A year ago, deciding which IBM-compatible personal computer to buy was easy.
Customers could choose a low-cost computer that used Intel Corp.'s older 80286 microprocessor. Or they could pick a more state-of-the-art computer based on Intel's newer 80386 microprocessor. It's not that simple anymore.
Today, buyers face a bewildering number of options because there are now seven or more "flavors" of microprocessors to choose among when buying an IBM-compatible computer.
"It's getting tougher and tougher for customers," said Marc Lowe, a product marketing manager for Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Vectra personal computer operation. "There are so many choices out there."
And because microprocessors are literally the brains of personal computers, the choice directly affects which software the computer can use -- and how efficiently it can operate. With the growing popularity of programs that need a lot of computing power, such as Windows 3.0 from Microsoft Corp., buying the right computer becomes even more important.
With options ranging from computers using Intel's 80386SX chip to a 40-megahertz 386 chip from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. to chips designed specially for use in lap-top models, it's easy to see why some customers think they need an engineering degree to make a good decision.
But most experts say doing a little homework about how you intend to use a computer is all that is necessary. For example, if you generate complicated graphics regularly or run huge spreadsheets, you probably will need a computer with a fast microprocessor like the 80486. But if you play games, type letters and balance the budget, a 386SX-based computer probably will be enough, experts say.
One thing every industry watcher agrees on is that there is almost no reason to buy a computer with an 80286 chip. Although 286-based computers can be had for under $1,000, the chip won't let users run popular 32-bit software like Windows.
"As long as you don't buy a 286 computer you don't need to worry about making a mistake," said Michael Slater, editor of the Microprocessor Report. He said it's simply an issue of how much computing power a customer needs because the 386 and 486 are both designed to run state-of-the-art software.
Another way to think about buying a personal computer is to liken it to buying an automobile, said Dennis Carter, Intel's general manager of end-user components.
"If you churn a car every two years, then you don't have to worry about your car becoming obsolete," he said. So if you plan to buy another machine two to three years from now, you don't have to worry much about what you buy. "But if you know you are going to keep your computer five, seven or 10 years, then you had better buy the state of the art now."
Mr. Carter said a 386SX is a good choice now but warns, "In five years it will be slow."
Experts say there are three types of computer users: home users, frequent users and sophisticated -- or "power" -- users, and all have different needs.
For the home user, the choice is a computer with a 386SX, either from Intel or rival AMD.
The 386SX chip is a stripped-down version of the 80386DX, with fewer features and slower operation. The SX has a 16-bit data bus, for example, instead of the 32-bit data bus found in a 386DX, making the processing of information slower. (AMD's version of the SX chip now has a higher clock speed than Intel's, which means it is faster, but the chips are comparably priced to computer makers.)
Computers using a 386SX chip cost about $1,500 to $2,000 and are a good choice for word processing, simple spreadsheet and database uses, and games. A 386SX computer will run Windows, although slowly, experts say.
"The 386SX is enough for the average person," said Marc Ducasse, operations manager for a computer store in downtown San Jose, Calif. "It's the chip of choice."
The 386DX chip, again available from either Intel or AMD, is targeted more at frequent users, particularly in a business setting. It is speedier than the SX chip but is more expensive, and computers using the chip run $3,000 or so.
Mr. Slater and others think there is not a lot of difference in system performance between the SX and DX versions of the 386.
Andy Seybold, a personal computer analyst at Dataquest, said: "My standard answer to people is that they can't go wrong buying a 386, anything from an SX up to the 40-megahertz version from Advanced Micro. The user is not going to notice much difference."
Sophisticated users, what some people call "hardware hogs," probably wouldn't be happy with anything less than a computer using a top-of-the-line 80486DX chip from Intel.
The 486 incorporates more features on a single chip than the 386, including a math co-processor and a memory management unit. It processes information faster than any other microprocessor used in IBM-compatible computers, but it is also the costliest. As a result, computers using it will cost $5,000 and up, experts say.