How to purchase hardware: Shopping for computers

by Alan Zisman (c) 1992. First published in Our Computer Player, September 18, 1992

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 good time to start looking. Prices have been tumbling all summer, and you can purchase better performance for fewer dollars than ever before.

In order to make a good choice, you should start by asking yourself a few questions. This is not a test... there are no right or wrong answers.

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 Coleco Adam or the Texas Instruments TI-44. When they got them home, they often discovered that their new machines certainly could balance the home checkbook and file recipes, as they were advertised to, but why bother? It was simpler to put the recipes on file cards, or use a $10 calculator for the checkbook. These computers still show up at Flea Markets and garage sales with some regularity.

For a high school or college student or the owner of a small business, however, a computer can still be a worthwhile purchase. I'm not going to try to convince you of that... look around and talk to your friends. See if they have computers, and whether they recommend them to you. Just don't 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 computers around, and one of the best ways to decide what kind to get is to get the same kind as most of the people you know who use computers. That way, when you have a question (and you will!), you've got a ready-made support network 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 names, ranging from very well-known to very obscure. In this highly competitive market, you can safely ignore brand names entirely and focus instead on price, performance, and support. While PCs have a reputation of being harder to learn on then some of their competitors, their wide availability means you can always find software to do whatever job you have in mind, and can always find someone to help you over the rough spots. As well, these computers have the lowest prices for these computers and add-on hardware ("peripherals"). Finally, new software, such as Microsoft Windows, is making these computers 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 aiming at. Macs are only made by Apple, however, and even after recent price cuts, are still quite a bit more expensive than equivalent PCs. Only a few stores sell Macs, although Apple is starting to get them into some of the electronic 'superstores'. There is quite a bit of first-rate software available, but if you need speciality software, you may not be able to find it. Macs are 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 without additional hardware. Both of these product lines are more widely used in Europe than in North America. Again, they are only available from a single 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 decide on the PC-compatibles, you don't need to try to get the same brand name). Although you won't go wrong choosing a Mac or an Amiga, I'm going to focus 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 prepared 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 more productive using older computers and software, as they aren't spending their time learning to use new products, and are simply getting work done.

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 computer prices are tumbling so fast that owners of older computers often ask more 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 design. 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 today.

Finally, when you're planning your budget, remember to include money for software. Software isn't free. It's illegal to copy from your friends or from your work (in some cases, you CAN legally have a copy of your work programs installed on your machine at home--- check the individual license. If the store where you're getting your machine has installed software on your harddrive, make sure that you get original floppy disks and manuals. Otherwise, it is not legal, and you can not expect technical support or updates from the software manufacturer.

Go Portable?

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 of portables:
-- 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 hard 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 period of time. Make sure you get a VGA screen; CGA or "double-scanned" CGA are 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 up your battery sooner.
-- battery time is limited, often under 3 hours before you have to recharge.
-- 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 mini-trackball if you want to use a mouse. (The new MacIntosh portables have a nice trackball 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 everywhere.

To Window or Not to Window

So your big question is can you be happy with the simple, text-only word processing and spreadsheets of the '80s, or do you think your computer use will expand with time? Many computer users find that even if they started off thinking their needs were limited, as they get comfortable with their 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, and have no need or interest in doing anything else.

If all you can ever imagine doing with a computer is typing, you'll be happy with a sub-$1000 machine... a 286 or 386-SX with a meg of memory, 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 MacIntosh and Amigas, have come to the PC along with Windows from Microsoft and OS/2 from IBM. While both of these software packages allow you to use the DOS software that many users already own, they really come into their own running 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 generation of graphical word processors... Lotus's Ami Pro, or Microsoft's Word for Windows for example. Both of these products use menus and icons that simplify the common word processing chores. They also show on-screen how your letter will look when it's printed, making it much easier to produce professional-looking output the first time.

Both Windows and OS/2 also go a long way to simplify the file-management functions of DOS that have confused many new computer users. As well, they let computers use all of the on-board memory, while DOS is limited to 640k 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 drive, monochrome video, and a 10 mhz 8088 CPU chip (I know, I know... more jargon) can't be bought new anymore (and is only worth a couple of hundred dollars used-- but I know some schools that will happily accept donations !). A machine to run today's current generation of Windows software should have at least 4 meg of memory, a 105 meg hard drive, and a 20 mhz 386-SX CPU. And insist on at least VGA graphics. And this is a realistic minimum standard. 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 case for PC's... Apple's new System 7 for the Mac isn't worth running on a machine with less than 4 meg of memory). Luckily, this seemingly high-powered machine 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 competition that benefits the consumer. Feel free to shop around; look for a store where you feel comfortable to ask questions, where the sales-people seem knowledgeable, and where the store seems to have been in business a while. A computer is a large purchase, and you need to know that you'll be able 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 prices. 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 mentioned 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 colour one. (But if you're getting a monochrome monitor, make sure it's VGA, and 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 computing, 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 children, they'll thank you. (Put the money you save by not buying a Nintendo into 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 graphics, 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 Amiga, 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, running 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 Super-VGA of course. This one-time high end machine is readily available from a large number of local dealers at a surprisingly affordable price. For a little 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 always coming down. But if you wait until next year, you're going to miss a year's worth of productivity. And next year, you'll be able to make the same arguement to avoid buying.

Search WWW Search

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