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ATPM 9.01
January 2003



How To



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How To

by Sylvester Roque,

Buying a New Mac

As I write this article it is only a week away from Christmas. By the time you read it the yuletide season will have passed and I will probably have already broken one of my New Year’s resolutions. This year I know that the vision of a new iMac, PowerBook, or iPod dancing in my head will probably turn out to be a new sweater or pair of socks. Now, I am very thankful for the many blessings I already have, but Christmas always puts me in a computer-buying mood since I bought my first Apple II more Christmases ago than I care to remember.

I was also put in the computer-purchasing mood by the recent experiences of a Wintel-using coworker. She attended a computer conference recently and got her first good look at an iMac. She was impressed by the sleek, “cool” design and by the unmistakable feeling that it was easier to use than Windows. I bit my tongue and resisted the temptation to say, “See I told you so.” Whether you are a Windows user eyeing your first Mac or a Mac head whose presents did not include one of the shiny new toys dreamed up by Santa Steve and the elves at Cupertino, perhaps it’s time you bought your own.

Hold on a minute. Before you rush out and buy that spanking new Mac there are a few things you ought to think about. You have to decide which Mac to buy and where to buy it. There have probably been thousands of monitor screens worth of text written about how to choose the right Mac and much of it written by people more qualified than I am to write about such topics. I choose to focus these monitor screens of text on the question of where to buy a Mac.

By now you’re wondering why I chose this aspect of purchasing a new Mac. After all, “Aren’t there important decisions to be made about the amount of memory, size of the hard drive, and speed of the machine?” Well, these are important decisions but my idea is that if you find the right place to buy a Mac the vendor will help you find the right machine to buy. Find the right place to buy and their primary concern will be getting you in the right machine. The smart computer vendor knows that getting you in the right machine the first time increases the chance that you will be a repeat customer when it’s time to purchase accessories, supplies, or a replacement machine.

Over the years my wife and I have purchased an Apple II, two iBooks, a PowerBook, one desktop Mac, and two Windows machines from various outlets. These thoughts are simply a compilation of ideas based upon our experiences. Hopefully they will be of some use to you.

So, What Are My Options

As you look around for a place to purchase your new Mac the landscape seems to be dominated by retail outlets or mail order and Internet outlets. I have deliberately omitted auctions from this discussion because while these are not bad places to buy computer equipment I think they are best reserved for users with some knowledge about the systems they are interested in purchasing. I would like to begin by looking briefly at the advantages and disadvantages of both types of purchases before concluding with some thoughts that seem to be appropriate to both the retail and online and mail order distributors. Let’s begin with a look at retail outlets.

Advantages of Retail Outlets

The first Mac I ever had a hand in purchasing was purchased from a local computer store. There are some distinct advantages to this method of purchase. For some computer users, especially those new to computing or new to a platform, retail outlets offer some distinct advantages over other outlets.

For me, the best thing about buying a computer retail is the ability to “kick the tires,” so to speak. This is your opportunity to check out the feel of the keyboard, get a good look at the monitor, or mouse around a bit. Everyone seems to have different preferences for how these items should look and feel. This is your chance to find out what look and feel you prefer. These seem like minor points, but the minor irritations in these areas become major annoyances after several hours working at the computer. My wife, for example, has purchased two different keyboards for our Blue and White G3 attempting to duplicate the feel of the Apple Extended Keyboard that was available with the LC II. The same thing is true of monitors. While there are a number of quality monitors available for use with most Macs, the picture is not identical on each monitor nor is the feature set.

As part of the kicking the tires phase of the purchase process, retail outlets also give you a pretty good idea how much physical space the computer and monitor will occupy. Nothing could be worse than buying a 22" monitor only to discover that it does not fit comfortably into the space you have available.

Perhaps the best reason for using a retail outlet is establishing a rapport with someone who may be your first contact in the unlikely event that you need a repair. Some retail vendors offer free or reduced cost classes when you purchase a new machine. Given how easy it is to learn to use a Mac this may not be necessary, but it’s a nice option if you need it. If you’re lucky there will be an excellent dealer near you. If you are exceptionally lucky there will be an Apple retail store near you.

The second retailer that I went to was one of the best I have ever encountered. He had no problems with allowing us to “kick the tires.” Even though the salesman was a college student working for an academic outlet, he was perhaps one of the best computer salespeople I have ever met. He was also quite knowledgeable about Macs even though he himself was a PC user.

Finally, a local retailer may have an advantage when something needs to be returned. In the unlikely event that something you purchased turns out to be defective it may be more convenient to be able to return it to a local retailer than to pack it up and ship it to a mail order or Internet vendor.

Disadvantages of Retail Outlets

Apple has done a great deal in the last few years to make sure that any authorized Apple retailer that you encounter will provide a positive shopping experience. My first experience in such an outlet was not so positive. When I entered the store the sales person seemed to be determined to push my wife and I into purchasing a PC. Even after we expressed interest in several Mac models he seemed to be almost insist that we purchase a PC. This phenomenon is less common than it was, but if it happens to you run for the nearest exit.

Over the years I have discovered another potential disadvantage of the retail chain. Although most retail vendors work very hard to answer questions and provide customer support I have encountered dealers that for whatever reason were not very good in this aspect of computer sales. The same vendor who pushed us in the direction of a PC would answer questions if I asked them but not answer questions very well if my wife asked them. The primary difference seems to be that I was familiar with Macs and would let him resort to jargon. My wife, on the other hand, has a low tolerance for this behavior and insisted that he explain things in plain English. Once he tried to do this it became apparent that the salesperson neither understood nor liked Macs.

One of the problems that some retail vendors face is the size of their stock. While they generally keep at least one or two of the basic models in stock anything but the most basic modifications often requires a special order.

Perhaps there is no retail Mac outlet, good or bad, near you. You won’t be forced to purchase a PC by default—there are other options.

Advantages Mail Order and Internet Outlets

I have grouped these types of outlets together because many of the Internet vendors that are so popular right now are in reality mail order vendors with Web sites. If you are uncomfortable ordering over the Internet, a quick phone call will put you in touch with a real live sales representative.

One of the primary advantages of mail order outlets is the variety of Mac configurations from which to choose. Although they tend to have the same models as local vendors, the mail order and Internet venders tend to be larger and have more configuration options in stock.

Mail order and Internet vendors tend to offer several variations of each Mac model each having different levels of memory, bundled printers, or other perks. The sheer size of some of these venders means that they often have computer configurations, accessories, and supplies that all but the largest retail vendors have to order.

Mail order and Internet venders may also have an advantage when you arrive at the virtual checkout counter. The initial price of equipment may be somewhat lower than your local dealer. Even when the price is comparable you may save some money on sales taxes. Here in the United States mail order and Internet vendors may not be required to collect sales taxes. This is not true in all states and the laws are changing, so before you calculate those savings ask the sales representative whether sales tax will be collected on items shipped to your address. International readers should also check out taxation issues before finalizing the purchase. If you save some money by using a mail order or Internet vendor there are some potential tradeoffs.

Disadvantages of Mail Order and Internet Outlets

One of the disadvantages associated with using mail order and Internet vendors is that some of that “kick the tires” feeling is lost. You can’t type on the keyboard, look at the screen, or just mouse around to get the feel of things.

If you’re familiar enough with the feel of the hardware you are thinking about purchasing, this may not be a major issue for you.

Mail order and Internet vendors also present some interesting challenges because they generally rely on a third party to ship goods to you. Shipments may take anywhere from a day or two to a week or more depending upon which method of shipment you choose. Although overnight and two-day shipping options are offered for most software and equipment, this convenience comes at a price.

When comparing these vendors’ prices with retail prices be sure to include shipping costs.

Returning goods also presents interesting challenges for customers who opt to purchase from mail order venders. Usually you get exactly the goods that you ordered and they arrive in good working order, but sometimes things do go wrong. Most mail order and Internet vendors have reasonable return policies but you do need to know what these policies are before you make a purchase.

Now that we have looked at some of the advantages and disadvantages for both types of vendors, let’s look at some aspects of the buying process that I believe should be the same no matter where you purchase your Mac.

Time to Start Asking Questions

Now it’s time to look at some things that should be true no matter what type of vendor you choose. My approach is based on the philosophy that it is your money being spent so you should be in control of the buying process. If at any point you do not feel comfortable with the vendor you have chosen, stop the process until the issues are resolved or you find another vendor. The ideas presented below are not intended to be an exhaustive list and are not in any particular order. You may need to ask additional questions based upon your specific needs.

  • How reputable is the vendor you would like to use? Find out how long the vendor has been in business and what their reputation is for customer service and satisfaction. Check with friends, family, and other computer users etc. if necessary, to get as much information as you need.
  • If you choose a retail vendor, take the opportunity to try a Mac model or two out. This will also give you an opportunity to see just how fast the machine feels in the kinds of tasks you perform. It doesn’t matter how fast some Mac guru says the machine is doing graphics tasks if your primary tasks are word processing and spreadsheets. Most vendors don’t mind you doing this within reason.
  • What exactly are their purchase and return policies? Which items can be returned and under what circumstances? Some vendors apply a restocking fee to returned goods. Find out if this is the case with the vendor that you choose.
  • Consider purchasing the equipment with a major credit card. Most cards have a grace period. Balances paid off during this time generally do not incur interest charges. The card company may be able to assist you in the event there is dispute with the vendor.
  • Find out when your credit card will be charged. Most vendors do not charge your card until items have been shipped. Several years ago I lost money because I did not know about this. I ended up paying for a modem I never received. The vendor went out of business sometime between the time my card was charged and the time the back-ordered modem was to be shipped.
  • When talking to salespeople, take notes. During this process you may talk to several sales representatives. The only good way to keep track of promises they have made is to write them down.
  • Ask as many questions as you like. No matter how much of a novice you are with computers, sales representatives should be able to answer your questions in terms that you can understand. The sales person’s attitude should be that there is no such thing as a stupid question. It’s your money; you get to decide what is or is not a stupid question.
  • When calculating the price of the equipment and trying to decide which vendor provides the most value, be sure to calculate what I call the “door to door cost.” How much of your hard earned currency will it take to get the equipment from the vendor’s door to your door? Include such costs as taxes, shipping, etc.
  • If you choose a vendor that sells both Macs and PCs, don’t let that vendor talk you into buying a PC. It’s your money. Buy the platform that you want to buy rather than the platform the vendor wants to sell you.
  • If you have a friend, co-worker, relative etc. that is a Mac user, consider letting them help with the buying process. It’s always a good idea to have little help and friendly advice.
  • As a general rule, purchase as much memory and processor speed as you can reasonably afford. In the past, the same thing has been said about hard drives but the currently shipping models have more than enough space for most users.

• • •

This is certainly not everything to consider when deciding where to purchase a new Mac, but it should be a good start. Overall, Apple’s equipment is a better value than it has ever been and significant efforts have been made to assure that authorized vendors provide good service and support. With their continuing efforts and you establishing a good relationship with your vendor, you’re almost guaranteed to have a positive buying experience.

Also in This Series

Reader Comments (2)

anonymous · January 7, 2003 - 16:16 EST #1
Another significant cost factor is sales tax. Buying a $2,000 Mac from a store in Texas will increase the cost to $2,170. Buying it online from, e.g., a California vendor only adds about $50 shipping.
anonymous · February 10, 2003 - 18:16 EST #2
You don't address ordering from the Apple Store. For K-12 or higher education faculty, and sometimes students, you can rarely get a better deal.

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