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OUR COMPUTER, THE HUB

Ga-ga over gadgets, consumers are turning the computer into the heart of their home electronics experience. And that means big changes for computer hawkers.

A decade ago, a computer buyer might have focused on a computer's memory and processing speeds. Now, the computer serves as a kind of high-tech hub for all the rest of the technology that surrounds it. Connected to a digital music player, a television set and a wireless network, the basic computer represents just one piece of a bigger entertainment and communication system with uses such as gaming, photo sharing and online shopping.

As consumers' home systems become more complex, users shop more for customer support and service, including for fix-it services that repair or install the systems. According to research firm IDC, more than 90 percent of computer households have a high-speed Internet connection and 86 percent have home networks that link multiple computers. Consumers typically upgrade every four years, and laptops are gaining in popularity over bulky desktops. As buyers demand change, manufacturers and retailers that once relied heavily on computer sales are being forced to revamp their strategies to meet the their needs.

Onetime sector leaders Dell and CompUSA boomed several years ago by focusing on computers but have suffered as the market shifted away from computer-only sales. Now, both are starting to make drastic changes to their business models.

CompUSA said this year it would close 126 of its 229 stores nationwide as it focuses on less-competitive regions and reduces its product lineup to cater to smaller businesses and technically savvy users.

Also, Dell, to become more responsive to changing customer needs, has launched a Web site, www.ideastorm.com, soliciting suggestions from customers.

Dell "wants to be a solutions provider, not just sell the box to the customer," said Richard Shim, an analyst with IDC who authored reports on buying behavior in 2005 and 2006. "PC makers have been forced to change. ... They've been forced to specialize more."

Consumers today have a greater understanding of what the computing experience should be and therefore are more discerning shoppers, analysts said.

"As technology has gotten more and more important in people's lives, they've become more comfortable buying electronics in general: digital cameras, iPods, cellphones," said Stephen Baker, an analyst with NPD Group.

The complexity of networking all those devices has helped companies like Apple and Best Buy market customer-support services.

"Technology continues to evolve and rarely gets simpler," said Wendy Fritz, vice president of computing for Best Buy.

Survey says . . .

Here's a look at some recent surveys on our computer use in 2006, compared with 2005:

Primary method of Internet access

Dial-up: 8.7 percent (down from 39.6 percent)

Cable: 50 percent (up from 36.3 percent)

DSL: 39.7 percent (up from 22.2 percent)

Satellite Internet: 1.6 percent (up from 0.7 percent)

Households with multiple computers

35.1 percent (up from 33 percent )

Home networks (2006 numbers only)

86 percent have a home network

63.8 percent have Wi-Fi

30.6 percent use wired Ethernet

4.8 percent use phone-line-based network

0.8 percent use power line

Where we buy it

Computer retailer, electronics/office supply chain: 34.9 percent (down from 41.2 percent of U.S. households with a computer)

PC manufacturer's Web site: 27.6 percent (up from 20.4 percent)

Computer retailer, electronics/office supply chain's Web site: 16.5 percent (up from 7.7 percent)

Received or bought from employer: 8.9 percent (up from 3.5 percent)

Online-only site (such as eBay): 4.8 percent (up from 2.4 percent)

Received as a gift: 4.3 percent (down from 8.5 percent)

How long we keep our PCs

4.3 years (down from 5.1 years)

Washington Post

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