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How to buy a computer without tearing your hair out.

Not long ago, my friend Jonathan decided to buy a computer to use in his small business. He spent hours at the library checking ratings and reading the ads in computer magazines and spent even more time fending off hard-sell salespeople in stores and on the phone. Ten days after he started his search, he announced that he wasn't going to buy a computer after all. "I'm going to buy a car instead," he said. "Then I'm going to drive to a friend's house and use her computer."

There are two basic types of first-time computer buyers: people like Jonathan who intend to use their computers to automate their small businesses, and people like my mother-in-law Phillis, who would use her computer for writing letters, balancing her checkbook, making household budgets, and keeping statistics for her tennis club.

With literally hundreds of options, buying your first computer can be daunting. But if you're willing to spend a few minutes analyzing your needs, you'll end up with the right system, at a price you can afford. And best of all, you won't go crazy. (If you aren't familiar with any of the specialized computer terms used here, see the box at the end of this article.)


The majority of computers sold for home or small business use fall into two categories: Macintosh (Mac) or IBM-PC (or compatibles). PCs are made by scores of companies (IBM, Toshiba, and Compaq, just to name a few). The Macintosh is made only by one manufacturer--Apple. The big question, of course, is "Which computer is better?"

Just a few years ago, the rule of thumb was "PCs are less expensive, but Macs are easier to use." Today, while this rule is still generally true, thanks to the introduction of Windows (which allows you to do many computer tasks by simply pointing at on-screen pictures), PCs are almost as easy to use as Macs. Meanwhile, Apple has introduced a wide range of Macintosh models, some of which are fairly price-competitive with the PC. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you begin your search:

What do they use at the office (or at the school)? "Get the same kind of computer you're using at the office or that your kids are using at school," says Katherine Murray, the author of more than two dozen computer books. Being able to take work back and forth between the office or school and home will make you--and your whole family--more productive.

What am I going to do with it? William Tom, sales manager of California Computer Options, says, "If you're going to be doing a lot of word-processing, financial, or business tasks, you'll probably be better off with a PC. But if you'll be using a lot of fancy, high-end graphics, multimedia, or music, get a Mac."

Overall, if your kids or your coworkers aren't already using a Macintosh, and if you aren't planning to design fancy brochures or compose music, I suggest you limit your search to IBM-compatible machines.


Phillis (my mother-in-law) can probably get by with some of the older (and cheaper) technology, but small-business users like Jonathan will need more power. Most experts agree that both Phillis and Jonathan (and, of course, you) should buy the most advanced computer they feel they can comfortably afford. Here are a few important considerations:

Try to anticipate your future computer needs. You may not need it now, but a CD-ROM (a device that uses a laser to retrieve information from compact disks similar to the ones your stereo plays) will give you and your family instant access to encyclopedias and thousands of volumes of other reference and research materials. For Jonathan, who frequently works at home, a fax/modem card (which lets you send and receive faxes with his computer) will enable him to keep in constant contact with his office (assuming, of course, he really wants that). Buying your system complete with everything you might need will be a lot easier--and, in the long run, cheaper--than getting an incomplete system and trying to add to it later.

Try before you buy. Katherine Murray advises people to spend at least 10 or 15 minutes experimenting with different models before finally settling on one. Make sure you like the speed at which the system runs, the monitor, the noise level, and, of course, the keyboard. Some keyboards have a light touch, while others really make you press hard; some click loudly, while others are nearly silent. If you're not completely comfortable with your entire system, chances are you won't use it. Don't skimp on your monitor. The part of your computer you'll be interacting with most frequently is the monitor or screen. Most complete systems now come with a color monitor. I've found that while all those colors are nice to look at, they're also a little distracting. A good-quality monochrome (one-color) monitor is less expensive and easier on your eyes. No one can tell you which monitor is best for you, so spend a few minutes testing out a couple of different ones, paying special attention to how your eyes feel. Spending a lot of time in front of a bad monitor can cause headaches or damage your eyes.

Speed. For PCs, speed is indicated by a series of ever-increasing numbers ending in "86." The 286s (now considered "old technology") are still available and are adequate for word processing and basic home-computing needs. The disadvantage of a 286 is that you can't run Windows or any of today's newer, faster programs. On the other hand, 386s, which run faster, are perfectly adequate for almost any task, but prices for the 486, the fastest of the three, are dropping, and the cost difference between the two is only a few hundred dollars. When talking about speed, you'll also see references to "megahertz" (Mhz). The higher the Mhz, the faster the computer is operating. If you plan on using engineering or graphics programs, for example, the faster your computer, the faster your drawings will be generated.

Storage. The amount of information your computer can hold is indicated by the number of "megabytes" (Mb or megs) of hard-drive memory. Again, the bigger the number, the more information you can store (and, of course, the more you'll pay for the privilege). You'll also hear a lot about RAM (random-access memory), also measured in megabytes. If you're buying a 286 computer or don't intend to use Windows, get at least one megabyte of RAM. If you intend to use Windows (and most PC users do), you'll need a minimum of four megs.

Jonathan will find that a 486 will give him the power and speed he needs to run his fancy financial management programs, as well as to satisfy any other immediately foreseeable needs. But Phillis, whose requirements are less likely to change during the next few years, will find that a 386 system with a comfortable keyboard and eye-pleasing monitor will take care of almost anything she's likely to run into.


Everything seems to be getting smaller these days, and computers are no exception. The sales manager, Tom, says 30-40 percent of computer buyers purchase a notebook or other portable computer as their only computer. And there are plenty of good reasons that's true. Today, with few exceptions, every feature available on a desktop computer is also available on its portable cousin.

A year ago, Matthew, a law student in San Francisco, Calif., started bringing his six-pound notebook computer to lectures with him and taking notes on it instead of by hand. Today, Matthew has been joined by so many others that many classrooms now have a special computer-users section (some of the other students were bothered by the constant clicking of the computers).

The advantages of miniaturization don't come cheap, though. A notebook computer will probably cost at least $500 more than a similarly equipped desktop---money I would advise Phillis to put in the bank. But Jonathan, who often visits clients and makes sales presentations, will find a notebook computer simply indispensable.


Buying by mail order offers several significant advantages:

* Cost. Thanks to low overhead, mail-order houses usually offer better prices than your local dealer. If you're buying from an out-of-state company, you'll also save on sales tax.

* Selection. Most mail-order companies offer a much wider selection than dealers.

* Convenience. Once you decide what you want, you won't have to leave the house to buy it. And, in many cases, mail-order companies are open 24 hours a day.

On the other hand, buying by mail also involves some risks:

* Customer service (or lack of it). Because of the wide variety of products they offer, many mail-order salespeople are Jacks (or Janes) of all models, masters of none.

* Returns. The money you saved may be more than lost if you have to pay return shipping for a computer that turns out to be defective or less than you wanted.

* Hooks. Some companies entice buyers with seemingly low prices but fail to tell you that such basics as printer cables, monitors, batteries, and chargers are not included.

* Warranties. Everyone offers a warranty (usually one-year parts and labor). But if something goes wrong, you may have to ship your computer back to the place you bought it (leaving you without a computer until it's repaired). Many mail-order companies offer on-site warranties at no extra charge--more on this later.

* You don't get to try it out. Unless you've tried the exact model you're buying (in a local store or at a friend's house), you can't be sure what you're getting until you plug it in.

In short, if you know exactly what you want, mail order is the way to go. But if you aren't sure and feel you need a little hand-holding (and believe me, that's nothing to be embarrassed about), you'll be better off with a local dealer. One notable exception to this advice is if you're buying mail-order directly from a manufacturer (some of whom, such as Zeos and Gateway sell only this way). Matthew (the law student) found that the customer-service people he's dealt with have been helpful, knowledgeable, patient, and courteous. Best of all, they are open 24 hours a day--a great advantage for people who don't do everything during business hours.


Whether you're buying mail order or from your local dealer, make sure you've gotten clear, understandable answers to your questions. Here are some particularly important ones: Are you an authorized dealer? Beware of any answer other than an unqualified "Yes." Buying from an unauthorized dealer may mean you're not getting the full warranty. Where are repairs done? With an onsite warranty, the company will send a service technician to repair your computer at your home or office.

Other warranties, though, allow the company to send you replacement parts (usually by overnight courier) and you'll have to replace them. If you don't get an on-site warranty, buying from a dealer who does his own repairs in-house means faster turn-around time for you. Can I get a loaner? Once in a great while your computer may have to be sent to the manufacturer for repair. If necessary, Phillis will probably be able to get along without her computer for a few days. But for Jona than, losing his computer means losing money. I've found that computers have an uncanny knack for breaking down in the middle of the most important project you've ever done. So, being able to get a loaner is a great advantage.

References. If you're buying from a well-known dealer (mail order or local), references may not be necessary. But in most cities, there are dozens of smaller, lesser-known dealers, most of whom sell quality merchandise. Just to make sure, though, it's a good idea to talk to a satisfied customer or two.

With technology changing so rapidly, chances are that within a few years you'll be buying another computer or at least upgrading the one you have. So, try to establish rapport with an informed salesperson who has your best interests at heart and who will keep you up to date on the latest technology.

What About Software?

Getting your dream computer at a price you're happy with is only half the battle. Because computer prices are so competitive, almost any one you buy will include some software (often already installed). But what your salesperson wants to give you might not be exactly what you need.

For home users like Phillis, the solution is simple; all you need are two programs: the most current version of Windows and Microsoft Works. Works is a great program that includes a basic word processing program (for almost all your writing needs), a spreadsheet (for basic financial management), and a database (ideal for mailing lists, statistics, etc.). In addition, Works includes specialized programs for such needs as balancing your checkbook and updating your personal telephone book. Meanwhile, Windows will enable you to be up and running within a few minutes after you take your computer out of the box.

For business users, the choices are more complex. There are programs available (unfortunately, too many to discuss here) for every conceivable business application from tax planning and inventory control to brochure publishing and dental office management. Because this dazzling array of choices can be overwhelming, you need a salesperson you can trust. When checking out software, make sure the manufacturer offers unlimited customer service and a toll-free telephone number.

What About Cost?

Phillis's desktop 386 system should cost about $1,000, including software, while Jonathan's 486 notebook will run closer to $2,000. Other things they'll either need now or may want later include: a printer (about $200 for dot-matrix, which is okay for letters and first drafts; $500 for ink jet; and $1,000 for laser, which is essential for producing professional-quality documents). You also may need a modem for telephone communications (under $100) and a CD-ROM ($500, including software).

Speaking the Language

If you're a novice and are just about to buy your first computer, here are a few words and phrases you should know:

* CPU. The Central Processing Unit (or microprocessor) is really the computer's "brain."

* HARDWARE. The CPU, keyboard, monitor (screen), or printer. In short, anything you can actually touch.

* SOFTWARE. The programs (contained on disks) that tell the computer what to do (calculate numbers, make a mailing list, etc.).

* RAM. Random-access memory is used by the CPU to read and manipulate data and programs. With more RAM, your computer can run more powerful programs faster. The contents of RAM are usually lost when the computer is shut off.

* ROM. Read-only memory is used to store the computer's operating system, utility programs, etc. Unlike RAM, when you shut off the computer, ROM is not lost.

* MOTHERBOARD. The circuit board on which the CPU, RAM, ROM, and other chips are connected.

* MOUSE. A small input device that you roll on your desktop to move a cursor (or pointer) around the computer screen and which sends data to the CPU.

* EXPANSION CARDS. Unused slots on the motherboard allow users to upgrade their systems by adding increased speed, memory, or other functions.

* FLOPPY DISKS (DISKETTES). The medium on which data and programs are frequently stored. Disks come in two basic sizes: 5.25" and 3.5". If you can, get a computer equipped with one drive of each size. (Laptops and notebooks, though, only come with one 3.5" drive.)

* WINDOWS. A type of Graphical User Interface that eliminates the need to type out lengthy and often confusing commands. Instead, you use a mouse to select what you want to do from a variety of on-screen pictures called "icons."

* HARD DISK. Unlike floppy disks (whicb can be removed from your computer) hard disks are normally built in. They can hold significantly more data than floppy disks and work at much higher speeds, meaning they can run programs faster.

* KILOBYTES/MEGABYTES. One kilobyte (K or Kb) is about 1,000 individual units of data (letters, numbers, spaces). A megabyte (M or Mb) is about one million units of data.

* PORTS. Essentially outlets into which you plug external devices like printers. The most common are serial (also referred to as RS-232) and parallel (sometimes called Centronics). If possible, try to get at least one of each.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Title Annotation:includes related glossary
Author:Brott, Armin A.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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