Buying a computer for school

by Alan Zisman (c) 1994. First published in Our Computer Player, October 1994

Back to school last month?

Whether that described you or a member of your family, Fall seems
to mean shopping for notebooks, pen, looseleaf paper, new runners,
and jeans.

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.


You might as well make the most important decision first. No,
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 and
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, you're almost
certainly going to have to budget more. There's a couple of
reasons for this.

-- Many of us have learned in restaurants never to order the
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 "monitor
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 minimum,
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 get a
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 picked,
I'd get too many people mad at me. But here's the difference:

-- Macintosh computers are only made by Apple. They have earned
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
good reason.

-- PCs. This is how I'm referring to the multiple variations of
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 masochist would want to do

Instead, I'd recommend that you ask around-- see what computer
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
else's machine.


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'
t count.

But for PC buyers, your choices have just begun.

You can pick a top-ranked name brand: IBM, COMPAQ, AST, DELL,
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 names, but
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
electronics stores.

Finally, there are the no-name brands. There are literally
hundreds of small computer stores around, most of whom market
computers under a store brand.

If you read the big US-based computer magazines, you've seen
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 what you'll
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 the same
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 shops (and
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.


Some of us need portables... we're travelling around, doing our
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, longer
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 for them.
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 memory, 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 become
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).


What sorts of things should you look for in your purchase?

--  the CPU is the 'brain' of your computer. Both Macs and PCs are available with a range of CPU models. Generally, the higher the model number, the more recent and more powerful the CPU. And each CPU model is available at a range of 'clock speeds'-- how fast they calculate. Faster is better, but also more expensive.

On the Mac
platform, at the lower price ranges, you'll see the traditional 680x0 series of
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 all the
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 Intel's 80x86
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 coming down in price, with Pentium 90s or 99s at the top. A series of 99 mhz 486s 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 hard disk. On both the Mac and PC platforms, starter machines are coming with 4 megs of ram. Don't settle for less than this! More is better. Macs, Windows, and OS/2 machines all perform noticeably better with 8 megs of ram. Currently, ram costs about $55 a meg, and the $250 or so to go from 4 to 8 megs is money well-spent.

-- Hard drives store information, both programs and your documents. 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 possible to cheaply produce higher capacity drives.

The older, 5 1/4" floppy disks are finally starting to disappear from PCs (and were never used on Macintoshes)... you'll do fine with a single, 3 1/2" high density floppy drive, unless you've inherited a pile of programs or documents that are stored on older 5 1/4" disks.

-- Virtually every desktop computer sold today has a colour monitor, and even the worst of them are much better than the colour of half a dozen 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: "Non-interlaced" (This is good. The opposite, "interlaced" produces annoying flicker). "0.28 dot pitch". These days, fewer stores are trying to get away with selling 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 your budget is.


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 other hand, some bundles include older versions, or lesser known (and often hard 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 databases 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 Works more popular on the Mac, and Microsoft Works more popular on the PC. Either provides all the power and features that many of us need, at a price of about $150.

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 photocopies), and original floppy disks, or license agreements if no disks are included. Without these, you do not legally own that software, and will have no right to technical support or low-price upgrades from the software's creator.


You need a printer. The old, noisy dot-matrix models have pretty much disappeared, replaced with inkjets, that quietly spray tiny dots of liquid ink onto paper. These start around $350 for monochrome models, and go up to around $750 for colour models. You'll get somewhat crisper print quality from a laser printer (which works on the same principle as a photocopier), 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 $250 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 price) 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 $1000-2000 in print, this may be a way to go. Still, CD-ROM and sound are making more inroads in the home game and education markets than in the business market. There are many bundles of CD-ROM players, sound cards and speakers, often with a bunch of CD disks included. As with other bundled software, these may be programs that you're not interested in using, but the bundled encyclopedias are often good value.

Besides a CD-ROM based-encyclopedia, if you have an early reader
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 year's standard is the 14.4 khz 'v32bis' modem with fax built in, 6 times as fast 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 models for a few months, as the international standard for these models has not yet been approved.

You may decide to buy a printer now, but add a modem or multi-media kit later.

Many people will find a computer their third most expensive purchase... 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 of the TOASTER PLAYER on the stands, either). But if you take a little time, make your own choices about budget and what you want, and try out before buying, you can make a good choice, without a lot of stress.

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