If you are planning to buy a computer, you probably are asking yourself: Which do I buy? Which company is safe? What can I afford? If you go to a computer retail chain, you will find different stores recommending different machines. Unfortunately, large computer retail outlets with hundreds of stores around the country purchase computer models by the thou sands at sharply discounted prices. They instruct their salespersons to "push" these models so they can sell off their inventory. So the typical computer salespersons are of ten thinking more about their pocketbook than about yours.
So if you are looking for a new computer:
1. Be cautious. Do not take everything a salesperson says as "the gospel truth." You want to avoid costly mistakes.
2. Be informed. Computers are a specialized technology. Learn the meaning of the basic terms associated with this technology before you visit the computer store so you can intelligently compare different models and decide which one is the best bargain for you.
This article provides you a broad over view of the dozen or so key words used to describe computers. With that you should be able to evaluate which models are genuine bargains and which ones represent out dated technology.
The components of a computer
A computer is comprised of eight basic items a metal chassis that houses the CPU (Central Processing Unit, or brain), a monitor, a keyboard, a hard drive to store programmed files, a mouse, a modem, a CD-ROM, plus a sound card and speakers for multimedia.
Collectively these items are known as hardware. Hardware refers to the equipment on which computer programs will run. In addition to hardware, computers also need software. Software is what makes the computer do things calculate numbers, process words, create and edit graphic images, build newsletters, or manage church mailing lists. Software comes on 3.5-inch diskettes or CD-ROMs.
Understanding computer speed
Computers come in two major categories the IBM-compatible Windows PCs and Macintosh computers. Since new Macintosh sales amount to less than 5 percent of the U.S. business market, this article is limited to the Windows-only category.
In comparing the performance of different models of computers, the most valuable benchmark is clock speed. Computer clock speed is measured in units called megahertz (MHz), or millions of instructions per second (MIPS). Within the DOS/Windows environment computers evolved in seven basic configurations (see Illustration 1).
Within each of these seven basic computer families are subgroups that run at different clock speeds. The higher the clock speed within each family of computers, the faster the computer can process instructions and reformat documents. Currently, for ex ample, Pentiums come in 100,120,133,150, 166,180, and 200 MHz subgroups. Pentium Us, introduced in May 1997, come as 230, 266, and 300 MHz machines.
A Pentium, for example, at 112 MIPS, will run circles around an 80486 PC (only 56 MIPS), and a Pentium Pro can process data at 250 million instructions per second five times faster than an 80486 DX2/ 66. The Pentium Pro contains 5.5 million transistors built into the tiny CPU.
But MHz is only one way of evaluating a computer. The amount of information the computer can process at one time is even more important than the speed it uses to process that information. Just as a 16-lane freeway can process twice as many cars as an eight-lane freeway, a Pentium CPU uses 64 lanes of traffic (called bits) outside the CPU to move data, rather than the 32 bits that the 80386 and 80486 machines use. (In fact, the slowest Pentium is 800 times faster than the 8088 CPU in the original IBM PC.)
In most cases you will want either a tower or mini-tower case, rather than a desk top model (that commits you to the small 14-inch monitor). And if you can plug the monitor into the back of the case, you will need only one switch to turn on the system.
Unless you anticipate working with unusually large documents on a regular basis, or creating numerous graphic images, or networking computers (running several machines from one computer), most offices will not require the faster Pentium II computers. In fact, right now the mid-speed Pentium PCs (133-166 MHz) are becoming real bargains.
If you are purchasing new equipment for a church or home office, ignore anything slower than a Pentium, no matter how attractive the price. Many new programs simply do not run well on the 386 or 486 models. All major companies have stopped selling the 486s. Your safest choice today for a stand alone conference, church, or home office computer is a mid-level (133-166 MHz) or upper-level (200 MHz) Pentium. Remember that the difference in cost between a 166 and 200 MHz computer can be as little as $200 in the United States.
One more tip: the 133 and 166 CPUs use a motherboard that is 10 percent faster than a 120 and 150 CPU (66 MHz compared to 60 MHz). So if the price is close, choose the 133 or 166 MHz over the 120 and 150 MHz CPU Pentiums.
Also remember that computers do not wear out like a set of tires on a car. There is no elephants' graveyard of discarded ma chines, no secret dumping ground for use less computers. A typical PC purchased today could have a life expectancy approaching a decade or more. Therefore, considering the potential life expectancy of a computer, upgradeability and quality of the unit should weigh more than the initial price when selecting among different models.
Computer memory, known as random access memory (RAM), is the electrical circuits in which the computer stores program codes from the hard drive and data that the user has typed from a keyboard. It is the computer's work space, where text, equations, numbers, poetry, or graphical images are stored while they are displayed on the screen.
Today virtually all machines are sold with either 16 or 32 MB (megabytes) of system memory. For Windows 3.1 or Windows 95, this is standard. Avoid purchasing a bargain machine with only 8 MB of RAM especially if you plan to use more than one program at a time. Increase system memory to 32 MB if you are running a Windows 95 operating system or working with 24-bit color images and other large files, or if you keep several large applications open at one time. Remember, the least-expensive time to add memory is when you first purchase your PC.
Will that be cache (or credit)?
Computer advertisements talk about cache. Cache is simply a special section of ultra-fast memory where information recently retrieved from the hard disk, CDROM, and from slower RAM is stored for immediate reuse (thus saving the time needed to go to the hard drive or RAM to locate that same information again). In word processing, for example, this can make spell-checking operate significantly faster.
For optimal performance you want your PC to come with either 256K or 512K of L2 (Level 2) cache. And the very best cache is called pipeline burst cache, which is about 10 percent faster than regular cache.
What about MMX (short for Multi-Media Extensions)? The newer CPUs have added multimedia activities (video, audio, etc.) into the CPU itself, which speeds up these types of PC operations.
Selecting a proper monitor
Look at three things when evaluating one monitor over another: screen size, pixels, and dot pitch.
Size. Monitors are grouped into four basic sizes: 14-inch, 15-inch, 17-inch, and 19-inch to 21-inch screens. The 14-inch (measured diagonally) models are found only on the cheapest PCs and should be avoided. The 15-inch monitor is now considered entry level size, and the 17-inch models are rapidly becoming the business standard. For desktop publishing you really need a 20-inch or 21-inch model that generally costs $2,000 or more. Again, the least expensive time to upgrade a monitor is when you first purchase a system.
When comparing typical advertisements for computer systems, pay particular attention to whether the price includes a monitor. (Some store ads exclude the monitor to make the price look attractive.)
Pixels. Color monitors come in different types identifiable by the number of picture elements (called-pixels) projected on the glass horizontally and vertically. Generally speaking, the more pixels your screen supports, the sharper and better-looking the text and graphics will appear on the monitor. Except for laptops, avoid the regular VGA (640 x 480 pixels) screens. An absolute minimum for Windows is 800 x 600 pixels (256 colors). But monitors that can project 1,024 by 768 pixels or 1,280 by 1,024 pixels are better yet. The number of colors displayed at these pixel settings is determined by the amount of RAM on the video card. Two MB of video card RAM is considered normal, unless you plan to work with graphic images. Then you will want four MB of video RAM.
Because the quality of the video board can hold back the overall performance of the PC, you will want one that is as fast as possible. The 64-bit video card is fairly standard. But some machines offer a 128-bit video card, for faster work with graphic images.
Dot pitch. In addition to the size, a second way to compare one monitor with an other is the dot pitch of a monitor. Dot pitch, measured in millimeters (mm.), refers to the spacing between pixels on the screen. A smaller-numbered dot pitch is better, be cause the color dots on the screen are closer together and form a tighter, sharper image both with words and graphic images. In other words, a monitor with 0.26-mm. dot pitch is superior and easier on the eyes than a monitor with 0.28-mm. or 0.33-mm. dot pitch.
Choosing the right keyboard
If you have visited one or more computer showrooms, you already know that key boards come in two basic configurations the standard straight keyboard with 12 function keys stretched across the top in a single horizontal row, and the newer split ergonomic keyboard with two halves adjusted to fit the hands better. The standard model is called the 101-key enhanced keyboard. Some keyboards have a 130-key configuration.
If you don't mind the couple of weeks it will take to adjust to the new feel, you may want to try the Microsoft Natural Keyboard that costs about $85 in the U.S. But if you have to work between two machines frequently, one at the office and one at home, you may not want two radically different keyboards.
Picking the right hard disk
Pay particular attention to the size and speed of the hard disk that comes with your machine.
Disk size. A hard disk is measured in megabytes (MB) of file storage space. One megabyte of disk space will hold about 700 pages of single-spaced WordPerfect text.
Today 2-gigabyte (equal to 2,000 MB) hard disks are considered normal for internal storage on a new PC. Some PC pro grams, such as CorelDRAW, need 40 MB of disk space just for a single program. A gigabyte (GB) represents the equivalent of five 200 MB hard drives. You may not need it today, but in two or three years you will be thankful you have it. If you plan to work with graphic images, don't consider any thing smaller than a 4.0 GB hard drive.
Disk speed. Speed of a hard disk is typically measured by its access time. Average access time indicates how long it takes the drive to find a section of data on the disk. Hard disk access times generally range somewhere between 18 milliseconds (ms.) for old drives to 8 ms. for the fastest new drives. All other things being equal, the smaller the access time number (8 ms., 9 ms., or 10 ms.), the better the hard disk.
Disk type. If you plan to add a second hard drive to an existing machine, be sure to check your manual to see if the drive is a SCSI (small computer system interface; pronounced scuzzy); or IDE integrated device electronics (including Enhanced IDE). You cannot mix and match these drives on the same connector card. A few years ago all the larger drives were SCSI drives. That is no longer true. IDE and EIDE are generally less expensive than SCSI drives. Tests show no significant performance difference between matched EIDE and SCSI-2 drives.
Selecting the right modem
More than one third of American homes (38 percent) now have a computer, and within four years that figure is likely to rise to 50 percent. Of the homes with a computer 25 percent are connected to one of the online services such as CompuServe, America Online, or Prodigy. These three services not only provide access to online magazines and newspapers (270 for CompuServe, 100 for America Online), but also let their users access the Internet a connection of some 50,000 large computers around the world. Or you can purchase private packages that provide 30 or 50 hours of Internet access every month for a flat rate.
For accessing online services or the Internet, you will need a modem (short for modulator-demodulator). A modem is a device that links your computer with a telephone for communication with other computers in a distant location. Digital in formation from your computer is broken down by a modem into pulses that can be transmitted on an ordinary phone line and reassembled on the other end into recognizable computer data.
Also, if you plan to do any kind of publishing, such as a church newsletter or weekly bulletin, you can use a modem to transfer files to a professional typographer, who can output your files on a typesetting machine at resolutions up to 2,540 dpi (dots per inch). This is eight times the resolution of the standard laser-jet, which prints at 600 dpi.
With access to typesetting services you can produce documents of ultimate quality almost equal to those produced in any book or magazine. All you do is print a proof of your pages on a laser) et, send the file via your modem to a typesetter, and receive back by mail an exact duplicate of your laser-printed page with a very high quality.
Obviously, a modem is necessary, be cause you cannot physically link computers in two different states with a wire, nor can you easily exchange disks between two computers separated by 3,000 miles. When it comes to modems, modem speed is the most important element. To day a 33.6 (V.34) data/fax modem is becoming standard. A 28.8 kbps modem (one that transmits 28.8 kilobits of information per second) can transmit data twice as fast as the older 14.4 kbps modems. Most modems today also include the ability to send and receive faxes with your PC.
Illustration 2 (p. 25) shows three basic types of Windows computers and what hardware features you might expect to find at each level.
PC World recently did a survey of its readers on the reliability of hardware and quality of customer service. According to the results of this survey, the most reliable computers with the best service are sold by Micron, Compaq, Digital, NCR, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard. (However, based on his own experience with Dell, the author can not recommend that company for service.) If you want to be safe, look for a computer that comes from one of these manufacturers. (Packard Bell, a popular machine at dis count stores, was in the Not Recommended group.)
So if you have not purchased a new computer yet, and need one, this is the year to do it. Prices have dropped dramatically during the past 12 months system RAM is as low as $5 per MB, hard disk prices have dropped to an unheard-of 10 cents per MB (or $200 for a 2-gig hard drive). And Pentium Pro CPUs have dropped 60 percent in price in less than a year, from $1,325 per CPU to only $562 per CPU in lots of 1,000.
Believe it or not, by waiting until now, you have already made the smartest decision in buying a new PC. Today you can purchase far more computer and spend far less money than at any time in PC history.