Buyer beware, Part II

In the rapidly changing PC world, unskilled and unwary buyers are at the mercy of the computer retailer's knowledge of the marketplace. A few unscrupulous dealers take advantage of the customer's ignorance to rake in unjustifiable and sometimes illegal profits. If you are a prospective buyer, some basic precautions can prevent your becoming a victim of the computer sharks.

In your battle for a good, well-priced PC, your greatest foe is ignorance. You don't have to become a PC expert to prevent rip-offs, although it helps a lot to have one on tap. In this article we show you how to avoid some of the more common scams.

A small number of shonky dealers are so disreputable that state and territorial governments list them as unfair traders. You can phone your state's consumer department to check whether a particular trader is in the list. Many dubious dealers aren't, and your first line of defence against them is to apply common sense to any claims you hear and see.

Deals that look too good to be true, usually are - and dishonesty need not be involved. A couple of years ago, one group ran full-page newspaper advertisements offering amazingly low prices on computer systems and went broke meeting demand. Some would-be customers lost their money. There is an average market price for computers, and you should be wary of dealers who quote prices far beneath it.

Before buying

Try to see a working example of the computer being offered. Ensure that it suits your needs, and that everything you see on the demonstration model will come with the one you buy. If any software is offered with the computer, make sure that it is legal software, accompanied by its original installation disks and any manuals or registration cards. All cables, manuals and driver software for the computer's components should also be supplied.

Overpricing, while not illegal, is one way less ethical retailers can cheat customers. A surprising number of people buy equipment from the first shop they visit. Sensing the appearance of this type of customer, some dealers take them for mugs and charge up to double the usual market price.

Avoiding overcharging is easy - just become aware of the real value of the goods. Read some advertisements for similar systems, and note their prices. Get written quotes from two or three shops. A few minutes spent on research - even over the phone - can save you hundreds of dollars.

Warranty service is another area in which many consumers lose out, often through no fault of the dealer. The computer industry is very volatile. Large, respectable companies can go bankrupt overnight, leaving their customers without warranty support. It's not safe to assume that your computer dealer will still be there to help you a year down the track. Mind you, if you have a well-configured system, this need not be a tragedy. Many users never need to call for warranty service at all.

Most dealers are able and willing to honour warranties, but if you want some extra security, find one who will provide a warranty underwritten by an independent service company. This will add a bit to the price of the system, but your coverage will no longer depend on the survival of just one company in a tough market.

Knowledge of computers is so vital to the PC buyer that getting independent advice is essential. If you have a friend or relative who is a computer whiz, ask for help - but don't get swept away into buying the system they wish they could afford!

Hiring an independent consultant who doesn't sell computers could be a worthwhile alternative if there are no nerds in your family or social group.

While buying

The PC market is one of the most diverse in the world. While most systems run some version of Microsoft Windows, the actual hardware from which they are built can be supplied by any of thousands of different manufacturers. Few computers are exactly alike.

The cash value of a computer depends on the exact mix of components. A PC with a high-performance display adapter is worth more than it would be with a less powerful one. When the adapter bears a major brand name, the price will be higher still. Generally, the cost of a computer should reflect the quality, performance and reliability of all its parts.

Getting a good deal involves making sure your new computer consists of the right parts at the right price. If you're not sure whether a V32XG9382 is any better than a 622C897P, consult your computer guru. Quite often, skilled PC users will be happy to help, because they find each such transaction educational.

It's critical to get the exact specification of your system's details, warranty and supplied software in writing before any money changes hands. You need a written quote including these deals, or a listing on the invoice. If system specifications change, the dealer is legally obliged to tell you about it. You are not obliged under these circumstances to pay extra for the change after the original deal has been struck, and there could be an excellent reason for the change. One such reason: the dealer elects to supply a new, later model of a particular component which offers more functionality (and in some cases, may even cost less). Make sure that the dealer explains the change in writing.

Your written specifications should include:- Processor brand, type and speed- Motherboard brand and model- Random access memory type and amount- Display adapter (graphics card) brand, model and memory- Hard drive brand, model- Monitor brand, model and size- Case type and power supply rating- Mouse, keyboard and speaker types- Details of any accessories such as printer, modem, or scanner- Operating system software type and version number- A complete list of any other software, including version numbers.

It's not always possible, but try to avoid paying large sums of money up front before a computer is delivered. You will be in a much better position to rectify any problems if you can check your system before handing over the money.

Where to go for help

ACCC: www.accc.gov.auACT: www.fairtrading.act.gov.auNSW: www.fairtrading.nsw.gov.auNT: www.nt.gov.au/dib/caftQLD: www.consumer.qld.gov.auSA: www.ocba.sa.gov.auTAS: www.justice.tas.gov.au/caVIC: www.consumer.vic.gov.auWA: www.fairtrading.wa.gov.au.

After buying

Now is the time to find whether you got what you paid for; some computer cheats rely on the buyer's lack of knowledge to supply cheaper and, in some cases, less capable parts than those specified. Paying a technician to look at your system is the best way to ensure that it is what it claims to be, but there are a few simple checks you can make in the shop before money changes hands, or later at home, to gain a rough indication of your system's true specifications.

When you switch on most computers, the very first line of text that appears at the top of the screen usually shows the manufacturer, model number and memory capacity of the display adapter. Write this down. After a few seconds, you will see a rapidly increasing number, usually followed by the message "KB OK". This is a count of the amount of random access memory in your system - when the number stops growing, write it down. Dividing it by a thousand will give you the approximate number of megabytes of RAM in the system. Don't worry if this number doesn't appear, as there are other ways to find it.

Next you see a table with various technical details of your computer. This will include items such as "CPU Type", "CPU clock", and "Pri.Master Disk". A typical computer might report "CPU Type: AMD Duron(TM), CPU Clock: 800MHz, Pri.Master Disk: LBA, ATA66, 20021MB". This example would correspond to a Duron running at 800MHz with a 20GB hard disk. There may also be a section called "Extended Memory", which will report the computer's RAM size (less 640KB, which is not all that much these days).

Note that some computer models don't display these figures, and there's a lot of information in the table. Keep your finger over the key until it arrives, then push it to make time for you to compare the information on your documents. When you have read what you need to see, pushing any key will resume your boot.

If the button doesn't work, you may have to shut down and restart the computer several times to catch them all. Of course, if the button won't work, something is wrong with the system.

After Windows loads, right-click on My Computer and select Properties. In the window that appears, under the heading General you will find listed the type of processor and the amount of system memory. This should confirm the information you already have.

Click on the tab or button labelled Device Manager (on some systems you will need to click on the Hardware tab first). Alter no settings in this section - just look. Click on the plus sign to the left of "Display adapters". The model number of your display adapter should appear. Check this against your documents, and repeat the process for "Modem", and "Sound, video and game controllers". This should yield your modem specifications and the model of your sound card. If there's a disparity between what your system reports and what your purchase documents show, note it in writing; possibly, your system has substitute parts.

These are only simple checks, which the more sophisticated tricksters can elude. The Device Manager can make mistakes, and the peculiarities of some systems can make the tests return misleading results. If you think you may have been ripped off, seek expert advice before coming to any conclusions. Only an experienced person can be certain about a computer's specifications.

Taking action

When you are confident something is wrong, the first step is to contact the dealer promptly and state your problem. Don't put this off until later. Keep a written record of this and any further communications with the dealer, including their time, date and topics. If your complaint is serious, deliver it in writing and keep a copy. Most dealers are honest and rectify all mistakes brought to their attention, but if you strike a bad one, having a written record will help you.

When the retailer refuses to resolve the problem within a reasonable time, you have a legal right to receive the goods for which you have paid.

Reasonable time has two parts: if the dealer won't respond to your statement of the problem promptly, this is not reasonable. If the dealer will not fix the problem within a very few days, this also is not reasonable: get a commitment for the length of time he will need to supply the fix before you surrender your machine. More than a week is seldom reasonable.

When direct dealing fails, contact your state or territory's consumer affairs department. The government officials will want to see the contract between you and the dealer and will want evidence that you have tried in good faith, and preferably in writing, to straighten out the problem with the dealer before they will involve themselves. This is where the dealer's written specifications of your computer come in handy - they form the basis of a contract which can be legally enforced.

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Aldis Ozols

PC World
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