MANY years ago, when I was learning to survive in the not-so-great outdoors, I asked my Scoutmaster how much wood I needed to build a campfire.
The Scoutmaster, in civilian life a wise, old accountant, told me, "Gather twice as much as you think you'll need and then you'll have half enough."
As I was 11 years old and not particularly good at math, it took me a while to figure out the binary implications of this equation.
Eventually, I concluded that it was far more firewood than I ever wanted to gather, and I resolved to stray no further from the beaten track than the Weber grill in the back yard.
Still, the scoutmaster's voice comes back to me from time to time. I thought about it recently when a friend asked me what kind of computer to buy for his small business.
Since IBM-compatible machines are pretty the norm today, the question he should have been asking is, "How much computing power do I need?"
A few years ago, I might have told him to buy the least expensive, reliable XT-clone he could find. That would be enough for his word processing and accounting.
But the price of computing power has dropped so quickly, and applications have become so power-hungry, that it pays to listen to the wise, old Scoutmaster.
Graphics-based software such as Microsoft Windows and sophisticated new word processors, desktop publishing programs, spreadsheets and databases demand a lot more from computers than their predecessors. Even the games available today will barely run on machines that were state-of-the-art three or four years ago.
Unfortunately, many first-time computer buyers are confused by the term "power." They're often seduced by lowball ads for marginal machines that they'll outgrow in a year or two -- or that may not even meet their need when they take the computer out of the box.
Computing power is determined by the type of microprocessor the computer uses, how fast it runs, how much internal memory the computer has and the size and speed of the machine's hard disk drive.
All IBM-compatibles use microprocessors based on designs by the Intel Corp. These chips all have numbers -- 8086, 80286, 80386 or 80486 -- and most advertisements will tell you what kind of chip the computer uses. Sometimes, the number is abbreviated. For example, the seller may advertise a 286 or 386 machine.
At the low end, the Intel 8086 chip family was used to power the original IBM PC and XT. You'll still see a few of these around, particularly in discount warehouses, mass-market retailers and liquidators' catalogs. These machines are far too slow for many of today's programs, and I don't recommend them at any price.
For business and serious home users, today's entry level machines are built around the 80286 processor. IBM used this chip on its AT-series machines, and these are often referred to as AT-class computers. In terms of real power, they're five times as fast as the original PC. IBM also put 286 chips into its new PS/1 series of home computers.
These machines are fine for word processing, spreadsheets, databases and entertainment. But they're marginal performers for graphics and desktop publishing. Yes, it is possible to run Microsoft Windows on a 286 computer. But you'll need a lot of patience.
Still, it's possible to find nicely turned-out 286 machines for $1,000 to $1,400, and they're a good first step.
Most businesses today are turning to machines that use the 386 processor, or its cheaper and less powerful cousin, the 386SX. Computers that use the superfast 486 chip are available, but the prices are still stratospheric. For all but a few power users, they're overkill.
The 386 computers are real workhorses. Besides being faster than 286 machines, they can address much more memory. With the right memory management software, they can also run multiple programs simultaneously.
A 386SX computer is really the minimum you'll need to run programs under Microsoft Windows or handle desktop publishing chores.
Fortunately, 386 computers are becoming cheaper every day. They're even showing up on mass-marketers' shelves. With a little shopping, you can pick up a 386SX system for as little as $1,500, only a few hundred dollars more than an older 286 machine. Unless you're absolutely strapped for cash, buy a 386.
The next component of power is the computer's internal memory. Computers with more memory can use larger, more sophisticated programs. And more memory can mean faster performance with 386 computers. Luckily, memory chips are cheap today.
If you're buying a 286 machine, make sure it has one megabyte of memory. Some bargain machines are still sold with only 512K, which isn't enough for some programs. It doesn't pay to put more than a megabyte in a 286 computer because it's hard to put it to use unless you're a real hacker.