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[ The PC Guide | The PC Buyer's Guide | Understanding PC Sources, Vendors and Prices | Sources For PC Systems and Components | Online, Catalog and Mail Order Sources ]

Direct Channel PC Manufacturers

The first online source we will look at it is the so-called direct channel. This term describes companies that make their own PCs and sell them direct to the public: at first they used magazine ads and catalogs, and now have added the Internet. They are PC makers who also have full sales, marketing and service departments; they are not just online vendors of pre-packaged PCs and other manufacturers' goods. Three of the better-known names in this department are Dell, Gateway and Micron PC (other Micron companies do many different things!)

These companies have a lot to offer the potential PC buyer. Their machines are typically in the configure-to-order class: they use mostly standard components, but only a limited selection of components is available to the purchaser. The systems can in some ways be thought of as a "cross" between what you'd buy at a local PC shop, and a pre-packaged retail PC.

Here are the advantages of these companies:

  • Very Good Prices and Selection, No Sales Tax, "Shop At Home" Convenience: See the general discussion of online and mail order sources for details. These companies offer some of the best values in PCs because of their high volume and low overhead. They usually have a wide selection of models. They usually charge no sales tax, but that is changing as many of the bigger companies establish a presence in many different states (especially companies like Gateway, which is opening showrooms nationwide).
  • Good to Very Good Quality Systems: Most of the systems sold by the better companies are amongst the best-made PCs on the market. They are usually of very good quality, and generally use good quality components. Low-end systems may be subject to some corner-cutting, however.
  • Some Choice of Components and Configurations: You have the ability to choose some of the components, and can configure the system to suit your needs. Your ability to do this is less than with a local PC shop, but much more than with a pre-packaged PC. Sometimes the company has an exclusive deal with one manufacturer of a particular component type, so for example, you might be forced to choose from only one manufacturer's hard disk models. Sometimes you will be able to delete items that you don't need from their standard configurations, to save money.
  • Moderately Expandable and Upgradeable Systems: These PCs are made primarily from standard components (though some use proprietary designs). They are typically more expandable and upgradeable than pre-packaged retail PCs.
  • Reasonably Clueful Salespeople: The people who configure and sell these systems know more about computers than the people at most retail stores.
  • Technical Support: Most better companies offer technical support 24 hours a day to help with problems (though their ability to help seems to vary greatly...)

The disadvantages of these companies include:

  • Shipping Costs, Order Tracking Hassles, No Personalized Shopping, Delays and No "Instant Gratification", More Difficult Returns, Potential Service Hassles: See the general discussion of online and mail order sources for details. Shipping costs for whole PCs can exceed $100. Most better companies have good order processing systems today, but problems still occur. Delays can be significant on custom-configured PCs; especially during periods of high demand, delays measuring in weeks are common. Some direct-market companies now have "storefronts", allowing you to shop in person; see below.
  • Communications Difficulties: These larger companies can at times be difficult to communicate with--extensive phone menus, long waits on hold, and delays in responding to email are common.

There are many of these companies around, and it can be difficult to decide which one to choose. Check out the section describing factors for selecting a vendor, but also keep in mind the following when buying from one of these companies:

  • Get Updated Prices: Always call for the latest prices. Magazine ads are out of date before they are even printed, and even web site listings often aren't updated frequently enough.
  • Buy From Reputable Companies: The larger companies usually (but not always) become large for a good reason.
  • Talk To A Human: Even if the company prefers that you order online, you will usually be better off ordering on the phone. You can ask questions, and may be able to custom-configure a system beyond the limited options offered by the company's web-based configurator. Occasionally you can even get them to move a bit on price.
  • Get The Order In Writing: Get the salesperson to send you a detailed order sheet that lists exactly what you have ordered and when it will be ready.

As I've mentioned before, Gateway has blurred the line between mail-order and retail by opening their "Gateway Country Stores". These appear at first glance to be full retail operations, but they really aren't: they are just showrooms. When you go to buy the machine, the employees basically order it for you using the Web or by calling an 800 number! The PC is still manufactured at the factory and shipped to you directly, and the people at the store provide no support or service--so don't consider these to be local PC stores by any means. The advantage of this sort of store is that you get to see and use the hardware before you buy. The disadvantage is that you may be paying for this in the cost of the product. You also face the possible "double whammy" of both sales tax and shipping charges, because these stores establish a "presence" in the state where they are located and that can make you "eligible" for direct sales tax charges on that manufacturers' products, regardless of where their head office is. (Again, some states require you to pay sales tax on items purchased out of state anyway, and some have no sales tax at all, so this may not matter to you at all.)

Next: Large Online, Catalog and Mail Order Vendors

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