It can be a smart investment, but too many just gather dust


November 25, 1991|By PETER H. LEWIS

Shopping for a computer can be baffling for first-time buyers. The technology has evolved so rapidly that it can be confusing even for people who are replacing older PCs.

Which brands are good today? Which features are important? Where is the best place to shop?

The best place to start, however, is with the 64K question: Do you really need a PC? The question is not as dumb as it sounds, given the title of this column, since many fancy computers wind up gathering dust in the closet or posing as high-tech sculptures on the desk in the den.

If you run a small business or home office, or if you bring work home from an office where you use a PC, a personal computer is usually a smart investment that can eventually pay for itself by increasing your productivity.

Eventually is a key word, because many new users find productivity actually decreases for a time while they are learning to master the machine and its software.

Many computers wind up back in the box because expectations are too high. Once the machine is mastered, however, many small-business people wonder how they ever got by without one.

But in the spirit of argument, let's look at some of the reasons you might not need a PC. If you are not persuaded, come back next week for the start of a periodic PC primer for shoppers.

In the weeks to follow we'll explain the major issues of buying a PC, including topics like microprocessors, memory, hard and floppy disks, monitors, printers and software.

Do you really need a PC? Determine the absolute maximum amount you're prepared to spend, add at least 50 percent for all the extras the salesman will convince you that you need and for all the things you didn't think about, like software, and ask yourself the question again.

Computers still cost a lot. (There are bargains in the used computers section of the classified ads, especially for those like-new machines that have been gathering dust in the closet, but new ones are expensive.)

The insidious thing about computers is that software usually winds up costing more than the computer itself. You'll want a printer, too. Face it, if you're convinced you need a computer, you probably want something with a long-term life expectancy and more than bottom-rung power.

Suddenly you're looking at $1,500 to $2,000. To get one like the one your neighbor brags about, you're looking at $4,000 to $5,000.

If you're just going to balance a checkbook or store recipes, save your money. A $5 calculator and a $5 recipe box are not only cheaper but also more efficient.

Despite intense marketing efforts, major computer companies have been only modestly successful in making a compelling argument for a "home computer."

Some people envision the PC as a modern way to manage Christmas card lists, keep track of birthdays and to catalog their stamp collections. It can be done, of course, but you've really got to enjoy dinking with a computer for hours on end to make it worthwhile.

Some people find it seductive to imagine tapping into the universe of online information services to nail down the exact date of the Council of Worms, for example, or to check out the weather in Riyadh, to swap electronic messages with a network of friends or to shop electronically for fruitcakes by mail, but in reality it is still easier to use an almanac, a newspaper, a telephone and the post office.

Some people spend a couple of thousand dollars on a PC system to keep track of their investments, when what they really need to spend is time.

Computers are not magic. They are tools, and pretty complicated ones at that. Professional traders and financial analysts depend on their PC's to do number-crunching and charts, but we know people who manage six-figure portfolios quite nicely with a notebook, a pencil, a newspaper and a cup of coffee.

Games? A $200 Sega Genesis game machine attached to a 19-inch color TV set blows the chips out of the computer games we run on the DOS, Windows and Macintosh machines in the office.

Education? Ah, now we're getting closer. Kids are using computers at school, and they are comfortable with the technology at home.

For typing and editing school papers, playing educational games and learning the general computer skills that will help them in the business world later on, personal computers earn their keep.

But don't forget the human factor: With distressingly few exceptions, educational software cannot compete with television for holding a child's attention. That may change with so-called multimedia PCs, but multimedia is an expensive and immature technology.

Still not convinced? Good, because personal computers can open the door to so many interesting and productive and fun things, and part of the fun is discovering new things to do with them that you never thought of before. Next, for those who have decided to buy a new computer, comes the question of which one to choose.

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