Don’t Get Burned by a Small Fry

HP, Dell, Gateway and the other handful of brand-name manufacturers have the PC market all but locked up, and their vast buying power makes their wares tough to beat—on price, at least. But if you would prefer a more hands-on, service-oriented approach to your PC and server purchasing, there are literally thousands of independent options, and likely one right in your town or neighborhood.

Locally built PCs (often referred to as “white boxes,” because of the unbranded, generic beige cases available back at the dawn of the PC era) account for about 15 percent of the 60 million PCs sold each year. A white box machine will likely cost you about 10 percent more up front. On the plus side, it comes with a level of personal service and local support the behemoths can’t match—as long as you buy from a reputable dealer. Here are five things you can do to make sure you don’t get burned.

1. Check the Certifications
Intel, AMD and Microsoft have partner membership or certification programs for PC OEMs. While membership is largely based on a maker’s purchasing volume (which in itself is a vetting process, since a disreputable dealer probably wouldn’t reach the sales threshold), there are other criteria that help separate the wheat from the chaff.

For example, in order to qualify for the Intel Premier Channel Partner Program logo, a maker has to complete at least two Intel training courses and attend two face-to-face partner-training events per year. In addition, two employees at the shop must hold at least two recognized IT industry certifications each. Similarly, the AMD Solution Provider Program delivers online training to PC OEMs. 

In addition, local PC makers can have their machines tested and certified by Microsoft’s Windows Hardware Quality Lab (WHQL), which indicates a machine is built and configured properly for Windows. Microsoft also offers its Microsoft Partner Program, with a predefined set of training and tests for dealers to develop core competencies. A PC maker can be certified in the OEM competency, or specifically as a small business specialist. Microsoft also sponsors the Web site, which provides links to reputable local builders, as well as coupons and offers (such as free hardware by mail with a purchase of a Microsoft product from a qualified dealer).

2. Get the Discs and Docs
Before you purchase a PC from a local dealer, make sure it will come with the original Windows installation discs and manuals. If it doesn’t, you could be getting an unauthorized copy of Windows, which is a big red flag.

“It is mandatory that a customer gets the original CDs, recognizable by the edge-to-edge hologram, the sticker code and the manuals,” advises John Ball, general manager of the U.S. System Builders Group at Microsoft. “If you’re not getting that, go somewhere else.”

Winding up with a bootleg copy of Windows is not just a matter of a dealer pocketing a few extra bucks at your expense; it could leave you in the lurch down the road. If you need support or updates from Microsoft, or need to reinstall the operating system, the unauthorized copy will leave you dead in the water.

Also ask about the driver discs and documentation for the components that go into your PC. True, if something goes terribly wrong you are likely to return the PC for repair, but having the manuals and drivers could help you help yourself if you are reasonably IT savvy.  

3. Know What’s Inside and Know the Warranty
Also be sure the dealer is forthcoming about the exact components that will be in your system, and who will warrant them—the builder or the part maker.

“This is especially important for the motherboard and processor, as they are the most expensive components in system,” advises Jerome Fiordaliso, president of Marlton Computer Services in Marlton, New Jersey. His company makes 50 to 60 PCs a month for local businesses as well as for gaming enthusiasts.

Many dealers will handle a defective part replacement themselves during the warranty period, but other OEMs will point you to the manufacturer of the part once a PC leaves their shop, which isn’t ideal.

4. Are They Listening?
When you talk to your potential new PC dealer, be sure that he or she is genuinely listening to your needs and concerns, and not just steering you toward what’s on hand. “It’s about communication,” notes Fiordaliso. “You may need specialized programs installed, so it’s not just some cookie-cutter box.”

If you do need a PC for a particular industry, such as a doctor’s or lawyer’s office or point-of-sale retail PC, be sure the dealer has had experience tailoring a system for those applications. Otherwise, you could wind up with an underpowered system or end up paying for horsepower you’ll never use.

5. Ask Colleagues, Neighbors—and the BBB
Finally, there’s no substitute for good old-fashioned legwork. Make sure to check if the dealer is a member of the local Better Business Bureau, and check to see if there are complaints lodged against the business. Be sure to ask other business owners for a dealer they have dealt with and would recommend—or whom they would avoid.

Finding a white-box maker you can trust can lead to a fruitful relationship on both sides. They gain a customer, and you gain a partner who could save you countless time on hold with one of the larger PC makers.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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