ONLINE BUYING

Save time by using online store's configuration tool

By J.B. Miles

Special to GCN

I need a new PC. My old 233-MHz workhorse is showing signs of age, having been banged about from multiple moves, too much tinkering from its owner and, more recently, the ravages of a humid climate.

Besides, I want one, and I'm going to get one. Online.

In this era of online shopping, you can get some pretty good deals on PCs. Even a low-end, no-name brand can be a bargain if it comes with the processor, memory, hard drive, backup storage, modem, sound card, graphics card, speakers and other features you are looking for. Online PC shopping is good for those who know what they're doing, and I have steered friends and readers in this direction.

But online shopping does have its limits. Just like conventional discount stores, many online stores sell a limited number of product models with specific features sets for specific prices. Fair enough. Online stores, particularly third-party resellers, have to operate under pretty slim profit margins.

For you and me, however, this can translate into some limited product options. Thankfully, there's a new and growing model being developed for online computer shoppers that will eventually and forever change the way most of us buy computer equipment. Under this model, you can 'spec-out' your own PCs before you buy.

Look for a reputable manufacturer with an online store on its Web site and see if it has a configuration page on which you can check out the specifications and prices for basic models.

Suppose you're interested in a 450-MHz Pentium III machine and have a good idea of the extras you want'memory, DVD drive, graphics card'but your maximum allowance is $2,350. Using a product configuration page, your task is simple.

First, select from the company's Web site a variety of models that will suit your basic requirements and use the configuration page to design the best alternative. You can upgrade processors, add or subtract memory, swap a standard CD-ROM drive for a DVD drive, and so on.

On good configuration pages, you'll notice the price and specifications for the base model you want. When you add features, a click of the mouse will total up the cost of the reconfigured machine.

Beware that the existence of an online store is no guarantee that you can configure your own PCs on it.

Hewlett-Packard Co. announces prices only for pre-configured models. IBM Corp.'s Web site provides a configuration page but directs you to various third-party resellers for actual pricing. Options for the iMac on Apple Computer Inc.'s Web site seem to be limited to blueberry, grape, tangerine, lime or strawberry, although the build-it-yourself options for the Power Mac G3 are considerably more sophisticated.

Gateway Inc. has been a pioneer in Web site configuration pages, but I was unable to access its site while preparing this column. Maybe the company is a victim of its own multimillion dollars-per-day success in online sales, and its server was jammed.

Mix and match

Of other leading manufacturers, this leaves Dell Computer Corp. and Compaq Computer Corp., both of which offer powerful online Web stores. Just for fun, I searched both companies' Web stores for help in configuring two PCs, adding or swapping peripherals for both machines'the Dell Dimension XPS T and the Compaq Prosignia Desktop 330.

The time taken? About 20 minutes total, a lot less than if I'd done the work searching through hard-copy catalogues or brochures. And I'm fairly sure that either machine would suit my purposes nicely, depending on the applications I use most.

There's no doubt in my mind that the manufacturers who make it possible not only to buy but to configure your own PC workstations and other computer gear online are the ones that will succeed.


J.B. Miles, of Pahoa, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers.

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