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Should I buy a discount computer?

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Discount computers are well promoted and attractively priced, especially when compared to standard-component offerings.  The price simply can't be beat.  The software selection that is bundled with the sale sounds like it is just what you wanted.  It's available right off the shelf from the store down the street.  Does it make sense to invest in one of these computers?

Things are not always what they seem:

  • The discounted technology is usually out of date by 6 to 18 months, or even more for the real bargains.  Because the technology advances so fast, a computer system loses about half its value in 12 months.
  • The software bundled with a system is usually a limited-function version of the full product:  enough to get you used to the program, and to force you to purchase an upgrade to the full version when you really start using it.
  • In the effort to reduce the cost of manufacture, short cuts are taken in the manufacture of the system components.  The biggest problem is that multiple functions are combined into a single service part.  That means that if one of the functions fails, the entire assembly must be replaced.
  • Standards for computer components have been established in the industry.   This means that if a component fails and its exact replacement is no longer available, you can replace it with the newer model of that component.  Discount systems virtually all use non-standard components.  A failure often results in a non-repairable computer, even within the warranty period.
  • The price of the computer will usually be augmented by selling an extended warranty.  Be sure you know the entire cost before you price compare.
  • After-sale support may not be available, even if you purchase the extended warranty options. A+ at one time performed maintenance work for one of our local discounters.  By the time we got the dispatch to repair a failed unit, the customer had often been down for 4 to 6 weeks.  Then it took several more weeks to obtain spare parts.  We quit taking these service calls because we found ourselves being implicated as part of the problem and it was hurting our hard-earned reputation for effective service!
  • Most people have a pretty good understanding that there is a qualitative difference between different cars, and that the price of a car reflects that quality differential.  Does it then follow that a computer purchase, a product about which most of us know very little, is a good place to economize?

ComputerUser, a magazine originating from Minneapolis, published an extended article on the lack of value in "Budget-conscious clones" in its March, 1998 issue. Quoting (with permission) from this article:

"...new computer consumers (newbies), pay too much attention to initial price and not enough attention to how their machines will be supported once they own them.  A healthy understanding of a machine's total cost of ownership (TCO) would send newbies away from the cheapest machines to middle-of-the-road custom equipment.  They may pay more in the beginning, but will save more in the long run."

"The advertised…price tag does not always include a monitor, however."

"…if newbies’ first experience is with cheap clones, it is likely to sour them on future computer use as they struggle both with a learning curve and a flaky machine. If newbies were aware of TCO issues, they would do right to avoid this market space and wait until they can afford good custom equipment. Right or wrong, newbies fall for the price point and vendors are all to happy to keep up with demand."

"Primary players in this market space include AST, Compaq, Toshiba and Packard Bell-NEC."

"Some personal computer manufacturers, notably Acer and IBM, have tried and failed to sell products at incredibly thin margins."

"Most machines at this price point are powered by anything but Intel."

"...reports from the field show an alarming number of flaky and crash-prone clone ships. When the CPU fan fails (as it often does), both AMD and Cyrix chips have been known to fry themselves. They also have a high incidence of incompatibility with low-end peripherals."

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