For the home user, there are basically two ways to buy a computer: my way and my mom's way. Since this is my column, I'll tell you my way first. As the tech columnist for the nation's pre-eminent newsweekly, I naturally need the biggest, fastest, scariest computer in the land. And since my company is buying, damn the expense. I require video and 3-D cards to run the coolest games...er, spreadsheets; at least 96 megabytes of RAM so I can keep half a dozen programs open at once; a 17-in. monitor so I can see it all and a 10-gigabyte hard drive to store it. Also, stereo speakers with a subwoofer that rumbles like the voice of God, just to annoy my cats.
How do I find the best machine? Easy: I ask my geek friends. For the past few years, they've all said the same thing: the Millennia, from Micron Electronics. And they're right. I bought my first Millennia two years ago and a second this year, ordering through the micronpc.com website. It's the king of PCs. The machine is solid--no tinny clicks and clatters when it does its microprocessing--and it never fails, no matter how much junk I put in it.
I have but one nit to pick with Micron. A few months ago, I had occasion to call the 24-hour toll-free support line on behalf of my older Millennia. The machine came with Windows 95; naturally, I updated to Windows 98 as soon as I could. But now the Micron help guy said he wasn't allowed to support it--the machine had been "altered." This is a hugely cheesy way to treat customers. Still, even if you plan on altering it, a Millennia Max, with a 450-MHz Pentium II chip that's even faster than mine, now costs $1,999--a bargain, in my estimation.
Ah, but not by my mom's reckoning. Frankly, she's more experienced at buying computers than I am. I'll bet, though, that I've spent 10 times as much as she has. Here's why: when Mom wants a computer, she goes to Boscov's, her trusted, local department store in Reading, Pa., and buys the cheapest box she can find. Usually she buys something that's been returned and refurbished, though covered under a new one-year warranty. The machine she selects is invariably last year's model. As such, it has plummeted in price--sometimes as much as 50%. Her machine is hardly obsolete: it does what mine does, though somewhat slower. (Her kids are grown; she has time.) She can browse the Web on a 56-K modem, listen to music on modest speakers, play games, run spreadsheets, and make me feel guilty via e-mail for not visiting more often. She paid $800 for it, two years ago.
Here's where Mom is way smarter than her Baby Bear: in a few months, she'll take out an ad in the newspaper and sell her two-year-old machine for $600. Then she'll go to Boscov's and buy last year's model for $800 (or less.) Her M.O. is to get a great PC every year or two while never spending more than $300. Now, you might not be lucky enough to live near a Boscov's--but the principle is sound. Go to a local department store or another outlet that you trust to take your machine back if it doesn't work out for you. Buy this week's special: Packard Bell, Hewlett-Packard, Acer, even the little-known brand (Vision) that my mom got. They're virtually interchangeable so long as you get a warranty. The key is the store. A good one won't try to sell you a machine with, say, inadequate RAM or no monitor. Just ask my ma.