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Choosing Your White Box Shop

So you've decided you want to buy from a white box vendor. There are four steps to the process:

  1. Decide roughly what you want.

  2. Choose a vendor.

  3. Price out the equipment.

  4. Pick up your system.

Deciding What You Want

Put together a basic configuration: OS, CPU, RAM, hard drive(s), optical drives, etc.

What you need is driven by what you want to use this computer for, of course. Odds are that you're going to use this computer for standard stuff like Net access, office apps, maybe burning some CDs or DVDs, playing with digital photos and music, in which case you'll be hard-pressed to buy any new computer that's inadequate. You may want to price the fastest CPU—or stick to the sweet spot, and consider putting the added money into more RAM, and maybe bigger/more hard drives. If you're into multimedia and/or gaming, higher-end video and sound cards may be on your shopping list, and perhaps a higher-end motherboard. (And more cooling!)

Decide what upgrades, additional components, and/or vendor-specific items you want: case, power supply, video card. This may rule out some white box vendors, not to mention some of the name-brand vendors.

Choosing a Vendor

First, decide whether you want a local vendor so you can chat, buy, pick up, and get service, or whether you're willing to shop online and get hardware service by mail. If you don't already have a place or two in mind, ask people whose judgment you respect for recommendations.

For local white-box shops, check locally distributed computer tabloids, troll down your town's business district, check for ads in the business section of your local paper, and perhaps check the phone book's yellow pages. For national mail/web/phone-order white box vendors, look in your favorite computer magazines.

Granted, buying from a name-brand vendor isn't a guarantee of system quality or a happy service/support experience. On the other hand, the odds are that leading vendors like Dell, HP, and IBM; or resellers and stores like CDW, CompUSA, Micro Center, or PC Connection are not going away in any hurry. (Over time, sure, not all will survive. But they're unlikely to fold overnight—and for now, you know they're real, with sales and support reps you can talk to.)

Jason McKinney, a system administrator in the Silicon Rain Forest area, comments, "There's a lot of dodgy stuff out there, especially online... be careful about shopping at some place you don't have experience with." McKinney also cautions that it's important to understand the difference in retail versus OEM parts. "There's a certain amount of 'you get what you pay for.' When you buy a system from a local or mail-order shop, you don't usually get all the packaging or bundled software that you would if you bought the individual parts retail, and you typically get a reduced warranty. And there may be irregularities in the parts."

For component pricing and features, McKinney typically checks the online buyer guide at the Ars Technica site. "They give three tiers of price/performance comparison."

McKinney's general advice: "It's like auto mechanics—if you find a good computer store, hold onto them like grim death!"

Here are some basic questions to ask/issues to address:

  • What are their hours (sales, support)?

  • How long have they been in business?

  • What size is the operation: one small store? several? franchise? Are they independently owned and operated?

  • What kinds of customers do they tend to sell to (consumers, small office/home office, students, small businesses, gamers, hackers)?

  • Do they also sell name-brand systems, or just their own "house brand"? (For example, Micro Center has a house brand.)

  • How much information do they provide in terms of system components—vendor, model, tech info?

  • How useful is their web site? Spend some time following through not just a "try to buy" but also related links.

  • What's their reputation? For example, what do your friends think of them? Where do they advertise?

  • What are their policies for support, returns, warranties? What's free? If it's not a local shop, who pays shipping (to and from)?

  • Do they carry what you want? Windows versions, non–Windows OSes, AMD/Intel CPUs?

  • Do they carry any specific vendor/parts you want? If not, will they let you bring parts in?

  • What are their payment methods? Do you pay a deposit, or do they require full payment in advance?

  • For Windows systems, do you get original Microsoft disks?

  • How long do orders typically take? Remember, unless you're getting a prebuilt system with only minor changes, they need to build it and "burn in" to make sure the parts are all good. (Especially during back-to-school times)

  • What are their policies regarding customer-installed hardware upgrades? If you're planning to overclock or do other performance tweaks, does this activity impact their warranty and support?

If possible, go to the vendor and check out the "vibe." Do customers seem happy or unhappy? Do salespeople seem knowledgeable? Do they seem to be listening to customers, or pushing some things heavily? Consider trying their tech support—call and see how quick you get a human being. And check their web site out thoroughly.

Pricing It Out

I recommend starting by pricing your target system with Dell and perhaps IBM and another major online vendor or two as a baseline. Don't forget to include (use estimates, if necessary) tax and shipping, as well as support (1, 2, or 3 years). You might want to price out the components, as if you were going to build the system yourself, through some place like NewEgg.com.

Obviously, you'll want to figure out whether you're trying to "load it up" now with a high-end CPU and motherboard, lots of RAM; or go for a sweet-spot system; or stick with low end.

I urge you to talk with a sales rep, stress what you intend to use the system for, and be sure to confirm that all the parts you've selected work together. For example, if you're planning to use Linux, are drivers available (and will they install them)? Are sales folks on commission? If so, try to work with just one. (If you're doing anything at all radical or funky, however, you might see if you can get a second opinion from an additional sales rep.)

Once you've got a configuration and price, do another quick comparison run-through with Dell, just for a sanity check.

Reconfirm the return policy, including whether there are restocking fees.

When you place your order, be sure to get the full name and phone extension of any sales reps, and make sure that any special requests or concerns are noted in writing somewhere on your order.

TIP

Get/make a copy of your invoice!

Picking Up Your System

When you get your system—while in the store, if picking it up—power it up and check as much as you can immediately. If you're in the store, see if you can plug into a LAN.

Check for preinstalled software. Check for disks for any software you purchased. (Take a notebook to start recording ID numbers, and a box for disks, manuals, etc.)

CAUTION

Of course, you'll be installing software firewall and virus protection ASAP, and connecting the computer to a UPS and a hardware firewall/router.

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