The question I'm asked most frequently by readers is, "What brand of computer should I buy?"
The best answer I can give is, "It usually doesn't matter."
As I've discussed before, the first big decision a personal computer shopper has to make is the platform, or type of computer, they want, generally an IBM-compatible, a Macintosh or an Amiga.
A lot of "computer experts" will tell you to pick a piece of software that you like and then buy the platform that that software runs on. I think this advice is pretty goofy, for a couple of reasons.
First, most personal computer owners don't use their machines for just one purpose, yet that's the underlying assumption behind a software-driven purchase. It's like making a decision to buy a car because you parallel park sometimes. Just because a given car is the easiest to parallel park doesn't mean it's the best for you overall.
Second, if you're not an experienced computer user, it's hard to tell in a quick test what software you'll ultimately like the best anyway. A given program may seem easy in a demonstration, but may prove frustratingly slow once you start using it seriously.
I do think, though, the use you plan to make of your computer should drive your decision on what to buy.
Simply stated, it comes down to this:
If you "just want to buy a computer," or want a computer for mostly word processing, handling numbers or telecommunications, an IBM-compatible is likely your best bet.
If your biggest interest is in graphics -- drawing, desktop publishing or handling photos -- buy a Macintosh. For handling video (television) images, or if you're looking for a super game machine, get an Amiga.
If you want to be part of the "multimedia revolution," and want a machine that's going to successfully combine text, sound and ++ video, I'd recommend buying a Karaoke machine so you can have some fun singing along with the recorded music while you're waiting for the right multimedia hardware to come out. Unless you're prepared to spend tens of thousands of dollars, I don't think such a machine exists today.
Once you've decided on the right platform, you need to decide on the specific machine to buy. For Macintoshes and Amigas, the decision is easier, as they don't have competition from clones.
There are just a few Amiga models, and I'd recommend getting the top of the line, or as close to it as you can afford.
Deciding which Mac to buy can be a little harder, as a wide range of models is available. Generally, though, I'd steer clear of anything less than a Mac II. While almost all Macs will run any Mac software, you can grow old waiting for the screen to redraw on one of the cheaper machines.
We've just bought a Quadra (the new high-end Mac), with 20MB of memory, 330MB of storage and a 19-inch Trinitron-based monitor. It's a mighty impressive machine, and runs like a bullet, but it cost $10,000, and I had to call all over the country to find it that cheaply.
That's the Mac's biggest drawback -- price. I'll probably hear from Apple on this, but I wouldn't recommend buying a Mac unless you have at least $3,000 to $5,000 to spend.
If you're like most of the world, though, you'll be shopping for an IBM-compatible machine. And among IBM-compatibles, I just don't think brand is very important. A few years ago compatibility was a problem, but almost any IBM-compatible computer made these days really will run almost any IBM software.
And this bears repeating: If you're a computer novice, buy your machine from a local computer store (not the local catalog outlet), preferably one with a good reputation for service.
Unless you're very unusual, you will have problems, and you will have questions. A full-time computer store can be among the best places to get those problems fixed and questions answered. If you're lucky enough to have a discount full-time computer store locally, so much the better.
If you're buying your second machine, and are already familiar with common pitfalls and simple service, I'd recommend buying through mail-order. Get a copy of Computer Shopper magazine and make your decision largely on price. While Dell, Zeos and Northgate make solid machines and provide good service, don't assume their machines are any better than the no-name brand on the facing page that's $500 cheaper.
What you should be concerned about are the vendor's policies. What sort of guarantee do they offer? Do they charge a restocking fee if you decide you don't like your new purchase? Do they charge a premium for ordering by credit card? You might also want to call the Better Business Bureau in their town to see if it has a lot of complaints on them. And it's usually a good idea when buying anything through the mail to use a credit card, as the credit card company can withhold payment if there's a problem.