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Buyer Beware

In the market for a notebook computer? Before you buy, make sure you're spending your hard-earned dollars at a reputable vendor.

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When shopping for a new notebook computer these days, it's easy to get swept up in comparisons of features. It's also easy to believe that your new computer is going to always work perfectly. After all, it comes with a guarantee, right?

The sad truth is that a lot of people learn the hard way that features and brand names are only part of the equation when buying a notebook. When people discover the importance of choosing the right vendor, it's often when they are most vulnerable: when the computer breaks. They discover overloaded service departments and technicians unable to diagnose their equipment for weeks. Customers feel trapped, scared and angry.

Right now, I'm in the market for a smaller, lighter and faster notebook computer. And I remember the purchase of my last one more than three years ago.

Imagine my surprise at discovering, merely two weeks after purchasing it, that the screen on my IBM ThinkPad had died. I was then living about 45 minutes away from PC Connection, the mail-order company I bought the computer from, so I drove there to see if they could fix it. I arrived 15 minutes from closing time.

The service manager listened to my situation and promised to inspect my computer the very next morning. I asked if he might be willing to open the computer now, just to see if a connector might have popped loose. He agreed, and a few minutes later returned to say a part needed replacement. He offered to call IBM immediately, asking them to FedEx it overnight. When he received it in the morning, he would immediately fix my computer and ship it back to me the same day.

"How much can I pay you for this expedited service?" I asked, fully expecting a steep amount.

"Oh, nothing!" he replied. "That's the way we do business here. We understand how important your computer is to your business!"

What had started out as disappointment turned to relief and satisfaction when the UPS driver handed me my repaired computer a day and a half later--and three years later, it's worked perfectly without a glitch.

If you're in the market for a new notebook PC, you're also in the market for a vendor. Here are six suggestions on what to look for in a vendor--and what to stay away from:

1. Is the vendor an officially authorized repair center for the brand you are purchasing, or merely a reseller?

2. Do they guarantee a turnaround time for hardware repairs?

3. Is there a surcharge for fast repairs?

4. Do you know other customers of theirs who have had positive or negative experiences?

5. Do they offer replacement units, so you can remove your hard drive, slip it into the replacement unit and ship back the one needing repair?

6. What are the hours of operation for their tech support team in case you can do a diagnosis by phone to get running again and possibly rule out software issues?

You'll thank yourself later when you choose your vendor carefully. A store at the mall may be having a great sale, and mail-order companies may boast the lowest prices on the internet, but your thrill at getting a "bargain" will be short-lived the moment you need service--prompt, effective service--only to discover that they can't or won't jump through hoops to get you working again.

People often ask me, "Which brand of computer should I buy?" And before I can respond, the questioner often tells me about their lists of desired features. When I answer, I share my strategy of choosing the vendor first, then the brand and features second. Few of us have leverage with manufacturers when there's a problem; how our vendor works on our behalf to get a problem resolved can be the difference between a minor inconvenience and a migraine headache.

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