A year or so ago, no one would have thought that you could walk into a department store and pick up a toaster, a pair of gloves, a set of dishes and a high-performance computer in the same trip.
But the nature of computer shopping is changing as competition, new manufacturing techniques and new marketing strategies are bringing high technology to the places where the masses shop.
Department stores, discount houses, appliance dealers, office supply warehouses and other nontraditional retailers have gone into computer retailing in a big way.
There are a couple of reasons for the change. One is that IBM-compatible computers have become commodities, like TV sets or toasters. Brand names don't matter as much as they once did.
You pay for the type of processor, the speed of the computer, the amount of memory in the machine, the size of the hard disk and the quality of the video display.
Another factor is the growing sophistication of the computer market. Many of today's customers are buying their second or third machine. They're familiar with computing and don't need as much hand-holding
as first-time buyers.
This combination of demand and competition has driven prices down, especially for computers that use the Intel 80386SX processor. These machines occupy the bottom rung of the high-tech computing ladder, but they're more than enough for most business needs. In fact, they're about 20 times as fast as the original IBM PC.
With a 386SX chip, a computer can run multiple programs simultaneously and take advantage of graphical operating environments such as Microsoft Windows. A 386SX computer has enough horsepower for reasonably sophisticated desktop publishing and power to spare for word processors, spreadsheets and database software.
As little as 18 months ago, you would have spent $3,000 to $4,000 for one of these machines, but today they're available for $1,400 to $2,000, including a VGA color monitor and, frequently, a mouse and a package of starter software.
Of course, not all bargains are created equal. Careful shopping is still a must. Here are some things to look for:
*Processor speed: There are two types of 386SX chips on the market. Some run at 16 mHz, but faster 20 mHz chips are available, often for the same price or a small premium. Shop around. Faster is always better.
*Memory: Many low-ball 386SX machines come with only one megabyte of internal memory. This is fine for word processors or spreadsheets, but to run a graphical environment such as Microsoft Windows, you'll need four megabytes.
Will the dealer upgrade the memory, or can he tell you where it can be done easily? Extra memory should cost $50 to $70 per megabyte, plus a charge for installation, but it's always cheaper if you buy it as part of the original package.
*Hard disk capacity. To keep costs down, many manufactures include 30 or 40-megabyte disk drives. Once again, these are fine for basic applications, but for a graphical environment or large databases, you'll want an 80-megabyte drive. If the retailer can't upgrade the drive or doesn't have a model with higher capacity, look somewhere else.
*Floppy disk drives: While 3 1/2 -inch floppies are the drives of the future and come standard on many new machines, 5 1/4 -inch drives are still the rule in most of the world. You'll want both.
*Expandability: Many new systems come in compact, "low profile" cases that don't take up much desktop real estate. But this has its price. The machine may not have room for an extra disk drive or a tape cartridge for hard disk backups should you want to add them. And there may be only two or three open expansion slots inside for circuit cards that drive scanners, tape backups, additional drives or other peripherals. It's something to consider.
*Video display: A VGA color monitor is probably the most expensive single component of the system. It's also the most important to you, because you'll be staring at it for hours at a time. A good monitor is a joy; a bad one will make your life miserable.
To meet IBM's VGA standard, a monitor must be capable of displaying 640 pixels (dots) horizontally and 480 vertically.
However, the true quality of a VGA display depends just as much on the "dot pitch" of the monitor. This is the spacing between the dots on the screen. Cheap monitors in low-priced packages frequently have a dot pitch of .41 millimeters or even .51 mm.
This kind of display will often produce fuzzy graphics and coarse text, even though it technically meets the VGA standard. Better monitors have a .31 or .28 mm dot pitch, and they're available even with some low-end systems.
Ask about the dot pitch of the monitor when you buy the machine. And never buy a machine that you haven't tried. If a coarse display doesn't bother you, the cheap monitor may be OK. If you don't like it, you can often upgrade to a better monitor for $100 or so. It's well worth the money.
*Service: The biggest question mark of all. If your business depends on your computer, you can't afford to have it down for long. First, check the warranty. It should be at least a year on parts and labor.
Then ask who services the machine. Many retailers probably won't service it themselves. If the retailer doesn't provide service, does the manufacturer have a service center or a contract with a third party service organization near you? And does the service center stock parts, so you won't have to wait a couple of weeks if something goes wrong? If the answer to either of these questions is no, shop somewhere else.
A real bonus is service at your workplace. If it's not part of the package, is on-site service available in a service contract? If you can get it, the premium for on-site service may be a good investment.