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SHOP TALK : Now Could Be Right Time to Buy Computer : It's a buyer's market. Competition among manufacturers is fierce and the price range between major brands has narrowed.


Last month Comp USA, one of the leading computer chains, opened a store at Oxnard's Rose Avenue shopping center. It didn't get the attention Walmart got when it opened there, but the computer store's arrival sure seemed to please local computer folks.

Not that the store's presence makes it any more palatable to plunk down a couple thousand dollars on something you can't drive or live in. It just provides more from which to choose.

This might be a good sign for those of you computer illiterates out there who have been waiting for just the right time to take that plunge into the computer world. Not only is there more selection locally, but the computer market in general is in good shape.

"It's a great time to buy computers," said Jerry Reiter, a salesman and technician at Computer Village in Ventura. "The industry has probably doubled over the last six months to a year."

Reiter said prices between rival computer makers, such as Macintosh and IBM, are far more competitive than they once were. Macs used to be substantially more expensive than IBMs. Also IBMs are closer in price to their clones than they ever have been.

Now, before you go running off on your high-tech journey, we thought we'd give you some basic shopping tips, without getting too technical.

Computer shopping is no easy task. You probably figured that one out yourself. Like buying a car, a house and other investment items, purchasing a computer is not to be rushed into. First, sit down and figure out a few things before shopping around.

"What are your computing needs? Define your short-range and long-range needs," said Bob Barbabella, owner of Data Connections in Simi Valley. "Then determine what computer is going to meet those needs. A lot of people have no idea and they are going to want to find a computer store where the people are knowledgeable and will take the time to help them."

We took Barbabella's advice and checked out a few shops. Generally everyone was friendly enough. People at the Good Guys, Circuit City, and Comp USA were all willing to help and to answer questions they must have heard a thousand times.

One thing that concerned us, however, was that we asked the same technical questions of different salespeople and got different answers. People tended to be more knowledgeable about computers at stores that specialize in computers. If you're a first-time buyer that can be critical.

Sometimes things aren't what they seem. And sometimes it's hard to tell what things seem to be anyway.

"You've got to know what you're buying. Know what's inside the box," said Barbabella. "If there's no name on a car and you can't look under the hood, you wouldn't buy it. But people do that all the time when dealing with a computer. We tell people you don't want to be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Rarely, rarely, rarely is the lowest buy the best deal."

Part of the decision process is determining which computer system to go with: IBM (or versions of it) or Macintosh. Reiter has a simple answer for people who ask.

"I ask them what they're going to be using the computer for. If this is their first time with a computer and they have no knowledge, I recommend Mac. If they have knowledge and they are going to be using it in business, I recommend IBM. I wouldn't let someone sell you on a monstrous machine if all you're going to do is write letters."

In addition to the overwhelming choices out there, computer technology is changing so rapidly that the machine that is "in" today may be old stuff tomorrow--or sooner. There's that fear--for first-time buyers in particular--that by the time you learn how to use the equipment you're about to purchase, it already will be obsolete.

"I could sell you something and a half-hour later something new is on the market. It's no different with cars or TVs," said Reiter. "I recommend people buy a higher-end computer over a lower-end computer because they might not outgrow it as quickly."

Not that the older versions won't work. Many older computers can handle the faster software available today. But there are many that can't. Barbabella said it is important to find a machine that can be upgraded if necessary.

When you feel like you're ready to hit the stores, grab a few local publications and check out the computer ads. At some point--probably sooner than later--you'll have to balance your computer needs with how much you can afford to spend.

Just about everything is on sale somewhere these days and many older computer systems have dropped in price. These ads are nice to have in hand when you visit stores, because many local shops, Comp USA and the Good Guys among them, will often offer to match advertised prices.

A final word of advice: You will probably want to consider shopping at a store where assistance by phone or in person is available, should something go wrong with your machine. It's nice to know you can get help when necessary.

Leo Smith is a regular contributor to Ventura County Life. Write to him at 5200 Valentine Road, Suite 140, Ventura, 93003 or send faxes to 658-5576.

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