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How to Buy a Computer

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Worldwide Network Magazine, Spring 1993

[Recent editorial updates look like this]

I bought my first computer in 1977. At that time there was one personal computer company, they had one model, and they lived in a garage. Things were simpler then — if you wanted a game program or a word processor or a spreadsheet, you wrote it yourself. Since then computers have grown up a little — now you might call them adolescents. They have improved enormously, and they will continue to improve in the foreseeable future — they will become faster, more reliable, and programs will become easier to use. But my first advice is, if you want a personal computer, don't wait for them to be perfected. Modern computers are so powerful and inexpensive, it is becoming hard to justify not owning one.

Even though computers are a great technological bargain, you can still get burned, and it's best to make a step-by-step plan for acquiring one. Many computer shoppers make a classic mistake — they (1) buy a computer, then (2) buy some programs, then they (3) learn how to use the programs, then they (4) learn about the computer itself. This is exactly backwards.

In this article I will take you through these four steps in the correct order: (1) learn about computers, (2) learn about programs, (3) select the programs you want, and finally (4) choose a computer that runs your programs.

The Computer

A computer is different from other machines because it needs a program to tell it what to do. Some companies make computers, while others write computer programs. This means if a certain kind of computer becomes popular, more programs will be written for it, and this will make the machine even more popular, in a snowball effect. Eventually one kind of computer becomes a standard, which means more programs are written at lower cost, and many companies compete to make the best, least expensive version of that computer.

In the real world this snowball effect was swift and powerful — a computer model originally created by IBM has become the industry standard, many companies are making versions of it, most programs are written for it, and best of all, no one owns it. Anyone can start a company and create another "IBM clone" personal computer. In fact, the new models of this computer are so inexpensive that IBM doesn't build it any more. It is called the Industry Standard Architecture — ISA — machine.

There is another popular computer model called the Macintosh, by Apple Computer, Inc. So far, no company other than Apple makes this machine, mainly because Apple prevents anyone from doing so. [1996: Several companies are now permitted to manufacture the Macintosh] As you would expect, because only one company builds the Macintosh, it's more expensive than the ISA. On the other hand, many Macintosh owners find it easier to learn and use than the ISA machines. But, because of advances in programming, the ISA's are becoming easier to use, so the difference between a Macintosh and an ISA is becoming smaller — and the ISA's are significantly less expensive. So in this article I will focus my attention on ISA machines.

A computer has to do a lot. It has to accept your inputs, either from a keyboard or a mouse, it has to do some processing, both logic and arithmetic, under the direction of a program, it has to display its results, it has to keep some information temporarily in its memory, and it has to store information permanently on disk drives.

Most computer owners use a keyboard to tell the computer what to do, and some also use a mouse, a little pointing device, to select the next action. Mice are becoming very popular and most new computers come equipped with one.

The computer's processor is hidden from view, but it governs the actions of all the other parts. Recent ISA machines have either an Intel 80386 or 80486 processor — the only difference is the 80486 does numerical calculations faster. So, if you plan to use a spreadsheet or other program that emphasizes arithmetic, you may want to pay the extra cost of an 80486. [1996: try a Pentium]

The computer program is the key to the computer's flexibility — unlike an old-fashioned machine with one purpose, a computer can have as many purposes as there are programs. And anyone can write a program — it doesn't have to come from the company that built the machine, as long as the program and computer are compatible.

The display shows the computer's results, and is usually a TV-style screen. The best displays are capable of showing a lot of detail, in color, including graphic images such as photographs and animation.

The computer's memory is a temporary storage area. It contains both programs, such as a word processor, and information, such as a letter you may be writing. But memory isn't permanent — if you write a letter and then turn off the machine, the memory contents are lost. You have to save your work on a permanent storage device such as a disk drive.

The computer's disk drives hold copies of programs and information that are not lost when the computer is turned off. "Floppy drives" are able to save about a million characters of text (or other kinds of information) on a disk, and the floppy disk can be removed, stored in a separate location, or read by another computer of the same family. "Hard drives" are much faster than floppy drives, are built permanently into the machine, and store much more information, typically 100 million characters of text. [1996: A gigabyte (109 bytes) is now commonplace]

When you shop for a computer, you will want to notice the size of the hard disk in "megabytes" (millions of characters), the number and kind of floppy disk drives, the size and quality of the display screen, the kind of processor, the amount of built-in memory, whether the machine is ISA-compatible, and finally, the clock speed. The computer's clock keeps everything in synchronization, sort of like an orchestra conductor, and generally the faster the clock, the faster the computer can process information.

I am giving you these details not because I expect you to become a computer expert, but you should know generally what to look and ask for when you finally go into a computer store. Also, asking "How big is the hard drive on this machine?" has been known to wipe the smile off a computer salesperson's face at ten paces.

Computer Programs

In spite of what you may have heard, the computer's program is the real intelligence in the machine — although calling it "intelligence" might be going too far. Without a program, the best computer would be dark and mute. With a program, the same machine seems to come to life — but don't be taken in when you go shopping and see fantastic displays of motion and color. Always remember: the computer has to do what you want, not what the salesperson wants.

Computer programs can do many interesting and useful things. They can keep your personal or business records, help you write letters, reports, even books, fill out your tax forms, help you lay out your furniture or your yard. There are programs that can plan a trip for you, and print a map of the route. They can even take you on interactive games and adventures — in this way they are better (or worse) than television.

At this time, computers are used mostly for two things — word processing and spreadsheet calculation. The word processing category now includes something called desktop publishing, which means using a computer and printer to create flyers, banners, cards, even book manuscripts, with photographs and graphics. Spreadsheets, originally an electronic ledger sheet, have matured also, and include the ability to make graphs of their results.

A new storage technology, based on the audio compact disk, makes it possible to put an entire encyclopedia on a disk, complete with pictures and even sounds. You simply type a word or two and the program searches for all references to that subject. It's a very efficient way to study or perform research, or just browse for the pleasure of it. Computer manufacturers will soon begin to include as standard equipment the special drive these disks require, but you can ask for this option when you shop.

Time To Get Your Feet Wet

Before you actually buy programs or a computer, you should sit down at one, preferably with someone who knows computers and isn't trying to sell you anything. Perhaps you have a friend who owns a computer, or your town may have a computer club, or a local college may offer an introductory course on the use of computers. This introduction to the computer will show you the basics — how to run a program, how to use a keyboard, how to save your work. It should also show you which computer programs you find useful.

Certainly the worst place to learn about computers is a computer retail showroom. Computer salespeople still "oversell" computers — they make computers seem capable of anything. This problem has become so severe that some U.S. states now allow a purchaser to return the entire system if it doesn't work at home like it did in the shop. The best advice is to become familiar with computers and programs before you visit a computer store, not while you are there.

After you have gotten your feet wet in a college introductory course, in a computer club or at a friend's house, read some computer magazines — many compare computer systems and programs, and describe what they can and can't do. Eventually you will know which programs you want to buy, and which computer is able to run those programs. Which brings us to the hardest decision of all — should you place an order by mail or shop at a retail store?

If you place an order by mail, you will get the lowest prices, but you will have to set the system up yourself. Or, you may want to ask for help — a young, computer-oriented person may be willing to help you for a small sum, and the experience.

If you decide to shop by mail, remember this tip: don't order from the manufacturer of a computer or program, instead buy from an authorized mail-order house. This is because the manufacturer will always charge the highest price for an item, not wishing to compete with his own distributors, whereas the distributor will usually offer you a discount, because you can shop anywhere.

If you shop at a retail store, you will pay a higher price, but the store may be able to offer a demonstration of the computer system and programs you want to buy, help you install it, and offer after-sale service. If you choose this option, remember one thing: the only reason for retail stores and prices is so you can see and touch the product you are buying. If it's in a box, don't pay retail. If you decide to shop at a retail computer store, you should be able to sit down at a machine like the one you are buying, and run the programs you are buying on that machine.

Another piece of advice: if the store owner says he must order the machine for you, either order it yourself through a reputable computer mail-order house, or ask for the right to refuse the machine when it arrives.

And finally, however you acquire your computer, be prepared for an adventure. You will soon share a feeling in common with most personal computer owners: you will wonder how you managed to get along without it.

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