Advice for Cambridge Computer Shoppers

Besides the inevitable new school year purchases of books and clothing, September represents one of the best times to look into getting a computer or improving the one you have.

The past year has seen vast improvements in computing power, and at the same time, prices are falling. This summer, Intel cut the price of its Pentium II processor by 57 percent. There is no time like the present to get yourself a solid system that can last you a while.

However, before rushing off to buy a computer, you should ask yourself what you plan to do with it. If you know you only want it to write papers, there is no need to get the latest machine with quadprocessors, split subspace differential beams and a dilithium crystal-based high-definition monitor.

At the same time, you do want a system that will perform well on the Harvard network and the Internet and last you more than six months.

Cambridge offers three primary types of computer shopping options for Harvard students: the University's own Technology Product Center (TPC), national retailers and local manufacturers.

TPC is the official Harvard computer dealer and offers educational pricing on certain Macintosh and IBM-compatible systems as well as software and accessories. Its campus location, a block away from Memorial Hall, makes it the closest stop on your computer shopping trip.

If you need to get an Ethernet card to connect to the Harvard network, TPC is your best choice because it carries all the supported cards and is close by.

However, because TPC offers educational pricing, its system selection is limited to only a few models, and its PC Prices tend to be relatively high. The deals on Macintoshes are better.

The price, though, buys you a nice warranty that offers on-site or drop-in service.

TPC is located at 1730 Cambridge St., (617) 495-5450. Its Web site is www.uis.harvard.edu/tpc.

If you know you are a computer geek or just want more selection and power, head down the river to the area's major retailer: MicroCenter.

A five-minute, $5 cab ride away, MicroCenter is a computer superstore with everything you need to get an impressive system. It offers unparalleled choices for both hardware and software, and boasts a large selection of computer books that can help you use all the cool things you'll want to buy.

One tip: you can often drive a better bargain by haggling with the sales clerks, and don't forget to ask for returned or demo models, which can save you 10 or 20 percent off the retail price.

MicroCenter is located at 727 Memorial Dr. at the corner of Magazine St., (617) 234-6400. If you're up to it, you can walk down Memorial Drive toward MIT and get there in about 15 minutes, or you can swing by www.microcenter.com.

If you want a wider selection of notebook computers, drop by Laptop Superstore. It carries a massive selection of machines all by top manufacturers, and all its systems come with a unique five-year worldwide warranty at no extra charge.

Laptop Superstore also has a "bargain basement" in the same location-a good place to look if you want an inexpensive used or discontinued portable computer to compliment your desktop.

Its closest store is at 1776 Mass. Ave., near Porter Sq., (617) 491-3454. Its Web site is www.laptopsuperstore.com.

The other large retailer in the area is the Brighton location of the national chain, CompUSA. About a $10 cab ride across the river, CompUSA is not the best place to shop.

For one, its selection is somewhat limited to the home market and, in-the long run, this may limit your expansion options.

You should also beware of the high pressure sales tactics of CompUSA sales clerks. They're always eager to show off the flashy cases and graphics of their systems but usually neglect to tell you about the machine's limitation unless you ask pointed questions. Given Comp-USA's distance and poor selection, you can do better staying on this side of the river.

Even if you don't shop there, with its low prices Comp-USA is a good place to do price comparisons against other stores.

CompUSA is at 205 Market St., at the intersection of N. Beacon, in Brighton, (617) 783-1899. See its Web site at www.compusa.com.

If you really know what you want in a computer and want to save some money, your best bet is to shop at the local manufacturer. These stores build computer's on-site and will custom-build what you want, sometimes at hundreds of dollars less than name brands.

PCs for Everyone has enjoyed impressive growth over the past year and offers rock bottom prices from components to custom-built systems.

PCs for Everyone is at 24 Thorndike St., (617) 868-0068 just one block west of the Cambridgeside Galleria Mall. You can get there by taking the T to Kendall Square and using the free shuttle to the mall, or you can get off the green line at Lechmere.

One of this store's greatest assets is its Web site where all store Products and prices are listed along with technical information that can be used regardless of whether or not you shop there.

Point your browser to www.pcs-foreveryone.com.

Other local choices include Computer Renaissance (www.computerenaissance.com) in the Porter Square Galleria, CTS Computers (www.ctscomputer.com) and Hi-Q Computers (www.hiq.com).

To find out about more local dealers, find a free copy of Boston Computer Currents magazine to compare prices. If you decide to go with one of these dealers, make sure you know what you want. Often these stores cut costs by using non-brand name parts.

--Baraunde R. hurson '99 is the Claverly Hall User Assisan for HASCS and editor-in-chief of the 10th edition of the Computers@Harvard, published by the Harvard Computer Society. He also really likes compuers.