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Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    The timing's never perfect for buying a new computer--new technology always lies ahead


    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #371 December 3, 1996   High Tech Office  column

    Well, I finally broke down and bought a new computer for my home office. I haven't actually shopped in a store for a new computer since 1988, when I got a clone Turbo-XT, running at a not very blazing 10 mHz (black and green monochrome monitor, no hard drive).

    No, it's not been because manufacturers have been beating down my door to give me free hardware in exchange for a favourable plug in this column. And it's not because I've been happily typing away on that old XT. Instead, over the years, I'd upgraded that original system piece by piece, ending up with a 486-66 with 16 megs of RAM, a one-gigabyte hard drive, and a reasonably nice 15-inch monitor. (Upgrading like this reportedly has some tax advantages compared to purchasing completely new systems. As well, it's less noticeable to family members.)

    But what was blazingly fast in 1993 was no longer adequate for some of the new generation of software (more on that later). And because of changes in technology, simply replacing the motherboard for a newer model was no longer an option. I'd also need new RAM, a new video card, and more.

    Finally, it made sense to get a whole new system.

    But there were also good reasons to postpone buying right now: just on the horizon are a number of technical innovations that promise to make significant improvements in next year's models over what's available right now.

    Intel's MMX series of processors promises dramatic improvements in multimedia, 3D, and graphics programs like PhotoShop, for example. Universal Serial Bus and Firewire offer simple new ways to connect new generations of speedy peripheral equipment ranging from hard drives to video input. DVD (digital video disc) promises to replace CD-ROM with high-capacity storage for programs, reference and multimedia.

    But there's always something looming as an excuse to wait. The first generation of all these products will undoubtedly command premium prices with few real options. By the time they become affordable and widespread standards, it will be time for me to upgrade again anyway. And then there are the inevitable bugs.

    My first decision: Mac or PC? While I'd happily use either, I needed to maintain my investment of time and money in PC software and add-on equipment. I continue to be a PC owner.

    The next issue was whether to buy brand versus clone, through a big retailer versus a small store. I chose to buy a clone system from a small store; today's PC is enough of a commodity item that the name on the box doesn't matter as much as it once did--the parts inside are all from respected manufacturers. I got quotes from several local retailers, and wrote my cheque.

    Here's what I decided on: a Pentium-166 processor with 32 megs of RAM, a two-gig hard drive and generic video card, 16-bit sound card, and eight-speed CD-ROM. I could have paid more for a supercharged video card or name-brand sound card, but couldn't convince myself that they were worthwhile at this time. I kept the keyboard, mouse, and monitor from my old system, and retired the 486 to a life of testing multiple operating systems. (It currently has Windows 95, Windows for Workgroups, NT 4.0, and OS/2 Warp all installed on a single hard drive. I'm working at getting Linux, the free Unix clone, onto it as well and then there's Executor, a Mac-emulator that deserves more experimentation.)

    My new computer is not cutting-edge, and didn't cost me a cutting-edge price. But it is dramatically faster and more powerful than the system it replaced.

    While I've bad-mouthed eight-speed CD-ROMs in this column, I certainly noticed the increased speed: when installing software from the CD, it seems nearly as fast as a hard drive.

    I'd mentioned earlier that I wanted a more powerful computer to deal with newer software. Initially at least, this software was actually my 12-year-old's latest games. Games are increasingly driving the home market, as they make more demands on system resources than most office productivity software.

    But before the tax people notice this paragraph and make a note in their files, office software isn't far behind. I've received a beta version of Microsoft's upcoming Office 97 upgrade, and it too makes that old 486 feel inadequate.



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