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April 28, 1997

BUYING USED COMPUTERS ON THE WEB

Thousands of computer-users buy their new systems from World Wide Web sites. It makes perfect sense: Sellers on the Web offer the latest technology, quick comparison shopping, and, above all, good prices. And because many of the new models are available in retail stores, prospective buyers can try them out before placing what is, essentially, a blind order.

Using the Web to buy used or reconditioned computers is a different experience. You can't do any of the monitor tweaking, mouse moving, or keyboard banging that seem so essential to testing a used machine. And that's why it's so hard -- despite resellers' assurances and actual warantees -- to fight off some squeamish feelings. Would you spend $1,000 on a used machine known to you only as: "Refurb Performa 6320 120mhz 16mb Ram 1 gig 4x CD $995"?

Surprisingly, many people do. And they're willing to take risks to land an excellent price. Warantees can provide some piece of mind since they're generally issued by the manufacturer or the resellers themselves. But not all used computers carry them. With these risks and benefits in mind, Business Week Online visited the three sites cited in At Your Service, "Is This Week's Model More Computer Than You Need?" April 28, 1997, BW Enterprise: Rumerson Technologies Inc., Boston Computer Exchange, and American Computer Exchange.

Rumerson Technologies Inc. (www.rticorp.com)
This site is compact, quick to load, and easy to navigate. But don't come here expecting a computing superstore. This is more of a boutique. Users browse through product categories: complete systems, laptops, printers, monitors, and accessories. You won't find, however, a huge number of products from which to choose. A recent check found just one printer model for sale, along with eight complete systems, seven laptops, one monitor, and two modems. In-depth product information is not available online, though you can call an 800 number to ask follow-up questions. Orders are accepted only via telephone or fax.

The site's strongest suit may be its electronic trading program, called Real Trade. Using a simple form, companies with a minimum of 10 trade-in items list their inventory, which an RTI broker appraises. At the very least, this is a good way of assessing your computers' worth, even if you choose not to trade them in.

Rumerson is worth checking, especially if you're contemplating trading some of your own equipment. But don't show up expecting to find a particular make or model. Serendipity is still the name of this game.

Boston Computer Exchange (www.bocoex.com)
Ugly, oversize graphics dominate this sparse site. Product offerings are conentrated in computers, not peripherals. A recent check found 10 notebook and 11 desktop models for sale, ranging in price from $3,300 for a top-of-the-line notebook to just $195 for a 486 desktop. The site, however, does little more than present the raw basics. Information on individual models is very limited. That's not good enough for a company that claims to be the country's largest computer reseller.

Oddly enough, amidst the clunky interface is a snazzy, downloadable animation program outlining BCE's benefits to corporate customers. According to the program, BCE runs employee buyback plans for companies that want to sell, at a discount, outdated machines back to their workforce. This is the kind of detailed information that fits perfectly on a Web site. Unfortunately, precious little of it is now online. If you're hunting for a used computer, it can't hurt to stop by Boston Computer. But expect to do some of your own digging, too.

American Computer Exchange (www.amcoex.com)
This site works differently than the other. Instead of listing available products for sale, American Computer asks users for specific equipment requests. Say you were interested in finding an IBM Thinkpad laptop. You complete an electronic form with a your telephone number or E-mail address, and if the company can match your request or one similar to it, a broker contacts you. Obviously, then, this site better serves computer buyers in search of a particular product. Unfortunately, it can be frustrating for many buyers since you can't simply browse available equipment, screening computers by price or model. And it's unclear how long it takes American to respond to equipment requests. One submitted on a Tuesday afternoon still had not been responded to two days later.

Perhaps the best features of American's site have little to do with the actual mechanics of computer buying. It offers, for example, a monthly index on the cost of used computers. Interested in selling your old Macintosh Performa? Check the index to find out its recent going rate. Also included is a stolen-computer registry and special shareware programs for calculating the current value of used machines and peripherals. The shareware seems perfect for both buyers and sellers negotiating used-computer deals.

As such, American's site functions more as a general information resource than a product clearinghouse. Start here before beginning any Web-based search for used computers or peripherals. Consider it a bonus if the company finds the computer you've requested electronically.

By Dennis Berman in New York


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