Digital Fever – Buying a desktop computer


by Mike Kroll


In my last column I recommended against the purchase of a laptop computer for college students. I made the point that a desktop computer was more economical, far less fragile and less likely to be lost or stolen. It was also pointed out that I build and sell desktop computers at my shop and some readers thought the column to be little more than blatant flacking of my own business. The truth is I would appreciate the patronage of Zephyr readers, that is why I advertise in this paper. However, the bulk of my business is the repair of computers rather than selling them because that is where the profit is found.

As the price of personal computers has fallen in recent years so too has the profitability for computer retailers, particularly small shops like mine. Companies like Dell sell millions of computers each month and that kind of volume allows them to profitably sell at a more competitive price than any local computer dealer. They spend less for the components and can remain profitable with far smaller margins. But the real secret to Dell's success is that they rarely sell their computers at the unbelievably low price advertised. Whether you buy from Dell on-line or by telephone their sales system makes it damn difficult to buy a computer as advertised. Most buyers will upgrade their Dell purchase to make it both more useful and hundreds of dollars more expensive than the version advertised.

With the upgrades most customers choose when they purchase a Dell system much of the net savings over purchase of a comparable system from a local dealer is eroded. The upgrades are much more profitable to Dell with perhaps their biggest profit coming from the sale of extended warranties. It has been historically common for computer systems to come standard with a one year warranty but most systems now sold by Dell and Gateway include only a 90-day warranty and they work very hard to sell you an extended warranty on top of that. Obviously, the longer the included warranty the better but I have always advised my clients against purchasing extended warranties due to the questionable real value they typically offer.

For the majority of my computer service customers the most typical point of purchase was a big-box or discount store. We see large numbers of the “value” PCs sold by Compaq, Hewlett Packard, eMachines, Gateway in addition to the Dells. Due to corporate mergers Compaq Presarios and HP Pavillions are sold by the same company, as are Gateway and eMachine models. While Dell only sells direct you can find packages of any of the others at many Best Buys, Circuit Cities, Staples, and even K-Mart, Wal-Mart and Target. These “value” computers are made to sell for the lowest possible cost and their marketing assumes a naēve consumer. Both the manufacturers and the stores that sell them generally consider such systems as “disposable.” Once they are out of warranty if something breaks you are expected to throw the computer away and buy a new one!

If you consider the costs (including aggravation) incurred after the sale these so-called value computers often end up costing more than your alternatives. Since most purchasers resist the notion that these are disposable commodities these machines account for a substantial share of my hardware repair business. From that perspective my local competitors and I should and do appreciate the fact that the stores that retail these systems seldom offer local service. While service calls for viruses and spyware can and do occur on all types of computers my experience is that these value systems generate more frequent and predictable out-of-warranty hardware repairs.

Perhaps the most common such hardware failure is the upgrade-induced power supply failure. Most of these value computers come standard with power supplies that are barely sufficient to cover the demands of the components included. When a buyer decides to upgrade to a DVD burner or higher-end video card the power consumption of the system frequently exceeds the capacity of the power supply and it overheats and eventually fails. To add insult to injury the very design of many of these systems preclude replacement with standard sized power supplies obliging the purchase of more expensive and less capable specialty components.

Even in a small city like Galesburg you can purchase a new computer from numerous local dealers who not only service what they sell but must generate repeat business in order to remain in business. While it may indeed be self-serving for me to say this it is also my best advise: generally it is better to buy a computer from a local dealer you know and trust than to buy it any other way. You will most definitely pay a small premium up front for doing this but you also get the confidence of a friendly face and local telephone call when you encounter problems. And all the local dealers service what they sell in addition to computers purchased elsewhere. I am never offended if a customer comes in with a broken computer for service that was purchased from someone other than myself; I appreciate and respect them for bringing there service business to my shop and any reputable dealer I know feels the same way.

Mike Kroll operates Dr. Mike Computer Therapist, a small computer shop in Galesburg where he daily provides therapy to all sorts of computers. You can reach him by e-mail at <>