Window shopping for a new computer has never been easier. (I bet you know what's coming next.)
That's right. You don't have to leave the house. You don't have to drive to a computer superstore. You don't have to chat up a superstore salesperson. And after the sale, you don't have to lug that 19-inch monitor up your front steps (a UPS guy will be more than happy to oblige). So fire up the PC, put your credit card on alert, and head to the Web. Let's go shopping.
Brand name—or price
If brand names are what you're after, go to the source: Dell, Gateway, Compaq, Apple, and IBM are all online and accept VISA and MasterCard.
You can also turn up brand-name PCs by haunting online catalogs such as PC Mall and MicroWarehouse.
If you're not particularly attached to a brand or just want the best bargain, try price-comparison sites, which attempt to find the lowest possible price on a product or class of products. PriceScan and PriceWatch both lead to lowest advertised prices.
Configure me this, computerman
Sometimes off-the-rack won't do. Of course, you can always upgrade a new PC later with extras you want—like DVD or an internal Jaz drive—but it may be handier and cheaper just to let the sources assemble the pieces for you. If there are any Plug-and-Play headaches, it's their aspirin, not yours.
Bless the retailers who use "configurators”—Webbish order forms that offer selections for building custom PCs, choosing peripherals a la carte. Most offer some form of customization during the ordering process.
I like Dell's configurators, which let you customize practically every detail of every PC sold. Right under every spec, such as memory, hard drive, monitor, etc., there's a menu of upgrades and downgrades. For example, the Dell Dimension XPS T ships with a 20-GB drive. Using the configurator, you'll have the option of upgrading to 30 GB for just $20 more.
Apple has a similar configurator if you click to "build your own" G4, but upgrade pricing is a lot steeper. It costs $310 to jump from a 10-GB hard drive to a 20-GB drive.
Is this PC really free?
While the free Internet access phenomenon seems to be picking up speed, the free PC craze seems to be dying down. But you can still find some free or nearly free offers. The catch, of course, is that you agree to pay for Internet access for a set length of time.
One such offer is still available from MEI-Micro Center. MSN will pitch in up to $400 (for your agreement to pay for up to three years of Internet access) if you buy one of several PCs available through MEI. The entry-level computer, the PowerSpec 4611, sells for $449 and is powered by a Celeron 466-MHz chip. (Other features: 32 MB of RAM, 4-GB hard drive, 40X CD-ROM drive, 56-Kbps modem. Monitor sold separately.)
That's definitely not a PC for today's power users, but for $49 plus the monitor plus monthly MSN fee, it might be the right recommendation for cost-conscious newbie friends and relatives.
Other MEI machines that can be used in conjunction with the MSN offer range from a refurbed e-machine with Celeron 400 ($389) to a Compaq Presario with Pentium III ($1,299).
(MEI, by the way, is my favorite source for diskettes, blank CD-Rs, ink cartridges, and all manner of computer accessories. I'm glad to see that the majority of its catalog has finally made it online. It's about time!)
For a similar PC offer, but with monitor included, there's PeoplePC, which runs TV commercials all over the place. In case you've missed them, that's $24.95 per month for three years, which includes a 400 MHz Celeron computer with 64-MB of RAM, a 6-GB hard drive, 15-inch monitor, CD-ROM drive, modem, and Internet access.
And that's what I've seen worth citing this week.
Lauren Willoughby is a Web editor at The Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville, KY, where she also writes the weekly "Technophobe" column. At night, she turns into an online auction junkie. When she's not spotting deals on refurbished 486s, she's reading a science fiction novel.