I had a conversation with someone having computer issues, so he’s thinking about buying a new one. He went to my favorite store, but one thing he said got me thinking about questions to ask when buying a computer.
“I’m not convinced all the people there know what they’re talking about,” he said.
Fair enough. And that doesn’t matter when I’m doing the shopping, but not everyone is me. So here’s what you need to know if this isn’t what you do for a living.
I’ve been there
Long ago, in 1994, I was a young student who worked selling computers to pay for college. I don’t think that the specific store matters too much. When you’re a college student trying to find a job, you take a job at whatever store is hiring. And I won’t mince words. I was good. I knew it, my coworkers knew it, and my managers knew it. Some of my managers certainly didn’t like me personally, but when it came to figuring out what add-ons would work with the computer a customer already had, they knew they didn’t have anyone better. And I was good with the new computers too.
Here’s the thing. Customers may not know enough about computers to know how to check the accuracy of what any given salesperson is saying. So some people look for a salesperson who looks Asian, on the assumption that Asian people know more about technology. Some look for the youngest person in the room, for the same reason. And store managers, who know these things, regard young Asians as a gold mine.
Cut through the manipulation and the stereotypes. I know a fair number of IT professionals who spent time, usually while they were in college, selling computers at retail. The way you find competent help in a computer or electronics store is by finding that future IT professional.
Or, for that matter, the past IT professional. If there’s a 50-year-old in the department, it could be someone who’s working retail in between IT jobs.
Treat the computer buying experience like a mini job interview
I think a would-be buyer should be more interested in the person’s enthusiasm than in age or race. If the salesperson’s face lights up while talking about the machines, that’s a good sign. That’s a sign of someone who loves this stuff, and isn’t just selling computers because that’s the department that had a job openings. You want the salesperson who intends to have a career in the field, not the salesperson who was selling shoes a year ago and is going to be selling appliances next year. There’s nothing wrong with selling shoes or appliances, but you’re going to get better advice from the one who goes home and reads Slashdot than you will from the one who goes home and turns on Sportscenter.
Slashdot didn’t exist then, but I was the guy who went home and read PC World while my coworkers were going home and drinking beer and watching Sportscenter. And that was the reason I knew the difference between a 486slc and a 486S and a 486SX and a 486DX processor. Yeah, it was important. And no, most of my coworkers didn’t know the difference. But that’s an example of an important question from 1994 that won’t help you today.
What to look for in a computer changes from year to year, so I’m not going to tell you to look for something specific. My questions are designed to help you find competent help. The competent help will lead you to the right computer, no matter what year it happens to be.
Did you build your own computer?
Here’s a direct question you can ask: Did you build your own computer? It’s easier to take a computer out of a box than it is to build one out of parts, and it’s a relatively safe assumption that someone who cares enough to custom-build a computer from parts knows more than someone who just buys something ready-made. It’s almost like the difference between buying a car from a car salesperson or from a mechanic. Wouldn’t you rather buy a car from a mechanic, if you could?
Building your own computer isn’t always an option, and some stores don’t sell the parts to build your own anyway. But you’d be surprised how many of my coworkers built their own machines. The ones who built their own machines went on to careers in IT. So I consider it a good sign.
True story: Years after my days selling computers at retail were over, I interviewed for a senior-level IT job. We got to talking and it was really clear we’d met before, but we couldn’t place where. A couple of days later, it hit me. We’d sold computers together at retail 20 years earlier, and we were two of the guys who’d built our own machines. We both knew our stuff in the 90s, and we both know our stuff in the 2010s.
What kind of computer do you have?
People used to ask me this question a lot. They figured if I was confident enough in a particular model to buy it myself, that model, or at least that brand, probably would be OK for them too.
If I were going to ask that question, I’d be more interested in the person’s reaction than in the answer itself. For example, my boss at the time had a pretty junky computer, but he’d figured out how to get the most out of it, and he’d usually bring that up pretty quickly. Get him talking about that, and you could actually get really good advice out of him. Some of the people in my department would just say whatever brand they had and then try to direct you to the bundle special that was in the Sunday sales flier.
If you ask someone if they built their own computer and their answer is yes, you may not ever get to this question, and that’s OK.
How many computers do you have at home?
Here’s another question: How many computers do you have at home? A true enthusiast is likely to have more than one. Now, a 19-year-old probably can’t afford to have too many computers laying around, but if you find one who does, you’ve found someone who probably knows something. Because if you find a 19-year-old with 8 computers, I guarantee they aren’t all in working order. Six of them are in pieces, and the one who took 6 computers apart learned a few things when doing it. I know this because I was that 19-year-old.
What is Linux?
And here’s the longshot question that can serve as a tiebreaker: What is Linux? Pronounce it line-ucks and see if the salesperson corrects you. The traditional pronunciation in the United States is more like lynne-icks. The author pronounces it lee-nooks. Not every enthusiast has messed with Linux, but if you find someone selling computers who has, I guarantee that person won’t be selling washing machines next year. The one who’s going to be selling washing machines next year probably thinks it’s pronounced line-ucks.
The intent behind this question isn’t to get someone to change your opinion of Linux. You’re looking for someone knowledgeable enough to know what Linux is. This question is like the scene in the old movie Mr. Mom, when Michael Keaton comes into the dining room with a chainsaw and says he’s going to rewire it. Then his rival asks if he’s going to wire it 220. His answer, “220, 221, whatever it takes,” tells you Michael Keaton’s character didn’t know anything about electricity.
If the salesperson comes off as dishonest, leave
I wish I was better at gauging honesty, but given my recent track record with dentists and heating/cooling professionals, I’m questioning my abilities there. All I can say is that if you feel uncomfortable about a salesperson’s honesty, go elsewhere. Or if you think the salesperson seems to be a bad liar, keep asking questions. When I was selling computers, sometimes management told me to push things I didn’t want to push. I am a terrible liar, so a lot of customers saw through it. Some stayed with me and asked more questions. I’m glad they did.
The questions to ask when buying a computer at retail aren’t my way of telling you how to find a good computer. I’m telling you how to find competent help. The competent help will then steer you toward a good computer.