Being prepared for computer purchase means never having to make excuses for it


December 02, 1991|By PETER H. LEWIS

No matter which computer you choose, someone will tell you that you picked the wrong one. You've wasted your money and you'll be unhappy forever. Tsk, tsk, tsk. With a little preparation, though, you can laugh in your tormentor's face.

Let's rehearse. Tormentor: "What? You bought a Bronto X-86 from Paleolithic PC's? Fool! You should have bought a Mackerel II from New Age Systems!" You: "Not so! The Bronto does what I want it to do, at the best price."

There are endless variations, including the obnoxious "How much did you pay? Ha!" routine. In the end, choosing a computer has very little to do with the actual computer and very much to do with the software that runs on it.

The software determines how easy it is to write a letter, enter a sales order, print a brochure, design a building, calculate a budget, blast an alien spaceship or otherwise do what has to be done. The basic hardware -- computer, screen, printer -- is generally pretty boring.

The basic rule is to choose the software you need, then find a computer that runs it. Many people have trouble with the idea that a $200 software package should dictate a $2,000 hardware decision, but that's the way it works.

If your kids use a certain kind of computer at school, or if you work with a certain kind of computer at the office, it makes sense to stay with the familiar.

But if you have no experience with software, go to several computer stores, tell them what you want to do with a computer, and ask them to show you the best way to do it. If they won't help, find another store. If you have friends who use computers, ask them for suggestions.

In choosing your main software applications, you're actually choosing a software operating system, which in turn dictates the type of computer you buy.

Forget hardware brand names for the time being. These days, when you choose a computer, you're choosing a software operating system, a price, and a level of service and support. Brands do not mean as much as they once did.

The operating system categories are, in descending order of domestic popularity, DOS, DOS-Windows, Macintosh, Unix, OS/2 and Amiga. Think of them in the context of VHS and Betamax, or laser disk and 8mm film, or phonograph albums and cassettes and compact disks.

All of them are essentially operating systems for video or audio. Computer operating systems are just another variation. You can't run Macintosh software on a DOS computer, just as you can't play Betamax tapes in a VHS videocassette recorder.

In real life, the choice usually comes down to DOS-Windows vs. Macintosh.

Most beginners can scratch Unix from the list. Unix is for people who enjoy assembling gas grills without the instruction sheet. Unix machines are made by companies called Next and Sun.

OS/2 is the illegitimate offspring of the biggest software company, Microsoft, and the biggest hardware company, IBM. IBM is trying to raise OS/2 as a single parent, and it is a difficult child.

Amiga machines, made by Commodore International Inc., do not get the respect they deserve, except in Europe, where they are considered cool. Then again, Jerry Lewis is considered a genius in France.

Amigas are terrific game and graphics computers, but they are definitely not mainstream. Andy Warhol used an Amiga.

The Macintosh operating system, introduced by Apple Computer Inc. in 1984, is better than Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 3.0, introduced in 1990.

Why isn't it the most popular, then? In retrospect, Apple blew it by not licensing its software to others, as Microsoft did with DOS and Windows. Also, Macintoshes generally cost more than comparable DOS-Windows machines, only partly because they have more built-in features. Macs are easy to set up and use. Get a Mac if you do desktop publishing.

DOS computers, made by IBM, Compaq, Tandy and about a million other companies, are by far the most popular, with about 70 million machines in use worldwide.

DOS computers with 386SX or higher processors are capable of running a Macintosh-type operating system called Windows 3.0, which is generally easier to use than plain old DOS.

Many people will insist that Windows software can be run on a 286 machine. Technically they are right. But the difference in price between 286 and 386SX computers is modest, and the gains in switching to a 386SX are great, so anyone thinking of Windows should start looking at the 386SX level.

DOS machines are still sometimes called "IBM-compatible," meaning the computer will run all DOS software and use the same internal circuit boards as an older IBM PC.

Just to confuse things, the International Business Machines Corp.'s newest computers are not, technically speaking, "IBM compatible," since they use a different kind of circuit board.

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