A chicken in every pot...a PC in every home

by Alan Zisman (c) 1995. First published in Our Computer Player, March 1995

It's tough to be a prophet... you either miss the boat
entirely (like the post-war US commission on computer use that
predicted that 10 'electronic brains' would provide all the
calculating power that nation could use for the foreseeable
future) or you go off the deep end ignoring the time it takes
for new inventions to become more than skin deep.

Last November, Microsoft's Bill Gates gave the keynote address
at the Las Vegas Comdex. He used a high-production video to try
to look at computer use in the year 2005 (and carefully avoided
mentioning any Microsoft products-- a real accomplishment).
Along the way, he pointed out that even in the seeming
whirlwind of change that marks the personal computer
industry, it CAN take a while; Microsoft first announced
Windows in 1983! They held their first conference on CD-ROMs
way back in 1986.

Finally, in the past year, some of these products have
finally started to penetrate the home. A year ago, 20% of
Canadian households had PCs. By the end of 1994, that figure
had doubled. And half of the PCs sold for home use in 1994
had CD-ROMs and sound cards.

Clearly, the home market is maturing. Hardware companies from
Apple to IBM to Compaq have introduced or expanded their
lines of ready-to-run computers marketed in non-traditional
outlets like electronics, furniture, and department stores.

Colour inkjet printers have almost driven dot-matrix models
off the sales charts, and even pushed low-cost lasers into
the background.

Software firms from Microsoft to Novell have produced large
numbers of lower-priced, easier to use software aimed at home
and small business users.


If you haven't yet joined the stampede to get a computer in
your home, you may have wondered about some of things you've
heard. For instance:

-- "If you don't get your children a computer, they'll suffer
in school, and be poorly-prepared for university or the job

Guilt is always a great way to sell products. Especially
guilt about our children.

When I was a teenager, I had a summer job selling
encyclopedias door-to-door. Different product (although the
cost is about the same as a personal computer), but the guilt
remains the same.

Schools are doing a better and better job integrating
computer-use into all subject areas (and if your children's
school isn't-- raise the issue at a parent meeting!) They
recognize that not all homes will have a computer, and many are
trying to meet those needs as part of the curriculum.

At the same time, it is true that word processing is a
valuable tool that can improve your child's written output,
and help them improve their grades. Still, much as the
advertiser's might disapprove, you can do this with a $200-
500 used computer, with low-powered software.

(Your kids want you to get the latest and greatest, but that'
s more so they can play the newest games... if you're
strapped for cash, get a used computer, and let your kids get
a Super-Nintendo or Sega Genesis-- you'll save over a $1000).

Still, if you can afford a new machine, be sure to get a CD-
ROM player (double-speed or better), and a sound-card (16-
bit) and speakers. If you feel that you have to justify it
educationally, get one of the multimedia CD-ROM
encyclopedias (in many cases thrown in with the hardware
purchase). Any of these (Encarta, Groliers/Software
Toolworks, or Comptons) will be a worthwhile addition for
students from late elementary age through high school.

-- "How can I buy a computer today? I hear there'll be a
better model out in a couple of months".

Always true. Still, with that philosophy, you'll never be
able to get a start computing. (Or is this just an excuse to
justify never wanting to start?) Why eat today-- you'll just
be hungry again tomorrow!

Seriously, though... while the computer industry would be
happy if they could convince you to upgrade your hardware
every two years or so, remember, the computer you purchase
today will still be running today's software just fine two,
five, or more years down the road. While it may not (probably
won't) do a credible job of running tomorrow's software, you'
ll have had a computer to work with for several years, while
if you wait, you'll have to do without.

Remember, many people are using several-generations-old
computers to get their work done; even though there are newer
models on the store shelves, an older computer will continue
to work just as well as it ever did. (There are far fewer
things to wear out in a 10 year old computer than in a 10
year old car, for instance).


So, you've decided to buy in. You've got a few decisions.
They can be answered in any order, and ultimately, at least
partly, revolve around money (and what doesn't in this
society of ours?)

-- Mac or PC?

The computing market has changed a lot over the past few
years, but we still get to make this decision. On the one
hand, the various Macintosh models-- cheaper than ever, with,
finally, a high-end series, the PowerMacs, that can hold
their own against the fastest PCs.

Still easier to use, still much easier to add hardware to,
and still, despite price cuts, more expensive than
comparable (clone) PCs. And still a niche product, with an
intensely loyal 10-15% of the market, but seemingly unable to
capture more users than that.

The alternative, with an estimated 140 million machines, is
the huge number of models based on Intel (or clone)
processors, somehow following a standard that evolved from
IBM's PC, XT, and AT models of the early 80s. Easier to use
than 10 years ago, but not as simple as the Mac line-up.
Blessed by a seemingly infinite number of hardware add-ons,
and plagued by hardware incompatibilities. And with intense
competition from manufacturers ranging from huge corporations
to mom & pop outfits working out of the garage, resulting in
slim profit margins, and savings for consumers.

How to decide? Look at what's being used at your workplace,
at your children's school, and by your friends. Think of your
need for compatibility with those places... and buy something
where you can get help from people you know-- where you can
bring a data disk, and know that it can be read.

You can purchase your hardware anywhere from a store in your
neighborhood, to a large discount store. Again, the same
rules apply-- check several sources, and buy where you feel
comfortable. You will probably find yourself going back for
support-- make sure it's someplace where you'll feel like you
can do that.

-- ON the DESK or ON the LAP?

Call 'em laptops or notebooks or whatever you want...
portable computers are what we all want. The idea is so
appealing; have access to the power and information
anywhere-- not just tied to your desk. Just like cell phones,
and for many of the same reasons.

And portables are getting more and more able to replace
desktop models. All but the lowest priced models sport
colour. Ram and hard drive sizes almost match what's offered
on the big iron. You can even get portables with full-sized
CD-ROMs and sound cards built in.

But there's a price. First of all, a real, financial price.
That active matrix colour, multimedia-ready portable I drool
over may
cost as much as $8-10,000 rather than the $2500-3000 for a
comparable desktop. Even with fewer features, add $500-1000
premium for portability.

And while battery life is slowly improving, it's rare to be
able to go more than 3 hours on a charge (and forget even that if
you're using a CD-ROM!) Add a heavy power transformer (
lovingly known as a 'brick'), and plug in to the wall. Makes
it seem a little less free, somehow.

And so the portable that you or I can maybe afford (rather
than the one we want) still has a way to go to match even an
average desktop. The hard drive's smaller... the colour (if
you got colour at all) seems washed out. The screen's too
small, the keyboard's cramped, and the pointing device is harder
to use, and often located in the most peculiar places.

Still, I wish I had one.

-- New or Used?

We've already talked about this one. We all want the newest,
most powerful. Even though we know that this time next year,
it'll be the entry-level bargain system. But what we want isn'
t usually what we can afford.

Buying new, the best price to performance ratio is achieved
buying last year's hot model... currently a 486 DX/66 for
PCs. With Intel just about to release their next generation,
post-Pentium processor as I write, that may change soon to
the 60-66 mhz Pentiums.

Currently, the Mac Quadras probably give the most performance
at a reasonable price, with a second generation of PowerMacs
expected soon. When that happens, the current generation of
PowerMacs will drop in price.

If you're buying new, add in that CD-ROM... it will be more
and more useful. And you won't be satisfied with the 4 megs
of ram listed in all the ads-- get at least 8 (for an
additional $200 or so).

But no matter what you decide, remember, any computer is better than no computer. Be
realistic, be guided by your budget, and stick to it.
Remember to include money for a printer. Buy used if you have

But don't get a computer just because you think you're
supposed to have one... for your sake or the kids. Too many
computers end up in the closet that way.

Even though I sold encyclopedias, my family never had one.
And I turned out okay. (I think).

Search WWW Search www.zisman.ca

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