But the most expensive computer isn't necessarily the best


December 09, 1991|By PETER H. LEWIS

In our last episode, computer shoppers were advised to choose their software first. Once the software is chosen, the hardware choice gets easier.

Not a lot easier, granted. But if the shopper has narrowed the choice to Windows, say, or Macintosh, or plain DOS, the hard part is over. Then it becomes a process of finding a computer that will run the chosen software with the best combination of price and performance.

If the shopper decides that Macintosh software is the best choice, there are still at least 10 styles of Apple Macintosh computers and countless variations in those models.

And if you choose a DOS or Windows system, there are hundreds of variations from dozens of PC makers, including palmtops, notebooks, laptops, luggables, desktops, towers and pen-based systems.

It sounds complicated, and it is, but it is no more complicated than choosing a new automobile. Do you want a family sedan, a sports car or a truck? A Jaguar or a Buick or a Yugo?

It's the same with computers; there are many models for different needs and different budgets. The key is to get enough computer to do the job, not just today but three or four years from now. It is always a good idea to get a little more power than you think you'll need.

The family sedans of the computer world today are, in their respective camps, the Macintosh LC from Apple Computer Inc. and just about any IBM-style computer built around a 386SX microprocessor.

Both are capable of running software that ranges from preschool educational games to mainline business applications. Neither will obsolete a couple of years from now. It is easy to find a wide range of software for either machine.

Family sedans are not for everyone, of course. The Volkswagen Beetle and Yugo crowd will find the Mac Classic and the IBM XT-class computers to be adequate for their basic computer needs.

However, there is a temptation to scrimp on features for a first computer, primarily to save money. This is usually a mistake, since the cheaper computers are often based on technologies that are outdated. Older technologies were cruder and harder to use, especially on the DOS side. Beginners are almost certain to be frustrated.

We watched in horror the other night as a television pitchman offered viewers "an incredible Thanksgiving deal" on a "genuine IBM XT computer." Viewers were told that this "powerful" model, which IBM discontinued years ago, had a list price of $1,995. "And IBM never discounts its prices," the salesman said, revealing either his ignorance or his cupidity.

Viewers of the popular Home Shopping Channel were informed that they had a limited-time opportunity to buy this XT for $1,295. A Thanksgiving sale was appropriate, since the equivalent of this turkey is widely available for $500 or less.

Some people might find the XT adequate for their needs, especially for simple tasks like word processing, and in the historical view it is a bargain. The same machine cost $5,000 about eight years ago. But the XT cannot run most of today's software, and the software it can run is relatively crude.

The same $1,295 spent elsewhere will buy a genuine IBM PS/1 computer that will run today's software, and abandoning the IBM label for lesser-known but equally respectable brands will yield even more power for the dollar.

If word processing is your primary task, as it is for most computer users, you do not need a fire-breathing 486-based server with a gigabyte of storage.

Consider that a fast typist can type one word per second. Today's computer brains work at speeds measured in mips, or millions of instructions per second.

However, shoppers who did software comparisons after last week's column will recognize that there is a big difference between word processing with a DOS program and word processing with a Windows program. Windows programs give writers much more flexibility on type size and style, page layout and other niceties.

If a writer decides that Wordperfect for Windows is the best software tool for the job, then the goal becomes finding a computer that can run Windows. That eliminates the Macintosh, the IBM XT, the Amiga, the Apple IIe, the Cray X-MP and other incompatible machines.

In real life, Windows software needs a minimum set of features, also known as a base configuration, that includes a 386SX microprocessor, four megabytes of system memory (called RAM), a hard disk of at least 40 megabytes and a color VGA monitor.

Do you need a hard disk? Yes, if you want to run the latest software. Today's software is bloated with features.

In recent years the advice has been to get the biggest hard disk you can afford, but that has changed with the arrival of monstrous disks at low prices.

Get a 3.5-inch diskette drive. The 3.5-inch drives are more efficient than their older and larger 5.25-inch counterparts.

Do you need two diskette drives? Probably not, since diskette drives are used primarily to transfer data to and from the hard disk.

We'll talk more about hard disks next.

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