Choosing among 286s, 386s, 486s


March 02, 1992|By Sean Silverthorne | Sean Silverthorne,Palo Alto Peninsula Times Tribune

Although computers have become easier to use, buying them is as complicated as ever, especially for the first-time purchaser.

That's because options are as varied and numerous as Democratic presidential candidates. Should I make do with a 286 computer or go with a more powerful 386 or even 486? Is a 40-megabyte hard disk sufficient? How much memory is


During the 1980s, those decisions were fairly easy to make if you were in the market for an IBM-compatible personal computer (Apple products live by their own rules). An out-of-the-box PC was a fairly simple animal.

You didn't have to worry much about how much memory to install, for example, because the computer's underlying operating system was incapable of processing more than 640,000 bits of information at a time.

pTC With only 640K of random access memory available to chew on, software designers had to keep their programs simple and small. And because the software was small, the computer's hard disk, where applications and files are stored, could be small as well.

Then came Windows, the best-selling Microsoft Corp. program that makes PCs easier to use. Windows, introduced in May 1990, raised the technological bar in many ways, but one of the most important was memory. No longer were PCs confined in the 640K RAM straight jacket. In fact, just to run Windows efficiently, at least 2 megabytes of RAM were needed.

Without a memory barrier, software designers started beefing up their Windows applications with more features and complexity. More complex software requires more powerful PCs, and now there are a lot to choose from.

Most desktop PCs come equipped today with at least 1 megabyte of RAM, but you'll need at least 2 megs to run Windows efficiently. If you plan on running several programs concurrently under Windows, say a word processor and a data base, 8 megs is your best bet.

With software programs becoming fatter, an 80-megabyte hard disk drive is almost a necessity. Five years ago, a 20-megabyte disk was plenty for most home users. Today, a 40-meg disk is probably adequate for many home-computer users, but that size drive is fast becoming extinct. Eighty- and even 120-megabyte drives are the new minimum standard.

Why? Software programs are becoming bloated. The latest version of Microsoft's word processor, called Word, hogs up to 15 megabytes of space on the hard disk.

Your Windows PC needs a 386 microprocessor. A microprocessor is the equivalent of a car's engine: The faster the microprocessor, the better your computer performs. If you plan on running Windows, a 386 machine is standard. While you can get a 286 computer at a hefty discount, Windows will run like molasses and you won't have access to some features.

You may even want to consider a 486 machine, although that is much more power than the average home user requires. The price of these computers is rapidly coming down, and in recent weeks has dipped below the $2,000 level.

By 1994, 486 computers will be the standard, just as 386 machines are today and 286 models were up to about 1990. If you plan on continually updating your software, you might as well take the 486 plunge today. You'll need that power shortly.

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