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Web ranks as top place to shop for PCs

(Final edited version not provided for the electronic library. Please see microfilm.)

In its October issue, the magazine reported on the experience of five undercover shoppers looking for a specific PC at stores and online. It rated categories from selection to the staff's knowledge.

"The best choice in nearly every category was the Web," the magazine reported.

Among issues for consumers to consider when shopping at a store:

+ Choices for off-the-shelf systems will be limited, with Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Sony and eMachines the most prominent brands on the PC side, plus Apple's Macintosh.

Many major stores offer Web-connected kiosks so shoppers can order a PC with the specifications they want.

+ Systems are preconfigured, so the consumer will have to spend more for upgrades or additions.

PC World rated Dell and Gateway, which both sell direct over the Web and phone, as the two "Best Bets" for shopping.

Another popular choice is from local shops that build systems to order, according to Harry McCracken, PC World's executive editor. "We still find a substantial number of readers who buy from extremely small companies," he said. "Customers are significantly happier with service than customers of the great big companies."

Tech support/warranties

The good news: Computers are more reliable. The bad news: They have to be, because tech support continues to be a major headache for consumers.

"We have seen a clear drop in basically how happy PC users are with service in our most recent survey," McCracken said. "People are reporting they're waiting on hold longer, and more problems are not being solved."

Computermakers have tried a number of ways to cut their costs for tech support, such as online help sites, to avoid having people call, which is expensive.

That makes it even more important for people to check on warranties.

"We've also seen warranties get a little less impressive recently," McCracken said. "One of Dell's strong points, three-year warranties, were cut back to one year in a lot of cases."

Consumers also need to ask what the warranty covers and what "in-home" service entails. For example, some companies will send a technician to your house only if the problem can be diagnosed by phone or online as clearly warranting an in-person visit. If not, the consumer may have to take it to an authorized repair shop.

However, some computer companies are making do-it-yourself upgrades and repairs easier.

For example, Dell has new cases "that unfold for easier interior access," said Alan Stafford, senior editor of PC World. "They have color-coded drive cables so you know that's the floppy drive going to the hard drive."

You don't even need a screwdriver.

Printers/scanners

The popularity of digital photography in the past few years has put a premium on printers that can produce photos and scanners that can turn old photos into digital images.

The best news is that most printers and scanners in the $100 to $150 range will do a good job on photos, according to Stafford. Resolution, normally cited in DPI, or dots per inch, has gotten so high that he calls it almost an irrelevant consideration in the purchase.

On printers, Stafford suggests people check ink prices and any difficulties involved in swapping out cartridges. People may want to check for additional features on scanners such as a transparency adapter to scan in slides.

Some of the newer printers allow people to print directly from a Compact Flash or Smart Media card taken from the camera, so a home computer isn't even needed.

Among the top inkjet printers tested by PC World are the Lexmark Z43 JetPrinter ($100); Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 932C ($149); and the Canon S600 Color Bubble Jet ($149). Top scanners include the Visioneer OneTouch 8820 ($170); Microtek ScanMaker 4700 ($180); and Canon CanoScan N1240U ($199).

Monitors

The world of monitors is flat, or at least getting flatter.

Instead of traditional and clunky cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors that take up acres of space on your desk, sleek flat-panel displays are getting less expensive and showing up more frequently as options in computer packages.

Prices for 15-inch liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors have fallen to less than $400, down from more than $1,000 two years ago. It's still more expensive than a CRT, but LCDs save space and use less energy.

"The most important piece is the monitor," Staffordsaid. "That should be the first thing people upgrade, both in size and type."

Top 19-inch monitors tested by the magazine include the Samsung SyncMaster 950p ($309); Dell M991 ($359); and ViewSonic GS790 ($389).

Don't forget

You chose a home computer and all its components, maybe a printer and a few other things. What could you possibly have forgotten?

First, make sure you have a surge protector, and get one that handles electric, phone and cable lines. Surge protectors start around $10, but spend enough to make sure you get a good one. One gauge: how much damage expense the manufacturer will accept if it fails.

An uninterruptible power supply, known as a UPS, can act as a surge protector. It also has the added benefit of giving you time to save your work and shut down the computer properly if the power fails. These devices usually are priced based on how much time they'll keep the computer running; the more time, the more they cost. You should be able to get one for $100 or less.

If you get a printer, buy a cable to connect it to the computer. The cable doesn't come with the printer. It should cost about $20.

And with that printer, buy extra ink cartridges. In some instances, new printers have what is known as starter cartridges, which won't last as long as regular cartridges.

If your computer has a CD-RW to make recordable CDs, you'll want extra disks.

Internet providers

Most new home computers come with preinstalled software for one or more Internet service providers, such as America Online or MSN, and a modem to connect to a phone line for access.

In most cases, the services offer a free trial period so users can get acquainted with them, which is the best way to gauge whether a particular service will meet your surfing needs. Typically, though, the burden will be on you to cut off the service before the trial period ends and billing to your credit card begins.

"The distinguishing factors are support and reliability," Stafford said. "Typically the vendors that are scoring the highest are AT&T Worldnet and Earthlink-Mindspring."

"AOL is still fine for beginners," Stafford said. "A lot of people will migrate from AOL to other ISPs, mostly because of connection reliability and speed of service."

Some people may want faster cable modem or digital subscriber line connections, either of which will cost $45 to $50 a month, which is more than slower dialup connections over phone lines. Cable modems also will require an Ethernet card for your computer.

Software bundles

A few years ago, PC companies touted software bundles included with a new computer as a come-on for buyers.

The collection usually consisted of demo versions of popular software that required a purchase for the full product, games that didn't make it to the bestseller list and others that could be classified as throwaways.

As prices fell and profit margins shrank, the software bundle almost disappered as a marketing tool. Now, consumers are given the basics, usually Microsoft Works, or if they want to spend hundreds of dollars more, Microsoft Office.

The Works Suite is a smaller, simpler version of Office. It includes a full version of Microsoft Word, a basic spreadsheet program, a standard version of the Encarta encyclopedia, Picture It desktop publishing, Microsoft Money personal finance and Outlook Express e-mail.

Depending on the version, Microsoft Office offers full versions of Word, the Excel spreadsheet program and PowerPoint for presentations.

"A good percentage want the power of Microsoft Office, even if they don't need it," said McCracken, who suggests people assess what they'll be doing before spending extra on Office.

The disappearing Internet appliance

In hopes of attracting people who didn't want to deal with the complexities of a computer, a number of companies came out with devices called information appliances, which offered Internet surfing, e-mail and some other basic functions.

But the gadgets were expensive, some costing up to $500, a point at which people could buy a PC with more power and functions. So the appliance market dried up.

This year, Sony pulled its $500 e-Villa machine just 10 weeks after it was launched. Gateway stopped selling its Connected TouchPad. Others that failed included Netpliance's i-Opener, 3Com's Audrey and Virgin Entertainment Group's WebPlayerInternet.

A few have survived, notably WebTV, which gives Internet access and e-mail on a TV, Compaq's iPAQ Home Internet Appliance and the New Internet Computer, priced at $199 and backed by billionaire Larry Ellison.

_ This report was compiled by Times personal technology editor Dave Gussow and includes information from Times wires.

TEXT OF CHART ACCOMPANYING STORY NOT PROVIDED FOR ELECTRONIC LIBRARY. PLEASE SEE MICROFILM.

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