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Money Classic: Bill Gates Helps You Buy a Computer (1984)

Money is turning 50! To celebrate, we’ve combed through decades of our print magazines to uncover hidden gems, fascinating stories and vintage personal finance tips that have (surprisingly) withstood the test of time. Throughout 2022, we’ll be sharing our favorite finds in Money Classic, a special limited-edition newsletter that goes out twice a month.

This story, featured in the first issue of Money Classic, comes from our 1984 guide to computers.

Buying a computer is easy. Just wander into the store with about $5,000 and tell the salesman that you have a vague feeling that you need a PC. You’ll leave about an hour later loaded like Artoo-Deetoo. Trouble is, you might be back the next day madder than a wet robot for having bought a lot more — or perhaps a lot less — computer than you really need. How to avoid such a plight?

The first step is to understand a few points about the way computers are sold and the people who sell them. The brisk and intimidating manner of many salesmen might lead you to believe that they sell a computer every 10 minutes. But the fact is, they are generally ready to invest a great deal of time on each sale. On average, a computer salesman will spend three hours with a customer before he closes the deal, and a typical customer will make three visits to a computer store before he buys.

Today most personal computers are bought in computer stores, so chances are you will end up doing business with a computer salesman – or as some stores will have it, a “specialist” or “representative.” Who are these people? Some are young, recently graduated science majors eager to cash in on their calculus; others are seasoned salesmen from other markets — cars, encyclopedias or insurance — who have retooled their skills.

What’s in their toolbox? Well, you probably carried their most valuable device into the store with you. This is the overwhelming belief of most customers that a computer is the solution to many of their problems and at the same time it takes them to the world of the future. A virtuoso salesman will play every key on this wishful pipe organ. It’s up to you to separate the sharps from the flats. And this is hard when you don’t know a pixel from a parallel port.

Of course, you can’t expect a salesman to give you a freshman course in computer electronics. But you can, and should, insist that you see the computer or software perform everything he says it will do. Then you should ask that he let you lay your hands on the keyboard and run some software.

Insist on bringing the program into operation from square one, which means starting from a turned off computer with the operating system and a program disk still in their paper sleeves. Don’t let the salesman load them into the computer for you and then have you take over for just the most impressive part. Some programs are so cumbersome and time-consuming to get working that they aren’t worth buying. Should you really insist on actually running each program you want to buy? Unless you’ve had a long and pleasing relationship with the salesman, yes, by all means.

William Gates, co-founder and chairman of Microsoft in Bellevue, Wash., one of the largest software manufacturers in the country, offers this advice on how to locate the right dealer: “Call around and get the names of a few near you. Visit them and put them through a little test.” First, Gates suggests, ask a few questions to see if you can understand the dealer. Lots of specialists know computers inside out but couldn’t explain them to you with a gun to their heads. Some don’t even want to. As in all technologies, you find people who will go to great lengths to make the subject as confusing as possible. If a dealer doesn’t make sense to you, it’s not your fault.