This paper is in response to many of our clients
and potential clients who have asked us for specific recommendations about
buying a computer to take advantage of the online communications capabilities
that we are marketing. Although there are dozens of computer manufacturers
and almost all of them make a reliable and useful product, there are a number
of important issues to be considered when choosing a personal computer.
Because model availability changes so quickly, we have not made specific
recommendations, but have instead described the decisions you need to make
before purchase to ensure that the hardware and software you buy will serve
your needs. We have included information for both Macintosh and IBM platforms
even though we heartily recommend Macintosh in most cases.
Price and Value
When choosing to buy a computer it is important to accept the rapid devaluation of your purchase. Computers that were $2,000 two years ago now sell for $800 new (if they are still available), and even less used. Also, the technology accelerates. $2,000 today can buy five or even ten times the computer it could two years ago. It will be a long time before this process slows down. Some people, when choosing a computer, become distracted by this turnover and expend a lot of energy trying to anticipate trends and waiting for new technologies before buying. This is fruitless; it's better to choose a machine that's available now and use that energy to learn to use it.
Be careful when selecting a computer that you are getting everything you need. Sometimes a quoted price seems very good, but does not include a monitor or a key-board, let alone a printer or software. Many computers are sold with software bundles and these are usually very good values on high quality software. We advise that you first determine what hardware you need or want (CPU, monitor, printer, disk capacity, ram capacity, CD-ROM, modem, back-up) and then price models that have integrated all or most of these things. Particularly with IBM compatibles this approach can save a lot of headaches later trying to configure not-quite-compatible peripherals.
Macintosh or IBM?
The advantages of Macintosh include a more intuitive user interface and broader uniformity in software design. This means that most new users can learn basic operations on a Macintosh in less than half the time required on an IBM-based Windows computer. The broad software standards also mean that the skills learned to use one program will be useful in most other programs. This same uniformity of implementation also exists in hardware so that modems, printers, monitors and other devices are all "plug and play" and require significantly less user configuration on a Macintosh than comparable devices need on the IBM platform.
The disadvantages cited for Macintosh computers is that their installed base is not as broad, they are expensive and there is not as much software. Most business computers are IBMs because they are easier to buy (there are more of them) and they have become the standard. It is considered the safe choice. However, there are no shortcomings in a Macintosh machine, it is as robust (or more so) as its IBM counterparts. The price difference has been significantly reduced for most machines in the last two years. And finally, there is more software in either platform than will ever be needed.
The best reason to choose an IBM Windows machine is if you are already familiar with the platform. Although formatting disks, organizing files, and installing software is usually easier on a Macintosh, if you need to learn those things anew, it may make more sense to use the knowledge you already have. Another reason might be compatibility; if you want to move files from the office to your home and back it's easier if both are the same kind of computer. With much of the cross platform software these days, however, it's pretty easy even if they are different machines. In fact the PowerPC Macintosh can function as either a Windows or Macintosh computer offering advantages of both.
Most of the disadvantages of IBM compatible machines have already been mentioned. It takes most people longer to learn the IBM platform, and it is usually more difficulty to install peripheral devices (modems, printers, sound cards) on an IBM than on a Macintosh. I feel that people usually make too much of the controversy between these two platforms. Nearly every computer, be it a Macintosh, IBM compatible, Next, Unix or Sun Sparcstation, is going to provide a user with useful computing capacity. All of them sometimes break down, all of them have their frustratingly difficult features as well as their surprisingly simple features. There are a variety of technicians and repair shops and software available for all of them. If features and devices are chosen carefully, then the platform isn't too important for most personal computer users.
A basic set up is fairly standard and all personal computer users will likely need a processor, screen, keyboard, storage devices and a printer. When selecting hardware you will also need to decide whether you want a CD-ROM drive (and speakers), whether you want a modem, and how large a monitor you want. You also should consider a back-up device of some kind. If you purchase this with your computer rather than several months later following a disk crash you'll be happier. When getting software its a good idea to find something for word processing (writing), image processing (drawing), and telecommunications (fax/modem). From there you can build. Also get anti-virus software as soon as possible. Screensavers are some of the most entertaining programs out there. They are not necessary to protect your monitor from burn-in, but are often worth having for less utilitarian reasons. Get at least a one-year warranty on all purchases if you can.
CPU, chips and processor speed: The heart of a computer, the engine, is the Central Processing Unit. This computer chip processes all commands and moves all of the information around. There are many manufacturers of CPU chips including Motorola (who make the 680x0 series chips used in Macintoshes as well as the 60x series chips used in PowerPCs and other machines), Intel (who make the x86 series chips used in IBM compatibles and Pentium chips), Hewlett Packard, and others. A given chip (Motorola 68040, or Intel 486) can come in several clock speeds measured in megahertz (33 mhz, 80 mhz). A faster clock speed means a given chip operates faster (and costs more). Because the exact commands (place, add, store) are different for each chip, software must be written for the CPU it is run on. This is why Windows software does not run on Macintosh machines. If there is particular software you want to run, check that the CPU you buy is compatible. Differences in CPUs will be the largest factor in the cost of a machine.
Monitors: Monitors can be color or black and white (greyscale, although not common, is also available). Most computers are sold with a 14" or 15" color monitor, but often a different monitor can be substituted. Larger monitors (17"-21") are desirable, but cost significantly more. If you want a large monitor, make sure that the computer you have selected can run that monitor. In many cases (but not all), you will also need to purchase an accelerator card so that you can take full advantage of the monitor. Some larger monitors come bundled with an accelerator card.
Keyboard, mouse: There is a larger variety of keyboards available now than ever before. Some provide built-in track balls, some provide more function key options, some are designed to be more ergonomically sound. There is no technical reason to buy one type or another, it is purely a matter of personal preference. Likewise, your choice of pointer device (mouse), also depends on your own preference. There are track balls, mice, finger pads, and graphics tablets each of which control the on-screen position of the cursor. If you will be purchasing a Macintosh machine or running Windows (and we recommend that you do one or the other), a mouse will make your computer use much more enjoyable.
RAM (Random Access Memory): This is the part of the machine that is used by programs and documents you are working on. Also known as main memory, RAM contents are lost when the computer is turned off. The more the better. In some high powered applications, such as photo finishing, users spend more money on RAM than they do on the computers to use it! RAM is no longer as expensive as it once was. We recommend at least 8 megabytes for a basic, low end machine, preferably 16 megabytes. If you can afford a higher end machine, get 32 megabytes or more. Modern software is very demanding (RAM hungry) so more RAM is better, until the software developers take a different approach.
Hard drives, removable media and back-up: The hard drive is where you permanently store all your software and files. Storage capacity is measured in megabytes. Again, more is better. A beginning user will probably spend several months before they fill up 500 megabytes, but experienced users (or people fond of sounds and pictures) can occupy a 1,000 megabyte (1 gigabyte) drive in a short time. A given machine will usually come with an adequate hard drive (usually 1.2 gigabytes or more) It is easy to buy additional drives later on if necessary, and the price and speed continue to improve.
Your computer will come with a floppy drive where you insert disks. Almost all floppy drives these days are 3.5 inch, 1.4 Meg drives. Be wary of others unless you know what you need.
An alternative to buying additional hard drives to expand your computer's storage capacity is to purchase a removable media drive (basically a floppy drive that takes really big disks). These range from several hundred to several thousand dollars for the drive, and $20 to $100 or more for the media disks. Most are magnetic like a hard drive (e.g., The iomega zip (100 Mb) and jaz (1000 Mb) drives are popular versions of this); some are optical media, some are hybrids. Optical media that resemble the familiar musical cd can hold more than 600 megabytes on a single disk. These drives are also an effective way to back-up your data.
Printers: The two dominant printer technologies are laser and ink jet. Generally speaking, laser printers cost more and can print more swiftly, with better adherence of ink to page and with higher resolution, while ink jet printers are inexpensive and usually slower, particularly for graphics. There are also impact (dot matrix) printers which have crude output, but can make impressions on multi part forms; the need to print multi part forms would be one of the few reasons to purchase an impact printer. Printers usually come with installed fonts; this means that when you make use of those fonts things print faster because the computer doesn't have to tell the printer how to make those fonts. Resolution these days usually starts at 300 dots per inch (sharp enough for general purpose use) for both ink jet and laser printers; the higher the resolution the higher the cost. It's a good idea to look at sample output, both text and graphics, of a printer at all the resolutions it supports. Also, if you plan to frequently print many pages, get a printer that is fast enough to meet your needs, there is a big difference between 2 minutes a page and 8 pages a minute.
Color is an option that many people find appealing, but again check the output and see if it is what you hope. Ink jet ink cartridges are inexpensive (about $20 each), laser ink cartridges a little more, and color ink cartridges more still. A printer is affected by the paper it prints on, some of the high resolution printers, as well as many color printers, require special paper. This can be expensive. And, for flexibility, find out if the printer will take different kinds and sizes of paper (cardstock, envelopes, labels, oversize sheets).
Upgradeability: Many computers market themselves based on their ability to upgrade to faster and more powerful processors. In most cases the cost of purchasing a new cpu chip and installing it costs more than buying a new machine and selling the old one (even at the dramatic rates of devaluation in the computer world), though this is not always true. Although most computers are far behind the development curve within a couple of years, they usually work perfectly well for eight or ten years. If you buy the computer you need now you shouldn't need to upgrade for several years.
If remaining on the cutting edge is important, then it is probably worthwhile to research not only which computers are available, but which are in develop-ment so that the model you choose is likely to be supported for upgrades in the following years.
Modem: A modem is used to translate signals from your computer so they can be sent over a telephone line. Modems are becoming more and more central to computing. The growth of online services and the Internet, as well as use of faxes and other technologies have convinced me that modems will be nearly as common as telephones in the next century. Modems come in many speeds (1,200 to 57,600 baud). The fastest modems work at the limits of telephone line efficiency so don't expect them to regularly operate at their highest rated speed. In addition you can only transfer data as fast as the modem at the other end of the phone line. Most commercial online services like America Online only support 28,800 or 33,600 speed modems, though everyone is upgrading as the demand rises and the costs decrease. Again in most cases an suitable modem will be bundled with a computer. The speeds for fax transmission are different from those for data, make sure you are getting what you want. Also check what software is bundled with the modem. Some software is extremely fancy and uses more computer resources than you may want tied up (Optical Character Recognition for instance is useful only for those who need it). Shareware software to control modems is a popular solution; many IBM compatible users choose ProComm, while Macintosh users often select ZTerm. You can get these programs online easily.
CD-ROM: Compact Disk-Read Only Memory players allow people to access large amounts of visual, audio and text information on a single disk. These days more computers have them than don't. They will add a couple hundred dollars to the price of a system, but are very useful. Games, multimedia, and reference works are all significantly enhanced by the size and efficiency of CD-ROM drives. Most CD-ROM players will also play audio CDs through your computer (but not vice versa). Some of them require caddys to hold your disks so try to avoid these drives (there's nothing wrong with them, they are just a little more inconvenient). CD-ROM drives come anywhere from 2x to 24x speeds. Faster is definitely better as well as more expensive, but the only speed to avoid is single speed. Also, if you're considering a higher-end CD-ROM drive, you should be aware that not all CD-ROM titles are optimized for the fastest drives.
Portable Computers: The tradeoffs for a smaller, lighter machine are pretty straight-forward; portables cost a little more (about 20 percent more for the same processing power) and you can carry them around with you. They also use less power. The costs actually go up significantly if you purchase a color screen because the screen technology (lcd, just like calculators only more so) for portables is far less developed than for desktop screens. Many portable computers can be plugged into a desktop color monitor for home use, or, can attach to other peripherals (CD-ROMs, speakers, printers, external drives) with the right adapters. If you're considering a portable, find out if it supports the peripheral devices you plan to use. Most portables come with a PC-Card slot which allows you to insert pc formatted devices of many sorts, from cd-rom drives to RAM, to modems.
The computer market is shifting. For many years different manufacturers were trying to close one another out of the field, but now consumers are becoming more important. New software architectures and hardware protocols are creating computers that will eventually run most software on most hardware using any operating system. Apple, IBM and Motorola have developed a new processor (the PowerPC) that operates more efficiently than any processor before it, and Intel is working with Hewlett Packard to make a similar chip. Operating systems are being licensed for use on different hardware platforms and inter-operability of software is being standardized.
A converged platform agreement has been signed by IBM, Apple and other computer manufacturers. This all means that three to five years from now your choice of hardware will not imply your choice of software, and that is the way it should always have been.
Where to Shop
Good places to price systems are from catalog resellers (macwarehouse, pcmall), superstores like Incredible Universe and Office Depot, and computer dealers like Alpha Computers. You'll usually get better prices from the former and better service from the latter. It is often inexpensive to purchase used computers, from the classified ads or a user group, and this can be a good route. Computers don't usually break down so much as become obsolete. Another option is demonstration models. These will often still have a warranty.
Inexpensive new computer models sometimes come below $1,000, midrange doubles that, and high-end home or small busines use computers can cost $3,000 and more.
There are many options out there and some people become convinced there is a best solution and put themselves into a perpetual analyze mode. I feel that you are likely to be pleased by several machines so trust a little in providence. When you're ready to purchase don't hold back trying to make sure you've checked every possibility. There will always be more options if you look for them. Step forward and buy yourself a computer and spend your energy learning to use it.