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How to buy a computer

[Update: 11/29 - I'm starting to get the annual influx of questions about how best to buy a computer for the holidays so it's time to refresh and repost this guide. Enjoy!]

If you are going to buy a PC, here's how to do it. (If you're going to buy a new Mac, you have a dizzying array of one choice).

First : buy a Dell.
Are they the only game in town? No. But if you want the best computer, for the best price, with the best support, go Dell. Are they perfect? Nope. But honestly, it's as good as you're going to get.  Trust me on this. I've unofficially ( and begrudgingly I might add :P ) supported the computers of everyone I know for the last 10 years and anything but Dell is a nightmare. Just go Dell.

Oh, and buy it online, you won't get the same deals over the phone.

Second: Buy near the end of a fiscal quarter.
About 3 weeks before the end of a quarter, Dell is trying to reach revenue goals and they start deeply slashing prices. So, Jan, April, July, Oct.

Third: Don't shop on Dell.com, use the "deal" sites to shop. (Then of course you'll buy on Dell.com.)
My favorites for watching computer prices are:
SlickDeals.net (**)
Rage3D (these guys have Dell deals almost daily, SlickDeals gives you only the best ones).
CSB (Watch this page in particular for good Dell deals) has gotten progressively better over the last few months. A great Dell watcher, complete with good coupon codes.
These sites will show you the formula to follow when ordering to get the very best deal. Usually a combination of the right components, and some discount/coupon code(s).

Fourth: Find the sweet spot.
You should be able to get an excellent computer (without monitor) at any given time for well under $500, with no trouble. The trick is to get just a step or 2 under the newest technology, particularly the processor (CPU). SlickDeals, etc will do this work for you, so don't sweat it too much, but just know that if the best processor out there is 3.4Ghz, you want somewhere south of 3.0 (and this difference is not noticeable, but makes a HUGE difference in price).

Fifth: Stick to buying a computer every time the speed of processor double.
In other words, if you have a 2.0GHz machine, you'll buy when the sweet spot hits 4.0 Ghz. This is a good idea for a couple of reasons. First: Buying more often than that makes your ROI lower. Small changes in computing speed are hard to detect. If you are really hurting for some more power/speed -- upgrade your RAM, it's cheap and gives you the best bang for the buck. Second: Buying this often keeps your computer from being obsolete and makes it a whole lot easier on the (ahem) "computery guy" in your family that is always keeping you in shape. Older computers stop working with new software, they fall apart, they have mystery problems, they become a waste of time and money, and springing $500 for a new one is much cheaper and quicker. Yes... computers are sort of disposable. Sorry.

Good luck!

(**) This site is a daily visit anyway, it's a fantastic site where I've learned about and bought thousands of dollars worth of stuff. Most recently I picked up 9 Game Cube games for $5/ea after learning about it on SlickDeals. I've picked up some insane deals from there. If you don't already know about them, you'll be thanking me.


Michael K Campbell

Wow. As the neighborhood (and church) computer guy, I've got to say that this is allllll good info.
I heartily agree with point 1. They're NOT perfect, but for the price you won't get ANY better. IBM used to have fabulous service once upon a time (so I hear) but they cost an arm and a leg, and now they don't deliver on the service (from what I hear).

Awesome info on the fiscal quarter buying times and the 'deal sites.'

Sheesh, I had no idea you were this smart! ;)


Good discussion. I think I'm going to do a post in reply linking to you both, but here's my advice in a nutshell: BUY FROM A LOCAL GUY.

The best service, the best prices, and the best computer are from a local kid or business who builds computers in his garage or shop. I bought my current machine from the guy who used to do business as Ribics out in Airway Heights (but now apparently shut the store down now that he's in college) and it's the most solid machine I've ever owned, and any service issues aren't dealt with via shipping and 800 numbers, but by making a local call or stopping in with my machine and he'd be there.

Funny thing is, I've never needed anything at all on the machine.

Carson McComas

"The best service, the best prices, and the best computer are from a local kid or business who builds computers in his garage or shop."

Nope, none of those are true.

Best Service: So this kid went to college, closed his garage and you're saying that's the best service? You've never needed him (like I've haven't needed Dell for years) but if you did need him, how would you get his help? I'd call Dell and they'd FedEx me a replacement part, and a technician if needed, within a couple days. Sorry, the local chap won't be any faster or better... if you managed to catch him in between classes.

Best Prices: There's just no way a local garage builder can compete with the buying power of Dell. Computers and all the associated parts are commodities. It's all the same stuff, and your local guy just can't compete on price. I'd advise you to follow my recommendations above and then try to get a local buy for less than 30% more. Won't happen.

Best Computer: Again, it's all the same stuff. Used to not be that way, but it's a commodity market now. There's no difference in quality (a point even Chris concedes at the start of his post).

Another thing to remember. Dell has massive R&D resources tuned to making computers that don't break down. Support costs kill a company like Dell. Their objective is to make a solid computer, with components that co-exist peacefully and don't break down.

You're local guy is putting a computer together based on his own best guess about what will work right. He can largely get it right because much of the mystery has been removed, but there's just no way he'll make a more reliable computer.

Note that my recommendations come as the result of supporting and working on dozens of computers for the better part of 10 years. The local computer guys' computers are without question the hardest to deal with, the most expensive and the the most prone to problems.

For best results: follow my recommendations above.


Great stuff - posted to my weblog at http://www.coffeehouse-at-end-of-days.com/2004/11/how_to_buy_a_co.html

Uncle Mikey

Astounded to be the first to suggest this here, but: buy a Mac, for God's sake. Actually, for your sake.

Carson McComas

You missed the opening sentence of this post it appears ;)

Donald Webster

I would never buy a Dell again; I have my since 1999 and the first 4 years it has nothing been problems. But most of the problems was covered under warrant. Come find out through a friend that looking into the past files that my computer was a used one; which Dell sold to me as new one; He find some dates back to 1995. That why I had so many parts go out and now that I have all new parts i have not any problems in the last two years


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