It's easy for Mac users to lose sight of what the rest of the computing industry goes through when dealing with hardware. Macs are extremely coherent - there's only one vendor, there aren't many variables to consider, and pricing tends not to vary widely from reseller to reseller. None of this is true in the PC world, where the buyer can be faced with multiple manufacturers, resellers, CPUs, video cards, hard disks, motherboards, and more.
Why am I writing about buying PCs? After all, I'm primarily a Macintosh user, and most people who read TidBITS also use Macs. But we all live in the real world, and the unfortunate truth about the real world is that it's dominated by PCs, mostly running Windows. Some people try to ignore that uncomfortable fact, but many people simply cannot. Perhaps PCs are used where you work, or someone in your family uses a PC - no matter what the specifics, it's likely you'll someday be faced with buying a PC for yourself or someone else.
Over the years, I've bought four PCs: a Compaq Contura 400C 486 laptop that uses Windows 95, a no-name Pentium 90 for use with Linux, a no-name Pentium 150 running Windows 98, and, most recently, a Compaq iPaq with Windows 2000. I've used a variety of approaches researching and purchasing the computers; if you must buy a PC, take a look at the processes below before diving into the veritable can of worms that is the PC world.
Also, keep in mind that I didn't really want these PCs, certainly not the way I've wanted the many Macs I've bought over the years. I don't get any rush from buying PCs: they've been necessary evils to expand my skills and to support projects like my "Crossing Platforms: A Macintosh/Windows Phrasebook" translation dictionary, and my cross-platform "Eudora for Windows & Macintosh: Visual QuickStart Guide." This lack of enthusiasm (which I suspect many Mac users would share) generally means I want to spend as little time and money on the purchase as I can.
A Little Help from Your Friends -- The simplest approach to buying a PC is to find a friend who knows a lot more about PCs than you do, ask for a recommendation, and even see if you can get your friend to place the order for you. There's no shame in this approach - after all, if you plan on remaining primarily a Mac user, you probably aren't interested in the differences between CPUs from Intel and AMD, or the relative merits of different motherboard configurations.
Make sure your friend understands what you want to do with the PC, since although PCs tend to be quite cheap, you can spend a lot of money on things like fancy video cards that are necessary only for die-hard game players.
I used this approach with the no-name Pentium 90. Some years ago in the early days of Linux, Northwest Nexus was hosting ftp.tidbits.com on one of their machines. As the traffic and load on the computer increased, they asked me to move it to a new computer. I said that I'd be happy to, but hadn't the foggiest idea what to get or how to set it up. Ralph Sims of Northwest Nexus replied that he'd be happy to deal with all of that, so I ordered exactly what he recommended from the local reseller he favored, and had them deliver the configured machine to him. He installed Linux and got everything up and running, and the machine ran with few hiccups until late in 1999 when we swapped in a new Y2K-compliant PC with a newer version of Linux (and much larger hard disk). I found this method an extremely easy way to buy a PC. This machine is also the easiest to own: I've set eyes on it only once.
Think Global, Buy Local -- The next easiest approach to buying a PC is to visit a local reseller that carries major brands of computers, talk to the staff at the store, and walk out with the computer that best meets your needs. I employed this approach when buying the Compaq Contura 400C back in the days of my Internet Starter Kit for Windows book. I didn't really want some beefy tower unit with a monitor taking up space, so I decided to buy a laptop, but was dismayed at the low-quality pointing devices used by PC laptops at the time. I've always hated a joystick-like nipple (as the late MacWEEK editor Robert Hess called it) mounted in the middle of the keyboard, and PC laptops then sported a variety of weird and barely usable pointing devices. By the time I'd found a laptop with a center-mounted trackball (like then-current 100-series PowerBooks) with no keys to the right of the Backspace key, I was down to the Compaq Contura.
I don't remember at which computer superstore I ended up purchasing the computer, but the superstores were quite helpful in this case, since it was before the Web was big and I liked seeing the laptops in person. I remember the sales staff being essentially clueless, but since laptops seldom have many options, it wasn't a major liability. I may have paid more than was necessary, but I had spent so much time looking at different laptops that I wasn't about to repeat the research to find the lowest price. I suspect many consumers are in similar situations - because the research of buying a PC is so daunting, they buy at the first place answers their questions reasonably and sells them a computer that meets their basic needs.
Computer superstores usually try to sell service contracts or extended warranties, which are often not worthwhile on relatively inexpensive computer hardware. On the other hand, if you're unfamiliar with PC hardware and don't wish to learn much, a service contract may be more useful than one would be for Macintosh hardware. I encourage you to read the article I wrote about AppleCare and other alternatives back in TidBITS-478, along with the TidBITS Talk threads on the topic.
Ecommerce to the Rescue -- Much has been made of the millions of dollars Dell has racked up through its online ordering site, and most major PC manufacturers offer something similar. Apple was late to the game with the Apple Store and its online configuration feature, but as with many other things, I was amazed at how much easier it was to buy a Mac from the Apple Store than it was to configure a PC from well-known names like Dell, Gateway, or their brethren.
The problem was twofold. The Apple Store provided significantly fewer options when customizing a purchase than most of the major PC manufacturers' sites. For instance, the main configuration page at the Apple Store for buying a Power Mac G4 offers 11 choices, followed by another 8 sections of accessories on the easily ignored subsequent page for a total of 19 options. On the Dell site's configuration page, I counted 31 options, and Gateway topped Dell with 34 options. These numbers are a little rough because the choices can vary slightly with your initial path into the configuration page, but no matter what, being faced with that many options was daunting. A few sites were good about providing a way to avoid the configuration pages, but I found that if you so much as wanted to increase the RAM of a base machine to 128 MB, you found yourself in the configuration morass.
"But isn't choice good?" you ask. Not always. When you're faced with too many options, many of which are relatively unrelated (and all of which will affect your final price), it's difficult to avoid obsessing over each one. And that's where configuring a PC becomes truly nightmarish for the innocent Macintosh user. Which of five video cards whose names you've never heard before would you like? How about these four different speaker options? Do you want a 40x or 48x CD-ROM drive, or perhaps an 8x or 12x DVD-ROM drive with software decoding, unless a CD-RW drive would be better? Even when the sites are good about providing explanations of each option, it's hard to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
If you somehow manage to stay on top of the options at one site, you'll probably fall prey to checking the slightly different options on another. After all, only Apple makes Macs, so picking an online Macintosh reseller is a relatively simple task based mainly on price. In the PC world, though, you'll have trouble creating the same configuration at any two sites - the hard disk sizes will be different, or one won't let you buy a DVD-ROM drive in place of the CD-ROM, or something like that. No matter what you do, you're unlikely to find significant price differences either, so the decision isn't simplified in that fashion. Because the differences weren't huge, it was less like comparing apples and oranges and more akin to comparing lemons and limes. And no matter where I went, I ended up with a sour taste in my mouth.
Most recently, I settled on a Compaq iPaq that I purchased through the Compaq Web site. I haven't done much with the computer yet so I can't specifically comment on it, but the reasons I chose it over more traditional options or rolling my own were as follows:
The iPaq Legacy-Free eliminates a number of silly PC ports (serial, parallel, keyboard, mouse) in favor of USB. It's just more elegant, particularly in the PC world, and it was cheaper than the version with legacy ports.
The operating system I wanted, Windows 2000, came with the iPaq, which saved me having to buy and install it separately. (That's not precisely true, since Windows 2000 Professional came with the iPaq, but I need Windows 2000 Server for its Services for Macintosh because of an article I'm writing.)
Like a Mac, most basic things were built in and not optional, so I didn't have to make a raft of decisions. In fact, Compaq provided only seven choices, and of those, I selected only one, the DVD-ROM drive.
The price was decent, though once I added the DVD-ROM drive and factored in tax and shipping, it came in just under $1,100, which was comparable with the other traditional options.
Although I could have put together a more impressive system for less from individual components, I would have had to invest a huge amount of my time and deal with a variety of vendors. This way I have only a single company to deal with if there are problems, and Compaq isn't a cut-rate PC component reseller.
In the end, my advice is that if you decide to order a PC on the Web, feel free to compare configurations and prices on several sites to make sure you're not accidentally choosing an overly expensive option, but then just place the order without obsessing over the options too much. I suspect that many of these issues apply to ordering from a mail-order vendor (they're all on the Web too) over the phone, with the only advantage being that you can keep the sales representative on the line until you have everything explained.
Also keep in mind that at least Dell and Gateway sell refurbished computers that have been returned for some reason or another. They're often quite inexpensive and a good deal; the only problem is that you can't customize them at all, so finding the right configuration may prove difficult.
Some Assembly Required -- With the Windows 98-based no-name Pentium 150 that I bought several years ago for a book project, I wanted to buy as cheaply as I could, and I ended up working with a local reseller where you basically walk in, tell them you want a PC, and then go down the component checklist with them. For each of the many options, I asked what the differences were and received somewhat terse answers from the sales guy. Service wasn't this store's forte, but their prices were cheap, and I got the benefits of picking all my components without the hassle of putting it all together. Plus, the PC has worked fine for my purposes.
When the time came recently to buy another PC (the purchase that resulted in the iPaq), I checked the pricing at that store's Web site and wasn't impressed, so I figured I'd try to roll my own PC from scratch. Luckily, my PC-savvy friend Alex was able to provide some guidelines about the kind of hardware that would meet my needs at good price/performance ratios. Alex also turned me on to the BookPC from Directron, which is a nicely accoutered base unit to which you add only a CPU, CPU fan, RAM, hard disk, and operating system. I didn't end up buying the $250 BookPC and the various components because Alex ordered one and the somewhat meager and non-standard 100 watt power supply failed instantly, as did the replacement he received. Directron tech support wasn't responsive to email either, which worsened an already bad situation.
Unfortunately, although I decided I couldn't risk dealing with dubious power supplies, I realized that installing a CPU, CPU fan, RAM, hard disk, and operating system for a BookPC fell within my knowledge level and hardware skills. Although I would have had to order a total of five different items, they were easily compared and readily available from various vendors. A price comparison site called PriceWatch seemed to make it simple to find the best price on all the components, though it was frustrating to slog through the vast number of companies to find one who was easy to deal with and who had the advertised component. But the prices - wow! 40 GB hard disks for under $250. Intel Celeron 500 MHz CPUs for $80. 128 MB DIMMs for $75. I could have customized a BookPC into a killer system for about $800. Drat that weak and non-standard power supply!
By this time I was feeling pretty full of myself, since I had found what looked like good sources for the CPU, RAM, and hard disk. How hard could it be, I thought, to go all out and build the entire thing from scratch? So I spent several hours one day surfing Web sites looking for one that made it easy to combine all the parts. By the end of the day, I had nothing to show for my efforts but a splitting headache.
If you thought 30 options when buying a PC from Dell or Gateway was intimidating, just try to build a PC from its component parts. To give you an idea, consider the following shopping list of components: case, motherboard, power supply, Ethernet card (if necessary), video card (if necessary), sound card (if necessary), CPU, CPU fan, hard disk, floppy disk, DVD-ROM, RAM, monitor, keyboard, mouse, and operating system. For each component imagine having between five and fifteen choices, and those then take you into a multi-dimensional compatibility matrix. There are some standards, but the variables of finding a motherboard that contains particular network, video, sound, and modem functionality which fits in a certain case and which works with a certain CPU which draws a certain amount of power from a certain power supply are sufficient to addle the coolest head. It completely addled mine.
Next, I decided perhaps I should order everything from a single site, since they would theoretically know the compatibility issues. I quickly found a site that actually had an online configuration page (surprisingly rare among the no-name PC vendors); unfortunately, this site was so devoid of information about the company (phone number, address, etc.) it might as well have been called Fly By Night, Inc.
Then I thought perhaps I should base my search on sites that other customers liked, so I found a ratings site and checked out the top-rated vendors. This approach proved no more fruitful - either the prices weren't good or the site didn't carry what I wanted. And some of the companies I'd previously contemplated had scores like 2.4 out of 7.0 (though Directron scored 5.9 out of 7.0). It was depressing.
Finally, I decided to try DealTime, a price comparison site that lets you specify variables such as CPU speed, amount of RAM, and hard disk size, along with a price range before showing you the best deals. I figured DealTime might be able to identify some great deal that I wasn't finding otherwise, or maybe tell me about a vendor I hadn't found, but no. After a bunch of dithering around, I finally told DealTime to show me all PCs with 500 MHz CPUs and 128 MB of RAM for less than $800. The only results? The Compaq iPaq, from some site that didn't have any in stock. I took the hint, double-checked the iPaq's specs with Alex to make sure I wasn't missing something, and ordered one directly from Compaq.
I won't pretend to be an expert on PC hardware, but I know a heck of a lot more than I used to, and knowledge is never a bad thing. So I don't regret my foray into the madding world of roll-your-own PCs, but I think it's safe to recommend that Macintosh users with my level of experience or less should probably stay away unless you have a friend who can guide you through the twisty little passages and past the many and varied pitfalls. The time you spend on research alone will eat up any cost savings you might score by doing the work yourself. I also think I'll go back to PriceWatch and DealTime in the future, since both sites cover more than just computer hardware, and I've been thinking about a digital camcorder... perhaps when I've recovered from the stress of this shopping experience.