Pity the poor soul in search of a personal computer.
Things have scarcely improved during the past decade when it comes to scouting for the best deal on the right computer for YOU. If anything, the proliferation of brands, styles and accessories in recent years has made the task more difficult.Dozens of companies vying for attention in the increasingly competitive field have developed a confusing array of hardware, software and, for all many consumers know, maybe a little flatware on the side.
A typical advertisement for a personal computer - that's a PC, in computerese - could just as well be written in Greek:
"Monochrome monitor, dual floppy disks and 128K of upgradable memory," boasted one of the simple ads. Another ad bragged about being "four times faster" than a competitor, and featuring "up to 8MB memory (RAM), 800K drive, 4-channel stereo, 50 multitask."
Fine. But how many miles to the gallon does it get?
The computer world has a language all its own, and learning that language can be taxing. But learning at least the basics of the lingo is a crucial first step when contemplating the purchase of a personal computer for your home or home office, according to computer specialists.
Once the language barrier is broken, the buyer can proceed to other key steps, such as comparison shopping for the computer, accessories and service.
Computer prices vary considerably, depending on the brand and the number of accessories that are needed. But computer specialists say $1,500 to $3,000 is a reasonable price range for a personal computer for home use with a hard disk, printer and monochrome, or one-color, monitor.
"It took me a good year and a half," of reading and study to become comfortable with computerese, said Dara Blackwell, manager of Computer Works, a computer sales and service company in Maitland, Fla. "But there are a lot of magazines out there you can read, and they all talk about the same things, so you can pick it up that way. And there are a lot of good classes you can take to learn about computers," including courses taught at local community colleges, Blackwell said.
A mini-industry has sprung up to help computer buyers - both before and after the sale. One such company, Hands On Computer Training in Orlando, provides 8- to 16-hour courses to individuals, for a fee ranging from $130 to $175. Reduced corporate rates are available for larger groups.
"We prefer to get them before they make a purchase," said Ed Cohen, manager of Hands On Computer Training. Too often, he said, consumers buy a computer before completely analyzing their needs and attempting to match those needs with the computer and software.
For individuals and small businesses, one of the key recommendations, Cohen said, is to "sit down and make a list of everything they want to accomplish with the computer. They have to outline their needs before making the purchase, or else they so often end up later on trying to adapt the system, or settling for something that doesn't meet their needs."
For example, if the buyer is going to use the computer primarily for word processing, the printer is probably the key element to consider, computer specialists say. Letter-quality printing may be important, and if it is, examining the quality of the printing is critical.
Another major factor that many first-time buyers overlook, Cohen said, is the need to assess the service capabilities of the company from which they are considering making the purchase.
"Lots of people purchase based on price alone," Cohen said. "But you need to stop and think about what will happen if something goes wrong with that computer. Is service readily available? Are parts readily available? We tell them to contact the Better Business Bureau first, and ask about the company."
Typically, computer stores will provide answers to basic questions over the telephone during regular store hours, and stores sometimes provide a toll-free number for assistance after hours. Buyers should check beforehand to see just what consulting services are provided, and whether there is an extra charge.
Dennis Watson, a computer software specialist with the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, provides advice to farmers who are considering purchasing a microcomputer. Many of his suggestions are applicable to individuals and other small businesses:
-Consider the software advantages of IBM-compatible computers. International Business Machines Corp. has been the leader in the personal computer field in recent years, and a majority of companies are making their computers compatible with IBM computers. That means they can use the same software. An IBM-compatible computer will have more software options.
-Look for computers with at least 640K, or kilobytes, of random access memory, known as RAM. Random access memory is the memory used to run computer programs, and is an indicator of the amount of work the computer can do. Anything less than 640K can prove disappointing in the long run.
A kilobyte is equal to 1,024 bytes of information, with each byte representing one character, so 640K is equal to 655,360 characters.
-It is preferable to have a computer that has two floppy disk drives to accommodate either of the two sizes of floppy disks on the market. Floppy disks are flexible memory media for information storage. They come in two sizes: 51/4 inches and 31/2 inches.
The 51/4-inch disk has been around longer, but computers are increasingly being built to take the smaller disk. A computer that accepts both is best.
-It also is preferable to look for a computer with two serial ports, or connection jacks, to allow two devices to be hooked up at the same time. An example would be a modem, or telephone coupler, that permits information to be transmitted or received over telephone lines. Another example would be a "mouse," a small table-top device that moves items on the computer screen.
Another connector, called a parallel port, is needed to allow a printer to be hooked up. Only one parallel port is necessary, unless more than one printer is needed.
-A highly desirable option in a computer is a "hard drive." Hard drives are memory media, just like floppy disks, except their capacity is many times greater. Without a hard drive, a computer user will spend a lot of time inserting and removing floppy disks. A 40MB, or megabyte, hard disk is a common size today and a good choice, according to Watson, because it is convenient as well as faster.