Don't blame the sales help

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos hits the mall and comes back with a short list of shopping tips for PC shoppers.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
5 min read
It's not easy working at CompUSA.

The clerks who stroll the floors at electronics stores always seem to attract criticism. That they don't know what they are doing. That they are never around when you need them. And that they can't really explain what "digital zoom" means for a camera.

Manufacturers, however, don't make selling gadgets an easy job by any stretch: There's a morass of configurations, discounts and arcane data to wade through. Last week, for instance, I asked a clerk to explain the difference between two Toshiba notebooks. The configurations were virtually identical, except that one had a 15.4-inch Wide Extended Graphics Array (WXGA) screen and the other had a slightly less desirable 15-inch XGA display. The strange part was that the one with the larger screen cost $1,249, while the other cost $1,499--an extra $250.

"The more expensive one has a 1.4GHz Centrino. It's a mobile chip package from Intel," the clerk said. "They both do," I replied.

"Graphics are important, too," he responded, "and this one has an Nvidia graphics card." I told him that they both did. "Well, to be honest, I don't know if there is a difference," he said. "The cheaper one looks like a better deal to me."

Today, it's tough to buy a bad processor.
When it comes to shopping for computers, there are things you should look at, and then there are red herrings--tantalizing statistics that won't affect how the PC works for you in the long run but could hit your wallet. Here's my shopping advice on what to look for and what to take lightly.

The PC manufacturer's health
More than any other factor, a computer maker's business situation--is it in trouble? is it trying to gain market share?--can lead to bargains. Gateway has been trying to regain its footing since 2000 and often provides some of the better deals around in its efforts to gain customers. As an added benefit, the company's Web site is fairly easy to navigate.

At the moment, Hewlett-Packard is trying to gain market share and is employing sharp discounts to achieve that goal. For instance, it is selling a Compaq notebook--the Presario 2585--with a 2.8GHz Pentium 4 chip, 512MB of memory, a 60GB hard drive, a DVD-recording drive, a 15-inch screen and built-in 802.11g wireless networking for about $1,399 (after $450 in rebates).

Sony's Vaio GRT260 laptop comes with a slightly larger hard drive (80GB) and screen (16 inches) but has almost the same features. It sells for $2,599, after a $100 rebate. The Vaio FRV26 features the same processor as the GRT260 and as the Presario 2585 but comes with a 40GB hard drive, a standard DVD player and no wireless for about $1,499. (A rebate of $200 may be available from retailers.) All three notebooks weigh about the same, about 7.7 pounds.

Granted, the Sony models are more attractive in appearance--Compaq PCs sometimes look like they were concocted by people who design uniforms for arena football teams--but HP seems to be giving consumers more technology for their dollar right now.

Rebate and discount strategies
This past summer, HP often advertised two nearly identical notebooks--one under the HP brand and one under the Compaq brand--each week in Sunday newspaper circulars, said Alex Gruzen, senior vice president of HP's mobile group, earlier this year. The main difference was the price: One would cost $50 or so less than the other. Price-juggling in this manner helped HP to gauge price elasticity and prevented its products from going stale on store shelves.

For its part, Dell runs its Web site store under the principle that nothing beats free.

A year ago, analysts speculated whether or not Chinese manufacturers could bring their equipment to the West. It's happened.
The company throws in free shipping, extra memory, and sometimes free personal digital assistants or cameras. The company makes a number of typos in its prices, though--so if a deal sounds too good to be true, it might be.

In short: It's not your imagination if you feel that one computer is conspicuously less expensive than competitors. Marketing executives are trying to figure out what works best.

Today, it's tough to buy a bad processor. Unless you try to pull pirated videos from the Web while running 3D simulations of oil well drillings, you will find it difficult to tax a central processing unit. Most of the time, the brain inside a computer is waiting around for something to do. The Celeron, the oft-derided budget chip from Intel, runs at 2.8GHz and is based on the same basic design as the Pentium 4 processors that came on the market in 2001. The bottom line is: Speed is great, but don't pay several hundred dollars for a few megahertz.

Again, it's hard to go wrong with memory these days. Despite the occasional hike, memory prices have mostly slid downhill over the past several years. You can get by with 256MB, but most desktops and notebooks come with 512MB of memory--about as much as servers came with just a little while ago.

This is actually a big deal. If you have thick, sausage-like fingers, using an Apple Computer machine will be torture. Shallow keys can also cause you to hit chords rather than single keys. On notebooks, be sure to know whether you want the pointer or the touch pad. Note: People with sweaty hands should lean toward the pointer.

Buy some Mr. Clean, while you're at it. Club stores are the hot new frontier for PC makers. Sam's Club (the members-only branch of Wal-Mart), Costco Wholesale and other retailers more associated with 25-gallon tubs of mayonnaise and free samples of corn dogs now offer a few specific models from two or more manufacturers at a pretty big discount. (Costco carries computers from Dell, Gateway, HP and Toshiba.)

Buy foreign
A year ago, analysts speculated whether or not Chinese manufacturers could bring their brand-name equipment to the West. It's happened. This season, retailer Target is selling different fridges and consumer electronics from Haier, a major Chinese gadget manufacturer, and most large computer emporiums carry stacks of cheap monitors from Envision Peripherals, which is partially owned by another Asian company. Sears carries televisions in boxes that proudly read "Made in Thailand."

The warranty process could be a bit tough, but the prices are tough to beat.