So You Want a New Computer

Part One: Your Needs

by Kevin Jay North, 07 Aug 99


This document was written primarily for the person who knows almost nothing about computers but is somehow anxious to dive into them, being entranced by all their neighbors who have cool new computers who can send Email and surf the web. I'm going to try to explain computers and the Internet as simply as possible. By the way, I already did a brief (though non-exhaustive) search of the web for other documents like this one, and they all were too complicated. I've also heard that the "Computers for Dummies" and "Internet for Dummies" books are too complicated for some people and not very helpful. So, I'm writing this one.

Do I Really Need a Computer?

I think there are a lot of people out there who own computers but don't really need one. They just got it because everyone else has one or because some son of theirs insisted that they get one. In this case, 1) they have a nice computer but hardly ever use it because they don't know how; 2) they use it but constantly run into trouble and have to beg others for help; 3) they use it, and learn it, and enjoy it, but they don't use it enough to really get a return on their large investment.

I try to take a more practical approach. What are you going to use the computer for? Here are some of the most common uses:

  1. Email
  2. World Wide Web
  3. Word Processing
  4. Spreadsheet / Financial Stuff
  5. Games and Entertainment
  6. Music
  7. Work at home on stuff for job
Most new, awe-struck people would simply say "all of the above." When I ask, "What are you going to use the computer for?", I don't mean, "What do you think a computer might be useful for?" I really mean what uses are you actually going to commit to using the computer for. This means that, for each use, 1) you already understand how it works, 2) you are prepared to sit down and invest the time in learning that use, and 3) after you have learned it, you will continue to use the computer for that thing to get a return on your investment.

So getting Email just because it might be useful, for example, isn't good enough. Do you have a need to communicate with other people in that manner? Do they also have Email? Are you prepared to learn it? Are you going to use it often, or might you just have well sent them a letter in the mail once a year for only 33 cents? Are you a talkative person who will probably end up calling people anyway even though you already have Email?

If you're now no longer sure about what you need your computer for, let's look at each of these uses in detail.

1. Email

Email stands for "Electronic Mail." By the way, since Email was invented, people have been looking for a word to describe the regular, U.S. Mail. The only popular term I know of, besides "normal mail" or "U.S. Mail" is "snail mail": so-named because it is much slower than Email. It's also called "Smail" for short. The only problem with this term is that I have a letter carrier friend who is offended by the term. But I don't know of any other terms!

Anyway, Electronic Mail is just what it seems... instead of writing a letter on paper, you type it in on a computer keyboard, and the letters you type appear on a computer screen. The letter is sent electronically over a computer network -- i.e., electrical wires -- instead of placed in the mailbox. The person on the other end sees your message on a computer screen.

The major advantage of Email is that, because it's all electronic, the letter, or "message", gets to its recipient in a few seconds instead of days. Email can even go to anyone in the world in a few seconds -- instead of weeks sometimes. Also, Email is easier to write because it is faster (for good typists) to write a quick message and send it off with a few keystrokes than it is to hand-address an envelope, dig up a stamp, make a trip to the mailbox, etc. Finally, you can send copies of the same message to multiple people... instead of having to rewrite a long letter or having to make a trip to the local copy center.

The main disadvantage of Email is that you can't easily put enclosures in an Email message (money, photographs, etc.), though there are some (complicated) ways around that. The other is that you need an expensive computer and other equipment in order to use Email, plus training. (With Snail mail, even a 3-year-old can write letters, and Uncle Sam faithfully delivers letters for only 33 cents -- no special training required). But in the business world, time is money, so businesses don't mind the up-front expense at all. Once you have all that expensive equipment and have paid for a connection to the network, each and every Email message is free (or, no additional cost).

If you want Email, then you should consider how much you'll use it, as I suggested before. Is it more practical for you to just write letters or make phone calls, or will you use Email a lot to stay in close touch with people? In fact, are you prepared to stay in touch with dozens of new people you weren't able to before now that communication is easier (i.e, will you have the time)? One general rule is that most young people can take full advantage of Email whereas senior citizens probably shouldn't bother. Even this rule though is quickly changing as Email becomes even more easier to get. So I'm sure there's enormous "peer pressure" for you to get Email. Oh, very well. But I'm just trying to make sure that you will enjoy Email, not pay a ton for it and be baffled by it.

2. World Wide Web

Well, this is the other big thing that people are raving about. Who, by now, hasn't heard of the Web? What is it? Well, the World Wide Web, or WWW, is just a fancy name for a fancy network of computers providing information. So what's the Internet? Well, that's the network. Let me explain. Look at the simple picture below:

[Very simple picture of computer network: boxes, and lines connecting the boxes]

The picture represents the a network of computers. Each box is a computer. The lines connecting each box are electronic wires; the set of wires as a whole is the network. Now the Internet is just a name for a gigantic network in which there are millions of computers connected and millions of wires and the wires go all over the globe.

Email and the World Wide Web can be considered a subset of the Internet. Email uses the Internet to pass a message from one computer to another. The Web also uses the Internet to pass information; in this case, some of the millions of the computers are designated as "server" computers, or unmanned machines that have a bunch of information on them. Other computers, such as the computer you're thinking about buying, have a person on them who wants information. So you connect your computer with a server computer out there and get information from it. So Email is private communication from one computer to another; the WWW is kind of like having a bunch of public "bulletin boards" out there that anyone can look at.

The Web, back in the early 90s, used to be tedious. Actually, back then, it was called "FTP" or "Gopher". You had to know in advance which computer of all the millions out there had the information on it that you wanted, and you had to know how to get it. The Web was a new way of getting the same old information. It revolutionized things with its "graphical user interface" (GUI). This means the information on the computer screen has pictures and looks friendly, much like a printed document, instead of ugly with a bunch of cryptic characters on the screen. Also, you mainly used a mouse instead of a keyboard. A mouse is a simple device that rolls around on the desktop. As you roll, an "arrow" on the computer screen moves in the same direction. So you can point the "arrow" (using the mouse) to the area of interest on the computer screen, click a button on the mouse, and have the computer do something else... instead of typing a hard-to-remember cryptic command (such as "GET 00-index.txt").

What the Web inventors did was a really simple but ingenious idea: Put a document on the screen, but on some of the key words, put them on in a different color. If you move the "arrow" (using the mouse) on top of one of those colored words and then click the mouse button, the computer will automatically display a document that goes into more detail about that word. Example:

When Lincoln got back to New Salem after the war ended, only a few days were left before the 1832 election, but he did what campaigning he could. When the vote was counted it showed Lincoln getting 277 votes out of 300 in New Salem precinct, but it fell short of winning the election for him.

In the sample document above, the underlined words represent the key words in a different color. If a user moved the "arrow" over "New Salem precinct" and clicked the mouse button, a different document would be shown, perhaps a technical paper that describes the New Salem precinct, the demographic breakdown, etc.

What is really neat about this is that in the past, you had to use footnotes, or say something like, "See the book New Salem: A 100 Year History for more details." Now you can "click" on the highlighted word and jump to the new document instantly! But there's more: Why limit ourselves to Abraham Lincoln? If the computer we're using is connected to the Internet, the document that we jump to can be on any computer that is connected to the Internet, anywhere in the world.

The highlighted word we "click" on is called a link (or, "hyperlink"). If the starting document contains 10 links, and each of those 10 new documents contains 10 links each, and each of those new documents contains 10 links each, etc., before long we'll have millions of documents connected together. No need to travel to the Library of Congress to do research!! Just click, click, click, and you can access information in any of millions of computers all over the world.

Originally the WWW was just for universities. But then businesses figured out how to make a buck off of it, and it exploded. Now businesses have Web documents ("Web Pages") that advertise their business, and they even have catalogs you can look at, and now you can even buy stuff online with your credit card. People rave about this because you can save money. The reason is because it's cheaper to have an automated computer do a business transaction than it is to build a store, hire employees for it and have them do the transactions. It's not always a nice, though -- what if you need assistance? Also, businesses still need the old way of doing things since not everyone is "online" (i.e., not everyone has their own computer and is connected to the Internet).

A couple of years ago, I would ask someone what they really were going to use the Web for if they decided to shell out the money for a computer. But people have found so many uses now that practically everyone can benefit -- as long as you have time to learn the new technology and have the money to pay for it. If this web stuff is new to you, though, I would strongly recommend you go to a public library or a friend's house and try the web out and see how it works... and see what information you can find and how useful it is to you. There's a lot to learn at first, so it's so much better to get familiar with it on someone else's computer before you go out and buy your own. You may even decide that it's a lot easier just to go to the library to use the computer -- and let them maintain it when it goes wrong -- than it is for you to set it up for yourself at home.

3. Word Processing

Word Processing is when you use your computer to type letters rather than a typewriter. The advantage is that what you type is only on the screen rather than permanently on a piece of paper... so if you change your mind, you can go back and make corrections or changes. You can even electronically "cut" and "paste" large sections of text (text = English sentences) to rearrange your document very easily without the mess of real cut & pasting with scissors and glue! When you finally get your document right, you can print it off on a printer -- and have it perfect the first time. You can even print more than one copy. Or you can make changes, then print it again.

Whether or not you need a word processor depends on how much writing you do. If you don't do that much, and it's mainly "one time only" personal correspondence, then you probably don't need it. If you are young and in school, you're almost forced to have one since everyone else does and teachers probably won't accept anything less than mint-perfect fancy-font reports. But remember, the school may also have computers available for your use, or you can possibly use a computer at a library.

4. Spreadsheet / Financial Stuff

Accountants who work a lot with figures use a computer program called a "spreadsheet." It's just like a sheet of graph paper in which you put figures in rows and columns. What's nice about doing it in the computer is that the computer can add up rows and columns for you... instead of your having to do a calculator. It's worth it if you work a lot with figures, and probably a waste of time if you don't.

5. Games and Entertainment

It's well-known that computers are great for video games and such. In fact, to some people, the computer is the game... they don't care if they get efficient use out of it; it's just a big toy to play with. My personal opinion is that computers are good for games, but it shouldn't be the only reason you get a computer. A Sony Playstation or Super Nintendo is probably a much easier, more trouble-free (and cheaper) investment. You can also use your friend's computer for games, or go to the arcade, or stop staring at screens and play football or a board game, or... well, practically anything. There's so much entertainment out there that there is a lot you can do without spending so much. Some people are raving about new Internet-based games in which you play against someone who's connected to a computer anywhere else in the world. For some people, I suppose they must have it. But it can be addictive, and if you're not careful, you won't have any "real" friends you interact with... only people far away.

6. Music

Almost all new computers have great support for sounds and music. But don't make this the only reason you get a computer. It's still a lot easier and cheaper to get a CD player or a tape player. Most people are obsessed with quality anyway and would rather listen to CD-quality music rather than synthesized music. On the other hand, most computers have a CD-player built-in, so it's kind of like getting a CD player free with a computer. It's also possible to get music free from the World Wide Web, although it takes time and effort.

7. Work at home on stuff for job

If you have a computer at work, you may be able to use your computer at home to do work. In this case, you already know how to use computers, so you know exactly what to do at home. You'll just have to ask yourself if it's worth the investment to have your own computer at home rather than to just use the one at work.

Yes! I Want a Computer! (Don't I?)

Okay, you finally figured out what you are going to use the computer for. Time to get the computer, right? Not necessarily. If you only checked off one or two of the uses, you might be able to save money and trouble by not getting a computer.

If you're interested in only music, get a CD player.

If you're interested in only games, get a Playstation.

If you're interested in only Word Processing, you can buy a standalone "Word Processor" which is basically a mini-computer that is set up only for one thing: Word Processing. But that makes it cheaper and simpler. No worries about Windows "Crashes", "Viruses", etc. I've seen fancy units complete with built-in printer for $400 or less. I'm sure simpler units that look like a modified typewriter are even cheaper (perhaps under $200).

If you're interested in only the Web, consider going to your local public library when you need to do research ... and using their computers.

If you're interested in only Email... Well, there are some options there, too. One is to use web-based Email such as "". This "hotmail" is a server computer out there somewhere which you set up as your "base" so to speak. Actually, you give them a little personal information, and they set up a free Email account for you on their "hotmail" server. Then anyone in the world with Email can send Email to you. They will mark the destination as "hotmail". Then, for you to get the message, you just need to go to your local library, use one of their Web computers, connect to the "hotmail" server by clicking the mouse (this is oversimplified, of course), and your Email makes its last electronic jump from the "hotmail" computer to the computer screen of your local library. You can send your own Email too, of course.

There's also these handheld Email computers. I don't know much about them, but they fit in the palm of your hand, and have a mini keyboard on them, and you can connect them to a telephone. Your Email, which, again, is on some server "base" out there, gets transferred to the telephone lines, then through the telephone to your palm device, then you see it on the mini screen. I don't know how expensive this is. I'm guessing $250 for the palm device and $20/month for the account on the server plus an 800 number to call in to receive and send Email. Something to look into, anyway. It's kind of an attractive option because it's portable and because the palm device is bound to be simpler than a complicated computer (though it still may be a bit of a learning curve to figure out how to use it and to figure out how to connect to the telephone).

If you are interested in only Email and the Web, a very attractive option is WebTV. Basically you get a box that's a mini-computer that uses your television set for the screen. I'm not totally sure about the box prices, but I think you can get a box and keyboard for under $200. But how do you connect to the Internet? Someday you may have a wire into your house that gives you a direct connection, but it's too expensive right now for that. So you use the telephone line. The telephone line connects your WebTV box to another computer at the other end of the line, and that computer is connected to the Internet. WebTV charges $20/month for access via a telephone line. It has thousands of telephone numbers across the country that you can use in an attempt to make it a local telephone call for most people. If you live in a remote area, though, you'll have to call long distance, and that will cost you a lot because hours on the Internet can make a large phone bill real fast!

This is what I call the "long distance problem." This also is a problem if you decide to get a computer, by the way, because you still need the telephone line to connect to the Internet. More on that later. But anyway, the major cost issue of connecting to the Internet is finding some way of making a local telephone call instead of a long distance one.

There is a way around this. WebTV isn't the only one who has computers that you can call into that are connected to the Internet. A lot of other companies do this, too. They are called "Internet Service Providers", or ISPs. They are just companies that have computers, hook them up to local phone lines, then let you call into them so you can get connected to the Internet. They normally charge $15-20/month for this, though sometimes you can get restricted access for $10/month (or you may find other deals). Since the Internet is so popular now, you can find ISPs in your local phone book. You should consider only ISPs that have local telephone numbers. Also, for WebTV, you should not consider the big names like AOL or CompuServe which require special software on a normal computer to use. Ask the ISP specifically if they support WebTV. If they don't know what you're talking about, then they are clueless to help you in times of trouble -- find someone else.

With this setup, you set up your WebTV box to dial a local telephone number to your chosen ISP instead of one of the WebTV numbers directly. The box automatically makes the call when you turn it on. The phone call goes through, and information is transferred from the WebTV box to the ISP's computer, then through the Internet network to one of WebTV's computers, then from there to wherever else on the Internet you want to go. You pay $15-20/month to the ISP to be able to do this. But you also pay an additional $10/month to WebTV because they don't like the fact that you're using someone else to connect to them! Well, it's not only that... they also make a WebTV computer your Email "base", so they have to charge you for use of the computer. So you may pay more per month than a non-WebTV computer user would be paying (if, that is, WebTV doesn't have a local telephone number for you and you are forced to use an ISP).

But remember 1) the WebTV box itself was cheaper; 2) WebTV is a lot easier to set up and use than a computer is. In the long run, it may cost you more because of larger monthly fees (and also because there are some free Internet options available to computer users that aren't available to WebTV users), but it will be easier for you if you don't know computers that well. (Also, you can't get "viruses" on WebTV, and you don't get "crashes.") So you can either pay more and have an easier time, or you can pay less in the long run for a computer but plan to invest a lot more time in learning.

Well, have you read all of this and still decided you need a computer? That's fine... at least you're now making an informed decision. But there's a lot more to learn. In part 2, I'll reveal all of the details, including what computer to get, how to protect your computer from viruses, how to choose an Internet Service Provider, etc. Or... have you decided not to get a computer? Good for you! Don't be pressured by everyone else. You found a simpler, cheaper solution that will meet your needs.

Click here for part 2

Document last modified 21 Aug 99. (C) 1999 by Kevin Jay North; see also full copyright notice & disclaimers..

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