From the little guy Shopping: You can find good deals on computers in your neighborhood shopping center.


Nowadays it seems as if there are computer stores on every corner. And, if you're a bargain hunter, you are almost certain to run into machines with screwy brand names such as Pink Cloud No. 44 PC.

There's a thriving business these days from tiny storefront shops that assemble PCs from components and sell them at rock-bottom prices. The market has become so price competitive that if all the corners being cut were made of stone, you could build a pretty good pyramid.

The truth is, some of these places are great. Quality components are used and, since most of these small stores are run by the owner, you'll usually get personal attention if you have a problem or need help. But, just as is true with car dealers, furniture stores, reporters and lawyers, there are crooks and incompetents, too.

But since some of these stores can be real finds, especially if you know enough about computers to ask a few intelligent questions, here are some ways to recognize the difference between a questionable joint and a good computer store.

The first thing to do is to find out how long the store has been in business. Some of these places, because they're run on a shoestring, have the life span of a grasshopper. And, if the store goes out of business, there goes any guarantee you have as well as any hope for technical support or customer service. It seems unfair to the many new stores that are run by nice people, but I recommend you shop with a store that has been in business for two years or more. That's no guarantee it won't go out of business tomorrow, but it does make that possibility less likely.

Next, you need to find out what kind of components such as hard disks, motherboards, video cards and CD-ROM drives are used to assemble the computer. Since there are so many possible combinations of components that would be perfectly acceptable, I can't list them here. This is a case where you either have to know enough yourself or find a knowledgeable friend who can help. This is an important step and if you can't answer this question, you would be smarter to stick with stores that sell brand-name computers.

If you can pass that test, you're almost home. Now, if you really want to be sure, ask for three or four references - names of people who have bought machines from that store. Besides asking the customers about the quality of the computer, ask how helpful the store has been in resolving problems or providing technical support. I know you'd never dream of doing this with a big store and brand-name computers, but that's precisely the point. One of the things you are paying for with a brand-name PC is the reassurance it will be of reasonably high quality and the company will be around to honor the guarantee.

When a store passes all these tests and the prices are right - and right means at least $100 less than what you'd pay for a brand name machine, otherwise, why buy the no-name computer? - you can move into the final step.

Try bargaining. Since the owner of the store is probably right there in the shop and may be the person selling you the computer, you'll find he or she has a lot more power to make on-the-spot deals. If the price is already much lower than what you can find elsewhere, don't be too disappointed if you can't make a deal at a lower price. But it does no harm to try.

If all this seems like too much work, then just head to one of the big computer stores and look at the brand-name machines. Prices are low there, too. Either approach is fine. But if you do decide to go the no-name route, just factor in a little extra time for caution.

Pub Date: 5/11/98

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