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Personal checks are basically an "IOU" written by you to a company selling you something. You send them the check and they give it to their bank, which presents it to your bank for payment.
Until the check has been presented for payment and processed by your bank ("cleared") the vendor has nothing but what is in effect a piece of paper saying that you owe them money. Checks can bounce if there aren't enough funds in your account, and they can in some circumstances be canceled before they are cleared. Due to these risks, most larger vendors will either not accept personal checks, or they will accept them but hold the order until the check has cleared. To do otherwise would open them up to abuse from dishonest buyers.
Like a money order, a personal check can be traced and used as proof of payment. But if the company is going to wait for the check to clear, then your money is gone anyway, so you have basically no more protection than you would with a money order. If you have trouble you are still in a position of weakness (as is the case with all forms of prepayment): the vendor has your money. Worse, you will delay your purchase by up to two weeks while the check clears.
Personal checks are a reasonable way to pay for something from a local vendor or one with whom you have an established relationship. This is another case where a long-term relationship has great value: if the vendor trusts you due to many years of doing business together, he or she will take your check without making you wait. (Just as you would take a check from a personal friend but not a stranger.) This benefits everyone: you save on the costs associated with certified checks or money orders, and the vendor saves the costs associated with credit cards.