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We point you in the right direction…

by Jim Bray

Computers are like women. Unless, of course, you're a woman - in which case computers are like men. By that, I mean computers are absolutely marvelous and delightful, and it's very difficult to get by without having one intimately involved in your life. But they're also obnoxious, frustrating, uncooperative, and a royal pain in the neck - and cost twice as much to land as they'll be worth a few months down the road. In short, much like a relationship with a "significant other," if computers weren't so marvelous and delightful you'd kick them out of the house, and your life, forever.

But fear not! The advantages far outweigh any flaws and having a computer today is virtually a necessity, especially if you're running a business from home or have kids (who'll need as much computer literacy as possible if they're to survive).

Before outlining what to look for in a computer, we should tell you the facts of life: no matter how much you spend, or what marvelous equipment you get, there'll be better and cheaper equipment only a few months down the road. It may even happen sooner than that, and make you feel you're suddenly left with an obsolete hunk of junk on your desk.

Don't feel that way. Most computers being bought as of this writing (early 2000) are of the Pentium II and Pentium III variety (and their family, like Intel's "Celeron") and even though those chips are already being superseded by the K6-III, "Athlon," and other competitors, you can still be happy with today's PC's for many years - as long as your computing needs don't increase as well. If you ever decide to pursue an online master of computer science degree you may need to upgrade your PC or invest in a laptop. A master's degree in computer science involves software development and web programming so a more powerful computer is necessary.

Price is no Object… s

Most of us object to paying for something, only to find it worth much less a short distance down the road. Unfortunately, you might as well get used to it. You also might as well jump in when you need a system and look at the price an investment instead of an expense. You can say the same thing about life insurance. It is best to think of baby life insurance or a new life insurance policy for parents as an investment rather than expense.

Buy your computer based on what you're going to do with it. If you've never used a computer before, you may not know what you'll use it for, so you'll have to use your perceived needs and your budget as your rule of thumb. In that case, a good rule of thumb is to buy as much computer as you can afford, and earmark ten to fifteen percent extra because you always end up spending more than you plan.

Another rule of thumb is to get the fastest PC you can afford. Computer speeds are measured in Megahertz (MHz), and the higher the number the faster the microprocessor runs - at least in theory. There's a lot more to a computer's speed than just the microprocessor clock speed (like amount of RAM, cache, etc.), but it's a good starting point.

That said, if you're going to borrow piles of money to get a computer, you might be better served with a lease. That way you can give the computer back at lease's end, by which time you might want a newer system anyway. Just make sure you can make an arrangement to transfer over any software and files you still need, and don't get stuck with a big buyout: better to give the system back and let the lease company worry about unloading it.

Of course, if you can pick it up for a song, it might be worthwhile to keep around as a second system…

Big Mac Attack…

Another way to ensure you're not left with a dinosaur is to avoid Macintosh. Now, I realize I'm going to get flames a-plenty on my e-mail for saying this, but I don't care. Arguments about which system (Mac or IBM/Windows) is better are irrelevant, especially for the home/home office market. For better or worse, it is a Windows world and shall remain so until someone knocks Microsoft off its pedestal. Perhaps Linux?

Sure, the Mac is easy to use and has lots of neat software. So what? It used to be argued that beta VCR's were superior to VHS, too. So what? Seen a betamax recently? Do you want that to happen with your computer? The only way I'd recommend a Mac is if you're used to a Mac environment or will be file swapping with Macs.

And much as I will personally mourn the inevitable demise of the Macintosh (which, after all, has traditionally been a pacesetter in the PC world and should always be looked upon with honor and affection), it will be good for the consumer to have a single format because it will mean standardization of platforms and software. And that means less confusion and less duplication.

I'd like to think it would also mean lower prices, but I wasn't born yesterday. Besides, prices are taking care of themselves, at least as far as hardware is concerned.

Thanks for the Memory…

RAM is like your real life desktop: it's the part of your office where you spread out your work, and the larger the workspace the more work you can do at one time (and the faster your system will run). On an updated note, Computer Memory (RAM) has come a long way. Costs have gone down incredibly since this article was written and as technology continues moving forward, we continue to get much higher values of RAM, and more computing power for a fraction of the cost these parts predecessors were.

Storage space on your hard drive is also vital. It seems almost as if each new piece of software being introduced takes up more and more hard drive space. A typical Windows 98 installation gobbles up at least 70 megabytes and that's before you even load any real software! Applications like Microsoft Office will easily eat another 100 meg or so, while really heavy duty suites like CoreDRAW! can easily swallow 200 meg on their own! This all depends on how much of the applications you install, of course (custom installations let you choose whether or not to store things like help files and file translation filters, which can save your hard drive space), but if the software's being installed for you by somebody else, this is probably how much space you'll use.

Even some CD-ROM based games that are supposed to run right from the CD, can require over 100 meg or so of space, so as you can see it doesn't take long to lose your hard drive.

And that's before you add any of your own data files!

Just as RAM is like your real life desktop, your hard drive is like your real life filing cabinet. It's where you store your stuff, and the more room you have the more stuff you can store. The bottom line is that you need as much hard drive space as you can afford, and 8 gigabyte hard drives are now considered entry level.

CD or not CD?

No question here. You want an optical disk drive, though not necessarily a CD-ROM (more about that below).

Not only is a CD-ROM drive required for much of today's multimedia software like encyclopedias and games, but most software packages (including Windows 98 etc.) come on CD-ROM. This is good because software on CD is easier to install than the old floppy versions: you don't have to sit there swapping floppies.

It's also feasible to run some programs from CD, instead of dumping their entire contents onto your hard drive (and thereby losing more space). They don't run as quickly as from the hard drive, but with many of these packages it won't make a big difference.

There are also recordable and affordable CD-ROM's and CD Re-Recorders, and these are wonderful tools for archiving your data files or (horrors!) recording audio CD's and computer software. With the availability of DVD-ROM drives and the soon-to-come recordable DVD "RAM" drives, you might want to go that way instead of buying a soon-to-be-obsolete CD player. DVD's are "backward compatible," so they'll play CD-ROMs as well thereby giving you the best of both worlds.

Monitoring the Situation…

There are almost as many choices of monitor available as there are days in a century, but choosing one doesn't have to be difficult. I'd recommend a minimum screen size of 15 inches, but the bigger the better. You pay a premium for bigger sizes, though, especially when you reach 20 inches diagonally. A 17 inch screen is a nice compromise, especially if you like playing games.

Your monitor should be capable of 1024 x 768 resolution, though you may not use it much. The most common resolution is 800 x 600, (SVGA) though your computer may default to 640x480 (VGA). If so, I'd recommend upping your resolution to at least 800x600; it's easier on the eyes.

The other video consideration is your video card. This is inside the computer (and some computers build the video card right onto the motherboard, which I don't like - it makes upgrading more difficult) and, with the proliferation of full-motion video now being seen, you shouldn't ignore it. As with your main RAM, get as much video RAM as you can afford. Some cards offer up to 64 megs of video RAM, but these are really only meant for serious gamers or those using hi res/3D graphics accelerators.

Sound Advice…

Sound cards are also included in the price of most systems these days, and that's a good thing. Cards with "wave table" synthesizers will give you a better audio quality than ones with an "FM" synthesizer.

Many sound cards come with stereo speakers, many don't. Speaker quality is really subjective, and sound quality/loudness may not be that important to you, but if you want your sound to thunder, get a good pair of speakers. This is also important if you like listening to music CD's while you compute. Good speakers can be had for anywhere from $50 up, and there are almost as many brands of multimedia speakers as there are grains of sand on a beach. Some excellent systems are made by the traditional audio manufacturers, who are embracing the computer speaker market as quickly as they can.

The Mouse Trap…

Most computer systems come with a mouse. I prefer a three button mouse, because some games make use of the centre button. A two button mouse will suffice for most uses, though. I've tried countless mice, from the sublime to the ridiculous. I've tried ergonomic mice, trackballs, "glidepoints," expensive mice, and the bargain basement models.

You can get a mouse for under $10 US and, while it may not look cute or last as long, for $10 you can get another one when it wears out. We have a problem with dust and cat hair where I work and that wreaks havoc on any mouse, regardless of price. I've discovered that the el-cheapo model lasts just as long as the Lexus of mice, though they aren't nearly as nice to use.

That said, if you don't have the grunge problems I have, you can get some mice that feel really good in the hand, and some (like Microsoft's Intellimouse family) offer a little wheel between the buttons that you can configure for various other tasks beside your garden variety pointing and clicking.

Modem Mania…

Since you're reading this, you obviously use a modem and will undoubtedly want one in your new computer. 33.6 kbps models are the standard, but you can get faster ones as well - and you can get cable modems or dedicated digital phone lines that let you communicate at warp speed. Modems are available in internal, which fit inside the computer and out of the way, or external, which are more portable and therefore easier to share with another computer.

Make sure your modem is fax-capable (once you've used a fax modem you'll wonder how you ever lived without it) and if you want to embrace the world of computer telephony, ensure your modem has voice capability as well. And if it does, you'll want some kind of microphone so you can talk on the phone or record your own answering machine messages.

Getting Keyed Up…

I'm a bit of a keyboard snob and I like a keyboard that feels like a typewriter . Most keyboards you buy with a computer system are junk; they feel like, instead of typing, you're dipping your fingers into rice pudding. Fortunately, there are lots of good keyboards on the market. If keyboard feel is important to you, shop around and try a few out.

Putting together the Pieces…

You can buy a computer pre-assembled as a package, or as separate components you install yourself. Which is better depends on how comfortable you are with a screwdriver and looking at an unfamiliar landscape of circuit boards, wires, and just plain weird looking stuff.

Assembling your own computer can be fun, and is a great way to take some of the mystery out of it.

Dealers' Choice…

The best place to buy a computer is a computer store. Well, Duh! you say! Fine; that may seem obvious, but a lot of people buy systems from big department stores, or warehouses. Big department stores, from my experience (I've never bought one there, but I've certainly hung around the places to get a feel for them), feature sales people who know little about the product and the systems are not particularly customizable. So what you see on the shelf is basically what you get.

That said, big department stores are usually very good at customer support and after sale service, but what if they don't know what they're servicing or supporting?

Then there are the warehouses. These can be excellent places to buy consumables, peripherals, and various components (like a pair of speakers, a modem, video card, etc.), but the personnel are often as uninformed as in the department stores and the after sale service may bring a whole new meaning to the word "sucks."

In my own experience, I've never had a problem with the warehouse stores, but that's because I know what I'm looking for and am only shopping for price (and the ability to return defective and/or unsuitable items). Neophytes can get just as good a deal, but they'd better do their homework so they can avoid possible bafflegab.

I like the smaller computer stores for their knowledgeable staff, though not necessarily for selection or price. As with any small business, they usually know a lot about their product and will bend over backwards to help you. They actually seem to care, too, and they want you to tell your friends how happy you are with them. They can often match or beat the big stores' price, and you won't have to wrestle 'em to the ground to get it, and if they can't quite match the big guys they'll make it up to you in other ways, like after sale service..

Fortunately, most of the stuff you buy in any store is brand name equipment, so if you have problems you can usually just return an item and swap it for a new one, but what happens if it's a hard disk on which you already have hundreds of megabytes of your own data stored?

Just make sure whatever you get has a warranty, and three years is common. And if you're going to shop "the little guys," make sure it's a little guy who's been around for a while: a track record shows they serve their customers well and may indicate they'll be around as long as you need them. There's no guarantee, of course.

And ask your friends where they got their systems, and how happy they are with the computer and the store. That's probably your best indication of how you can expect to be treated.

Good luck!


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November 17, 2022