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tech TALK

By Kevin S. Davis

As September rolls around in Boston, businesses greedily await the return of students to campus. And I'm not just talking about the textbook monopolists over at our beloved Coop. While students always plunk down a few dollars here and there for pens and pencils, many also find it useful to make an investment in a computer. The vast majority of first-year students are looking for a computer to take care of their word processing needs for the next four years. And an increasing number of upperclass students are discarding their older machines like summer clothing; buying new notebook and desktop computers.

Other students may already have a computer, but simply need accessories like Ethernet cards and printers. In any case, there are few better places in the country than Boston to shop for high-tech goodies.

For Harvard affiliates, the first place to start is often right around the corner at the Technology Product Center (TPC) (1730 Cambridge St; 495-5450). On one hand, their biggest advantage is simply location: it's very convenient to get to their showroom located near the Sackler Museum.

If you already own a computer and simply need an Ethernet card to connect to Harvard's network, there's no better place to go than TPC. The store sells all of the supported devices for the network, and their prices for premium devices like 3Com cards are as low as mail-order vendors. They also have a liberal return policy on defective cards and erroneous purchases, usually accepting returned cards without receipts.

TPC, however, isn't neccessarily the best place to buy a complete computer system. They sell only systems from top companies like Dell and Compaq; as a result, their prices on PC desktops and notebooks tend to relatively high. On the other hand, their prices on Apple Macintosh systems tend to be quite competitive with other retailers.

You may want to pay the TPC's higher prices in exchange for the excellent warranty coverage they provide. If your system breaks, they offer extensive on-site and drop-in service; it's much easier to carry your broken Power Book back to TPC than to ship it home to California. If you're a computer novice, TPC's higher prices may be worth the added comfort of having repair and service handled here in Cambridge.

"Power" users, on the other hand, should head over to Cambridge's nerd mecca: Micro Center (corner of Memorial Drive and Magazine St., near Central Sq.) Micro Center describes itself as a computer department store, and the name fits. This megastore carries almost anything you could ever want to put into your computer or onto your hard drive.

If you have an older system and want to upgrade it, Micro Center is the first place to turn. They have a selection of video cards, hard drives, monitors and other accessories unmatched in the Boston area, and their prices tend to be as low as mail-order outlets. You can often drive a better bargain by haggling with the sales clerks, and you can save 10 or 20 percent off retail prices by purchasing a returned or demo model.

Micro Center carries a very poor selection of PC notebooks; they only sell the Winbook line, which are sub-par compared to Toshiba and IBM models. They do sell a wide variety of desktops, but bring money for a taxi to take things home.

If you've got your heart set on a notebook computer, drop by Laptop Superstore (Mass Ave., near Porter Sq.) They carry a wide variety of machines by all the top manufacturers, and all their systems come with a unique 5-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 complement your desktop.

The national chain CompUSA has an outlet nearby (Corner of N. Beacon and Market St., Brighton), but I would steer clear if you're looking for quality systems. CompUSA's prices are rock-bottom, but the machines they sell--IBM Aptivas, Compaq Presarios, and Packard Bells--are all designed for the home market, not a college dorm. These computers may seem like good deals in the short-run, but you may have problems expanding them in the long term.

You should also beware the high-pressure sales tactics of CompUSA salespeople. 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 limitations unless you ask pointed questions. Given CompUSA's distance and poor selection, you can do better staying on this side of the River.

If you're truly an expert with computers and want the lowest price possible, a final alternative lies with local computer dealers that build their machines on-site. NPC, CTS Computers, Hi-Q and PCs For Everyone are but a few of dozens of computer shops in the area, and you can often save $300 to $600 by buying a "clone" machine. A good place to comparison-shop is the Boston edition of Computer Currents, which carries monthly ads from these companies. Pick up a free copy in Harvard Square and pick your own best buy if you know just what you're looking for. Kevin Davis is the coordinator of HASCS's Advanced Support Team as well as an independent computer consultant. You can reach him via e-mail at ksdavis@fas.harvard.edu.

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