Make sure that if you buy an inexpensive PC, it doesn't bite back

My last column mentioned sub-$1,000 PC deals from small as well as big-name companies.
I decided to spring for a super cheapie to judge for myself.


A PC from TigerDirect Inc. of Miami cost $1,059 without a monitor. I liked the bundled
Corel Corp. software, 32M memory, 200-MHz IBM Corp. 6x86 processor, 3.2G Ultra DMA Western
Digital hard drive, 56-kilobit/sec modem, Yamaha wavetable sound card, IBM dictation
software and Microsoft Windows 95.


The price has probably fallen even more since I ordered it from the catalog.


A TigerDirect salesman took my call, answered my technical questions and confirmed that
a unit would be shipped that day. It arrived well-packed and had detailed installation
instructions including a checklist for connecting the peripherals. The assembly directions
were better than any I've seen from first-tier PC makers.


One minor sour note: A large sticker prompted me to follow the arrows on connectors.
But an arrow on the case pointed in the wrong direction for the mouse connector, which
could confuse the installer. I had no problems after looking closely at the socket.


Ready for the big moment, I plugged in the power cord and hit the switch, only to hear
the continuous beeping that signaled a serious problem with the unit.


I immediately e-mailed TigerDirect's call-back support line. I described the problem
and my attempts to correct it by disconnecting components one at a time and restarting. I
left an e-mail address and telephone number.


That was on a Friday, several hours before Tiger's support closed for the weekend. Two
weeks and some irate e-mails later, I had not heard back by either telephone or e-mail, so
I have to rate TigerDirect's support as unacceptable.


As for fixing the problem, I did what any power user would do. I opened the case, poked
around, reinstalled boards, and disconnected and reconnected drives and power supply. No
joy.


I examined the motherboard and saw that one of the two memory chip modules didn't look
right. I reseated it, reconnected components and powered up. Everything worked fine.


The case and mounting hardware were relatively flimsy. The memory module had shaken
loose during normal shipping.


I did confirm the high-quality components inside the Tiger, including a Western Digital
Corp. Caviar hard drive. But I read all the documentation for the K56flex modem and
couldn't find a hint of who made it, although it bore a copyright notice.


The Tiger system is fast and has a big, 200-watt power supply and easy access for
changing boards or drives. The documentation is excellent, some components are
top-quality, and shipping was fast and efficient. I managed to fix the startup problem in
about 15 minutes, less time than I usually spend waiting for telephone support.


But I can't imagine tech support, had they replied to my e-mails, advising me to open
the case and poke around. I suspect most buyers would have shipped the PC back.


To save money, I bought it with only depot service, not on-site service. Another user
told me she bought a TigerDirect PC with on-site service, and the monitor died the first
day. The company shipped her a replacement immediately, so I guess support is on a
coin-toss basis. She came up heads, and I got the Tiger tail.


Would I buy another TigerDirect system? I could be tempted by one of their inexpensive
kit PCs without bundled software, priced below comparable Dell Computer Corp. and Compaq
Computer Corp. models. I had to disassemble and reassemble the PC anyhow, so I could have
saved a few hundred more by ordering it in pieces in the first place.


I don't recommend the assembled TigerDirect products to government buyers who can get
similarly equipped Compaq and Hewlett-Packard Co. PCs for only about 10 percent more. No
company is perfect, but in 20 years of testing, I have never before received a totally
inoperable PC.


This is the second bargain-basement PC I tested recently. The first was the Micro
Express Inc. MicroFlex that blew its power supply within two weeks [GCN, Jan. 26,
Page 39].


My two Zeos International Ltd. PCs are still running fine after eight and 10 years,
respectively, as is a 66-MHz Compaq Deskpro. An early IBM Corp. PS/2 Model 80 ran fine for
more than a decade until it was hit by lightning.


Draw your own conclusions.


John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at powerusr@penn.com.


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