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So your favorite Uncle Sam has left you some money this year. Maybe, just maybe, it is time to upgrade your 1984 computer. After all, there have been a few changes in the last 12 years, and even your children use better computers than you use.

The first thing you need to do is figure out what to buy. A quick search of the World Wide Web pops up several places with information on buying a computer. One of them is Ben Davies, "The Computer Guy." Davies lays out what to look for in buying a computer. His specific references are to hardware for the Windows platform, but his basic points would help you buy a Macintosh too.Once you have an idea of what you want to buy, you can do some comparison shopping through the Web, although actually ordering is nearly impossible, at least from the major manufacturers.

Apple, Compaq and IBM all have Web sites, but comparison shopping is hard, pricing information is sketchy at best and the system specifications read like repackaged product literature. IBM does provide a number you can call to get updated information faxed back to you, something that seems quite odd for a Web site.

Dell's site, on the other hand, is quite good and now contains the "Dell Configurator." If you have an idea of the computer specifications you want - 32 megabytes of random access memory, for instance, or a particularly fancy sound card - choose the appropriate items from the drop-down lists and click on the "add it up" button.

The price will appear, as well as phone numbers to place an order. This is great if you have a price limit and want to play the sort of "what if" game that tends to annoy the average salesperson.

Gateway 2000, whose spotted-cow theme is dotted all over its site, also has a configuration and price utility. Choose the basic computer you want and you will get a list of options to add to (or remove from) that configuration. Gateway's prices and features appear to be updated often, so check here and play the what-if game to get the current list.

The prices are quite good and the ability to fiddle, both here and at Dell, makes it easier to stay within a budget. As with Dell, you need to pick up the phone to place an order.

If you do not want a Dell or Gateway and still want to use the Web to shop, turn to the mail-order catalog companies. Most of them have Web sites, although you may need to call the company or look at a catalog to get the address.

Computer Discount Warehouse allows you to order items across the Net and allows for a minimum of comparison shopping. As with many companies doing Internet commerce, orders are confirmed with a return phone call and payment information is handled by phone.

Insight uses a secure server and assigns a customer number. The company, like many on-line shopping services, uses a shopping-basket metaphor, allowing you to add items to or remove them from the basket before submitting the order.

The really adventurous can build a machine by going through Maxsol, which takes you through each part in the computer, ranging from "Pentium PCI MB,Triton CS.,256k Cache+EIDEIO-ASUS" to "101-Key Tactile Enhanced Keyboard W/Calculator-Focus." If you understand all that, it might be for you.