Buying a computer for school
by Alan Zisman (c)
in Our Computer Player, October 1994
Back to school last month?
Whether that described you or a member of your family,
to mean shopping for notebooks, pen, looseleaf paper, new runners,
And for an increasing number of families, it's time to
look for a
And that means decisions, decisions, decisions. Let's
try to help
sort them out.
HOW MUCH TO SPEND?
You might as well make the most important decision
not what colour will the case be... like Model T Fords, you get
no choice here, but how much to spend.
You may have heard that computers are getting cheaper
cheaper... well, that's not really true. Computer POWER is
getting cheaper and cheaper, but the actual price points seem to
remain about the same over the past few years. The difference is
that you'll get more power for the same money.
And despite what you think you've seen in the ads,
certainly going to have to budget more. There's a couple of
reasons for this.
-- Many of us have learned in restaurants never to
cheapest wine. You'll have a much better experience with the
wine that's a little bit more expensive. Similarly with computer
ads. For example, (not to name names, but...) there's the large
local retailer that always advertises one system at an amazingly low
price. But when you get to the store, that demonstration model
refuses to boot up. Hard to make a confident purchase on that
-- Read the fine print. Many ads say, in tiny letters
extra". Or include a barely usable monitor. For years, Apple
systems didn't include keyboards in the system prices. Many PCs
charged extra for the operating system.
-- Most of us need more than just a computer. At a
budget something for a printer. Do you want a modem? What about
software? To say nothing about taxes.
For many purchasers, the $1300 starter system that
they saw in
the ad will end up costing about $2000. Plan on spending extra
if you want multimedia-- CD-ROM player, sound card and speakers.
So basicly, the budgetting decision becomes whether to
more or less $2000 'entry-level' system, or a more or less $
3000 'power-user' system. Once you've made that decision, you're
on to the next level:
MAC or PC?
Now that Amiga is no more, it's a two-way platform
race. Mac or
I'm not going to play favorites here... no matter what
I'd get too many people mad at me. But here's the difference:
-- Macintosh computers are only made by Apple. They
the reputation of being easier to operate, and easier to add to
than PCs. On the other hand, they remain pricier, even after a
series of price cuts by Apple. And there are fewer choices of
software in some categories, including educational, children's,
and games software. Mac users, however, often become ferociously
proud and loyal of their choice of computer platform, and with
-- PCs. This is how I'm referring to the multiple
machines that are produced to be compatible with what started
out as the IBM PC standard. They're made by hundreds (if not
more) of manufacturers, in a fiercely competitive market. With
the addition of newer graphical environments such as Windows or
OS/2, they've become easier to use... still not as easy as the
Mac, but close enough for many. With over 100 million PCs, they
represent about 85% of the market.
It used to be that if you wanted colour, you had to
get a PC,
and if you wanted to work with graphics, you chose a Mac.
Neither of these are true any longer. You may have seen Apple's
ads claiming that you can run PC software on your Mac. This is
also not really true-- it can be done, but so slowly that only a
would want to do
Instead, I'd recommend that you ask around-- see what
platform is being used at school, or at work, or by most of your
friends. Go with that platform. You'll appreciate it the first
time you need to get help, or try to use your data on someone
BRAND NAME vs. NO NAME?
If you want a Macintosh, this isn't a question. There
are no Mac
clones, unless you think of Windows that way, which really doesn'
But for PC buyers, your choices have just begun.
You can pick a top-ranked name brand: IBM, COMPAQ,
maybe one or two others. You know that you've got an
international corporation behind your machine, and, even with
shrinking prices, you're prepared to pay for that
satisfaction... often paying as much as a Mac owner.
Or you can choose the 'second tier'... still brand
less well-known, and somewhat less-pricy. Datatrain, Packard-
Bell, and a number of Japanese or Korean companies, who often
make stereos or VCRs as well. Most often found in the big
Finally, there are the no-name brands. There are
hundreds of small computer stores around, most of whom market
computers under a store brand.
If you read the big US-based computer magazines,
lots of ads for mail-order computers, from big companies like
Gateway 2000, or from small unknowns. The 'direct-mail' channel
hasn't really caught on here, although with free trade and all,
there's nothing stopping you from ordering a computer this way.
On the other hand, there's not much difference between a store
brand bought around the corner, or ordered over the phone except
that it's easier to deal with problems directly with the store
around the corner.
However you choose to buy, ask about warranty, and
have to do if something goes wrong. You may be surprised to find
that you'll get the best service from a good local shop... until
recently, some of the biggest name brands had awful, or in some
cases, non-existent support.
And virtually all PCs, from no-name to big-name, use
components... so there's not necessarily any quality advantage
in buying a name brand. As well, some of the name brands
assemble these components in a way that make it impossible to
upgrade unless you buy your parts from them... again at premium
Yes, I'll admit to a bias in favor of local computer
not just because they're likey to advertise here). My advise is
to shop around, and find a store where you'd feel comfortable
asking for help if (or when) you need it.
DESKTOP OR PORTABLE?
Some of us need portables... we're travelling around,
work anywhere we happen to be. Some of us want portables...
they're a status symbol for the '90s, along with a cell phone.
Portables are getting better and better-- lighter,
battery life, better screens and keyboards. Still, you'll pay a
penalty-- at any given price point, you'll get a slower
computer, with a smaller keyboard and hard drive, and a screen
that's is harder on your eyes. And portables are high status
articles for theft, as well.
You can get colour portables, but you'll pay a premium
The best are 'active matrix'. They're also the most expensive by
a large margin, and many models are back-ordered. Double-scan
passive matrix screens are a lot cheaper, and pretty good. But
you'll still pay $1000 or more, if you choose colour. Portables are
generally more expensive to upgrade as well, when you want to add
or other peripherals.
With all portables, try and take some time before
buying... run several
programs and look at the screen. Can you view it clearly, from
different angles? Try typing. Do your fingers have problems with
the smaller keys? And how about the pointing device (there IS a
built-in pointing device, isn't there?) Is it poorly located?
Overall, is this a machine that you think you can
comfortable using? (In fact, do the same sorts of tests if you'
re buying a desktop machine-- try our the keyboard, the mouse,
the monitor... just like taking a car out for a test drive).
LET'S GET TECHNICAL
What sorts of things should you look for in your
-- the CPU is the 'brain' of your computer. Both
Macs and PCs
are available with a range of CPU models. Generally, the higher the
number, the more recent and more powerful the CPU. And each CPU model
available at a range of 'clock speeds'-- how fast they calculate.
is better, but also more expensive.
On the Mac
platform, at the lower price ranges, you'll see the traditional 680x0
chips, with the 68030 or 68040 being current. Newer, and more powerful,
are the Power-Macs, with a PowerPC chip. While these machines will run
standard Mac software, they really need new, PowerMac versions
to perform at their best. These are slowly becoming available,
but until then, you'll pay a premium without getting much better
Macintosh model designations have been changing
rapidly, but in
general, LCs are 'lower cost' desktops, with colour screens.
Quadras started life as super-expensive dream machines, but now
occupy the middle of the range, both in price and power, with
the Power Macs at the high end.
On the PC side of the fence, you'll see chips from
series (or clones)... the 386, 486, and Pentium (aka 586). It's
hard to find a 386 for sale any longer. Chips may be described
as "SX" or "DX", with the DX chips more powerful, and pricier.
Some 486 machines claim to be upgradeable to a Pentium, but the
chip to make this happen isn't available, and many experts think
this is a questionable strategy at best.
Look for machines with 486SX-25 to DX-33 chips at the
low end, and 486DX-66
in the middle. Pentium machines running at 60 or 66 mhz are rapidly
down in price, with Pentium 90s or 99s at the top. A series of 99 mhz
briefly appeared, but then seem to have vanished, pushed off the market
as 60 mhz Pentiums got to the same price point.
-- RAM is the computer's memory. The more ram, the
more task the computer
can do without having to stop to read instructions or data from the
disk. On both the Mac and PC platforms, starter machines are coming
4 megs of ram. Don't settle for less than this! More is better. Macs,
and OS/2 machines all perform noticeably better with 8 megs of ram.
ram costs about $55 a meg, and the $250 or so to go from 4 to 8 megs is
-- Hard drives store information, both programs and
Programs are getting bigger and bigger, but luckily, hard drive prices
are falling. You'll want at least a 200 meg hard drive... and many PCs
are now coming standard with 340 meg drives. Predictions are that hard
drive prices are set to quickly tumble, as new technologies make it
to cheaply produce higher capacity drives.
The older, 5 1/4" floppy disks are finally starting to
PCs (and were never used on Macintoshes)... you'll do fine with a
3 1/2" high density floppy drive, unless you've inherited a pile of
or documents that are stored on older 5 1/4" disks.
-- Virtually every desktop computer sold today has a
and even the worst of them are much better than the colour of half a
years ago. Still, some stores manage to advertise what seem like great
deals by including so-so monitors. (Stereo stores use speakers the same
way). Toss around these couple of buzz-words with the salespeople:
(This is good. The opposite, "interlaced" produces annoying flicker).
dot pitch". These days, fewer stores are trying to get away with
0.38 or even 0.45 dot pitch monitors, where text is grainy, and hard to
read at small sizes, but it never hurts to check.
The CPU, the ram, the hard drive, and the monitor are
the basics of
your system. Your job is to try to get the best of each, at whatever
SOFTWARE? ISN'T THAT INCLUDED?
Some packages will include software bundled into the
deal. And if that's
software that you think you'll want to use, that's a bonus. On the
hand, some bundles include older versions, or lesser known (and often
to use) programs. In that case, it'll only leave you frustrated.
Make sure that the operating system is included, and
loaded on your
hard drive. Mac System 7, or DOS 6.2 and Windows 3.1 on a PC.
And most home or students users should take a look at
a so-called 'integrated'
software package. These include word processors, spreadsheets, and
in a single program, trading some of the power of separate programs for
convenience, and a single, low price.
The best known of these packages are Microsoft Works
and Claris Works.
Both are available for both the Mac, and PC (Windows)... with Claris
more popular on the Mac, and Microsoft Works more popular on the PC.
provides all the power and features that many of us need, at a price of
I'm not going to rec ommend other specific software
for home or
educational use... there's too much, and most of it is specific
for age or platform.
Some stores will sell machines with tons of software
pre-loaded on the
hard drives. Look to see if you get original documentation (not
and original floppy disks, or license agreements if no disks are
Without these, you do not legally own that software, and will have no
to technical support or low-price upgrades from the software's creator.
STILL MORE THINGS TO BUY
You need a printer. The old, noisy dot-matrix models
have pretty much
disappeared, replaced with inkjets, that quietly spray tiny dots of
ink onto paper. These start around $350 for monochrome models, and go
to around $750 for colour models. You'll get somewhat crisper print
from a laser printer (which works on the same principle as a
but only in black and white, and with prices starting at about $650 and
going up to $2000 or so.
Have you gotten the multi-media bug yet? A sound card
and speakers adds
a lot to games, and to many educational programs at a cost of about
or so. Look for 16-bit sound, and 'Sound Blaster' compatibility. 'Wave
Table' sound is the newest buzz word, that will improve sound (at a
over older models.
A CD-ROM player, starting at $250 lets you run
programs stored on CD
disks. With encyclopedias costing about $150-200 on CD, compared to
in print, this may be a way to go. Still, CD-ROM and sound are making
inroads in the home game and education markets than in the business
There are many bundles of CD-ROM players, sound cards and speakers,
with a bunch of CD disks included. As with other bundled software,
may be programs that you're not interested in using, but the bundled
are often good value.
Besides a CD-ROM based-encyclopedia, if you have an
in the family, take a look at Broderbund's 'Living Books'
series... titles like "Just GrandMa and Me" or "Arthur's Teacher
Trouble" will give your 3-8 year old hours of learning disguised
as enjoyment. On the other hand, I've still got to question
paying $50-60 for the computer-based version of a $3.95 book...
even with lots of cute animations added in.
Want to explore the 'information superhighway'? You'll
need a modem.
Here again, prices are dropping, as new, faster models emerge. This
standard is the 14.4 khz 'v32bis' modem with fax built in, 6 times as
as the 2400 bps standard of just a few years ago, but widely available
for $150-200. I'd recommend avoiding the faster, pricier 28.8 khz
for a few months, as the international standard for these models has
yet been approved.
You may decide to buy a printer now, but add a modem
Many people will find a computer their third most
far less money than a house, and less than a car. It's still not quite
an off-the-shelf commodity like a toaster (you don't find free copies
the TOASTER PLAYER on the stands, either). But if you take a little
make your own choices about budget and what you want, and try out
buying, you can make a good choice, without a lot of stress.