POWER USER

Web shopping has allure, but phoning delivers the goods

John McCormick

My Nov. 22 column described my online adventures when I tried to order a computer for immediate delivery. Here's what happened afterward.

The IBM 300GL minitower I wound up buying from Computer Discount Warehouse Inc. (CDW) of Vernon Hills, Ill., was too slow for my software project. I had ordered it because it was the only system immediately available that could meet my minimum needs.

Because I test so much hardware and software, I decided to get a full tower with lots of room for expansion. Once again I set out to order a refurbished system online from Dell Computer Corp. or Compaq Computer Corp.

In the month after my first attempt, Dell had rebuilt its Web order site, dropping the refurbished computers. Perhaps they have reappeared by now or just moved. I continued on www.micronpc.com., the site of Micron Electronics Inc. of Nampa, Idaho.

Now you see it ...

I was disappointed to find that the Micron system mentioned in an ad I had received in the mail was nowhere on the Web site. When I tried to configure a system with similar specs, the price was higher than the price in the ad.

Compaq's site showed a refurbished PC with a bit more power than the IBM had, a lot more expansion room and a DVD drive'all at a lower price.

My first step was to establish my identity by registering online. After an hour of trying I gave up. The Web site's database refused to accept a rural delivery address as valid.

I then phoned in the information, as directed by the Web page. The first clerk couldn't locate the refurbished system I specified. When I said that was probably because it was sitting in my online order basket, he said he couldn't help me.

I hung up and called again to try my luck with another clerk, who helpfully took down my information and suggested I go back online and cancel the order basket contents, then phone him back. That way the PC I wanted would show up again in inventory. I did so, but his extension was busy for the next half-hour. Eventually, however, we reconnected, and I got my PC.

The total time spent ordering a computer online? Two hours. Frustration level? Maxed out. I could have assembled a computer faster from components I have lying around.

What are the chances I will try to order another PC online from a box-maker's Web site? There will be ice-skating in Washington in July before that happens.

But I will continue to browse CDW's site, at www.cdw.com, to see what it has ready to ship, and I will probably order from CDW or another online reseller. I'll also check out Dell's and Compaq's refurbished PCs in the future. But I won't waste another minute trying to order through a major maker's Web site. The resellers seem to have licked online ordering problems better than the box-makers. To order from them, I'll just pick up the phone.

Silver lining

On the plus side, the second Compaq clerk, though harried, went out of his way to complete the order, and at only $1,299 the system was awesome. It arrived on time as promised.

Compaq sent me a Presario 5690 with a 500-MHz Pentium III processor, 128M of RAM, a digital V.90 modem, a 6X DVD drive, phone line networking, an Ethernet card, four Universal Serial Bus ports, two FireWire ports, a digital flat-panel port, an S-video connector, composite video and a slew of software, along with the usual ports and features.

I didn't want a DVD, but at that price, why argue?

If you need new PCs after Jan. 1 because of date code problems, I recommend checking out inventories and options online first.

And speaking of Jan. 1, thanks to all the readers who responded to my Oct. 4 column about year 2000 fixes and PC upgrades.

Many wrote to ask that I continue to cover operating environments back to MS-DOS 4.01. Some readers are making do with PCs as old as a few I have running. One Energy Department employee said he still logs data on a 286, which is a great example of making use of old PCs instead of discarding them.

Wayne County, Mich., has replaced all systems slower than 166-MHz Pentiums. A Defense Department site in Ohio is staying with more than 3,000 PCs running Micro-soft Windows 95. A state agriculture department worker reported that most of his 200 PCs have Windows NT 4.0, but he still appreciates occasional Win95 coverage.

Something old, new

An Army LAN administrator told me he runs NT 4.0 on a server with clients ranging from 66-MHz 486DX2s to Pentium IIIs. He said they mostly run the updated Win95 operating system but have a few new PCs that came with Win98. He got rid of his last Windows 3.1 386 in October.

An Environmental Protection Agency correspondent said her group had just completed a change to Win95 and saw no compelling reason to go to Win98.

No one expressed concern about year 2000 problems, and only a few were frustrated at being stuck with old hardware. Most complaints involved lack of support for the hardware and software they use daily. One reader said he doubted anyone at the help desk had 'ever seen a DOS prompt.'

So, happy New Year to all you GCN readers who are prepared, whether you tweaked old systems or bought new ones.

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

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