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Read First, Then Buy
Buying sophisticated, high-technology equipment requires some up-front research before you plunk down the big bucks. You'll need to gather different information for each type of equipment you plan to purchase, but the general rule stands: The more you know, the smarter you'll buy.
Look Through the Specs
Make sure that you know what's important about the device you want to buy, and, in particular, what's important for you. You may not need the most blazing speed, but you do need to know what speeds are available so you can decide if you need it or not. Ditto for colors, resolution, memory size, hard disk capacity and all other features and capabilities.
Buy for Now
Once you decide what your requirements are, find the equipment that meets them, and maybe exceeds them a little. You should anticipate your future needs, but don't overestimate and buy something that's too sophisticated-or too expensive-for your needs.
Start at the Top
The leading vendors have earned their reputations for top-quality merchandise at fair prices. Find out what these top companies, in whatever field, offer and compare your needs with their specifications. You can use the information as a baseline for comparisons with other companies' offerings.
In addition to WINDOWS Magazine, there are many other resources for information about equipment. Among the best are online services and the Web, where most hardware and software vendors vie for your attention. You can literally find information about every product in the Windows PC arena simply by sitting down at your computer and surfing from site to site.
List the specifications that are important to you across the top of a piece of paper (or a spreadsheet) in order of declining importance. Then list the products that you're interested in down a column on the left-hand side, and fill in whether the products have a particular feature (in the case of yes/no features, such as presence/absence of SCSI controller) or how much of the feature the products have (like dot resolution on monitors). This will allow you to see at a glance which products are most likely to fill the bill for you.
Sort of a Spreadsheet
If a comparison chart gets too cluttered on paper, try using your spreadsheet's data function to make it even clearer. Select the whole chart, then perform a multilevel sort on the data. This will bring the products that have the most favorable of the specs to the top of the chart, where you can see them easily.
Compare the Cost
The PC market, for hardware and for software, is highly competitive, so once you know what you want to buy, go and shop prices. Check online, check ads for mail-order companies, go to retail stores and check prices, and look in your local newspapers for prices. You'll be surprised how much you can save by doing some good price shopping.
Service with a Smile
Price isn't the only criteria to consider. Check out different vendors' service and support policies, and try to find out how well they actually deliver on their promises. Go to the vendors' forums on the online services, such as AOL and CompuServe. Computer users are not at all shy about complaining when they think a vendor doesn't provide requisite service.
Get a price quote in writing, and you can use it to your advantage in two ways. Use it to bargain with other vendors, and use it as reference when you bargain with the vendor who provided the quote. Vendors can fax quotes to you, and may even offer a lower price on the written quote than they did over the telephone.
Options to Buy
Different kinds of vendors have different strengths and weaknesses. You can match your needs to their profiles. Dealers and value-added resellers offer the highest service levels, but you pay for it either in the price of the product, in service-contract fees or in time-charged fees. But if you need a local source of support, the cost may be worth it. Retail computer chains have their in-house service departments, but they charge on a per-project basis for repairs. They may lack the detailed level of expertise that you require, however. Direct marketers or mail-order suppliers offer great prices, but support is delivered over the phone with quality and availability that varies significantly. Mass-market chains that carry computers will probably aim their products to the low end, and their support will likely come from the computer hardware or software vendor, rather than from the store itself. In addition, the salespeople may not know much about the products they're selling.
It Warrants Questions
Does the product you're buying have a warranty? How long is it? Can you return the product for a refund? If you're buying from mail order, does the vendor charge a re-stocking fee? Find out about all the little "gotchas" before you buy. Read the fine print on everything, and make sure that you get warranty and return policy details in writing.
Your Credit (Card) Is Good
Always make purchases using a credit card. It makes it much easier to solve problems over charges. If you purchase with a check and the vendor cashes it, you won't have much leverage if the product doesn't deliver as promised.
Never on Sunday
Or on Friday, for that matter. Take delivery early in the week. That way you should be able to get support quickly if there is a problem, and you won't have to wait if the vendor doesn't offer weekend support.
When the product arrives, check to make sure that all the parts, accessories, documentation and so forth are included. Hold on to the packaging, because you may need it to return defective merchandise. And if you do need to return items, include only the piece that must be returned.