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All right, you have your new PC picked out. What if something goes wrong? Who ya gonna call? What will it cost? Before you can even get to the checkout line, you're bound to be presented with what seems like a simple solution: an extended warranty contract.

Our advice: Save the $200 or so it would cost to extend a warranty beyond the typical 12 months that PC makers provide. ''Extended service agreements are not usually worth it, because if something doesn't break in the first year it probably won't,'' says Scott A. Muggli, a PC consultant in St. Paul, Minn.

WARRANTY CUTBACKS. Dealers have good reason to push extended warranties and other services: They don't make much on hardware. PC producers are helping, too, by cutting back warranties and other services. Compaq Computer and NEC have reduced their warranties from three years to one. If you want added protection--without paying extra--consider Acer America or Gateway 2000, which still have three-year warranties.

Another thing to consider: A service contract does not cover routine questions. Dealers used to help with basic questions, such as how to install a program. Now, many charge for advice not directly related to faulty hardware. Circuit City Stores gives you 30 days of free telephone help but charges $19.95 ''per resolution'' after that.

Indeed, you had better be prepared to pay for help, even with top brands. After 90 days, buyers of Hewlett-Packard Pavilions pay $25 to ask about any non-HP software that comes on their machines. The idea, says Consumer Support Manager Donna Rozhin, is to get people to call the right party directly. She estimates, for example, that 50% of calls are about Windows 95. Common questions, she points out, are still answered for free on HP's Web site (

LONG WAITS. Direct marketers, such as as Gateway and Dell Computer, and mail-order houses, such as Micro- Systems Warehouse, don't assess per-problem charges. But you risk long waits for a telephone rep. With Gateway's $99 extended service package, which gives two extra years of in-home service, your call automatically goes to the head of the queue.

A final tip: If you're worried about support, stick with a reputable brand. The higher sticker price usually means that there's less risk of having to lug your PC back to the store for repairs. And think positive: Given the pace of technological change, you may be in the market for a new PC before this one can break.

By Peter Burrows

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Updated June 14, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.
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