Thoughts on buying your first computer

“I’m thinking of buying my first computer…”

Some advice on buying a new computer from an ex-computer trainer.

Trust me, I’m a computer trainer

In the dying years of the last millennium I had the dubious pleasure of working (briefly) as a part-time trainer for the well-known computer superstore, Twofirstnames. The deal was that if a nervous new user bought one of several brand name computers from Twofirstnames, he or she was entitled to a whole hour (gosh!) of free tuition with a computer expert right in the comfort of his or her own home.

I was hired to be one of these “experts” and during my short tenure I visited some wonderful people in their lovely homes, enjoyed some good ol’ country hospitality and generally had a fun time. For example, on one memorable occasion I knocked on a door to have an attractive woman answer and immediately invite me into her bedroom (gasping with breathless excitement!), which was where she kept her computer (dammit!).

Anyway I think I helped most of my trainees come to grips with their new computers. Some of them even liked me so much, they paid to have me come back for more. My finest moment was a return visit to a retired lady to help improve her scanning - despite the fact that I’d never used a scanner before in my life.

So, why did you get it in the first place?

To get a feel for their priorities, my first question to each proud new computer owner was ~”What do you want to do with your computer?”~ or ~”Why have you decided to buy a computer now?”~ Almost without exception this harmless enquiry was met with a blank stare, then some foot shuffling, and finally some vague mumbling about getting on the net or helping the kids with their school work. It soon became apparent that many of my trainees hadn’t thought much about what they were going to do with their beige boxes once they had them installed on their dining room tables.

Here are the more common answers I heard (or inferred) from my trainees - and what I thought of them as justifications for buying a computer. (Maybe you’ll recognise your own rationale…)

“I want to get on the Internet” and/or “I want to get email”

Not a bad reason, especially if you have friends who use email. But if this is the only reason and you only want to go online occasionally, then you might be able to get by without a computer. You don’t need to own a computer to get online or to have an email account. Internet cafes and libraries offer walk-in access to computers and the Internet, and these could be better options if you just want to dip-in your toe at first.

“It’ll help the kids with their homework”.

This is not necessarily a good reason unless you know - quite specifically - how a computer will help with homework. Certainly computers in schools have become very common in recent years, and computer literacy is practically right up there with the three Rs, but don’t be surprised if a home computer gets used more for games than for homework (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

“I feel like I’m getting left behind” or “I need to get up to date”

Probably the worst reason of all to buy a computer because it’s an expensive way of keeping up with the trends - and more costly if you fall for the upgrade trap every few years. This is far too vague - there is no specific “problem” that owning a computer will solve in this case.

“It will help me with my [insert special interest or hobby here]”

An excellent reason for getting a home computer - again, provided you have a pretty specific idea about how it will improve your hobby.

“I want to play computer games”

It’s funny but I never heard this one directly, although often I could guess that this was the real reason. Now there are two things to remember about games: Firstly, it’s OK for grown-ups to play computer games! (No, really! Just have a look at some of the games you can get these days - clearly many were never intended for kids.) Secondly, if gaming is all you want to do, then perhaps a computer is the wrong toy. Games consoles are considerably cheaper than computers and they are designed specifically for playing games.

Of course there are usually several reasons for getting a first computer, probably some or all of the above and possibly others as well. But looking back over my trainees, I’m left with an overwhelming impression of people flushed the thrill of the purchase but utterly clueless about what they actually bought it for.

Get clued

It is very important to become familiar with computers before you go and buy one. You’ll need to get some advice, get some hands-on experience, and do some reading.

Get a guru

Almost everyone knows a computer nerd these days, so find yourself a good one to help you. Almost any experienced computer user will be able to answer your general questions. When considering a purchase, look for someone who often upgrades their computer or who has recently bought a new machine because they will be best informed to advise on current prices and features available in the market. (So that counts me out - I haven’t bought a computer in years!) An added advantage is that they might have an old spare machine they could loan you for awhile - see below.

Some cautions: * Watch out for the “hardware tragic” - those fanatics for the latest and greatest - who will advise you to get a monster truck when you would have been happy with a mini. * Be frugal with your guru’s time - you’ll almost certainly still need him or her after you’ve got your new computer home. In fact, you might want to find several gurus to spread the load - this is where a computer user group can help out.

Contact a user group

Find out about your local user groups. Go and visit some of their meetings and special interest groups. Melbourne PC User Group has over eleven thousand members, twenty-four special interest groups and nineteen general interest groups and the motto is “users helping users”. Now that sounds like the place to find a helpful guru or two!

Try before you buy

If you don’t normally have access to a computer (e.g. at work or school), maybe you could try some of these options:

  • borrow a computer from a friend - If you’ve found your guru, chances are he or she will have an older computer that doesn’t get much use - if so maybe you could borrow it and have a go.

  • become a permanent fixture in the computer section of your local library - Get friendly with the librarian who makes the computer bookings and see if you can get yourself a regular time slot.

  • rent or lease a computer for awhile - It might be a costly short-term option but a rented computer could be cheaper over the longer term, especially if you’re the sort of person who is prepared to pay to have the latest and greatest.

Read, read, read

Did you know that libraries don’t just have computers? They also have books, magazines and newspapers - stacks of ‘em just lying around, cluttering up the place. The librarians are delighted when you go in and offer to store some of their books at your place for awhile. And you’re bound to find one or two about computers among all that lot.

Daily newspapers also have regular computer features (~The Age~ and ~The Australian~ have computer features on Tuesdays). And if your newsagent doesn’t have a whole rack of computer magazines, it’s time to find a new newsagent! Read articles, reviews, and the adverts.

Buy, buy, buy

OK, so now you’re prepared. You know what you want to do and you know what sort of computer you need to do it. Now go and get it! Computer hardware sales is a cut-throat business, which means if you shop around you can find some great deals. But remember that a computer isn’t an ordinary appliance - you’re also shopping for service and support.

  • avoid the superstores and department stores - Computers aren’t a commodity item yet, so you will still need to get some expert advice. While it is possible to get good advice from sales staff in the bigger outlets, you’re just as likely to get someone from the furniture department who’s just filling in for the day. Look for a well-established local specialist computer store.

  • warranty and support - Consider your vendor’s ability to service the warranty on you computer and provide you with ongoing technical support. Warranty isn’t everything - you might pick up a real bargain at a swap meet or fire sale (don’t expect a warranty to be worth anything here!) - but this probably isn’t something you want to do with your first computer.

  • ask questions - You’ll get a good feel for how well they can support you by how they field your queries (will you feel comfortable coming back to these guys later if you have any trouble?). Provided you’ve already done your homework, you’ll also know if you’re being fed a line or given good advice.

  • demand respect - While we’re on the subject, try to find a salesperson who won’t talk down to you or treat you like an idiot. It is a buyer’s market after all.

First published: PC Update Jan/Feb 2004 (online version updated)