Computer hype is enough to make consumers

heed that old Pat Benatar tune and 'get evil' July 1 1997

I recently gave another listen to sometime-rocker Pat Benatar's 1991 CD Truelove, where, in a change of pace, she covers a series of 1940s and '50s jump blues tunes. Not a bad set, though nowhere near as good, to my ears at least, as the similar album Vancouver's Colin James did on the same theme a few years later.

I hear you muttering, "What does that have to do with computers?" Well, the answer is in the chorus to the tune "I Get Evil," which repeatedly warns "Don't you lie to me." Consider this:

Just because they call it something doesn't make it so. For example, so-called 56-kbps modems: The reality is that, at best, these can attain 53-kbps speeds, but they are more likely to get speeds in the mid-40s -- and that's with a good connection. Any noise on the line, and performance drops to that of last generation's 33.6-kbps modems, or even lower -- nowhere near the implied double speeds. (Very tiny print on the packaging admits as much.)

What about CD-ROM speeds? It depends where you measure. With new 16-speed models, using the common 'Constant Angular Velocity' technology, CD-ROM speed varies according to where on the disc the reading is being done. It's 16-speed at the edge of the disc, but only eight-speed near the centre, where most of the data is stored. Some ads are now discussing a drive's 'average' speed, which is a more honest measure. Look for drives offering 'Constant Linear Velocity,' which provides the same speed anywhere on the disc.

There is also the battery life exaggeration. Some notebook batteries promise four to six hours on a charge. The performance on a charge is more typically under two hours in real-world usage. But you need to act prudently: Do you really need to play Solitaire nonstop on a Vancouver-Toronto flight?

There is a pervasive myth that faster CPU equals faster computer. Not necessarily. Premium-priced Pentium 150 notebooks, for example, were minimally faster than more affordable P-133 models -- and sometimes even slower. System-bus speed can make a big difference, resulting in a slower CPU in a faster bus often producing a computer that's a better overall performer.

And while we're discussing CPUs: The ad campaign suggests only 'Intel Inside' provides hardware that's compatible with your (Windows) operating system and applications. In reality, systems based on CPUs from companies like AMD and Cyrix can be just as reliable as Intel systems, and even provide better performance at a lower price.

Then there is the category of sort-of-truth. The perception is that Plug and Play makes a Windows 95 computer as easy to upgrade as a Mac. In reality the newer PCI bus was designed with Plug and Play in mind, and most of the time it works, but today's PCs are crippled by continuing to also rely on the 1983-era ISA bus. Both Intel and Microsoft are pushing for future PCs to dump the legacy ISA bus, but don't hold your breath.

More sort-of-truths: Windows 95 makes your computer as easy to use as a Mac. Again the reality here is that too much remains non-intuitive, especially if you still need to run Win 3.1-era software or DOS programs. In that case, you're still stuck with 8-letter filenames, and maybe even DOS-level memory management.

Of course there is always the ongoing promise: Just wait for the next version. There is no Windows 97. Not this year! There will be a Windows 95 upgrade as well as the next version of NT, probably some time in 1998. Similarly, Mac users are being asked to wait until then for Rhapsody, for a host of features originally promised for the cancelled Copland system upgrade. But don't worry. If you have any problems now, they'll all be fixed in the next version. Really!

Then there is the hype: You need a new computer to connect to the Internet. But really you can have a limited, text-based connection to the Net on that pre-1990 286 or Mac. You can run Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer and graphically browse the Web on a 1992-era 386 or 68030 Mac. Given all the possible bottlenecks on the Internet, a more powerful computer on your end won't produce that much of a difference.

And of course, there is even more hype: You need a new computer to run this year's crop of business applications. Maybe. But maybe not. While home users will need a recent model to run this year's crop of games, most business applications have more modest hardware needs. Then again, are you sure you really need to upgrade your key business software every time a new version comes out? Given the cost of upgrading, and the far higher cost of retraining staff and dealing with the possibility of bugs and incompatibilities, do you really need the features the new version provides?

After singing her warning, Ms. Benatar concludes: "Cause if you lie to me, I get evil as a woman can be."

Buy what you need, but watch out for the hype.*

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