Questions to ask when buying computers at retail

I had a good conversation with Dr. A, one of my doctors–I have too many doctors, but we’re working on that–recently. He’s having computer issues, so he’s thinking about buying a new one. I’m not entirely convinced, based on what I know, that he needs a new one yet, especially since what he has is comparable to what I’m planning to build myself in the next month or two. But we’ll cover that topic in another day or two. He said he went to Micro Center. I said that’s one of my favorite stores.

“But I’m not convinced all the people there know what they’re talking about,” he said.

True 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.

Long ago, in 1994, I was a young student who worked selling computers to pay for college. I worked somewhere other than Micro Center, but 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.

But 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 guy who goes home and reads Slashdot than you will from the guy 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.

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 salesman or from a mechanic. Wouldn’t you rather buy a car from a mechanic, if you could?

Here are two more questions: 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 guy who took 6 computers apart learned a few things when doing it. I know this because I was that 19-year-old.

And here’s the longshot question that can serve as a tiebreaker: Have you ever messed around with 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.

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.

3 thoughts on “Questions to ask when buying computers at retail

  • August 1, 2011 at 8:59 pm
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    🙂 I’d agree with most of what you said – except the line-ucks bit.

    I call it line-ucks; while not a geek, I do have a laptop running ubuntu, tried out jolicloud, and occasionally pull out the Knoppix live-cd to fix issues…

  • August 2, 2011 at 11:22 am
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    Here is how Linus Torvalds pronounces Linux.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5IfHm6R5le0
    I first heard him pronouncing Linux back in 1998 when I installed Redhat 5.1 on a PC with a soundblaster card. You had sound when you heard Linus.
    Now a days, one doesn’t have to worry with permissions and fight for sound because everything is usually compatible.
    Thank God for Linus Torvalds and Linux.

  • August 3, 2011 at 4:32 pm
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    I rolled up nose when hearing the Swedish version of Linux and continued to use my own pronunciation which has grown to be Torvalds’ preference as well and it’s been that way since the 2006/7 era as ascertained from here: Pronunciation Of ‘Linux’.

    Of course it all varies by region and ‘official’ pronunciations the root cause of much debate and religious geek war to such point that whenever I’m asked they get the top three responses from which they may choose their own personal preference.

    This is usually satisfactory in establishing geek cred enough to lead the mark to product that needs moving and up sell from there. A good salesman knows the lingo too and will make the customer feel good about their buying decisions no matter in the course of separating them from their money. This is the bottom line and those who under perform get transferred to washers and dryers if lucky sans openings available behind the tech counter where upon in their uber geekdom will be chained to the bench removing malware and pushing copies of Norton 360 all day.

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