Tuesday Tips: Buying a Computer

Owning a computer these days is as vital as owning a refrigerator. Whether you're sending e-mails and doing a little bit of Internet research or running a small business from home, having the right computer is just as important as whether your orange juice is staying cold. But have you ever tried shopping for one? Understanding terms like "gigabyte" and "megahertz" could send you straight to the fridge for some chocolate cake. So, in light of the fact that we're in the midst of back to school season, I talked to computer repair guys and people who sell computers to get some tips on buying one of these machines. Here's what I found out:

Tip #1: Before you even head out to the store or venture online, make a list of how you'll use the computer and stick to those priorities. A good salesperson will be able to tell you exactly what kind of computer to get and what kind of software should be on that machine. Stores like Dell will even let you customize your own computer. Pay close attention to those things that you don't need and make sure you're not paying extra for them. For example, is it worth it to spend $100 extra on a laptop that has a longer-lasting battery if you're just planning on using the computer around the house?

Tip #2: Laptops are king with high school and college kids. They'll need the ability to lug the thing to class and the library plus space is limited in college dorms. You'll want a machine that takes up as little desk space as possible. Just make sure you get a carrying case to protect it from pizza and Ramen noodles.

Tip #3: One of the most important features of a computer is its warranty. Get details on what happens when it breaks, what's covered, how long you'll be without it and how long you'll be covered. Also ask about their tech support and how it works. Some companies charge for tech support and others offer online-only support for free.

Tip #4: Have a backup machine, especially if the computer is used for your livelihood. You never know how long a broken computer could be out of commission. "You rely on these things on a daily basis for paying bills, looking up information," says Philip Cox, who fixes and sells computers at Computer Place in Fairfax and Gaithersburg. "An older machine is worth keeping around as a spare."

Tip #5: Don't necessarily run to the cheapest computer out there, unless your plan is to replace it every year. Sometimes paying $100 to $200 more for a better computer means it will last longer and be easier and less expensive to fix. "Lower-end computers are at the bottom of the food chain," Cox says. "The older the parts, the harder they are to replace."

Tip #6: You should expect the computer to last about six years, says Boon of Boon PC, a computer repair company based in Bethesda. But you could be replacing some parts, such as the hard drive, in those six years. "Desktops usually last longer than laptops because it stays at home, whereas a laptop has the chance to drop," says Boon.

Tip #7: The best time to buy a new computer is around the holidays, according to those who sell them. You can also talk to some of the bigger chains like Best Buy to find out when new generations of computers will be coming in and if they'll be having sales on some of the older models.

Tip #8: Check out outlets and refurbished computers. Most of the major computer companies, such as Dell and Apple, sell refurbished computers, which are slightly used computers that have been tested by the company before they're re-sold. Some of these computers weren't even really used but could have been returned by someone who changed their mind. Just make sure you understand the return policy and warranty that comes with these computers.

Some good computer deals right now:

-Apple is giving away iPods to college students and grade school employees who buy an Apple computer before Sept. 15. It will require you to purchase the iPod and then you'll need to send in paperwork for a full rebate.

-Dell has laptops for as low as $600 and desktops for as low as $550.

-Gateway is selling its DX series of desktops for $400 until Wednesday. The price, however, does not include a monitor.

So what are your tips for buying a computer? Have you seen any good deals lately on computers? Post a comment below.

While we're talking back to school, as promised, here are this week's under $1 deals on school supplies:

Staples: Free Cadoozles mechanical pencils after rebate, cap erasers, two-pocket portfolios and plastic protractors for 5 cents, and a poly binder for 25 cents.

Office Depot: Free scientific calculator with mail-in rebate, two-pocket portfolio for 1 cent, pack of 150 sheets of notebook filler paper for 15 cents, 16-pack of crayons for 25 cents and 1-inch binder for 50 cents.

Walmart: 70-sheet notebook for 5 cents, 4-ounce glue or two-pack of glue sticks for 22 cents, 10-pack of blue pens for 88 cents, 70-sheet notebook with pockets or portfolio for 88 cents and box of 10 markers for 88 cents.

Kmart: 70-count theme books for 9 cents and get five two-pack glue sticks or 4-ounce glue bottles for $1.

While we're talking kid stuff, check out fellow washingtonpost.com blogger Stacey Garfinkle's blog, On Parenting. She had a great post this week on the high cost of childcare that inspired lots of interesting debate. Anybody have tips on shopping for childcare? Please send me an e-mail at shoptoit@washingtonpost.com.

By Tania Anderson |  July 22, 2008; 3:00 AM ET Tuesday Tips
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Computer buying tips:
Check if your company has a discount agreement with a manufacturer (ours does through Dell & Microsoft) (new Dell desktop (Vista) + MS Office 2007 = $475)
Re-use your accessories - monitor, keyboard, mouse, speakers - these can add up quickly.
Get tech-smart on what you want before you shop
Check out the Dell Vostro series (they start at around $250) - its got similar capabilities as any of their Inspiron series...just because it's geared towards small business doesn't mean it's not good at home
Check your local Craigslist for desktop, laptop, monitor, keyboard, mouse, speakers

Posted by: Alexandria, VA | July 22, 2008 9:04 AM

Generally speaking, every time a computer manufacturer releases a new techology, it is preceded by discounts on the older technology. Intel is getting ready to release Centrino 2, the latest/greatest laptop processor, and there have been big discounts and coupons available all summer long on Dell, HP, and lenovo, just to name a few. I think this is because Intel was supposed to release Centrino 2 at the Computex industry show in June, but delayed the release until August (we'll see about that.)

To caveat my remarks, I am talking out my food processor, possess no inside industry knowledge, nor have I worked in the field. Which makes me not unlike most people that watch and offer opinions on professional football. :0)

(I did used to be a disinterested network engineer, and I like to buy technology at the best bang-for-the buck point.)

Posted by: person of interest | July 22, 2008 10:23 AM

Best idea of all - Order a Dell laptop with the Linux operating system installed. Save yourself from the Micro$oft tax as well as getting a machine that is just as well built as any other and cheaper to use in the long run sin all the software is free.

Posted by: Joblo | July 22, 2008 4:40 PM

This article forgot to say backup your computer system! There are a ton of things out there - I'd always rather use an online system since local backups can be destroyed or crash just like your hardrive (I use Jungle Disk - www.jungledisk.com - but there are a ton out there).

Posted by: Mary Heather | July 30, 2008 2:39 PM

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