Offering Computer-Buying Advice to Nontechnical Users

I'm certain that virtually all readers of this column have at some point in their lives been asked to recommend a computer to a family member, friend, or friend of a friend, not to mention random acquaintances who say, "You work with computers? Well, what should I buy in order to ..." I'm asked this question at least half a dozen times a week, especially at the beginning of the school year.

It didn't take me long to stop giving the computer-geek "build your own" answer that seemed so cool back in the late 1980s. Most people just aren't interested in building their own computer. I'm willing to bet that no one who works in the kitchen appliance business has ever told a friend to build his or her own dishwasher or gas oven, so I don't know why some computer-literate people still love to make the build-your-own suggestion to their friends.

When I realized my mistake in suggesting that people build their own computer, I began advising that they buy a machine from a local independent computer store. This solution worked fine as long as the store stayed in business. However, all too often I received the dubious honor of becoming the primary tech support person for a mix of hardware and software with which I was unfamiliar. So then I graduated to telling petitioners to buy a machine from the first- or second-tier vendor of their choice. I was always willing to consult on such purchases, giving people who asked me for advice an idea of their hardware requirements that I based on their description of what they needed the computer to do. However, I wanted them to have a vendor to call for help so that I wasn't taking panicked phone calls at 11:00 p.m. (A friend of mine asked me to include this warning: Never buy your parents a computer unless you're willing to offer 24 x 7 tech support, regardless of how good the service is from the computer vendor.)

For the most part, my suggestion to buy from a reputable computer vendor has been a good strategy, but recently some friends who aren't computer-literate have told me that they can't figure out how to buy a computer online. The ease of posting information on vendors' Web sites seems to have led vendors to offer dozens of options for every computer they sell, making it difficult for nontechnical customers to identify the machines they want. Computer vendors have addressed this problem by creating all sorts of bundled packages, but I've been hearing that the bundles include a lot of features users don't want. Most of these complaints come from nontechnical users who are upgrading to a new computer. They have a good idea of what they want, but they don't realize how much technology has changed over the last few years and don't know how to answer the questions that vendors' sites are asking them. Or, these customers get fairly high-pressure sales pitches from the "sales consultants" who staff the vendors' 800-number order lines.

After walking one of my neighbors through a half-dozen computer vendors' Web sites, I noticed a consistent theme: Many options exist in almost every feature and component category, with almost no easily accessible information that explains what the options mean. After seeing the expression on my neighbor's face after I explained to her why eight different Pentium 4 processors ranging in speed from 2.2GHz to 3GHz clock speeds exist, I realized that the only answer she really needed was that, for her needs, she would never notice the difference if she picked the 2.4GHz processor instead of the 3GHz processor (which would have almost doubled the system cost).

In light of my recent experiences, I still suggest to anyone who asks that he or she buy a computer from a top-tier vendor. However, I also ask a few questions about what the person plans to do with the computer. Based on the answers I get, I advise the person to look for a very narrow range of features. This information gives the potential buyer a starting point for his or her purchase and has eliminated the follow-up phone calls I used to get that asked for help with what should be a simple task--buying a computer.

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