HOME     Making Pictures   Charts   Stationery   Family   Garden   Stories   Computer   Games   All

Penny Wise

Having it done on the cheap can cost a fortune—or your data.

Lessons from a bad experience   Slow down and consider   Second-hand bargains   Second-hand dealers   Buying a new machine   Helpful friends   Freeware

Here’s a cautionary tale.

A friend decided to have her computer updated. Backing up was a big job, because she only had a floppy drive. Her computer was rather slow, too, but otherwise quite satisfactory. No crashes or blue screens of death, and the clock always agreed with the World Clock. She checked for new virus definitions each time she connected to the Internet, ran a firewall and anti-spyware programs, and opened attachments only after virus-checking them.

Having decided that she wanted a faster processor, more memory and a CD burner, she picked up a flyer advertising rebuilds. Noting the price, she rang the shop with whom she usually deals and asked what they’d charge for the same changes. The regular dealer’s price was much higher than that on the flyer.

Being human, she went for the lower price. She then asked to have her data preserved and the dealer agreed to do this for an extra sum. At this stage she had her important data backed up, but didn’t want to spend a day or two reading floppies back onto the hard disk.

When she picked up the rebuilt machine she was surprised not to be given an itemised list. The dealer brushed her off with “We don’t do that”.

Because, at the dealer’s insistence, a new and unfamiliar operating system had been installed, she had then to call in a technician to re-install all of her peripherals and re-establish her Internet connection. There being no list of new components, the technician had to ring the dealer and enquire about them. He felt that the person who answered the phone was not interested in answering his questions.   top

My friend spent a few evenings finding and arranging her original files and reinstalling programs. Most programs, while they appeared to be still there, had lost their libraries and wouldn’t function. Then, with her machine working approximately as she wanted it, she bought a digital camera.

A new baby arrived in the family, and she took lots of pictures, uploaded them to her computer and deleted them from the camera.

Things started to go wrong. Instead of booting straight into Windows, she’d find herself looking at a black screen with a list of choices. She also noticed that her clock had reset to a date several years in the past. She adjusted the clock and went on with her work.

Next time she turned on the machine she had another black screen and the clock had again reset. She rang the dealer, suggested that the battery might have a problem, took the machine to him, asked him to ring when the fault had been found or fixed. Three days later she rang him. He told her she could pick up the machine and that he’d changed the battery. The fault persisted.

On a second visit she again waited for a phone call, rang herself, went to pick up the machine and was told there’d been nothing wrong with it. The fault persisted.

My friend then suggested that perhaps the motherboard might itself have a fault. The dealer seemed none too pleased, but accepted the machine, saying he’d ring when he found the problem. He did ring, told her that the machine was ready to be picked up, and asked her to return the CD and paperwork belonging to the motherboard, which he was replacing.

Only when she brought her machine home did she discover that he’d reformatted the hard disk, removing all of her data. She rang, asking why he’d not asked her permission to do this. The disk, he said, had been “full of viruses”.

The technician who’d helped her previously spoke to the dealer and said he knew that the disk had been virus free. The dealer then said that the disk had been corrupt, and finally said that there’d been a conflict between the motherboard and the operating system, and that that had made the reformat necessary. He added that there hadn’t been much data anyway. He offered no apology.

OK. Whatever the reason for the reformat, there’d been no warning phone call, no request for permission, nothing. The customer had been treated almost with scorn, her requests ignored. The money saved by choosing the “great price” probably went on petrol and telephone calls. Add to that the distress caused by this carry-on and it wasn’t much of a bargain.   top

Here, then, are the lessons learned.

Slow down and consider

The first rule when buying computers, computer parts and accessories is to slow down and consider. The same applies to obtaining and installing software, and to having repairs or upgrades done.

As a writer, I’d never sit down and write an outline of a story. I write it down as fast as possible while it’s demanding to be written. An overwritten story or article can be edited later. An inferior or messed up computer, though, is a different matter.   top

Second-hand bargains

Buying a second-hand machine privately often works well. Individual people aren’t usually trying to be unfair when they sell an older machine before or just after buying a new one, and their old machine may be right for your needs. If you’re quite certain that it’s what you want and will do everything that you want, and if the price is good, consider buying it. Remember, though, that this sort of sale is final. Don’t expect a private individual to take back the goods and refund your money. If you’re not sure, leave it. There are plenty of second-hand computers looking for new owners.

Second-hand dealers

Buying second-hand from any sort of business, though, is risky, and you rarely get a genuine bargain. I bought my first scanner "as is" from a pawn shop. I carried it home in triumph and had it installed. A few days later I scrutinised newspaper advertisements to see how much I’d saved. Well, the scanner for which I’d paid $135 was in the shops for $140! For five dollars I’d given up my right to have any shortcomings made good.

I wasn’t too bothered, because it seemed to do everything it should. I’d bought it to scan text, and the results were excellent. Weeks later I scanned some photographs for the first time, and only then did I see the ugly red line that ran down the middle of the scanning area. I did read that this could be fixed by taking the whole scanner apart and cleaning the mirrors inside, but I didn’t have the confidence to try.   top

Buying a new machine

When buying a new machine, go to a real computer shop rather than a big flashy chain store. Usually, the people who run computer businesses have much more knowledge than the bright young assistants in the chain store. Of course they’ll try to get you to buy as much as possible, but they’ll make sure that everything you buy works together. The assistants in the chain store may be genuinely ignorant of the fact that a certain machine or operating system won’t support a certain expensive program or peripheral device.

Also the people in the real computer shop will understand what you’re talking about when you tell them about any special requirements that you have, and they’ll do their best to help you.

Perhaps even more important, they’ll be on the other end of the phone if you have questions or problems during the first few weeks. Trying to get telephone help from a chain store can be frustrating. The person to whom you speak probably also sells tennis racquets, bedroom furniture and table linen, and isn’t likely to be able to talk you through adjusting your display settings.

When you choose your computer dealer, make sure the business has been there for some time. Some, with great bargain prices and unforgettable deals, spring up like mushrooms in the night and disappear almost as quickly. A guarantee is of little value if the person meant to honour it has vanished! One in your own locality is best, because if you ever need repairs or a new component added, you don’t want to take your machine for an hour’s journey. Ask people in your area who already own and run computers whether there’s a particular dealer they’d recommend—or otherwise.

Having tentatively decided on a dealer, go into the shop and ask a few questions. Find out whether they will champion your cause with the manufacturer if components are faulty. Make certain that they supply the original discs and documentation of installed software. Ask for a written description of the machine they suggest you buy, take it home and read it thoroughly. Of course, if they don’t want to give a list, or if they aren’t willing to spend time talking with you, you’re in the wrong shop.

You’re about to spend a great deal of money. Take your time.   top

Helpful friends

I’m lucky enough to have a friend who is a computer programmer and can really solve computer problems. This is the result of years of study followed by years of experience. I’ve called on this friend many times and he’s given generously of his time and always improved the performance of my computer or a program that was giving trouble. However, there are lots of people who really want to help when things go wrong but don’t know quite enough about the particular problem that you’re having.

If the problem is major, it can become worse during the time that your kind friend is trying to solve it. There are, for instance, sets of back-up files which are overwritten each time the machine is booted. They are a record of how the machine was behaving when all was well. They often come in sets of five, the oldest one being destroyed and replaced at each boot. If a qualified person sees the faulty machine before those correct files have all been overwritten, there’s a good chance that the machine’s behaviour can be restored. Ideally, a safety copy should have recently been made and stored in a separate place, but the ideal doesn’t always happen. Each attempt to fix things lessens the chance of restoration.

Refusing an offer of help can be embarrassing and hurtful. However, if your friend tries ever so hard and things still don’t come right, you’re going to have to take the machine to an expert anyway, and the chances of being hurtful won’t be any less. Better, then, to find a way of refusing the help in the first place. Mentioning the fact that you’ll void your guarantee might do the trick, or you might say that you feel annoyed with the dealer and are determined to have them put it right. No doubt you’ll think of something, because you know how important it is.


There are some very useful programs available as "Freeware" on the Internet. Some of my favourite free graphic programs are listed here. There are also quite a few free programs that are of little use and which will make undesirable things happen in your computer. At worst, a poor quality program, free or otherwise, can overwrite files in the Windows system and make other programs—or even Windows itself—unusable. When you see a piece of freeware offered and it seems to be exactly what you need, don’t get it straight away. Find out just how good it is. Some down-load pages show ratings for software. You can also browse forums and see if there are favourable mentions of it, or you could post a question yourself on an appropriate forum.



Questions or comments? I’d love to hear from you. My email address is here.

Return to top
Created on ... March 25, 2002
Page last written 16/12/2003