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    Faster computers, smarter computers and smaller computers, but not cheaper computers

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #298  July 11, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    Computers and all things computer-related just get cheaper and cheaper and more and more powerful, right? Well, maybe half right.

    The original IBM-PC came with 16 kb of ram, and cost about $2,000. A single floppy drive was extra. Eventually, you could add a 10-meg hard drive, but that cost almost as much as the original machine.

    The next generation, the IBM-AT, arrived in 1984 and its price led the then-editor of PC Magazine: to coin Machrone's Law: "The computer you want always costs $5,000." (And that was U.S. dollars.)

    Computers haven't got any cheaper: the popular home and office model still costs around $2,000, and the latest and (briefly) greatest still tends to cost around $5,000. Of course, you're getting a lot more for those prices now: another computer cliché--Moore's Law, coined by one of Intel's founders--claims that computers double in power every 18 months.

    But let's look at notebooks. I recently spent some time with a high-end Pentium-90-powered model, and concluded that much as I liked it, I couldn't really justify the price, or even the power for the sort of computing I was doing. Still, I'm enamored of the idea of portable computers, and pretty much decided I should buy one. So I gave myself a budget, and set out to see if I could meet my needs (if not my wants) within it. I figured I could spend $2,000, and I knew that the last time I looked, there were a few models within that price range.

    There were a few things I definitely wanted: a 486 processor; at least four megs of ram (with the possibility of expanding to eight later); a hard drive large enough to store some realistic quantity of programs; and, most of all, a usable keyboard, and a pointing device that I could live with--some notebooks come with no pointing device at all or a tiny trackball in some unreachable corner. And on top of that, I wanted a couple of PC-Card slots. I was willing to give up colour.

    The last time I toyed with the idea of a laptop, there were at least a couple of name-brand models being sold in Vancouver with most of those features: the Compaq Aero for around $1,400 and an AST for a few hundred dollars more. An IBM with a colour screen was going for around $2,000, and since the computer industry progresses, I figured I should be able to find the same models at a lesser price, or more powerful models at the same price.

    So I checked at several prominent local dealers. A&B Sound stocked a colour Compaq Contura 401C for $2,899, a Toshiba T1960CT for $2,999 and an AST Ascentia 810N for $3,299. Fine products all, I'm sure, but not within the budget. Future Shop offered a similar range for similar prices, adding an NEC VersaV to the product mix, but at the same price point. Ditto for London Drugs, though it did stock a Toshiba 2100 monochrome for about $2,200. (A&B found a monochrome AST model in the warehouse for $2,300, while Doppler also had the Toshiba in stock). But add in the assorted taxes, and the price was up around $2,600--still too far over budget.

    It seems that while I had been dithering, an entire price point--the under-$2,000 notebook--disappeared. There are several reasons for this. Colour screens are more attractive and, it seems, more popular: the manufacturers are sure that customers are prepared to pay an extra thousand dollars or so for colour. As well, virtually all portable screens are made in Japan, and the high Japanese yen has boosted prices. The Osaka earthquake has affected supply as well.

    There was a single notebook model available within my budget--an Apple Powerbook 150, advertised for $1,899 at one of the major retailers, but the problems of mixing PCs and Macs kept me away from this purchase.

    What happened? Well, a year or two ago, you could get a low-end 486 desktop system from IBM or AST, with 4 meg of ram, monitor, and so forth for about $1,700. Today's minimum standard is a more realistic 486-66 with 8 megs, and a larger hard drive. And this has pushed the bottom-line price above that magic $2,000 line to about $2,300. By the fall, the minimum supported machine will be a Pentium, probably pushing up the low end once again.

    In the long run, I'd expect prices to drop again, but not any time soon. Ram prices especially are expected to slowly rise, partly because of the Osaka earthquake, but also due to increased consumer demand--far too many machines are being advertised and sold with four megs of ram, which consumers are going to find inadequate as they switch to systems running Windows 95 or Warp.

    Machrone's Law is still in force--the machine I want would probably cost me $5,000 after adding ram, a big enough hard drive, a PC-Card modem and all. So for now, I'll just wait and see if that under-$2,000 price point ever comes back.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan