Buying Computers Shouldn't Be Like This

Headline of the week: "Retailers Call Sales in December Worst Since 90-91 Recession,"(NY Times, 1/5)

I'm not surprised: my personal holiday shopping spree was particularly tough this season. I tried to purchase a new Wintel laptop to replace my aging Powerbook, only to surmount Olympian obstacles along the way. "Out of stock" shelves, unhelpful web sites, and uninformed salesmen were the norm on this odyssey.

I began with the trades, naturally: I got December issues of both PC Magazine and PC World.The latter happened to have the best information on laptops in that particular issue. I came to the conclusion that the Texas Instrument Extensa 550 CDT was the best machine for me. (Features that I wanted: P75 CPU, trackpad, internal CD ROM and audio, removable hard disk, 10.4 active color.)  

Off I went to the local Computer City to see the machine in the flesh. All well and good. I made a brave attempt to buy it then and there, but was rebuffed by a salesman who couldn't be bothered to configure the machine with the 24 megs of memory that I wanted. (He claimed, incorrectly, that the additional chips weren't yet being manufactured by TI.) Strike one.

Next, off to the mail order places listed in the back of the trades. Most of them were selling the machine for $3500, plus another $1100 for the extra memory. I tried PC Connection, First Source, USA Flex, and PC Compleat: all were out of stock. Strike two. How about the web, I thought? Indeed.

TI has their own site, complete with a full price list and all accessories. But no way to order on-line, that requires a phone call. Their mail order operation, TI Express, was out of stock anyway.

Next was NECX Direct, a huge mail order merchant. They have a web site and I even had a $20 coupon, good for my next purchase. No dice on how to enter the rebate coupon or getting the laptop (out of stock, but impressive that via their web page I could search their database and order stuff. And, NECX' site needs navigation help and was confusing to try to find products, which is death for a commerce site. For these reasons, NECX gets a Lost.In.Web.Space award for this week.

Then there is Notebooks.Com, a mail-order place in the Bay Area that has another site that you can order via the web. Also out of stock. I left a message in a nice on-line comments area and had a salesman calling and faxing me all sorts of things on OTHER notebooks that I didn't want to buy. CompUSA's web site was also out of stock (you can order via the web, they notify you via email of the status).

I did find a great web site that is perhaps the first use of Java that has something more than visual masturbation. Check out c|net's interactive shopping service where you can create charts and query their product database for which machines meet which of your own criteria. For this reason, they get a Big.Duck award this week for there site, since they can track this information in real time unlike the trade rags. Unfortunately, they don't yet have any data on laptops. Strike three.

Well, the inning wasn't completely over: I managed to convince TI to sell me one directly, using some contacts in the PR department. Thanks, guys. I paid top dollar, but I got the machine I wanted.

All of this got me thinking: how do ordinary people buy computers? If I needed any further convincing, in the past two weeks I was helping some of my neighbors with their computers. One bought one of my old Dells for his six-year old son: it took several trips to his house, an hour on the phone with Broderbund tech support, and another hour downloading drivers before this machine would run the small sample of multimedia software as intended. Another neighbor spent months agonizing over whether to buy a Mac or Wintel and several trips to the afore-mentioned Computer City, along with a side trip to the Wiz because CC was out of stock in the printer he wanted. A third friend who runs his own copy shop had all sorts of trouble with his NEC desktop and eventually returned it in favor of a Mac.

It is too hard to buy computers. The retail help is anything but. The mail order channel, as I found out, is great at carrying the wrong models. Products get updated too frequently. You can't find decent information for your purchases on-line. Service and support: what a concept!

I had a similar experience with on-line shopping for an article that I did for Web Review. Here I tried to buy gifts for my clients using various web sites, and ran into all sorts of problems. Obscure navigation, incompatible forms with browsers, charging a small fortune for shipping, and unresponsive email were just some of the issues I experienced last November when I did the research for the article.

And I still have my $20 off coupon from NECX. When I tried to call them and ask how to redeem it, the operator told me that she never heard of such a coupon. So much for building consumer loyalty. Corrections and amplifications department

First, apologies if last week's essay arrived garbled. As you can see from the above tale, I am in the process of moving my production system over from my Mac to my TI. (That whole experience is grist for another mill.) Hopefully, this one is readable. If you still want to read #10, here is the essay on-line.

SoftRAM, con't One of the things I like best about this on-line stuff is the immediate feedback. My essay last week on SoftRAM and its coverage in the trades brought over a dozen responses within a few hours. Here are some corrections as a result of that correspondence. PC Week did run something about the story last summer -- but only on their web site. Unfortunately, that information is no longer accessible. Too bad. I misspelled Andy Schulman's name, and also neglected to mention that Compuserve's excellent WINUSER forum has been following this story for some time. One of the participants is Rainer Poertner, president of the company that sells SoftRAM, who on this forum still carries on a dialog with his customers. The forum logged over 48,000 visitors to a special SoftRAM Alert section, according to Joel Diamond, on-line director for the MS News forum and long associated with all- things Windows.

Brian Livingston (Infoworld columnist and best-selling Windows author) reminded me that he started writing about memory doubling issues this past summer, although he didn't test SoftRAM (the company wouldn't give him a beta). Brian's email:

"Back in the May 15,1995, InfoWorld, I sent up a warning flag about SoftRAM and recommended RAM Doubler instead: One reason that foreign newspapers were early to pick up on SoftRAM's failings is that Syncronys Software started out as a Vancouver, B.C., company and marketed its product in many non-U.S. outlets, where distribution is not so jammed and PC prices are much higher (by most people's standard of living).

Unfortunately, to really do a comparative test of products requires months of advance work.... The change from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95, obsoleting all such products in August 1995, caused many of the magazines to wait for the Win 95 versions to come out before doing thorough testing. This had the bad effect of delaying the critical testing that needed to be done. I am not defending the U.S. computer press.... I hope the trade press is so embarrassed by the SoftRAM fiasco that they redouble their testing efforts on future products."

PC Week's Peter Coffee (whom I hired long ago back when I was Executive Editor there) took issue with the implications that the SoftRAM scam has larger implications for the trade press:

"I guess this is such an anomaly that I don't read into it any general messages on the capabilities of the trade press. If someone wants to bet the farm on a media blitz that gets boxes out the door more quickly than we can get out the reviews, with the implicit threat of suing us to death if we say anything that we can't prove, I think they'll always be able to take advantage of a credulous buying public."

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Finally, Tom Nolle and I have both penned essays on switching vs. routing on IBM's web site.

David Strom
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