Reading Sales Droids: Buying a Computer in "Meatspace"
by Gareth Branwyn for Digital Living Today

The popular wisdom these days seems to be that it's smarter and safer to buy a computer online -- that way, you aren't susceptible to sleazy salespeople who'll sell you something you don't want. There are certainly advantages to buying online (you can take your time, do all the research you want, carefully compare features and prices, and you can stay out of this blasted heat!), but there are equal advantages to buying a PC in a bricks and mortar store.

Computers are like shoes. They might appear to be your size, but you really don't know if they fit 'til you try them on. Keyboards are different, mice are different, scanner and printer output quality varies widely (regardless of the stats). Buying in a store (or at least road testing there) allows you to really get the feel for the collection of machines you're likely to spend thousands on and way too much time in front of.

The key to successful store buying is in knowing how to "read" your salesperson and tell if he or she is BSing you. If they are, leave! (or ask to speak with the manager). Here are a few tips for dealing with store personnel so that you won't get taken for a ride:

  • Don't walk in ignorant! You MUST do research before you go shopping so have some idea what you're looking for. Check out sites like PC Magazine, Computer Shopper, and - ah - my tech review site Street Tech. The more you know, the quicker you'll be able to assess if the sales "droid" (that's what hackers like to call 'em) is blowin' smoke.

  • Beware the ol' bait and switch. Here's how this works: you see an ad for a system whose price is so enticing, you HAVE to check it out. You get to the store and -- low and behold -- that system is sold out. But look -- here's the system you REALLY need -- and it's only a hundred dollars more. Walk out. This a trap. Even if they just happen to find one last copy of the original system, you don't want to buy from these sleazebags anyway.

  • Careful on Rebates. Rebates are tempting, but you have to be careful and make sure that you know all the details. Find out EXACTLY what's involved in cashing in BEFORE you buy the hardware. If it's $100 off if you sign up for AOL for a two years, it's not worth it. Sometimes the "rebate" is actually a coupon booklet for discounted software. Another rip-off. Also avoid rebates that are contingent on you buying with cash. You want the added protection of your credit card in case the store pulls a fast one on you.

  • Guarantee and Return Policy. One of the advantages of buying in a store is that you can scrutinize the warranty and return policy. Do it! Techies have a term "Infant Mortality" that refers to the fact that if hardware is going to fail it will likely do so in the first few months of operation. You want the warranty to cover this period (at least 90 days) and you want to be able to get your money back or a replacement system without hassles.

  • Technobabble? If the salesperson starts spouting a bunch of tech terms you don't understand, and makes little attempt to explain them, be suspicious. You shouldn't go into the store until you know your RAM from your USB, but if the salesperson starts spewing references to throughput, system BUS speeds, and microns without reason, they're probably trying to snow you. Bring a computer pocket dictionary with you such as the excellent Barron's Dictionary of Computer and Internet Terms (you should keep such a book by your PC anyway). Once the salesperson sees you whip this tome out, he'll likely ease up on the geekspeak.

  • Maintenance Policy? One of the biggest questions facing buyers of consumer electronics is: Should I spring for the maintenance policy? These policies, which the store will likely give you a hard sell on, are actually where they make a lot of their profit. For most electronics, I recommend NOT buying such policies, but if the policy is reasonably priced, and especially if it includes in-home service, I do recommend them for computers (but NOT for peripherals under a few hundred bucks). Again, you want to scrutinize the policy to make sure it covers all parts and labor. Some will even give you a replacement system if your computer needs to go into the shop for an extended period of time. They usually do not cover anything software related.

If you do your homework beforehand, arm yourself with a pocket dictionary, and remember that YOU are in control of the transaction, you can benefit greatly from trying out the computer hardware in the flesh before you buy it. You also always have the option of road testing machines in a store and then searching shopping bots like the Shopper site to find the best price for your dream system over the Net.

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