Five computer rip-offs to avoid

Computers are pretty cheap these days, but we still can't let down our guard.

It seems to me that, for most of the noughties, computer hardware (computers, laptops, screens and so on) developed much faster than it needed to for the average user. If you are a Web designer or play resource-hungry computer games, it's worth paying a premium for a top-spec computer. For the rest of us, this rapid development has pushed down the cost of more basic hardware rapidly and dramatically.

Coincidentally, my laptop collapsed yesterday under the weight of heavy usage, so I'll be buying a new one. Two years ago I spent just £450 on a laptop. Today, I'm looking at getting my usual brand, Toshiba, for £350 brand new, complete with much better specifications. (If I was watching the pennies I could make it around £250 by sticking with XP instead of getting the new Windows 7.)

Still, just because things are cheaper it doesn't mean we can't get ripped off anymore. Here are some that I've noticed whenever I've shopped around for new computers.

1. The high cost of advice

Going into a computer shop you can get good advice, but you tend to pay a premium for it, and you leave yourself open to sales tactics. This is to be expected, so it's not a rip-off that we should complain about. On the other hand, it's one that's easily avoided!

Get free advice from the Internet. Simply write a question on our Q&A tool about what you need your computer for and what your budget is, and some helpful readers will no doubt tell you what the basic requirements of your computer will be and where you can get it from. This'll stop you splashing out on a computer with more power than you need.

2. Huge price differences

A quick search using Froogle finds two computers with almost identical specifications and benefits. One costs £430 and the other £510, which is £80 (or almost 20%) more.

In the defence of the computer shops, I reckon a huge number of them don't deliberately try to mark up their prices. It's just that new hardware is constantly being released, so it must be a bit of a nightmare staying on top of prices and reducing them every couple of months as newer products arrive.

Still, it shows that it pays to shop around.

3. Credit terms

One reader, Mike10613, pointed me to a website that charged £700 (OK, £699.99) for a laptop. It was sold to visitors just £7.47 per week over 156 weeks. That is 'just' £1,165, which is 'just' £465 (66%) more than the basic price!

Outrageous credit terms are not unusual. I found another seller charging the same horrendous APR of 40%. It admitted that a computer costing £600 was £1,000 after three years.

This is easy to avoid. If you can't afford to pay in one go, you should first consider either saving up or buying a more budget model. If you can't do that, get a credit card that allows you to spread the cost over perhaps 10 months interest free, so that you don't pay any extra.

4. Service cover

Many stores offer their own service cover for up to five years. This can push the cost of a £700 laptop up to about £920. That seems to work out at £44 per year, but it doesn't. Firstly, the odds are quite reasonable that you'll replace it in maybe three years, so you'll waste the last two of the agreement (unless its transferable, but the terms will typically be quite onerous). Secondly, the warranty will likely cover it for the first 12 months, wasting that year too. That means you may be spending £110 per year on the two years in between.

For most people it'll work out better to buy a reliable brand (HP and Toshiba have always worked for me and mine), to ensure the basic warranty is good enough, and to maintain your computer well from the start. A simple Google search will give you plenty of tips on how to do that. Then, if there is an occasion where you need to repair the computer, you can just take it to a repair shop and pay a one-off charge. You'll probably spend a lot less on repairs than £220!

The double hit of service cover and a computer paid for on credit can be extraordinary. I saw a £710 computer that would cost £1,550 with service paid for on credit!

5. Other optional extras

Some websites add extra items automatically, or otherwise heavily recommend them. I just had a quick look and saw Norton's virus scanner added for £30 to one laptop, for example. However, you can get quality virus scanners for free (I use AVG's free scanner at the moment and I'm satisfied with it). Before taking any optional extra, ask users through Q&A if you can pick up something just as good more cheaply.

Finally, you can save a load on software (computer programs) to using Alison Hunt's tips in Kit out a PC for free!

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