Sales slump spurs buyers' market in computers 

by Alan Zisman (c) 2002
First published in Business in Vancouver,  Issue #645, March 5-11, 2002, High Tech Office column

Recently, I broke down and bought a new computer.

Mac or PC?

This time, a PC.

Desktop or notebook?

More on how to choose soon, but this was a desktop.

A big question for many is where to buy. Often, this narrows down to two choices: name brand or a so-called "white box" from the shop on the corner.

But there's not necessarily a single right answer. Big corporate purchasers need to deal with other big corporations. Some of the rest of us feel more comfortable with known-quantity name brands with large corporations that (hopefully) stand behind them. (Though given the instability of the computer industry at the moment, today's name brand can easily be tomorrow's history.)

In Vancouver it's hard to throw a rock without hitting a PC vendor. As a result, there's little difference in price between retailers.

Moreover, PC components are standardized. Motherboards, memory, hard drives, video cards and so forth are pretty much the same between vendors, and are even the same whether you choose name brand or white box.

If you want to specify a particular brand component, your local dealer can get it and install it for you. And that's the real benefit of working with a local dealer: While they may have a list of their typical systems, it's not a problem if you want to have it your way.

I do most of my business with my local shop on the corner (in my case, Nantron Systems in East Vancouver), where I've gotten to know the owners and staff over the years, and who have been established long enough to have continuity and credibility.

I wanted a relatively high-end Intel-based system. I chose a Pentium 4 processor, running at 1.9 GHz. Slower is cheaper, but in my experience, buying near (but not at) the high end gives me a system that I'm happier with for a longer period of time. And the price spread between low, medium, and high-end has narrowed considerably. I specified DDR memory, which is a little bit more expensive, but quite a bit faster than the standard SD-RAM memory.

I also specified a 60-GB hard drive, rather than the 40-GB hard drive that the store lists with their typical system. That's still up from 10 GB in the system I purchased just more than three years ago. I got both a DVD drive, and a 24-times CD-recordable drive, an affordable upgrade from the stock 16-times model. I opted for their standard video card, 56 kb/sec modem and 10/100 mp/sec network adapter.

I shaved some cost off the system by opting to use the monitor, keyboard, mouse, and speakers from the computer I was replacing. Further, I did not need to order an operating system copy. (Most of the name brands will not sell computers without a Microsoft operating system installed.

Note that the software licence does not allow users to install a copy of Windows on more than one system.)

I'm happy.

The system came in for about $1,000 cheaper than the three-year-old computer I replaced. Windows XP installed without a hitch (more on that later).

My son reports that games look and play decidedly better with the new video card.

For me, the most immediately noticeable improvement is that CDs burn in about five minutes, instead of taking about 30, and on a drive that costs half as much as the 4x unit I had been using.

Computer sales are down, but so are prices, while performance is continually improving.

If you can justify it and afford it, it's a good time to buy.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan