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THE CUTTING EDGE: CONSUMER’S COMPUTER GUIDE : Now, Why Was It He Needed That New PC? : Computers: Writer finds that even ‘experts’ offered him contradictory advice on what to buy.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

I began the ordeal of buying a personal computer a few months ago. Now I have a PC for which I spent twice as much as I’d planned. I’m engaged in a continuing battle with Dell Computers to send me software that was promised and still has not arrived.

Buying a PC is like buying a car, except worse because you don’t even get the pleasure of a test drive. Instead you spend hours memorizing acronyms for things you don’t have a clue about--and you still can’t get the computer to do what you want.

Naturally I began my quest by asking advice. I have many friends and acquaintances who are very knowledgeable about computers, including computer technicians at The Times, a biotech software expert, the owner of a small computer software company, the head of a large company whose business is leasing PCs, as well as the tech editor who is editing this story.

I thank all these people for their time and patience. Their recommendations, roughly in order, were:

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* Buy mail-order (and buy from Zeos).

* Don’t buy mail-order (and certainly not from Zeos).

* Spend as much as you can possibly afford to get the latest stuff.

* Spend as little as you can on 3-year-old technology because it’s tested and will meet most of your needs.

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* Buy now because there are a lot of manufacturers driving the price down.

* Buy after the Christmas season when price-cutting will really drive prices down.

* Buy the cheapest clone you can find.

* Buy a brand name so that you have a company you can complain to.

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* Buy a Mac because they’re easier to use.

* Don’t buy a Mac because Apple might go out of business.

* Get Windows 95.

* Don’t get Windows 95.

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Having clarified my thinking by talking with my friends, I then clarified my thinking some more by reading various computer magazines, like PC World and PC Shopper.

You know you have a problem when you are buying magazines that you can’t possibly understand.

I began going to stores and calling mail-order businesses and trying to remember why I was getting a new computer. My 10-year-old AT&T; machine actually did word processing just fine, though the space bar and the letter G were sticking. But my kids wanted to play the latest games and I wanted to play chess on the Internet.

In the end, I decided to get a multimedia IBM-compatible with a fast modem and Windows 95. I first visited several nearby retailers, including Office Depot, Adray’s and Circuit City. These companies must sell a lot of computers because they all have large sections of the store devoted to computers. But despite repeated visits, I never found anyone who seemed to know much about computers.

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And the bargains they advertised rarely held up to scrutiny. The systems were underpowered or had slow modems or inadequate memory or no monitors or software packages that I’d never use anyway.

Then I found out that my employer had negotiated with the companies that we procure computers from and that these companies had graciously agreed to give Times employees the same “corporate” discount the company gets. But when I checked with several of these suppliers, it appeared that “corporate” rates are higher than retail.

So I tried a serious computer retailer, fast-growing Computer City. There I decided to get a Compaq until I realized that Windows 95 wasn’t pre-installed.

I decided to buy an H-P, built by a terrific company trying to get into the consumer PC business in a major way. None were in stock, though Computer City offered me a rain check and said they might be able to get me on the list for next month. What they really wanted to sell me was a designer PC in a sleek black box with nice curves made by Acer.

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Where would these computers be serviced if there were problems? Answer: Go to the manufacturer.

This led me to my final doom. What’s the point of buying at a retail store if you have to deal with the manufacturer over the phone anyway?

After calling several mail-order places, I bought from Dell, primarily because PC World prints a list of the best values and Dell was at the top. I spent more than I intended, but Dell put together a computer for me that included everything I wanted and they threw in a package of Norton Utilities.

The computer came. I spent a couple of hours setting it up and, lo and behold, it lacked the promised Norton Utilities. At this point, I discovered that Dell was pleasant to deal with until you send your money. After that, you’re sent to prerecorded phone message hell. (And Dell wins awards in the mail-order business for its service; what must other companies be like?)

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After numerous tries I reached a manager who said that of course they would honor their bargain. Just pack the computer up, send it back and they’d return the computer in four to six weeks with the proper software loaded.

Plenty of Dell customers were in my position, the executive reassured me.

After weeks of argument and delay, the company agreed to send me the software. I’m still waiting.

In the meantime, my nifty new H-P color printer doesn’t work right because it didn’t come with the appropriate driver for Windows 95.

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Also, the PC won’t play the game “Under a Killing Moon,” which is what my kids wanted it for. And I can’t seem to get signed on to the Internet.

Why was it that I needed a new computer?

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Basics of Computer Buying

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* Think hard about whether you really need a computer and what exactly you intend to do with it. Running games and educational and publishing programs requires an elaborate multimedia system, for example, while word processing can be done with something cheaper.

* Do some research. Talk to friends and flip through computer magazines.

* Consider the choice between an Apple Macintosh and the more common Windows machines--sometimes referred to as IBM compatibles--which use processors from Intel and software from Microsoft. In general, the Mac is easier to use, but both its hardware and software are somewhat more expensive. Compatibility with what you or your family uses at the office or at school can be important.

* When comparing systems, the main variables are the type and speed of the microprocessor, the capacity of the hard disk, the amount of RAM memory, the speed of the modem and CD-ROM drive, the quality of the monitor, and the type of sound and video accessories.

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* Most IBM compatibles use Intel Pentium chips; the higher the “clock speed” (measured in megahertz), the faster and more expensive the chip.

* A middle-of-the-road multimedia system might include a 75-Mhz Pentium, eight megabytes of RAM, an 850-megabyte hard disk drive, a quad-speed CD-ROM drive, a 14.4-bps modem, a 14-inch SVGA monitor, Windows 95 software and a sound card, all for about $2,000.

* Shop around. Get written quotes and be sure they include essentials such as the monitor and keyboard. Make sure the store has the machine you want in stock, and don’t be afraid to haggle.

* Ask about warranties and service policies--they vary significantly among stores and manufacturers.

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