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[ The PC Guide | Articles and Editorials | There's No Business, Like Show Business... ]

...And What Not To Buy

All purchases at computer shows should be done prudently, but the following items require even greater care, and in many cases should simply be avoided:

  • "Deal Of the Century" Software: It is common for software to be seen at shows at incredible discounts over what you would expect to see in a retail store. (Example: "Current version" of Microsoft Office for $99.) This should immediately set off warning bells. Examine the package closely, looking especially for any sign of labels saying "Not For Resale" (may be abbreviated "NFR") or "Academic version". The former is self-explanatory; academic versions are sold at a discount to educational institutions and educators only, and are not supposed to be sold to the general public. In either case, if you purchase the software you do not in most cases acquire a legal license to use the software, and are in violation of the software manufacturer's license agreement just the same as if you borrowed your buddy's CD-ROM, even if you feel more "legitimate". Caveat emptor.
  • Hard Disk Drives: These are usually sold not in retail boxes, but in OEM bulk form in an anti-static bag. Often, the bag is not even sealed, but just taped shut. Unless you are very sure of the integrity of the vendor, you are taking a risk that the drive may be used, reconditioned or (rarely) just plain dead. There is no way to tell if a seemingly-good hard disk is in fact good by visual inspection. If the vendor is one you trust, this can be safe however.
    Another problem is the increasing thefts of large volumes of hard drives, which then end up back on the market. Some hard drive companies have subsequently refused to honor warranties on these drives.
  • Used Hard Drives: You're playing with fire here, plain and simple. Hard drives often fail in mysterious ways; they can have intermittent problems that show up many weeks after purchase, there is no way to know before you buy the drive, and you will almost never get a warranty longer than 30 days on used parts.
  • Custom PCs: You can get good deals on PCs at computer shows, but it is best not to actually purchase them there. If you attend a show you will be amazed to see custom-configured machines being assembled to order for customers--in about 20 minutes on top of an overturned monitor crate by an overstressed employee often trying to do ten other things simultaneously. There is no time for methodical assembly, or burn-in testing. Is this machine likely to be high in quality or low in quality? Would you buy a car or television set assembled in this manner?
    The right way to buy a PC at a show is to make a deal with a local vendor to buy the machine, provide the specifications, and then tell the vendor that you would like to pick up the machine at their shop after it has been properly assembled and tested. You both win that way: you get a better machine, and the vendor gets a sale without having to build it to hit a strict time deadline. But you have to resist the desire for instant gratification. (If the vendor is not local you cannot do this, but it is especially risky to buy a complete PC at a computer show from a vendor that is not local to you.)
  • "As-Is" Hardware: Some vendors will have boxes of older hardware, and seemingly-fine components for sale dirt cheap, labeled "as-is". This hardware often is final sale only. There is almost always only one reason that anything is in a box like this: it is broken. If you are a computer repair expert or like to dabble with electronics, this can be a good way to get very inexpensive parts. Otherwise, resist the urge, unless you like to play the lottery--chances are that you are buying a paperweight.

Next: How To Buy And How To Protect Yourself

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