One PC To Go, Please

Buying a mail-order PC can be a breeze if you ask the right questions

purchase before you buy it–from the specifications of the computer to the terms and conditions of your purchase. For instance, if your PC includes a modem, make sure it specifies the brand and speed. You could end up with a 2,400 baud antique that’s of little use.

If possible, use a credit card. This will provide some protection in case of returns or damaged goods.

Determine exactly what you need. Consider which components you can and cannot do without. Knowing your needs will help you select the right computer at the right price. For example, Internet access and word processing require less memory and speed than running multimedia applications.

Comparison shop. Don’t stop at the first price you see. Search other catalogs or retail stores to see what’s being offered. With PC prices falling every day, you may find a better deal than what you’ve been quoted.

Is the company reputable? "It’s very easy to get into the PC business–anyone can buy components and start building computers. The key is to find a company that’s going to be there when you need it," says Berman. If you see a price you like, access the company’s Web site or catalog for more information.

What is the return policy on the computer? Find out if you will be charged a restocking fee to return an unwanted computer and the terms under which you can return it. Ask about the policy for computers damaged during shipping. The company may place all responsibility on the carrier or require the consumer to pay the shipping costs to return it.

Technical support.

"The company should offer free, 24-hour technical support for at least a year," says Berman. If you’re a novice, it’s best to use a company that has a separate technical support department in addition to sales associates.

Which type of warranty is included? Ask for at least a 30-day money-back guarantee. Most vendors will honor this request, although some parts or added software may not be covered. You should know in advance which parts are covered and for how long. There are usually different warranties available at different prices, so ask for details about all of them before selecting the one that’s right for you.

Delivery and shipping fees. Mail-order companies are required to tell you how long the delivery will take. Don’t forget that shipping costs can easily increase the price of your computer by $100 or more.

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