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[ The PC Guide | The PC Buyer's Guide | Understanding PC Sources, Vendors and Prices | The PC Industry, Vendors and The Market ]

Understanding PC Buying

It is essential to understand that buying PCs should not be approached in the same way that you would purchase another consumer electronics item like a dishwasher, television set or car stereo. When you buy one of these other items, you generally have a pretty good idea of what you are getting, and what will be included. Sure, the products will vary in terms of size, features, styles and colors, but at its core, the product performs one basic function and all the different models are fairly similar. In addition, the units are sold in pretty much a "take it or leave it" fashion--you can't walk into an electronics superstore and say "I'd like that dishwasher but I want the top and bottom racks switched, and I need it made 4" shorter so it will fit under my countertop".

In contrast, PCs aren't "integral wholes". Well, some are sold that way, especially retail "PCs in a box", but in reality, PCs are made from fairly standard components. They are also highly customizable, assuming you buy from a source willing to let you exploit this key advantage. In many ways, PCs are more like cars than they are like car stereos.

While companies try to build brand loyalty by making consumers think there is something inherently superior to their machines, this is usually not the case. There is little "magic" in a particular brand of PC compared to another. What the PC's hardware really boils down to is the sum of its components. The brand name or the company are important, but primarily for quality and service considerations.

Note: Notebooks are different in this regard because they are not usually made entirely of standard components, and their functionality and quality does depend on manufacturer-specific designs to a large degree.

Since PCs are assemblies of components, the component "packages" must be studied carefully. Some PCs come with all the components and peripherals needed to make a fully-functioning system; others do not. There is a huge difference in value between a PC that includes a printer, sound card, modem and speakers, and one that does not--assuming you need those components. But the ads will just say "New PC!" and provide a long list of features.

In an attempt to make their products attractive with low prices, some companies employ tricks such as the infamous "monitor not included". Often the PC will be pictured with a monitor, and an asterisk leading to text written in a tiny font informing you that the monitor costs extra. In my opinion, this is deceptive advertising. It's like seeing an ad for a car and then finding out you have to pay extra for the steering wheel and the brakes. Make sure you find out exactly what's in the package.

Next: The Value of a Vendor Relationship

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