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[ The PC Guide | The PC Buyer's Guide | Designing and Specifying PC Systems and Components | PC Types ]

"Free" (Or Price-Reduced Service Contract) PCs

When browsing in a retail store, you may come across some PCs that are very inexpensive, sometimes hundreds of dollars lower in cost than other seemingly-comparable models being sold in the same place. You may even find a system that is being marketed as completely "free"! If you're smart, you'll wonder how this can possibly be the case.

Since I have a section in this guide entitled "TANSTAAFL", you probably already know my take on anything that is labeled "free": it almost always isn't, and "free" PCs are no exception. A PC is a piece of hardware it has a cost, and selling it also has a cost. Nobody stays in business very long giving things away for free without there being some sort of a catch.

In fact, these "free" PCs aren't free at all, and the ones that are much less expensive than they should be are for a good reason. If you read the fine print, you will find that in order to get this "deal of the century", you are required to sign a contract, usually for three years, to get Internet service from a specific Internet service provider (ISP). If you don't sign the contract when buying the system, that cheap, or "free", PC suddenly costs $400 or more extra.

The companies selling these boxes are basically bundling Internet service and hardware and selling it as a package. Rather than being up front about this, they use clever marketing to draw attention away from the Internet service and towards the "free hardware". (Sometimes the ISP deal is in fact sold as a "rebate", which is at least more honest.) Whichever way it goes, most people don't pay attention to the details until they have already gotten the machine home, and then they are stuck with the consequences.

Note: There was at one point a company that was in fact giving away free PCs that also came with free Internet access. This company was going to make its fortune entirely by bombarding those who subscribed to the program with lots and lots of advertising whenever they used their machines. They went out of business--what a surprise! :^)

So fine, you are getting free hardware in exchange for an Internet service contract. Seems like a reasonable deal, right? What's so wrong with that? Plenty. For starters, the main catch: you have to use the ISP that's in the contract. There are a lot of good ISPs around, but also a lot of bad ones. When you buy one of these machines, you are signing a contract that commits you to a particular provider for a very long time: three years is an eternity when it comes to the Internet! What do you do if the ISP is lousy from the word go? Or if their service starts out great but they let it go downhill because they know everyone is forced to use them? Or if they fill your screen with advertising banners at every turn? Or if you move somewhere that doesn't have a local access number for that ISP? You give up choice of your Internet provider for a long time. I've personally used several ISPs that I would never have wanted to be stuck with for three full years!

Consider the PC you are getting as well. These machines are often absolutely the bottom of the barrel in terms of quality and features. After all, they are trying to give them away or sell them as cheaply as possible, and then make their money back on Internet service; why should they bother to include anything beyond the bare minimum? The PCs are typically imbalanced, under-powered, proprietary and close to obsolete the day you get them home: what will they be like in three years?

The kicker, which makes these systems something you should really have second thoughts about, is that they often try to sell you by saying that if you get a regular PC, you'll have to pay for Internet service anyway. In fact, there are free Internet service companies out there that anyone can sign up for. Again here, these are free in exchange for advertising and other considerations, but they don't cost cash on a monthly basis. I don't really recommend them, but millions of people use them without having to sign a three-year contract or use junk hardware. Even if you don't go with a free service, you may be able to do much better than the $19.95 or more per month that many of these contract deals charge.

In fact, there's only one kind of free PC that I approve of, and that's one that's really free. How do you get one of those, I am sure you want to know?! Well, it's not uncommon for an older machine to be "handed down", particularly to a younger person. If you're a teen entering college and on a tight budget, you may be able to find a family member or friend willing to let you have an older machine for free. It may not be the best system, but it will be free, and it's a lot better than nothing. (And if you are someone getting a new system who doesn't need the old one, why not consider making a donation to someone who will make good use of the old hardware?)

Next: Designing PCs: Structure and Subsystems

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