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Which PC to buy now.

Which PC to buy now

Several years ago in this column I recommended the IBM PC and its clones, or compatibles, and explained how to choose among the PC, XT, AT, Personal System/2 (PS2), and Apple Macintosh II line.(1) Although more choices are available today, the buyer is more likely to make the right decision because competition plus better and cheaper technology have caused most companies to offer excellent values. The key is to determine exactly what you want your system to achieve and then find the one that will do so best for the amount you can spend.

Each computer consists of the basic board (electronics) and a metal box containing a processor. In PCs, the order of power from lowest to highest is 8088, 8086, 80286, 80386, 80486. The processor runs at a certain speed, usually 10 to 33 MHz, with or without wait states (when the processor stops processing to catch up with slow memory). Other parts are a hard disk; floppy disks (5 1/2", with 1.2 Mb or 360 Kb of capacity) or rigid diskettes (3 1/2", with 720 Kb or 1.44 Mb of capacity); serial and parallel ports for connection with printers, modems, and other peripherals; and random-access memory (RAM) to execute programs quickly.

In buying a computer, spending more money will provide greater storage capacity, a faster hard drive, more memory, or a faster processor. Which to choose?

[paragraph] Speed. You'll need high speed (more RAM and a fast computer) for applications that involve computation-intensive calculations, such as graphics (whether technical drawings or fancy typefaces), or complex mathematics, such as chromatography peak integration. Look for speed if you'll need extensive spreadsheets computed fast.

Large databases spend most of their time storing and retrieving data from the hard disk. Thus the speed of the disk largely determines the speed of the entire system. Your hard disk must be commodious enough to store the original database as well as copies for intermediate processing, such as sorting records.

In deciding how many Mb you need, use this rough rule: One character equals one byte. To store the records of 5,000 transactions, each containing 500 bytes, you need 2,500,000 bytes (2.5 Mb). Add 20 per cent for overhead, such as instructions to tell the computer how you want records organized. Conclusion: You need 3 Mb.

[paragraph] Storage. Your primary criterion on is storage if the applications you need will involve vast amounts of data but you're willing to wait an hour for the answer.

[paragraph] Memory. More memory allows larger programs to be executed and most programs to be executed faster.

Spending more money will obtain an IBM PC with more powerful hardware or a clone with even more powerful hardware (since the base price of the clone is lower). In ascending order of price, consider no-name brands, major mail-order house brands, and nationally known brands. Because certain well-known computers, such as Zenith, use some unique parts that are very expensive to replace, you may be best off with a no-name brand that uses standard interchangeable top-brand components.

If you live in a rural area, mail order is your best bet. Computer magazines regularly review mail-order computers and indicate their top choices. If you need handholding, however, have someone buy the computer for you or use a store that advertises in a city near your home. * IBM clones. A substantial drop in price in the last few years has made the AT clone the most cost-effective machine for most users. I recommend a 10-, 12-, or 16-MHz AT clone with 1 Mb of RAM, memory expandable on the board (that is, without auxiliary cards) to 4 Mb RAM; a 60- to 80-Mb hard disk; one 1.2-Mb and/or one 1.44-Mb floppy drive; a serial/parallel port; and a VGA (video graphics adapter) high-resolution color monitor and display controller. Total cost (net): around $1,700.

One step down from this is a monochrome system with a 40-Mb hard disk for about $1,200 (net). Most programs are easier to use with color, although shades of gray, amber, or green may be adequate.

If you are planning to print typefaces in many different sizes and styles, you'll need to get a large hard disk in which to store them. Large computer programs using Windows 3.0 (Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash.), the PC graphics interface, require another 2 to 5 Mb.

Enhanced features include an 80386SX processor and faster memory, for about $300 extra, and a mathematics coprocessor for extremely fast calculations, including graphics, for $200 to $400 more.

If you want to increase overall speed, it is usually more cost-effective to obtain more RAM or a mathematics coprocessor than to buy a machine that is rated for higher MHz.

Some computers have additional fast (and expensive) memory, called cache memory, for high-performance applications. Cache memory stores frequently used portions of the hard disk or of the regular slow RAM for quick execution. A faster hard disk, disk cache, and optimal configuration of the computer (using the commands FASTOPEN, FILES, and BUFFER, for example) speed up disk-intensive tasks, such as large databases, more than a computer with higher speed. * IBM PS2. The PS2 family of computers is available in different types with various characteristics and options. The electronic circuitry connecting accessories, called the Micro Channel, allows data to move faster between different parts of the computer; however, some software may not take advantage of this feature.

While hardware accessories for the PS2 are easy to install, there appear to be fewer and more expensive options. Prices are likely to decline, however, and options to increase. For the same price it is often possible to buy a faster clone. Beware; some clone manufacturers may not remain in business as long as IBM. On the other hand, IBM has been known to discontinue product lines, with much the same effect. For this and other reasons, I recommend clones. * Which PC? Computers using the Intel microprocessors (Apple computers use the Motorola microprocessor series 68000), series 8088/8086/80286/80386/80486, fall into these categories:

1. 8088/8086, 10- to 12-MHz XT clones. A typical machine runs two to three times faster than the original PC. For $600 to $900, you will get 1 Mb RAM, one 360-Kb floppy disk, a keyboard, a monitor with monochrome graphics display, and a hard disk. Order a 1.2-Mb floppy disk or a 1.44-Mb for compatibility with AT machines and to take advantage of the higher disk capacity.

2. 80286, 10- to 20-MHz AT clones. $1,300 + will include one Mb RAM, VGA or monochrome display, a 30- to 40-Mb hard disk, and a 1.2-Mb floppy drive. This machine is two to five times faster than the original AT.

3. 80386/80486, 16- to 33 +- MHz AT clones. These machines are suitable for multitasking and multi-user programs, graphics-oriented programs, and desktop publishing. The 80486 costs about $500 more than an 80386, but is twice as fast. For most purposes, 16 to 20 MHz is optimum. The new 80486 is expensive now but is expected to cost less by next year.

Many non-IBM manufacturers have agreed to a new computer standard, called the EISA (Enhanced Industrial Standard Architecture), which will standardize 80386 and 80486 computers. As of now, 80386 machines from different manufacturers are built with different electronics and are partly incompatible. The new standard competes with the Micro Channel Architecture (MCA, the IBM standard) and with the conventional AT Industry Standard Architecture (ISA). Manufacturers are waiting to see whether buyers will prefer the MCA or faster AT clones or will shift to EISA. For now, MCA and EISA are more expensive but not faster with current software. * Clone or not? Make sure you select the appropriate hardware to meet the demands of the applications you plan to use.[sup.2-4] For most purposes, a PC clone is still the best choice. PCs can do just about anything an Apple can, whereas the reverse is not the case. Many instrument manufacturers depend on IBM-type machines to control their instruments. Price for price, a PC is probably faster, but Apple machines such as the Macintosh II are easier to learn and use because features of different programs work better together than is true for PCs. * Factors in choosing. Due to technologic improvements, more memory costs little more than less memory, because the relative price of higher density memory (such as 1-Mb chips) is far lower than the price of lower density memory (256-Kb chips). The price differential can make 2 Mb of memory cost little more than 1 Mb. Memory prices also depend on the speed of the chip. Do not waste money buying a faster chip than you need.

If you intend to use your computer mainly for word processing and occasional spreadsheet analysis and personal databases, an XT clone will be adequate. I recommend getting a 1.2-Mb drive. For advanced spreadsheets and calculations, graphics, sophisticated databases, and modern word processors, an AT clone (80286) is adequate.

For huge spreadsheets, desktop publishing, and graphics-intensive applications, an 80386 clone is the best choice. The 80386SX, a hybrid, combines many features of the 80386 and 80286 for about $200 more than an 80286.

In general, a 10 percent increase in price provides about 5 per cent more speed. While a 12-MHz AT is five to ten times faster than an old PC, a newer 80386 may be only twice as fast as a 12-MHz AT.

If you are about to purchase your first PC for home or office, consider a 12-MHz AT or an 80386SX. Although either will cost more than an XT, you'll get higher-capacity disks, which will give you less trouble in creating backups, and faster performance. To save about $150 you may purchase an EGA (enhanced graphics adapter) with lower resolution and slightly slower screen drawing than a VGA. If you need more speed, buy more memory or a mathematics coprocessor or get a 16- or 20-MHz AT.

The minimum configuration that will work well with 1990 sophisticated programs, such as Windows 3.0, is an 80386SX (16 MHz) with 2 Mb RAM, 60[sup.+] -Mb hard disk, 1.44-Mb floppy disk, and VGA color. Total cost (net): $2,100. * Mistakes to avoid. Be careful of low-cost discontinued AT clones; many are either expensive or bad choices. The color display you'll get may well be CGA, a standard that was replaced by EGA years ago (and VGA now) and is therefore incompatible with a good deal of recent software. In addition, the brands advertised may contain proprietary circuitry, which can make repairs or enhancements expensive. Overall, you'll generally get a better price and higher quality at a computer store or from a reputable mail-order house. Because upgrading an old PC is usually more expensive than buying a new one, it may be good enough only for old programs and games - even if it's offered free. * Other accessories. For frequent users, a tape backup at $500 is a time saver that may assist prompt recovery from a disaster. Color printers are still very expensive, but high-quality laser printers such as the popular Hewlett Packard IIP are available for less than $1,000. Unless you need impact printing (for multiple-copy forms) or print only a few pages a week, a laser printer is cost-effective. After considering all costs - paper, ink, cartridges, staff time - you you may find that a laser printer costs less per page than any other printer. Good-looking documents can be printed with good word processing software, such as Microsoft Word 5.0 (Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash.), and a set of attractive typefaces.

Recently I had to purchase two computers for my laboratory. "How I selected my latest computers" describes the process I went through in making my decisions.

Next month in this column I will discuss software choices for 1990 and beyond.

The author is a senior scientist in the department of nutrition at University Hospital, Boston University Medical Center, Boston
COPYRIGHT 1990 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related purchasing case history
Author:Siguel, Edward N.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Article Type:column
Date:Sep 1, 1990
Previous Article:Organizing the functions of the lab management team.
Next Article:The many faces of productivity measurement.

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