How to purchase hardware: Shopping for computers
by Alan Zisman (c) 1992. First published in Our Computer Player,
If you've picked up this paper, you've probably got
some interest in
computers. Maybe you're thinking about getting one. If so, this is a
time to start looking. Prices have been tumbling all summer, and you
purchase better performance for fewer dollars than ever before.
In order to make a good choice, you should start by
a few questions. This is not a test... there are no right or wrong
Should I even bother?
First, do you really need a computer? What do you
expect it to do for
you? In the early 1980's, consumers were told that they "had to have a
home computer". Many people rushed out to buy that era's Commodore 64s,
Apple IIs, and IBM PC-jrs, as well as more obscure machines like the
Adam or the Texas Instruments TI-44. When they got them home, they
discovered that their new machines certainly could balance the home
and file recipes, as they were advertised to, but why bother? It was
to put the recipes on file cards, or use a $10 calculator for the
These computers still show up at Flea Markets and garage sales with
For a high school or college student or the owner of a
however, a computer can still be a worthwhile purchase. I'm not going
try to convince you of that... look around and talk to your friends.
if they have computers, and whether they recommend them to you. Just
buy one because of a vague sense that you "ought to have one".
What kind of computer?
As long as you're talking to your friends and
co-workers, see what kind
of computers they have. There are only a few major kinds of personal
around, and one of the best ways to decide what kind to get is to get
same kind as most of the people you know who use computers. That way,
you have a question (and you will!), you've got a ready-made support
to help you. The most widely used kinds of computers are:
-- IBM PC and compatible ("PCs"). These represent
about 90% of the home
and office computers around. There are literally hundreds of brand
ranging from very well-known to very obscure. In this highly
market, you can safely ignore brand names entirely and focus instead on
price, performance, and support. While PCs have a reputation of being
to learn on then some of their competitors, their wide availability
you can always find software to do whatever job you have in mind, and
always find someone to help you over the rough spots. As well, these
have the lowest prices for these computers and add-on hardware
Finally, new software, such as Microsoft Windows, is making these
much less intimidating.
-- Apple MacIntosh. This is the other standard. It is
the original graphical
computer, offering an ease of use that PCs with Windows are still
at. Macs are only made by Apple, however, and even after recent price
are still quite a bit more expensive than equivalent PCs. Only a few
sell Macs, although Apple is starting to get them into some of the
'superstores'. There is quite a bit of first-rate software available,
if you need speciality software, you may not be able to find it. Macs
the "industry-standard" for graphics and publishing.
-- Others. Commodore Amigas are excellent machines,
that have only really
found a real home in producing video special effects. Ataris are often
used by aspiring musicians, as they support the musical MIDI standard
additional hardware. Both of these product lines are more widely used
Europe than in North America. Again, they are only available from a
manufacturer, and sold in a limited number of stores and there is less
broad a range of software and periperals compared to PCs or Macs.
Any of these machines can be used to get real work
done; see what's
being used at your school, work, or by your friends (though if you
on the PC-compatibles, you don't need to try to get the same brand
Although you won't go wrong choosing a Mac or an Amiga, I'm going to
the rest of the article on purchasing a PC.
What can you afford?
How much money do you want to spend? You can buy a
machine that will
let you do primarily word processing for under a thousand dollars. For
many people, this may be all they need. The computer industry wants us
all to feel like we NEED the biggest and best, that we have to be
to run software of the future. And there's a new generation of computer
about every 6 months, it seems. Despite this, many people are being
productive using older computers and software, as they aren't spending
their time learning to use new products, and are simply getting work
So should you buy a used computer, then? For most
people, the answer
is simple. No. I'd suggest that you buy new, rather than used. New
prices are tumbling so fast that owners of older computers often ask
for them than the price of a better NEW model. And with a new computer
you get a warranty, and (hopefully) support, as well as a more modern
And the way prices are dropping, a computer that was a $10,000 high end
dream machine only two years ago can often be bought for under $2,000
Finally, when you're planning your budget, remember to
for software. Software isn't free. It's illegal to copy from your
or from your work (in some cases, you CAN legally have a copy of your
programs installed on your machine at home--- check the individual
If the store where you're getting your machine has installed software
your harddrive, make sure that you get original floppy disks and
Otherwise, it is not legal, and you can not expect technical support or
updates from the software manufacturer.
Portables, laptops, notebooks. Everyone wants one. The
idea of not being
tied to a desk is seductive. But do you need one? Here's the down side
-- even though portables, too, are getting much cheaper, they will
still cost you about $1000 extra for the same performance as a desktop
computer. And if you want to add memory, or get a modem, or a larger
drive, you'll have to pay more again then if you had a desktop.
-- video screens are often dim and hard to read. Look at the screen
carefully before you buy, and imagine trying to use it for a long
of time. Make sure you get a VGA screen; CGA or "double-scanned" CGA
simply not acceptable! Color screens are just starting to appear, at a
price premium. "Passive matrix" colour screens are more affordable, but
look washed out. "Active matrrix" technology is still pricy, and uses
your battery sooner.
-- battery time is limited, often under 3 hours before you have to
-- keyboards have smaller keys and feel less natural to touch typists.
In many cases, you'll have to learn to use new combinations of keys to
get familiar function keys. Be prepared to have to set up a flimsy
if you want to use a mouse. (The new MacIntosh portables have a nice
built into the keyboard).
Despite all this, many people are willing to spend
more, and put up
with these frustrations for the joy of taking their computer
To Window or Not to Window
So your big question is can you be happy with the
word processing and spreadsheets of the '80s, or do you think your
use will expand with time? Many computer users find that even if they
off thinking their needs were limited, as they get comfortable with
computer they start to use it in more and more ways, and want more and
more. Other users, however, find one application, get that job done,
have no need or interest in doing anything else.
If all you can ever imagine doing with a computer is
be happy with a sub-$1000 machine... a 286 or 386-SX with a meg of
and a 40 meg harddrive. (A 286 was a powerhouse in 1985, but is barely
adequate for much of today's software).
However, users of PC's in the '90s are changing the
way they've been
using their computers. Graphical interfaces, long standard on the
and Amigas, have come to the PC along with Windows from Microsoft and
from IBM. While both of these software packages allow you to use the
software that many users already own, they really come into their own
software designed for them. You may be thinking "I just want to type a
letter--- what's graphical about that?" Take a look at one of the new
of graphical word processors... Lotus's Ami Pro, or Microsoft's Word
Windows for example. Both of these products use menus and icons that
the common word processing chores. They also show on-screen how your
will look when it's printed, making it much easier to produce
output the first time.
Both Windows and OS/2 also go a long way to simplify
functions of DOS that have confused many new computer users. As well,
let computers use all of the on-board memory, while DOS is limited to
for most uses.
All this added ability takes added computer power,
however. The mid-'80s
workhorse, the Turbo-XT, a PC-clone with 640k memory, a 20 meg hard
monochrome video, and a 10 mhz 8088 CPU chip (I know, I know... more
can't be bought new anymore (and is only worth a couple of hundred
used-- but I know some schools that will happily accept donations !). A
machine to run today's current generation of Windows software should
at least 4 meg of memory, a 105 meg hard drive, and a 20 mhz 386-SX
And insist on at least VGA graphics. And this is a realistic minimum
OS/2, for instance, needs 4 megs of memory just to load; if you want to
get any work done, you should have more memory. (This isn't just the
for PC's... Apple's new System 7 for the Mac isn't worth running on a
with less than 4 meg of memory). Luckily, this seemingly high-powered
can be purchased for less that that Turbo-XT five years ago.
Where to get it?
Canada doesn't have the huge mail-order computer
market that you find
in the States. Instead, at least in the Vancouver area, we have a huge
number of small computer retailers, resulting in fierce price
that benefits the consumer. Feel free to shop around; look for a store
where you feel comfortable to ask questions, where the sales-people
knowledgeable, and where the store seems to have been in business a
A computer is a large purchase, and you need to know that you'll be
to get support when you need it.
Some things to watch out for
1) Misleading ads. Because this is such a competitive
market, some dealers
have taken to advertising systems at what appear to be amazingly low
In many cases, they've done this by leaving things out. Is a hard drive
included in the price? How big? For most people, the 40 meg drive
in some ads will prove to be too small. How much memory? 1 meg? You'll
probably want to add more. Is there a monitor? What kind?
2) The VGA monitor trick. Monitors seem to play the
same role in computer
ads that speakers do in cheap stereo systems; dealers often
advertise solid systems with poor quality monitors. One thing to look
for is "dot-pitch" -- how big are the dots that make up the letters and
pictures. A good VGA monitor should have a dot-pitch of at least .31mm.
Smaller is better--- text and pictures will be made up of smaller dots,
and will be easier on the eyes. Some 'bargain' computers that I've seen
have been bundled with monitors with dot-pitch as high as .58mm. If you
can't afford a reasonable quality colour VGA monitor now, you're better
off with an inexpensive monochrome VGA monitor now, rather than a bad
one. (But if you're getting a monochrome monitor, make sure it's VGA,
not "Hercules" or "monographics".)
By the way, even if you think you don't NEED colour,
if you can afford
it, consider getting it anyway. Good colour makes all sorts of
even simple word processing, much more enjoyable, and makes it possible
to stare at that screen for longer periods at a time. And if you have
they'll thank you. (Put the money you save by not buying a Nintendo
a colour monitor).
Some personal conclusions
1) For most people, the best power for the price will
come from buying
a PC clone. (There's no good reason to pay more for a three-letter name
brand). If you're working predominently in desktop publishing or
check out a Mac, but see if you can get the same capabilities from a PC
for 60% of the cost. If you're doing video production, look at the
and if you're a musician with a home studio, consider the Atari. If in
doubt, get what your co-workers or friends are using.
2) Look at the new Windows software in action. If it
leaves you cold,
you can probably get by with a sub-$1000 286 CPU with 1 meg of memory,
and a 40 meg hard drive. But be aware that more powerful machines,
graphical software, are where personal computing is headed. Do yourself
a favor. Get as fast a machine, with as much memory, and as big a hard
drive as you can afford.
3) For most users, today's standard is a (here comes
the jargon again),
a 386DX-33 with 4 meg of memory and a 105 meg hard drive. VGA or
of course. This one-time high end machine is readily available from a
number of local dealers at a surprisingly affordable price. For a
bit more, add more memory, and get a bigger hard drive to be ready for
the NEXT generation of software.
4) There's always a good reason NOT to buy right
now... there's always
a new generation of hardware right around the corner, and prices are
coming down. But if you wait until next year, you're going to miss a
worth of productivity. And next year, you'll be able to make the same
to avoid buying.