Contents Deciphering an Ad Hardware and Software The Bit and its offspring... The CPU Input Devices Output Devices Devices that do Input AND Output Buying a computer Deciphering the ad Laboratory Assignment Summary

Section: Buying a computer

All those details are very confusing. Computer sales people know this, and take advantage of it. If you generally followed most of the things we've talked about in this chapter, but you still don't know IDE from SCSI, don't worry. You still probably know nearly as much as the salesperson you are dealing with. Much of the time, salespeople deliberately go into heavy jargon-speak. Don't let that intimidate you! You know the basics of what a computer should have, and you should know what you want. You are the one with the money, and they have to please you. Here are some guidelines.

Decide if you are ready for a computer. Maybe you aren't yet. That's OK. Wait until you are.

Decide HONESTLY what you think you will do with a computer. Everyone says "Oh, I'm mainly going to write letters and balance my checkbook." Malarky. If you want to be able to play games, surf the Internet, and run that really cool game you saw advertised last week, you don't have to admit that to anyone else, but admit it to yourself. If all you are really going to do with your computer is basic applications, you don't need much of a computer. If you want to run the newest, coolest applications, you need a more elaborate setup that will cost you more money. The best way to find out the right machine for you is to go to a software store and look at the shelves. Pretend you were given enough money to buy any 5 programs in the store. Look at the boxes the programs come in, and you will see a section somewhere that describes the minimum equipment requirements for that program. After you have compared a few such programs, you will begin to see what kind of computer you really want to have. If all the programs you want require a 486 or Pentium, you will probably be disappointed with a 386 or a Macintosh. It might be that all the programs you want will run on a 486, but you need a CD-ROM. That should guide you in your decision process as well.

Think also about the ease of use factor. As we explore operating systems in this class, think about which one you like best. How important is that to you. Many people are sold on Macintosh simply because they love the operating system, although there is much less software available for the Macs.

Finally, think about compatibility. This is not nearly as big an issue as it used to be, but it can still be a factor. For example, if you are a teacher, all the work you do at school is on a Mac, and you want to be able to work at home as well, a Macintosh similar to the one at work makes sense. Likewise, if you are an accountant, and you want a copy of Peachtree at home, you will probably need a PC. Remember that the Internet is making compatibility less of an issue, but it still is a factor.

Think about how much money you have to spend. Since the beginning of the home computer boon, the top - of - the line home computer system has always cost about $3000. \left(Of course the machine you spent$3000 on in 1983 is worth about a dollar and a half today, but that is irrelevant). If you have $3000 sitting around, your decisions are easy. Most of us have to compromise somewhere.$

Any computer system you buy today will be obsolete in a few months. You can't sit there waiting for the market to settle down, because it isn't going to happen. Accept the fact that you may not have the best machine out there, and get the best machine for you you can afford.

Consider an older or used computer. If you don't mind using an older operating system and programs, they can serve you well. Systems that cost several thousand dollars a few years ago can now be found quite cheaply. It will be harder to find programs for them, but once you do, you can suffice quite nicely. Used computers can sometimes be found at used computer stores, and sometimes offices sell older but still very serviceable computers to their employees at very reasonable rates. You may also want to check the want ads. You might find a very good deal on a computer fully stocked with software and peripherals. These older cheaper computers are ideal for college students and others with enforced poverty levels.

Think about whether you want a laptop. Laptop computers are those amazing computers which are just as powerful as their desktop cousins, but small enough to fit in a briefcase. The obvious advantage of a laptop is portability and convenience. With batteries, a laptop can be taken nearly anywhere. If you are willing to pay for it, you can find a laptop computer as powerful as nearly any desktop anywhere.

There are two main problems with laptops. In order to fit such power in such a small space, the designers of laptops often have to squeeze things together in unusual creative ways. This makes laptops generally more expensive than desktops, and also makes them more difficult to upgrade. On a desktop computer, you can simply remove the top, take out a card, and replace it with a new one. Laptops are generally made so the user cannot take them apart and cannot do many upgrades at all. A standard called PCMIA improves this situation, but PCMIA - based devices for laptops are much more expensive than the same device designed for a desktop machine.

Comparison shopping is important. For one thing, you can use the information you learn on earlier searches to make you sound smarter later on. You might start by finding a computer you like, then writing down the specifications for it. The next store you go to, you don't have to say "Gosh, I want a computer-thingy." Instead, you can say "I'm looking for a Pentium 100 or better with 15Mb of RAM and at least a 500 Mb Hard drive." Even if you don't find the computer there, the sales person is far more likely to take you seriously and meet your needs.

Andy Harris, aharris@klingon.cs.iupui.edu