It may just be my rampant paranoia getting the better of me again, but I am thoroughly convinced that all PC vendors employ exceptionally large teams of people whose only job is to make it as difficult as possible to comparison shop for a PC. Go to one of their Web sites. I defy you to price a PC configuration--any configuration--that is exactly the same as one at any other vendor's site.
If you read my obsolescence tirade, you know that I am subjecting myself to this frustration because I am long past due for a PC upgrade. I used to buy at least one generation behind the latest chip because it was so much cheaper. That proved to be a false economy. This time, I'll likely go with current technology (probably current for the next 24 hours or so) so that it will be obsolete 30 days after I buy it rather than 30 days before.
With this in mind, I explored the PC vendors' and retail stores' Web sites. To develop a fair comparison, you must match processors, hard drives, optical drives, operating systems, RAM, and video cards. Since I'm looking at a notebook, weight, battery life, and wireless capabilities are also factors. There are probably a few other criteria that I've missed, but which will no doubt come back to bite my butt in a big way after I fail to consider them. It is maddening.
There are thousands of available configuration permutations. But, hey, this is the information age. Everything is database-driven. Matching configurations is no problem. Yeah, right--like that's going to happen. This vendor offers a 30 GB hard drive with no other choices unless you select a different model, while that vendor offers a 40 GB drive and upgrade options. Vendor x offers only a 32 MB graphics card, vendor y provides the choice of a 32 or 64 MB card, and vendor z offers a 64 or 128 MB card. A common denominator does not exist.
To make matters worse, retail store sites offer only preconfigured models. To match what you found on the vendors' sites you have to look at every machine offered by the retail stores.
After days of around-the-clock searching, you might find one configuration that provides a close, but imperfect basis for comparison. Unfortunately, it's a configuration that you would never consider buying, rendering it useless as a factor in your purchase decision.
Worse, it is a rapidly moving target. Vendors introduce new models and pricing continuously and their "special deals" make comparisons impossible from one day to the next. This week one includes free shipping, while another offers a free memory upgrade, and a third provides some free software. The next week, they kill those deals and introduce new ones, forcing you to reevaluate everything. Of course, each vendor starts its weekly deals on a different day just to confound you.
Unfortunately, it's not just a matter of comparing vendors. You have to decide how much the options are worth to you. One thing that I've learned over my many years of PC ownership is that data and applications expand to fill the processor, storage, and bandwidth available to them in the broader marketplace, regardless of what is actually available on your own meager system. You will regret processor, hard drive, or networking stinginess in the very, very near future--probably before the sun sets.
That having been said, there are limits. At my age, since I don't have any children, it is not much of a gamble to proffer my firstborn as collateral. Nonetheless, I only have so much cash, which means that I have to make choices. I can easily get by with a 30 GB hard drive in my notebook today, so how much is it worth to get a 40 GB drive as a contingency against tomorrow's inevitable needs? (As I suggested above, the word "tomorrow" is not just rhetorical.) I don't have the faintest idea. Please let me know if you have a good formula for assigning those sorts of values. It is enough to make a grown man cry, which I don't want to do because the tears will fry my keyboard. It has to last until I buy a new computer.
I am going to sign off now. I have to go out and buy a dartboard. I've decided to use that as my primary decision-making tool. Either that or maybe I'll just try to keep my tired, pitiful, old PC going for a while longer. The hand-crank really isn't all that inconvenient.