Money Classic: Choosing the Right Computer, With Help From Bill Gates (1984)
Money is turning 50! To celebrate, we’ve combed through decades of our print magazines to uncover hidden gems, fascinating stories and vintage personal finance tips that have (surprisingly) withstood the test of time. Throughout 2022, we’ll be sharing our favorite finds in Money Classic, a special limited-edition newsletter that goes out twice a month.
This story, featured in the first issue of Money Classic, comes from our 1984 guide to computers.
Editor's note: This story includes language that isn't inclusive. Preferred language is always evolving, and Money is committed to writing stories that do not discriminate on the basis of race, color, sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation), religion, age or disability.
Buying a computer is easy. Just wander into the store with about $5,000 and tell the salesman that you have a vague feeling that you need a PC. You’ll leave about an hour later loaded like Artoo-Deetoo. Trouble is, you might be back the next day madder than a wet robot for having bought a lot more — or perhaps a lot less — computer than you really need. How to avoid such a plight?
The first step is to understand a few points about the way computers are sold and the people who sell them. The brisk and intimidating manner of many salesmen might lead you to believe that they sell a computer every 10 minutes. But the fact is, they are generally ready to invest a great deal of time on each sale. On average, a computer salesman will spend three hours with a customer before he closes the deal, and a typical customer will make three visits to a computer store before he buys.
Today most personal computers are bought in computer stores, so chances are you will end up doing business with a computer salesman – or as some stores will have it, a “specialist” or “representative.” Who are these people? Some are young, recently graduated science majors eager to cash in on their calculus; others are seasoned salesmen from other markets — cars, encyclopedias or insurance — who have retooled their skills.
What's in their toolbox? Well, you probably carried their most valuable device into the store with you. This is the overwhelming belief of most customers that a computer is the solution to many of their problems and at the same time it takes them to the world of the future. A virtuoso salesman will play every key on this wishful pipe organ. It's up to you to separate the sharps from the flats. And this is hard when you don't know a pixel from a parallel port.
Of course, you can't expect a salesman to give you a freshman course in computer electronics. But you can, and should, insist that you see the computer or software perform everything he says it will do. Then you should ask that he let you lay your hands on the keyboard and run some software.
Insist on bringing the program into operation from square one, which means starting from a turned off computer with the operating system and a program disk still in their paper sleeves. Don't let the salesman load them into the computer for you and then have you take over for just the most impressive part. Some programs are so cumbersome and time-consuming to get working that they aren't worth buying. Should you really insist on actually running each program you want to buy? Unless you've had a long and pleasing relationship with the salesman, yes, by all means.
William Gates, co-founder and chairman of Microsoft in Bellevue, Wash., one of the largest software manufacturers in the country, offers this advice on how to locate the right dealer: “Call around and get the names of a few near you. Visit them and put them through a little test.” First, Gates suggests, ask a few questions to see if you can understand the dealer. Lots of specialists know computers inside out but couldn't explain them to you with a gun to their heads. Some don't even want to. As in all technologies, you find people who will go to great lengths to make the subject as confusing as possible. If a dealer doesn't make sense to you, it's not your fault.
Gates recommends that you find out whether the dealer will help you learn to use your computer. Ask if he holds classes for new users or if he will answer your questions over the phone. Also, be sure your prospective dealer understands software and offers a wide selection. You don't want to be saddled with a donkey of a spreadsheet program simply because the dealer who sold you your personal computer doesn't stock thoroughbreds.
Each dealer is likely to have a number of salesmen. In most stores, the one you buy your computer from will be the person who, in the future, will handle most of your questions about your machine. You are married to him for the duration. Part of this commission is for the time that he will spend explaining details to you, arranging for repairs to your machine and seeing that it isn't even to the summer intern for servicing. So don't go through all the purchasing preliminaries with one salesman you like and trust, and then come back to the store late one evening and place your order with someone you don't know.
When selecting a dealer, the question of support is the most crucial of all the factors to consider. Even price, which other products is traditionally paramount, pales before the importance of what backing you can expect from your dealer and from the manufacturer.
Of those two, support from the store probably deserves more consideration. After all, this is largely what you are buying when you pay a dealer 10% to 20% more for a computer than you would pay a mail-order house. For an experienced computer user, ordering through the mail is an excellent way to buy. But if you're a novice, be careful. Computer systems, particularly such mechanical components as disk drives and printers, tend to break down.
Without a dealer, you're left with the manufacturer's support, which is likely to be an 800-number hotline and a 90-day warranty. But watch out: in the case of a very few computers, a warranty can start from the day the machine leaves the factory. So it is possible to buy a new computer whose warranty is already expired. At worst, the manufacturer's support can boil down to a discontinued phone number at a forwarding address in Kyoto.
Even the best manufacturers usually offer what are called limited warranties. These are documents that do not meet the standards set by Congress for full warranties. For example, a computer company may stipulate stiff handling charges for repairs under the warranty or disclaim certain customer rights such as the so-called warranty of merchantability, which ensures that the product will perform the way it's supposed to when you take it home. Incredible as it seems, this basic assurance is disclaimed by some computer manufacturers.
On the bright side, and making the sale your dealer may have committed himself to an implied warranty for instance when he recommends a particular computer or software product for your specific needs, he may be binding himself to an implied warranty.
If the product does not live up to his recommendation, the buyer has certain legal rights. Take, for example, a dealer who sells you software with the promise that it will run on your machine and it doesn't. He may be required, under laws governing instances of misrepresentation, to refund your money. For the same reason, a dealer who demonstrates a computer for you and then sells you a less powerful machine without explaining the difference also may have to refund your money. “The best plan is to give your dealer a chance to remedy the problems,” says Bruce Brickman, a lawyer and the author of Solving the Computer Contract Dilemma. “The next step is a lawyer’s office or a small-claims court.”
Generally, you're better off going to a dealer who stocks a broad range of computers. This way, you'll be less likely to get stuck with the wrong machine because the dealer could not drawn upon a wide enough selection to suit your requirements. Also, you should check whether the dealer can fix your machine if something goes wrong. Something probably will.
One last point. While most people who buy computers — even if the very inexpensive ones — are in the middle- to upper-income brackets, a computer is nonetheless an unfamiliar and a major investment. This can lead to a kind of accessory fever in which you end up buying a boatload of extraneous items such as disc cleaning brushes, plastic jackets, special cables and bizarre software under the misguided notion that, because they cost only a fraction of the price of the computer itself, there's some kind of bargain. Enough said.
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