If you're looking for a new computer for your business, you don't have time to shop 'til you drop. Computer buying options are proliferating like bunnies. So where should you go (physically or virtually) for your next system? We've narrowed your options down to retail, online and custom via an online computer retailer or value-added reseller. We're skipping over mail order because those companies all have strong Web presences with more up-to-date information.
It's good to decide what you want before you run through the jungle. Are you looking for a general business machine, graphics powerhouse, multimedia monster, Mac or PC? Small-business computer consultant Bryan Garmon, owner of After Six Computers in Atlanta, advises, "You need to know what you're looking for based on what your business does. If you're going to do word processing, you don't need a 450 [MHz] Pentium." If you're on a tight budget, a serviceable general-use desktop system, complete with monitor, can be found for less than $1,200. (See last month's "Wise Buys" column for the specifics.)
Before you float off into cyberspace shopping, retail stores like CompUSA, Best Buy or any local shop are good places to get grounded. "If you don't know what you're doing, either go to the local superstore and talk to somebody or hire [a consultant] who can help you out," says Garmon.
A little bit of in-person customer assistance can go a long way. Even better, local stores have demo models up and running so you can try out several prospective machines and base your decision on more than just spec sheets.
Of course, there's nothing stopping you from finding your dream machine in a store and then reeling it in online. But be prepared before you jump onto the Internet. "You have to know exactly what you're looking for. That's the key," says Garmon.
The online computer retail market is as crowded as an anthill. A safe haven to start is http://www.pricescan.com PriceSCAN is an independent price-comparison site that's updated daily. Its easy-to-follow interface allows you to input the specs and/or brands you're interested in and have it list the lowest prices with links to the sellers. It's an easy and accurate way to comparison shop for a good deal.
To bargain hunt directly with the online retailers or simply get an idea of what's available, check out the goods at Web sites like Computer Discount Warehouse (http://www.cdw.com) and MicroWarehouse (http://www.microwarehouse.com). Their clearance or bargain-basement sections have some of the best demo, refurbished and closeout deals. (If you go that route, however, be sure to double-check the length of the warranty and whether the original software is included.)
A lot of computer manufacturers, such as Gateway (http://www.gateway.com 800-846-4208), Dell (http://www.dell.com 800-WWW-DELL) and Micron (http://www.micron.com 888-224-4247), now provide pull-down menus that allow you to custom-configure a standard machine online. This is a good feature if you have the computer know-how and experience to use it.
If you're after something more high-end and specific than standard models provide, Garmon suggests customizing your own computer via a reseller. Local shops offer face-to-face support, but, Garmon warns, they're usually only open limited hours. So if you don't need a lot of help with computers, try buying online, where cutthroat competition keeps the prices down.
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser (email@example.com) specializes in technology issues.