Computers still tend to be more of a gamble than other consumer electronics when it comes to reliability. And this year's PC World survey shows "that service and support declined across the board," according to Alan Stafford, senior editor at the magazine.
Dell continues to get top marks, though its ratings are not up to previous standards. "The majority of our readers are not as happy as they once were (with Dell), but that's the best they're going to get," Stafford said.
Also make sure to check the warranty for what's covered and for how long.
More alternative to Microsoft
A lot of people buying computers will notice that not everything inside is made by Microsoft.
Hewlett-Packard and Dell will offer Corel's WordPerfect word processor and Quattro Pro spreadsheet to replace Microsoft's Works suite of scaled-down office programs on some of their models. WordPerfect can handle documents created in Microsoft's Word format.
However, if you're buying a computer for a college student, check with the school for special discounts, even on popular and expensive programs such as Microsoft Office.
Searching for the perfect ISP
It's a traditional question during the peak computer buying season: What Internet service provider should you get?
Most computers will come with free trial offers from services such as America Online or MSN. Use those free offers to go online and see what else is out there.
While most free services have died, NetZero offers 10 hours free a month _ along with a good crop of popup ads. You can find unlimited-access deals starting at $9.95 a month or so.
Here are some sites to check for service providers: www.findanisp.com; www.dsl-isp-guide.com; and thelist.internet.com.
Things to add to your shopping list
In addition to the computer, your shopping list should include some basic but essential items.
A surge protector is a must. It's best to get one that handles electric, phone and cable lines. Prices start around $10, but spend enough to make sure you get a good one.
If you buy a printer, make sure you get the required cable (it's not included). And you might want to invest in additional ink cartridges if you buy a printer. Some come only with starter cartridges that don't last long.
HomePlug offers home networking alternative
Home networking is hot because more homes have multiple PCs. People are sharing everything from high-speed Internet connections to files to music.
Networking is not always easy and can be finicky to set up, but users enjoy its benefits.
Wireless systems have been popular, but a new crop of hardware that uses the electrical outlets in your house also have come out. And, PC World says, these HomePlug systems have fewer security issues than the wireless technology. For a review check www.pcworld.com/reviews/ article/0,aid,105305,00.aLine is overdrawn sp.
_ Compiled by Times personal technology editor Dave Gussow from staff and wire reports.
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