Scott Alan Miller

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

A Computer Buying Tutorial

As an IT industry professional of eleven years, I have spent a considerable amount of time since 1994 in the pursuit of purchasing personal computing devices. I have purchased many for myself, some for my wife who could be classified as a "prosumer", interacted with countless other professionals as they purchased numerous computers for themselves, aided many friends and family members as they sought new computers and have overseen the purchasing for several companies. My desktop and laptop purchasing experience could be considered fairly broad. Throughout my career, I have found that there is a common set of tips that can be used as a baseline for anyone seeking to purchase a computer. These tips are as general as I can make them so I won't be suggesting specific models or even manufactures although there are definitely some that I almost always recommend and many that I work diligently to steer potential customers away from. This tutorial is designed to help just about any computer shopper ranging from a simple home user to a mid level tech to a small business owner who is looking for machines for her company.

Buy What the Pro's Are Buying IT professionals tend to be very interested in computers and they tend to do a lot of shopping around before purchasing machines for themselves. Even more importantly than that, they are often exposed to large numbers of different types of machines and so they will often have first hand experience in areas where other people may only be familiar with reviews, specs and marketing material. IT Pros also have the advantage of having a deeper understanding of the technology variances between models as well as often having insight or even foreknowledge of industry developments that may affect the market in the near future. When buying a car you would trust the opinion of your trusty mechanic, right? Why? Because he knows more about cars than you and sees more of them. Same reason to go to an IT Pro when buying a computer. Now, that doesn't mean that just anyone who works with computers is an IT Pro. A desktop salemen at your local (or national for that matter) computer store is NOT an IT Pro and may possibly not have ever even seen a commercial computer before. I mean real IT Pros, the kind that bring their work home with them and live to work on computers. Whether they are analysts, programmers, PC Tech, engineers, architects, admins, whatever - you will know a true "geek" IT Pro when you meet one.

Buy Commercial not Consumer Just like IT Pros, companies have their own set of criteria for purchasing computers. For the most part, those criteria are very good. Factors such as low "Total Cost of Ownership", high reliability, highly configurable, attractive, quiet (to meet OSHA standards), etc. Companies pay big bucks to IT Pros to make good determinations for them as to what technologies to buy and then check those recommendations against economic models. Corporate America is pretty good at buying computers by now.

One of the biggest factors separating corporate purchasing from regular personal purchasing is that corporate buyers go through reseller channels to get commercial models. Typically a computer manufacturer will make two entirely independant lines of computers. One targeted at low end purchasers who will go to their local chain computer store and who will not shop around carefully. The other line is targetted at corporations who are looking for simple, high quality, reliable, low cost computers and who are very well educated about what they looking for. As a consumer, you have the option to buy from the higher quality commercial line - but most computer manufacturers aren't going to make that information widely available since their margins are far larger on the lower quality equipment.

Often the differences between commercial and consumer product lines can be rather significant although you would never notice any of it from the types of descriptions that manufactures give consumers about their products. Most consumers look at the clock speed of the processor and ignore many far more important factors when purchasing and manufacturers know this fact and cater to it. Commercial machines generally outperform, sometimes significantly, their consumer counterparts even when their "specs" are the same. This is caused by support hardware that is of higher quality. Commercial equipment often has a better warranty and a longer lifespan. Commercial hardware is often equipment with more well tested technologies and less experimental ones although it will often get high end technologies sooner as those technologies trickle down from server lines.

Commercial equipment is seldom, if ever, "bundled" with other products to increase its perceived value. For example, it is very common for consumer machines to be sold including a "free printer." What you are not told is that that printer only has a value of a few dollars and, in fact, is a good investment for the manufacturer to give away because the real money is made on the extra expensive ink that they make only for that "free" model at twice the cost of any other ink. It would often save you money in just one or two ink changes to have purchased a better printer in the first place. The same goes for other free components. Keyboards and mice included with commercial machines are often of far superior build and ergonomic value although they are often less "flashy" than consumer models.

Do Not Shop Based on Clock Speed It is a myth that the speed of a computer is measured by the speed of its processor. It is true that, all other things being equal, a PIII 1GHz processor is faster than a PIII 933MHz processor. But all other things are seldom equal. That kind of comparison is only really useful when comparing between processor options within a single product line. There are many factors that determine the speed of a computer and one of the most important ones is usage. One system might be ideal for one situation and not at all appropriate for another. You need an IT Pro to help you determine what you need. Clock speed is marketing hype generated by the low end processor makers that make low performance chips designed just to obtain high clock speeds regardless of overall performance characteristics.

Buy Less, More Often People often want to buy a computer that will last them five years or more. Maybe seven or eight. The bottom line is, this just isn't possible. The machine that you buy today will be obsolete tomorrow. Period. That is just the way that it is. It is true that machines today stay useful for far longer periods of time than they ever have before and that trend is likely to continue. Ever computer buying cycle seems to add a little more useful life unto the machines that we buy. But it will take a long time before they are lasting ten years. But there is a way to combat this problem and it is the exact opposite approach from what most people take.

Many consumers attempt to buy an extremely expensive computer that is "top of the line" (although be careful, what CompUSA calls top of the line and what an IT Pro considers a high end workstation will vary drastically as the national chain employees aren't even aware of the technologies that go into mid to high end equipment.) So lets look at an expamle. Joe wants a new computer and he wants it to last him six years. He spends $3,500 and a new, super fast desktop machine. It is awesome. But in just six months, that same machine is only worth $2,000. And in a year it is a bargain machine for $500. Joe could have bought a lower end model for $1,750 that had about 90% of the performance of the high end model at the same time. He could have put the other $1,750 that he had been planning to spend into a savings account or maybe even into some investments for three years. In three years when that mid-level machine is only just barely starting to seem slow, he could take that money that he set aside and buy a brand new mid-level machine that will blow away his old one. That new machine at the three year mark will be worlds beyond the high-end machine that he could have bought at the beginning. By spreading out his spending, he has managed to have an almost new machine all of the time instead of peaking with a barely impressive new machine once every six years that is ready for the garbage heap a year before he has the money to replace it. Additionally, by going the second route, he now has two usable machines. His secondary machine - the one he bought originally - is still usable for some tasks for years to come. His total value from the same money is far superior spread out over a few years.

Now That I Know I Want A Commercial Machine - How Do I Get One? Good question. Chain stores like CompUSA and Fry's do not have access to high quality commercial machines. Most local ma and pa computer dealers do not either or else they try to sell "whiteboxes" which are often built in dirty back rooms using bargian basement parts (this is, of course, not always true and many of the top workstations are built in a whitebox fashion - but you must be a very careful shopper when buying whiteboxes.) Look for local or regional IT firms that are also dealers. Contact HP, IBM, Lenova, Acer, Fujitsu, SUN, etc. to find a reseller near you. Or look in the yellow pages or online. They are easy to find. You can also buy from most companies direct online and this can be a good option. But working with a local consulting firm, even as a home buyer, can be very beneficial to you. It means that you have a relationship to foster, someone to turn to and local, native language support available when you need it. If you do shop online, look for links to "Business Desktops" or go to the "Small Business Center." It should be obvious which machines are in which lines. For example, if you go to HP, you can reach their commercial lines by clicking on "Desktops and Workstations" and then on "Business Desktop PCs".

I hope that this buyer's guide has been helpful. I know that all of you have to buy computers often and it is important to have industry insight into how to buy them.


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