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[ The PC Guide | The PC Buyer's Guide | Understanding PC Sources, Vendors and Prices | Sources For PC Systems and Components | Online, Catalog and Mail Order Sources ]

Small Online PC Shops

If large online vendors are the Internet equivalent of computer superstores like CompUSA, online PC shops are the Internet equivalent of local PC shops. :^) Like local PC shops, these are small stores that are often run by a family or an individual. Like local PC shops, they offer custom-built PCs using standard components at good prices. And like local PC shops, they are virtually unknown to most PC buyers. They differ from local shops in that, of course, they aren't usually local! They also tend to be a better place to buy individual components than most local shops.

Here are the advantages of these companies:

  • Very Good Prices and Selection, No Sales Tax, "Shop At Home" Convenience: See the general discussion of online and mail order sources for details. These shops can usually get just about any component you might wish, though sometimes with delays. Prices, especially for components, are better than most retail establishments, but not as good as the huge online sellers.
  • Good to Very Good Quality Systems: These companies often sell their own "house brand" PCs, and they usually are of very good quality. It all depends on how much you are willing to spend on the components.
  • Choice of Components and Configurations: You have the ability to choose most of the components used in PCs built by these shops.
  • Expandable and Upgradeable Systems: These PCs are made from standard components, and thus are easier to upgrade or expand than proprietary retail-packaged PCs.
  • Knowledgeable Salespeople: The people who run these shops often have a technical background, and are among the most experienced of all persons who sell PC hardware. The better ones are the exception to the "don't expect help from salespeople" rule.
  • Personalized Service: These companies won't be local to most of their customers, but they still provide much more personal service than do large vendors. They will answer questions, respond to email, and work for your satisfaction. They will provide technical support and service for their systems, with a minimum of corporate red tape.

The disadvantages of this type of vendor include:

  • Shipping Costs, Order Tracking Hassles, No Personalized Shopping, Delays and No "Instant Gratification", More Difficult Returns, Potential Service Hassles: See the general discussion of online and mail order sources for details. These shops have less of these problems than most online vendors do, mostly because they are smaller and they deal with their customers on a more personal level. For example, order tracking problems are less common, and returns are usually easier than they are with larger stores.
  • Variability: As is the case with local PC shops, the quality of these companies, and the PCs they build, can vary greatly. You need to shop around and get a referral or recommendation to be sure of avoiding the bad apples.
  • Sometimes Poor Quality "Standard" Systems: Again, as with local PC shops, these companies may resort to corner-cutting in their base or "standard configuration" systems to keep down their advertised prices. You have to carefully check what is included in standard configurations and customize where appropriate to ensure you get a good quality unit. (This isn't true of all of these shops, but it is true of many of them.)
  • Poor Software Packages: These companies, lacking the buying power of the big national retail and mail-order manufacturers, often do not provide the same quality and quantity of software with their machines. This can be significant if you don't already own the software you need.

I personally often use this type of vendor when I need to purchase components, especially when I want some assistance in choosing what I need. Prices are a bit higher than the huge online discounters, but I feel the personalized service is worth it. It's important to remember that as with all small businesses, these companies get most of their customers from word of mouth; you similarly should select a company of this type based on a personal reference or testimonial.

Note: As I mentioned in the note at the end of the section on computer superstores, it's not very nice to use the expertise and time of these small vendors unless you are going to buy from them. As always, if their prices are totally out of line then walk, but don't use their services and then buy from a big online discount house just to save a few dollars; if everyone does that, these small vendors will end up going out of business.

Next: Group Buying Clubs

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