Computer Stores
Consumers' CHECKBOOK Logo

Nonprofit Ratings of Local Service
Companies and Health Care Providers

CHECKBOOK is a Unique Rating Service:
Nonprofit & unbiased
Accepts no advertising
Prevents ballot-box stuffing
Price comparisons
Quality comparisons
Expert articles and advice

Only $34 for Two Full years!
(View All Rating Categories)
Computer Stores (From CHECKBOOK, Fall 2013/Winter 2014)
 
Go to Ratings of 49 Washington DC Area Computer Stores

Checklist 

Computer Stores

Before making any major computer-related purchases, think carefully about what you want, what you really need—and especially what you don’t need. Get advice from experts. Several websites, including CNET and PC Magazine, provide excellent computer and software buying advice, along with useful product overviews by editors. Consumer Reports also rates various models of desktop computers, laptops, tablets, printers, monitors, scanners, and some types of software. And big sellers like Amazon provide hundreds of reviews by consumers who have already purchased products you’re considering. 

Also seek out advice from salespersons at local stores. Our ratings of area computer stores, shown on our Ratings Tables, will help you find retailers that employ sales staff that can help—and steer you away from stores where they can’t. 

When comparing major brands with no large differences in their track records for reliability, focus on differences in price and features. 

The best way to find out whether a product meets your needs, of course, is to take it home and use it. Many online stores allow one-month trial periods for hardware and let you return the product for a full refund if you just don’t like it. (Online stores have much less liberal return policies for software.) Local stores may have more restrictive policies, so ask about current return policies at any store you’re considering. Ask specifically about restocking fees that may apply if you return equipment after you’ve opened boxes. 

Once you decide what you want, it’s time to shop for price. If you’re considering an Apple product, you’ll find zero price variation (unless you buy used). But, for most other manufacturers, there is substantial price variation between brands and considerable price differences for specific models from store to store. 

There isn’t as much store-to-store price variation for computer products as there is for other types of products. But some outlets do charge as much as 20 percent more than their competitors for the same products. Among the local and online stores our researchers shopped, we found that Amazon offered the lowest prices (see Table 1). 

Pay with a credit card, especially if you buy online. The Fair Credit Billing Act outlines procedures that enable you to refuse payment for credit card purchases for merchandise that is unsatisfactory or undelivered. 

Please reject extended warranties. For the vast majority of consumers, these warranties are bad deals. 

We don’t know how we got to this point. Or whether it’s evolution or devolution. But somehow, in order to maintain peace, every member of our households needs his or her own computer—sometimes more than one. 

Because new technology places new demands on computers and their operating systems, seemingly constant replacement or upgrades are necessary to keep everybody happy with their digital devices. Pictures, music, and video require lots of storage space. Streaming video requires faster and more efficient processors and video cards. Even if you don’t care about these features, because software increasingly relies on complex graphics and animation, you will eventually need to replace or upgrade your computer. 

Unfortunately, purchasing or upgrading computers isn’t easy. In order to have something to sell to a wide range of buyers, computer manufacturers offer a dizzying array of options—from desktops to laptops to netbooks to tablets to hybrid designs—and several models with a wide range of capabilities (and price points) within each type. Getting what you need—and not paying a lot extra for stuff you don’t need—requires careful planning and research. 

We’ll point you toward resources that can help, including our ratings of the service quality and prices offered by retailers. 

Doing Your Homework 

Start by deciding what you want and need—and ruling out what you don’t want and don’t need. Fortunately, there’s lots of help available: Several websites, including CNET and PC Magazine, provide excellent computer and software buying advice, along with useful product overviews by editors. Consumer Reports also rates various models of desktop computers, laptop computers, tablets, printers, monitors, scanners, and some types of software. And big sellers like Amazon provide hundreds of reviews from consumers who have already purchased products you’re considering. 

Also seek out advice from salespersons at local stores. Our ratings of area computer stores, shown on our Ratings Tables, will help you find retailers that employ sales staff who can help—and steer you away from stores where they can’t. (See below for more information on choosing the right retailer.) 

There are dozens of decisions to make—desktop vs. laptop vs. netbook vs. tablet; Apple vs. PC; size, weight, and battery life; speed; video performance; storage and memory capacities; expandability; and more. Below, we review the major choices. 

Also research compatibility issues before you buy peripheral devices (displays, printers, scanners, etc.). Don’t buy anything unless you have seen it work with a device similar to yours, have convincing evidence that it will work with your computer, or have an ironclad guarantee that you can return it (with no restocking fee) if you’re not satisfied. Many dissatisfied consumers spend hundreds of dollars and many hours fiddling with a new purchase only to find that they can’t make it work. 

Thinking About What to Buy 

The following discussion highlights issues to consider when choosing a new computer. We focus on PCs, but many of the issues are also applicable to Macs. 

Apple vs. PC 

The differences between Macs and PCs are much less distinct now than in the past. The major remaining differences are mainly in “feel”—the interfaces they use. So if you’re thinking about defecting from PC to Mac or vice versa, try out each type’s devices and software, performing the types of tasks you expect to do most. 

Your primary concern will be compatibility, because it may be inconvenient to move work from a PC to a Mac or vice versa, and some of the software and some types of related equipment will work with only one type of computer and not the other. Also make sure you and your family can run the same programs at home that you run at your office and that your children run at school (Apple is a leading supplier of computers to schools). And if you or a family member has a lot of experience with one type of computer or the other, it might just be easier to stick with what you’ve got. 

Reliability 

A major consideration when buying electronics is reliability. Surprisingly, Consumer Reports’ large-scale surveys of consumers typically find minimal differences in reliability among the major manufacturers (although Apple consistently outscores the competition in this area, its higher scores likely have more to do with users’ high satisfaction with Apple’s tech support than significantly more reliable products). 

Because no large differences exist in the major brands’ track histories for repairs, focus on comparing brands on price and features. 

Portability 

Laptop computers, netbooks, and tablets let you take your work with you. Portable devices have become so capable, convenient, small, and light—with no large price penalty—that they now dominate sales. 

When shopping for a laptop, netbook, or tablet, consider the same factors you would consider for a desktop with regard to speed, storage, and other capabilities (see below). But there are other considerations. Size and weight are issues, of course; larger computers are obviously more cumbersome. But smaller devices also have smaller screens and keyboards. You may want to spend a bit more for a slightly larger model—and put up with two to four pounds of extra weight—to avoid squinting and make typing easier. 

Another issue with portable devices is battery life. Three to six hours is fairly typical; some laptops offer 12 hours or more. Because manufacturers tend to exaggerate battery life, check product reviews from users to get realistic assessments. 

Central Processing Units 

A computer’s brain is its central processing unit (CPU), processor, or “chip.” Chips are critical to computer speed. In advertisements, you may see a computer that comes with a “4th Generation Intel Core i5 1.6 GHz” processor. Each generation of manufacturers’ chips are built with improved structure and logic to process information faster than previous generations. The 1.6 GHz (gigahertz) is the level of “clock speed” at which the CPU operates. As this number increases, so does the CPU’s speed. But because each new generation of chips uses more efficient logic and has a more efficient design that produces faster overall speed, you can’t compare chips from different generations by looking only at their respective processing speeds. For example, a 4th-generation Intel Core processor that operates at 1.6 GHz will run much faster than a 2nd-generation Intel processor that runs at 2.66 GHz. 

New software and technologies are constantly pushing chipmakers to produce the next generation of chips, which come out every couple of years. Because new software and operating-system features take advantage of these new speeds, a typical user can feel that his or her computer has become obsolete overnight. 

If you use your computer mainly to type letters and for email, you don’t need to splurge on the latest generation of chip—an older-generation chip should be fast enough. But if you work with streaming audio and video, speed is more important. And even light users may have to keep their computers up-to-date to utilize many common programs—such as tax preparation software—that are continually redesigned with graphics and other features to make them more user friendly but require chips with higher processing speeds. Also, if you buy a computer that’s much slower than one that you use at work or school, seconds will feel like hours while you wait for it to complete tasks. 

Random Access Memory 

A computer uses random access memory (RAM) to hold some of the data it is working with and some or all of the data needed to run programs it is using. RAM is measured in megabytes and gigabytes, which indicate how much data the device can store in memory. 

The more RAM your computer possesses, the more tasks it can perform simultaneously, which speeds operations. If it has only the minimum amount of RAM a program requires, only the most commonly used parts of the program may be in RAM all the time, and less commonly used parts will have to be fetched from a disk drive when needed. That fetching takes time that could be saved if more of the program is held in RAM. Lots of RAM can also limit the headaches of frequent freeze-ups and failed programs that occur when the computer runs out of necessary memory resources. 

As for processors, there are various generations of RAM, the latest ones designed to operate faster and use more efficient logic than previous generations. As of this writing, the latest generation of RAM was DDR3, with the DDR4 generation due out soon. 

When choosing a computer, pay close attention to the amount and type of RAM included. Because buying additional RAM is usually an inexpensive add-on, it makes sense to purchase as much RAM as your system and budget allows. 

No matter how much RAM you get, make sure you can expand your computer if you outgrow your current RAM needs. But if you know you will need a certain amount of RAM soon, don’t buy less now and plan to expand later; it usually costs less to buy RAM already installed at the time you buy your computer. 

Graphical Processing Units 

To display video and graphics-intensive games efficiently, computers shift the processing workloads of graphics from their CPUs to separate chips—graphical processing units (GPUs) designed specifically to process and display this information. 

Like CPU chips, newer generations of GPUs are built and programmed to operate faster than previous ones. For example, new GPU chips can quickly process 3D graphics and video. Most new GPU chips are coupled with high-end video cards, which essentially act as RAM devices dedicated to graphics. Because advancements in home computing largely have been—and will continue to be—in the graphics and video areas, you may as well buy a computer with a newer GPU chip and a video card with a capacity of at least one gigabyte. 

Hard Drives 

Most day-to-day work—composing, calculating, editing, etc.—entails moving information to and from your hard drive. If you’ll be using your computer primarily to view Web pages, send and receive email, and perform other basic tasks, you won’t need much extra hard-drive space; most new computers—even entry-level models—come with enough capacity for you. 

You can expand the amount of storage space by buying an external hard drive. External hard drives are also convenient for backing up files from your internal hard drive. 

CD and DVD Drives 

Most laptops and desktop computers come with combination CD-R/CD-RW-DVD drives. These drives can play and burn CDs and play DVDs, but you may have to pay more for a drive that lets you burn data to DVDs. 

Keep in mind that because tablets and some netbook models sacrifice CD and DVD drives to save space, you’ll have to buy an external drive to play or record discs. 

One issue with DVD drives is compatibility. If you want to play Blu-ray high-definition discs, you’ll need to buy a special player/recorder. 

Expandability 

Good computers are designed to allow growth. Your computer should have at least five USB ports with connections conveniently located on several sides. Additional ports give you the flexibility to expand your system with various peripheral devices. 

Desktop computers also have expansion slots which allow you to add cards or boards with additional capabilities, such as high-powered graphics cards. You’ll want at least three expansion slots; more slots provide more future flexibility. 

Display 

For most users, size is the predominant aspect of monitor choice. 

For laptops and tablets, screen size and display quality have a fairly large impact on price. 

But desktops with large monitors don’t cost too much more than smaller entry-level models because price differences between 14-, 15-, 17-, 20-, and even 24-inch monitors have shrunk significantly in recent years. If you’re considering a monitor larger than 24 inches, compare prices of dedicated computer monitors with the prices of TVs. 

Other Devices 

There are other devices you might want—printers, scanners, microphones, cameras, camera chip readers, and many more. Learn more about such devices—and much more about the devices we have touched on here—from friends, websites, store salespeople, and other sources. 

Choosing the Right Retailer 

You’re more likely to be satisfied with what you buy if you find a good store, or stores, to work with. 

Getting Good Advice and Service 

A good store can advise you on which devices and software will serve you best, how to get started using products, and how to solve problems. 

But maintain a degree of skepticism when discussing your options with salespeople. Remember, it’s a salesperson’s job to sell you merchandise, that the store must carry that merchandise, and that the store makes more when you spend more. But you can still learn a lot. Make note of salespeople who answer your questions clearly and make you feel at ease. These are good people to buy from because you may have more questions after the purchase. 

Our Ratings Tables show the results when we asked area consumers (primarily CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers) to rate computer stores they had used “inferior,” “adequate,” or “superior” for “advice on choice and use of products,” “staff attitudes and atmosphere,” “ease of looking at and testing products,” and other questions. For each store or chain that received at least 10 ratings, our Ratings Tables show the percentage of surveyed customers who rated it “superior” (as opposed to “inferior” or “adequate”) on each question. (Click here for further discussion of our survey and other research methods.) 

Our Ratings Tables reveal considerable variation in customer ratings. For example, Office Depot was rated “superior” for “advice” by only 20 percent of its surveyed customers, Staples by only 30 percent, and Best Buy by only 33 percent, while Apple Store was rated “superior” by 83 percent. 

Although the quality of a store’s advice and information are important considerations, check out impartial websites like CNET, PC Magazine, and Consumer Reports. You can also learn a lot from manufacturers’ websites and from reviews posted by fellow consumers on the websites of large online sellers such as Amazon. 

The best way to find out whether a product really meets your needs, of course, is to take it home and use it. Many online stores offer a one-month trial period for hardware, which enables you to return the product for a full refund if you just don’t like it. (Online stores have much less liberal return policies for software.) Local stores may have more restrictive policies, so ask about current return policies at any store you consider. Ask specifically about any restocking fees that may apply if you return merchandise after you’ve opened boxes. 

Even experienced computer users who don’t require much advice and assistance should check our Ratings Tables for how surveyed customers rated stores on “reliability (standing behind products, delivering on time, etc.).” 

Getting a Good Price 

Once you decide what you want to buy, you want to pay a good price. If you’re thinking about an Apple product, you’ll find zero price variation (unless you buy used). Apple products have historically been more expensive than their competitors, but that difference is no longer clear-cut. Within the PC family, significant price differences exist among manufacturers. Prices of computers from little-known manufacturers are sometimes 25 percent or more below comparable devices from big-name companies. And, by shopping around, you usually can find considerable price differences for the same brand and model from store to store. 

If you find a better price elsewhere, you certainly don’t have to buy from a store that gave you advice. Buying from a store that has been helpful, however, will make it easier to ask for advice on additional equipment you may later need. Also, a store that has provided good presale advice is likely—though no sure bet—to help you with problems that arise when you start using your new purchase. 

Unfortunately, we can’t compare prices for even non-Apple computers because different stores sell different computers with different prepackaged configurations. And it’s difficult to compare prices for specific models because it is often hard to find identical models at any two stores because thousands of models are available. But we were able to shop prices for software and some types of standalone hardware items, such as printers, monitors, and external hard drives. Our researchers (without revealing their affiliation with CHECKBOOK) shopped prices for seven software titles and 11 hardware models from the stores listed on our Ratings Tables and a sample of large online mail-order outlets. 

Table 1 shows how each outlet’s prices compared to the average prices quoted by other surveyed stores for the same mix of items. A price comparison score of $102, for example, means that prices at this store were, on average, two percent above the average for the same items for all surveyed stores. 

Table 1 shows that, unlike most of the subjects we cover, only moderate store-to-store price variation exists for computer equipment and software. But some outlets do charge as much as 20 percent more than their competitors for the same products. Among the local and online stores we shopped, Amazon, with a price comparison score of $81, offered the lowest prices. 

Table 1—Comparing Prices at Local and Online Store

Comparing Prices at Local and Online Stores 1CHECKBOOK’s price comparison score
Local Stores
Platinum Micro Electronics $83
Best Buy $97
Computech $97
Micro Center $97
Staples $102
Apple Store $102
Dell $104
Golden Tech Computer Center $104
Office Depot $104
Mac Business Solutions $104
The Computer Place $110
Absolute Mac $115
Advanced 2000 $118
Online Stores
Amazon.com $81
BHPhotoVideo.com $88
PCConnection.com $96
JR.com $98
MacMall.com $99
Microcenter.com $99
Staples.com $99
RadioShack.com $100
BestBuy.com $101
PCMall.com $102
CDW.com $102
Dell.com $102
Newegg.com $102
Zones.com $102
Frys.com $102
ComputerBrain.com $103
TigerDirect.com $103
Overstock.com $104
OfficeMax.com $104
OfficeDepot.com $105
FOOTNOTE:1 For each store, our price comparison score is intended to suggest the price a customer might expect to pay for items that would cost $100 at the “average” store. The score is based on prices gathered by CHECKBOOK researchers who shopped for 18 items; scores are based on at least three prices.

Table 2 shows the range of prices for the items on our shopping list. As you can see, for some items we found big store-to-store price variation, but for others we found almost no price variation. 

Table 2—Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Local Stores and Online Stores for Computer Products

Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Local Stores and Online Stores for Computer Products
Product Low price Average price High price
Kaspersky ONE Universal Security 2012 $28.00 $84.79 $99.99
Adobe Acrobat XI Standard for Windows $287.00 $300.41 $319.99
The Sims 3: University Life Expansion Pack $37.57 $40.94 $45.99
HP 20" LED monitor $100.00 $126.77 $169.00
Seagate Expansion 2TB USB 2.0 desktop hard drive $99.99 $133.85 $199.00
Logitech C310 USB HD webcam $29.99 $47.70 $89.00
Adobe Dreamweaver CS6 for Macs $374.98 $392.56 $399.99
Microsoft Office: Mac 2011 Home & Student Edition $115.99 $133.93 $139.99
Mac Super Drive 8x Extreme USB double-layer DVD+RW/CD-RW drive $71.99 $79.52 $89.99
HP Photosmart 6520 wireless printer $105.68 $123.50 $149.99
Apple wireless keyboard $62.24 $68.75 $72.99
Apple mini DVI to DVI display adapter $17.31 $22.51 $29.00
Intuit Quickbooks Pro 2013 $139.99 $223.08 $299.99
LaCie 1TB Rugged Superspeed USB 3.0/Thunderbolt portable hard drive $149.99 $218.60 $249.99
World of Warcraft: Mist of Pandaria $19.99 $41.33 $55.00
Targus Laptop Chill Mat for screens up to 17" $22.00 $46.38 $69.00
Epson Perfection V600 Flatbed photo scanner $187.76 $222.13 $249.99
Logitech MK520 slim wireless keyboard & mouse $39.90 $55.11 $65.00

Don’t Buy Optional Extended Warranties 

At checkout, many electronics and computer stores will urge you to buy an extended warranty on your computer-related purchase that usually extends your warranty for an additional one to four years. Extended warranties are profitable for the stores, and salespeople get a piece of the action, too. We recommend against buying them unless paying to repair or replace your device would be a financial catastrophe. (To read all the reasons why extended warranties are bad ideas, see our Extended Warranties article.) 

Extra Advice;
Tips for Buying Online 

  • Don’t buy from an online seller unless you are familiar with computers or can get assistance from someone who is; you may need a store to demonstrate products for you and help you set them up. Without help, it may take you many hours to determine whether your installation is wrong or the product is defective. 
  • Buy only from companies that sell equipment with full manufacturers’ warranties. 
  • Buy only from companies that offer at least a one-month, total satisfaction, 100 percent-money-back guarantee. 
  • Buy from companies that have been advertising regularly for a year or more. The biggest risk of online buying is that a company will take your money and go bankrupt; that’s less likely to happen if the company has been around awhile. 
  • Pay by credit card. The Fair Credit Billing Act outlines procedures that enable you to refuse payment on credit card charges for unsatisfactory or undelivered merchandise. 
  • If you decide to buy a computer (rather than peripherals) online, choose a well-known brand—unless you are familiar enough with computer equipment to be comfortable taking it apart and replacing internal components. On the other hand, unknown brands—delivered with 30-day, 100 percent guarantees—can offer big savings if you know what you are doing. 
  • Carefully research any product before you order it, so you can specify exactly what you want. 


Go to Ratings of 49 Washington Area Computer Stores Back to top