines quickly, not to spend time with you, and they have little or no negotiating power.

3. Any chain store offering ‘Free Maintenance for Life’. There’s no such thing as free maintenance – someone has to pay for it, and guess what? It’s going to be you. We had a machine in for repair from a client a year or so ago. The machine was only a few months old, and she’d paid $4,000 for it – with free maintenance for life. We checked, and found out that we could have sold that very same machine to her for $800 – and still made a profit. What was really unfortunate for her was that we saw the machine because the chain store couldn’t repair it, even after several visits. So much for lifetime support. (addendum… we fixed it, and it’s worked fine ever since. But we’re not boastful or anything…)

4. Mom ‘n’ Pop Computer Stores. “Dan the website man”. Any house with a ‘Computers repaired here’ sign stuck in the garden. Whilst each of these will give you the very best in customer service, you won’t get the best value for money (they have to make a profit!). Mom ‘n’ Pop will find out your wants and needs, but then they’ll just pass on your order to a supplier. More importantly, they may not be around in ten months if something breaks..

Where to buy

As IT Manager in several UK agencies, I had to buy a lot of computers – servers, desktops, laptops – and I preferred to use a single supplier if possible. We tried various sources, but quickly (and permanently) settled on one source; the manufacturer. Cut out the middle man, go direct and pay less.

How to Buy

If the manufacturer has a web store (e.g HP, Dell etc), use it to check specifications and get an idea of what’s available in your price range. And then leave it at that. Find a telephone number, and call a salesperson. Why? Because they’ll deal with you. If you’re after a $500 laptop, you might *just* get free delivery. If you’re dropping a few grand on one, you’ll be able to squeeze a lot more benefits out of them. Be prepared for this phone call to take a few hours, and don’t be afraid to take a break, put the phone down and review the offer. Always get the direct line of your salesperson, though, so you can call them back – they’re working with you, so they deserve the sale.

If the salesman starts using the ‘I need to talk to my manager about getting down to that price’ approach, use it against them. Once you have their best offer, tell them that you need to get authorization, because this machine isn’t exactly the one you planned to buy (which it won’t be – it’ll be better/cheaper/faster etc). Let them stew for 30 minutes, talk to your partner about the purchase, then ring back and start the negotiation again.

When discussing discounts, know what upgrades are low-cost/high perceived benefit for the company – e.g extended warranties, memory – and push to get those free/cheap. Upgrades on hard disks, screen size, free carrying bags, mice etc are also nice. Certainly *NEVER* buy an extended warranty at retail price; only 20% of the cost goes to service the warranty, the rest is commission. If you can’t get it free, live without it. Instead, put the money you’ve saved into a mutual account, and self-insure – pay for out-of-warranty repairs yourself, or use that money to buy the next laptop in 3 years.

One final note; never, ever, lie when negotiating (you’ll be caught out), and always be prepared to walk away. There are lots of machines out there, and if you’re not comfortable with the one you’re being sold, you can move on to the next one.