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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 ]

Large Online, Catalog and Mail Order Vendors

There are thousands of companies that specialize in selling computer equipment, including PCs, components and supplies, mail order. Most started out selling from catalogs and taking orders over the phone, and then expanded to include sales over the Internet as Web business exploded in the late 1990s. These companies are only vendors, not manufacturers of equipment, so for PCs they generally only sell pre-packaged retail systems. Examples of this sort of company include buy.com, Computer Discount Warehouse (CDW) and Outpost.com. You'll find ads for hundreds of these companies in any computer magazine.

These businesses are sort of like "computer superstores without the store". You can buy the same types of items as you can at a computer superstore, but everything is done over the phone, or the Web. Here are the advantages of this type of store:

  • Very Good Prices and Selection, No Sales Tax, "Shop At Home" Convenience: See the general discussion of online and mail order sources for details. Selection and prices are often the best of any source for some types of equipment, and for supplies.
  • Discounts and Deals: Many of these stores run frequent discount programs and coupons, cutting prices further.

As you can see, what these places are mostly about is getting your choice of items at the best prices. They do have several important disadvantages however:

  • 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.
  • Poor to Moderate Quality Systems, Often Imbalanced Systems: These companies only sell prepackaged retail PCs, so like most retail sources, they suffer from the limitations of these systems. They do have about the best selection of pre-made PCs around, so if you are willing to do your homework and pay a bit extra, you can get one of the better machines in this category. These stores do usually have good turnover and hence usually up-to-date systems.
  • No Component Choices or Configurability: As with other retail PC sources, you have no choice over what is in the box when you buy a system; you get whatever the manufacturer supplied with the system.
  • Generally Clueless Salespeople: The people at these stores don't know much about the products that they sell. Some of the better online stores have help lines staffed by technicians, but most do not.
  • No Technical Support and Service: These companies only sell product. You must rely on the support and service capabilities of the manufacturer.
  • Communications Difficulties: These larger companies can at times be difficult to communicate with--extensive phone menus, long waits on hold, and delays in responding to email are common.

These stores are the absolute best place to buy computer components and supplies-- if you already know what you want to buy, and are willing to wait to get the item. (And assuming the company has the item in stock and doesn't overcharge for shipping!) Prices are usually hard to beat, but you get almost nothing in terms of service and support. If you want to buy a retail PC and know exactly what you need, this is where you'll usually find the best price. You have to weigh that against the disadvantages of buying over a telephone wire.

Next: Small Online PC Shops

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