Computer Buying Tips

Computers sold by the major manufacturers and retail outlets may be less expensive, and in some cases downright cheap to the point of being a loss-leader item; but what you buy may not necessarily be what you need, want, or were expecting to get.

Major manufacturers often use specialized components or do not provide installation media for the bundled software:

  • Proprietary cases only their motherboards will fit into properly.
  • Proprietary parts, such as motherboards, CPU coolers and power supplies, which can make it difficult or expensive to find replacement parts.
  • Customized restore media or "recovery" system on the hard drive only; no installation media.

When something goes wrong and a part needs to be replaced, you can end up paying more than what the computer is worth just to get it up and running again. A couple of examples:

  • Replacement Hewlett Packard motherboards direct from HP can cost as much as $200-250 or more; when standard off-the-shelf ones start at under $100.
  • Replacement power supplies and cooling fans, especially for small form-factor cases, can cost as much as 10 times that of a comparable standard part that would fit into any standard system.
  • If the hard drive fails and your computer did not come with a "full" recovery set or actual installation media (and you didn't burn your own when the computer was new), may have to buy another copy of Windows and the preinstalled software.

You can either play it safe and buy replacement parts for these systems from authorized sources, such as direct from the manufacturer; or take a chance on an unknown eBay seller or other vendor and try to save a few bucks.

You have to look beyond the low price tag to see what you're really getting. Short warranties (as little as 90 days!), limited expandability, outsourced overseas-based technical support, and no Windows install media to do your own custom installation are all common features of the lowest-priced systems from the major manufacturers.

Some low prices are "after rebate", and some of the rebate schemes can get pretty complex. Rebates can take months to get back, and in some cases you really have to fight with the rebate company to get your money back.

Preloaded Software

Computer systems from major manufacturers (and some smaller ones, too) are loaded down with a lot of unwanted preinstalled software. This junk generally comes with the system whether you want it or not. It can take hours to clean up one of these systems to get Windows set up the way you want it.

Why is all this junk there in the first place? The major manufacturers get paid to put it there. Surprised? Don’t be. Do you think they'd take the time to put that junk on a computer if they weren't getting paid to do it? Those distribution deals are one reason why they can seemingly sell computers for much less than others can.

When computers come with customized restore media instead of a real Windows install CD/DVD, it can be impossible to reinstall a "clean" copy of Windows, because all that pre-installed junk is included in the restore image.

Unauthorized Resellers

Be wary of companies, especially smaller retail stores and folks working out of their home or garage, who claim that they are an "authorized" reseller (or similar) of some major computer manufacturers.

For instance, there's no such thing as a "Dell Authorized Reseller". Dell resellers have very specific requirements and limitations to follow, and that includes not referring to themselves as "authorized", not reselling to specific market segments (including the end-user, or consumer market), and not reselling or displaying Dell product in a retail or auction environment. Regular Dell resellers are VARs, and add something of "value" to the equipment before being resold, such as a specialized software developer selling systems with their own software preinstalled. VARs then support the system together with their software.

Purchasing a "name brand" system from someone other than the original manufacturer or truly authorized reseller may limit your support and warranty fulfillment options should you need help or something go wrong with the hardware. For example, for computers originally purchased from Dell directly, Dell will only support or provide warranty service to the owner-of-record that they have on file. If you are not the owner-of-record, you have to jump through a few hoops and have an owner transfer submitted before they'll even talk to you.

There are a select few large retailers, such as Walmart, that resell Dell computers under different terms than that of the typical "Dell reseller", but no smaller retail stores or 'mom & pop shops' have such terms and must follow the reseller policies posted on Dell's web site which includes the limitations above, including: no retail or auction sales, very limited use of Dell's logos or trademarks, no sales to consumer market, cannot claim to be 'Dell authorized' or similar, etc.

If you want to buy a Dell computer, the best place to purchase it from is from Dell directly. Don't know where to start? We can Help! including pre-sales consultation, purchase assistance, data transfer from your old computer, and initial setup of your new system, all at our regular low service rates.

Is it Legal?

There are many local businesses and private individuals selling systems, both new and used, with illegally licensed copies of Microsoft Windows, Office, and other software.

In addition, many sellers posting on our local Craigslist sites sell new and used computers preloaded with pirated copies of Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop and other expensive software.

Please use caution when buying from private or unknown sellers and insist upon legally licensed software.

OEM (also referred to as "DSP") licenses of Microsoft software, for instance, are not transferable and are only valid on the original system it was sold with. OEM licensed Microsoft software cannot be installed on or resold with any other system or resold separately, even if the original system "dies".

According to Microsoft's licensing rules, you cannot even upgrade (to support newer, different or faster technologies) a motherboard in a system that includes OEM licensed software because the "upgraded" system is considered, for licensing purposes, to be a "new" system, and the original OEM licenses would no longer be valid for it. If an OEM system's motherboard dies, the motherboard must be replaced with the manufacturer's replacement or one comparable to it, only, in order to retain rights under the original OEM software licenses.

All used systems sold today with Windows preinstalled should have the original OEM COA sticker affixed to the case. This is true of every OEM Windows Me, Windows XP, Windows Vista or Windows 7 system, nearly all Windows 2000 systems, all Windows Server systems 2003 and newer (and most Server 2000 ones), and the more recent (relatively speaking) Windows 98se systems. Earlier Windows 98 and all Windows 95 systems included a larger COA affixed to the front cover of the original manual instead.

Some large (only high volume ones qualify) computer refurbishers have an agreement with Microsoft for "refurbisher" licenses of Windows. These special licenses are solely for use and sale by Microsoft Authorized Refurbishers (MARs) when bundled with eligible systems. These also have COA stickers which are affixed to the case next to the original COA sticker. MAR licenses require the original COA to be valid.

Why would virtually all used systems have this COA sticker or certificate? Because it is rather cost-prohibitive to include a new legally licensed retail copy of Microsoft software with an inexpensive used computer, so the ones being sold are most likely systems that originally came with Windows preinstalled, and as such, should have the original COA included with it. Further, with COA stickers being used now for more than a decade, the chances of a functional older system, not having one is very small -- those very old systems that predate the use of COA stickers have mostly been taken out of service, been junked, thrown away, or recycled.

If the seller does not provide at least the original COA, along with available installation media and manual, they are likely selling a copy of Windows they have no right to sell, and you would have no right to use if you purchased it.

If a used system does not include a genuine COA for the installed Windows, then it must include a FPP copy of Windows, you should receive the original manual, installation media, and original sleeve, case, or folder that contains the original product key sticker. OEM and FPP are the only ways regular consumers like you can get full licenses of Windows.

Microsoft Office is similarly licensed, except there is no COA sticker; you would instead receive a separate COA, usually affixed to the sleeve or jewel case the installation media originally came in. Retail copies of Office include the original product key sticker on the case the original media and booklet were packaged in.

If you have illegally licensed Microsoft software, it may cease to fully function, and you will not be able to download updates or other optional software components from Microsoft's web site. In order to maintain a safe and secure Windows computer, it is crucial that your Microsoft software be "genuine", legally licensed software.

Digital download copies of software are, more often than not, not transferable. Please read your purchase and/or license agreements very carefully before purchasing such software if you ever expect that you might one day want to sell it.

If you suspect someone of selling systems with illegal copies of Microsoft Windows, Office or other software, or would like more information on how to tell if what you are about to buy is genuine, legally licensed software, please refer to Microsoft's web site.

New Computers Without Windows

Don’t want Windows? No problem here! But the major manufacturers pretty much require you to buy your new system with Windows (and all that other junk) preinstalled. They get super-low prices from Microsoft for Windows when they sell computers exclusively with Windows on them. And if there was no Windows on a new computer, they wouldn’t get paid to put all that other junk on there either.

Some larger manufacturers, such as Dell, do offer a limited selection of models without Windows, or even with Linux installed on them instead. You have to really look to find these models and may have to compromise on upgrade options. You can get a computer from Dell without Windows, but you may actually pay more for it than for a comparable system with Windows; partly due to all that junk that comes with Windows, and also because of the massive volume of Windows computers they sell compared to the very small number of non-Windows ones.

Talk to us if you're interested in a new computer system without Windows, or with an alternative operating system, such as Ubuntu Linux, preinstalled instead.