A PC is not just for Christmas

 

Buying a PC for Christmas is a bit like bringing home a tiger cub. It may be beautiful, playful and the centre of attention, but the wise owner knows that it can turn sulky, crabbed or downright hostile with no warning. A little foresight and preparation will help things run smoothly.

If saving money and stress is the top priority, then as with socks and shirts it's probably better to wait until January before you buy at all. Manufacturers go into overdrive for Christmas in paring prices and adding extra features and software, but any models left unsold on January 1st will probably come down another notch or two in price.

And if you can wait until January, try to hang on until the end of the month. Some manufacturers have a 30-day rebate policy - if prices drop within 30 days of buying the purchaser gets a refund of the difference. Obviously, in this scenario prices won't be cut until January 25th

If waiting is not an option, there are some steps to help get the best value:

Compare the specifications, prices, software bundles and after-sales backup available for several models.

Check whether the telephone helpline is open when it counts - between Christmas and new year. Do you believe that there will be enough staff around to answer the phones?

Ask friends and colleagues about their experience with that brand.

Check out in-depth comparisons such as the one in the current issue of the Irish magazine PC Live!

Balance the comfort factor of a local dealer who you can rely on against the prices of superstores or direct sellers. If you're going local, ask the dealer what the Christmas opening hours will be.

Getting started

Quality control is quite good with leading manufacturers nowadays, so the risk of a dead keyboard, monitor or system unit emerging from the box is not great. It does happen, however, and the only way to be sure it will all work for Christmas is to get hold of the computer a few days before Christmas, put it all together, and try it out.

This may do away with the fun of bursting the tape and popping the bubble-wrap for the first time on Christmas morning - but at least you know it will work, and you can swan around as parent-in-control as you insouciantly snap plugs into place and start the machine without filling in a long rigmarole of name, organisation and what you had for breakfast. The early-bird approach applies on the double if access to the Internet is part of the plan. Unless you were born with a modem in your mouth, don't take on the task of getting Net access going on Christmas morning.

OK, so you have to do it on the day . . . Think ahead. Decide in advance where the computer can live without blocking access to the TV, turkey, therapist or any other vital component of Christmas in your house. Are there enough power points? The likely minimum is four - for system unit, monitor, speakers and printer. I thought not, so add a four-socket extension cable to the list. And, yes, the modem will need to be fairly near a phone socket.

When the time comes, try to get some peace and quiet (ho, ho, ho) and the assistance of a teenager or sober adult. Open the boxes by cutting along the tapes, not deep enough to damage anything inside. Make sure you have enough clear space to put the pieces down as you lift them out of the boxes. Bear in mind that some bits will be fairly heavy (system unit) and others will have a weird distribution of weight (screens, where the first three inches carry most of the mass).

The first thing to locate is the "getting started" booklet or poster. Take it out and read it before doing anything else. Yes, it may be within four layers of cardboard and clingfilm, but it's worth the effort of finding it if you haven't done this sort of thing before. The alternative may be to have to find it later and undo half-an-hour's fiddling before you get it right.

Even if the manufacturer's instructions are less than lucid, don't be too concerned. Most civilised computer makers now colour-code the plugs and sockets for keyboard, monitor, sound and printer so that you know which cable goes where. Or even if they don't, remember that most of the stuff will fit only in one place. The monitor cable will not go into the "COM" port, and the mouse will not swipe the printer's place - they simply won't fit.

Two exceptions to the "if it fits it's right" rule are mouse/keyboard, which have the same plugs; and the speakers, which may have a three-way mix of speakers, bass speaker and sound card. In any event, some patience and common sense should see you through. Do all the assembly with the power off and without undue force and you shouldn't do any harm. By the way (or BTW in Internet jargon) - don't throw away the wire ties used to tidy cables in the boxes. They will help neaten up the sorry mess of wire spaghetti behind the system once you're finished.

The rules

In the interests of a happy and peaceful Yule, a few more rules are worth enforcing:

Buy a computer with the main software - games as well as work programs - pre-installed on the hard disk.

Don't install anything new until the helplines are back to normal in January.

If you ignore the rule above, watch the installation process like a hawk and refuse all offers of "new and improved" video drivers or you may be left looking at a screen that shows only black, with a few green stripes for variety.

Persuade, threaten or bribe all family members into accepting that they will follow the proper routine (in Windows 95 it's the Start-Shutdown-Shut Down The Computer options; with a Mac it's the Shut Down option on the main menu bar) rather than just turning it off. Windows 95 and the Macintosh OS both react badly to sudden loss of power. Fail to go through the proper shutdown routine often enough and you'll have a problem.

Use similar means to persuade them that the keyboard, the monitor and the rest of the computer are not good places to balance a half-eaten mince pie or a pint of Guinness.

Remember that CD-Roms are not - contrary to the original hype - indestructible. If you must put them down anywhere outside the drive or their proper boxes, bear in mind that the information is on the shiny side and leave it uppermost. A sophisticated multimedia disk is not improved by adding Weetabix, coffee, or a good scrape across the table-top.

None of the above should put you off. For most families a computer is one of the biggest capital purchases, after house and car. It's worthwhile taking some trouble in choosing it, assembling it, and looking after it. Take some time to learn about it and it will end up as your slave instead of your master. At the end of the day, personal computing should be fun.

Fiachra O Marcaigh is at: fomarcaigh@irish-times.ie but he won't be answering his mail on Christmas morning.