POWER USER

Ordering a PC from the big manufacturers just does not compute

John McCormick

When I needed a computer in a hurry recently, I decided to buy online and had quite a surprise.

First I went to Dell Computer Corp.'s ordering site, at www.dell.com, to order one of the company's refurbished PCs. Some days there are real bargains in that section. I reasoned that the inventory changes daily, presumably after repair and testing, so the units should be on hand and ready to ship. Wrong. The very best a Dell representative could promise me was a five- to seven-day shipping date, not a delivery date.

What's the holdup?

I don't sell computers, but if I had a stack of them ready to go out the door it wouldn't take a week to slap on shipping labels. Does Dell list them online the moment they come in the door, prior to testing and refurbishing? How does the company know a particular PC could be fixed at a certain price?

The wait would have been even longer for a new Dell computer, which is understandable because systems are built to order and must be tested afterward.

Next I tried Compaq Computer Corp.'s ordering site, at www.compaq.com, but had no better luck.

This was before the recent Taiwan earthquakes, which resulted in higher PC costs and delayed some component deliveries. Spot memory prices, for example, briefly went up by 400 percent.

Third, I turned to reseller Computer Discount Warehouse of Vernon Hills, Ill., whose Web site, at www.cdw.com, has a government-specific ordering area. CDW's Web site listed hundreds of PCs and showed which were in stock and what delays could be expected on the others. I placed my order for an in-stock PC at 5 a.m. and confirmed availability by telephone a few hours later when CDW opened.

I didn't have to settle for an unknown brand, either. CDW had what I wanted in stock, ready to ship that day, as well as dozens of other configurations.

The older model I chose'an IBM 300GL minitower with 128M of RAM, a 12G hard drive, a 40X CD-ROM drive and a Rockwell HCF 56K Data Fax PCI modem'cost less than a state-of-the-art Pentium III, but it met my needs and arrived as promised by two-day Federal Express delivery. I could have gotten it overnight. By comparison, at the manufacturers' Web sites, arrival probably would have taken 10 or 12 days.

Although Microsoft Windows 98 came preloaded on the IBM PC, it took nearly a half-hour to get up and running properly. Unfortunately, that is not an unusually long time to set up a new PC these days.

At around $1,300 without a monitor, my system wasn't a bargain-basement Pentium II machine, but it was a top brand at a fair price. I didn't find a lot of room for expansion inside, which didn't matter. My only complaint was that the modem refused to connect to my Internet provider at 28.8 Kbps, although that made no noticeable difference in Internet performance.

Despite having double the clock speed of the system it replaced, plus quadruple the memory, an Accelerated Graphics Port and a 100-MHz system bus, the new machine felt no faster except in the shutdown procedure, which was much faster.

For ordinary office word processor or spreadsheet tasks, all that extra horsepower made no noticeable difference. But I wanted the system for testing powerful animation software, 3D Studio Max 3.0 from Autodesk/Kinetix/Discreet.

3D Studio Max carries the Autodesk name on the box, previously sold under the brand name Kinetix and will now be marketed by the Discreet division of Autodesk Inc. of San Rafael, Calif. Pretty confusing.

In any event, the 300GL proved barely fast enough for 3-D animation, so I will relegate it to running office software while I custom-build a really hot computer to start the new year.

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

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