So You Want a New Computer

Part Two: Features Galore

by Kevin Jay North, 15 Aug 99

The Computer Market

Okay, so you decided to get a computer. First, let's talk briefly about the computer market in general. In my opinion, it's insane. Oh, it's starting to get a lot better, but it's still largely insane. I don't have time to explain all the reasons -- I could easily write a whole paper on it -- but I'll just touch on a few of points.

First of all, people are being suckered into buying computers they don't need. Oh, the computers themselves are fine, but people are uneducated about computers, and they're amazed by them, and they're too easily convinced that it is the answer to all their needs, so they go out and buy one. Then it ends up as an expensive doorstop. I tried to hit this point home in the last paper in an attempt to discourage anyone from just going out and buying a computer without understanding what it is they're getting into. Fortunately, you've now read all that, and you know what you're getting into, so you will be buying a computer with a sound, practical mind.

Second, the computer companies are pushing the technology too quickly. You know how in the early 80s, vinyl records were the thing, then all of a sudden CDs came along, then suddenly the record companies abandoned vinyl and essentially forced everyone to switch to CDs? I'm sure they loved it... it must have been a big money-maker for them. Now I don't have anything against CDs -- they are, after all, superior to vinyl (usually) -- but the companies brainwashed us and forced everyone to change over to the new format. Why not let people gradually convert over and let market demand decide what should be produced and how much? This is what happened in other countries, by the way. I don't know if it's still true, but I was told that vinyl is still popular in Europe and other foreign countries.

But America is rich, so the companies love to introduce a new technology and force us all to change over. Just look at digital TV. It's coming. Hey, they even managed to lobby to get laws passed that would force everyone to change to digital TV. That's right, in about 10 years, TV stations won't be allowed to broadcast non-digital signals anymore. Just think of all the money the TV manufacturers are going to rake in when everyone has to buy new TVs or new converter boxes? I don't want to sound like some radical traditionalist here. I'm not against the new technology. Digital TV will indeed be "cool". But I don't want to see us forced over to it.

So what does all this have to do with computers? Well, the computer manufacturers are having the time of their lives right now. Changes in audio formats may be once a decade, and changes in TV formats may be once every 40 years. But as you probably know, computer technology is moving so fast that today's computer is obsolete in two years. Well, it's only obsolete because we're brainwashed into thinking, for example, that an old "486" machine is worthless. It's not. It's a great computer. It can't necessarily do all the latest Internet and multimedia stuff, but it can still do a fine job at many tasks. But the computer companies would rather sell us a brand-new machine and rake in the dollars. Oh, you can save money by just upgrading the 486 machine, but it's usually a losing battle... if you upgrade one component of the computer, there's other components that weren't designed for that kind of speed that also need to be upgraded, and, well, basically it's not easy. Imagine trying to take a V4 engine out of your car and put in a V6. You'd probably just sell your car and get a new one, right? Ka-ching! Another sale! And the 90s economy keeps on going...

One implication of this is that the computer you buy today may be obsolete in two years. I am hopeful that you'll be able to keep it for much longer, but still, the industry is unpredictable, so I am going to recommend that you not buy the top-of-the-line system. Probably low end or middle end. More on this later. Another implication is that computer manufacturers force us to move on to the new technology by refusing to sell older systems. For example, there was the "286", and then when the "386" came out, the 286s were soon phased out, and eventually you could no longer buy them.

Well, why the heck not? It may not do all the latest and greatest stuff, but it's still a good computer?! Nope... the computer manufacturers had to rake in more money, so instead of offering the 286 for $900 and the 386 for $1,500, they just dropped the 286 and kept the 386 as their low-end system. What this basically meant was that for years, you couldn't buy a computer for less than $1200. Computers would get faster and better, but they wouldn't sell the older ones, so the price stayed the same.

Fortunately for you, the times are finally starting to change. Computers are so insanely powerful now that the computer companies can't keep playing their game. Some companies have gotten smart and realized that you don't need the fastest, latest and greatest computer to surf the web and do all this Internet stuff that people want to do. (A company called "emachines" sprang up out of nowhere and now has a whole line of very cheap computers.) So, finally, lower-end computers are being introduced, and this competition is driving prices way down. Also, Intel finally has some big competition, and there are some other chip manufacturers who aren't afraid to sell less powerful chips, so now even Intel has had to introduce its lower-end "Celeron" processor. So suddenly prices have come way down. In the spring of this year, you could get a nice system for $600. Now, in late summer 1999, you can get it for $500 or possibly even lower. There's even companies advertising "Free" computers... after rebate. We'll study the fine print on that one a little later.

What features do I need?

OK, this is the question that everyone asks. What kind of processor should I get? How much memory do I need? For your benefit, I'll explain in lay man's terms all these cryptic features. But first I'll give you the easy answer: ANYTHING. That's right, anything. I don't care what they're boasting about processor speed, memory size, hard drive size, CD Rom speed, etc.; as a general rule, whatever they say, it's good enough for you. A computer programmer like me who pushes computers to their limits might be concerned about the options, but for someone like you, a 400 MHz machine vs. a 450 MHz machine will make almost no difference to you. The 400 MHz one will be cheaper, so just go for that one! It's kind of like looking for a hotel room and the lowest-end "entry level" one is the Ramada Inn. If you're accustomed to staying at Motel 6, you are not going to care whether the cleaning lady leaves chocolates on your pillow or not!! Remember, the computer industry is insane, so even your lowest-end computer will be able to do tons of stuff.

Now that's only a general rule. Make sure, for example, that the computer you expect to buy comes with a monitor, for goodness' sake! That age-old game is still being played: Dazzle them with a low sticker price, but mention in fine print that the monitor is not included. Also, just ask the salesperson if the "operating system" is preinstalled and it's ready to be connected to the Internet when you take it home and plug it in. If he says yes, then you're set.

You're probably still curious about all the options, though. Maybe you even feel intimidated. After all, everyone talks about them, like "how big a hard drive ya got?", so it might help if you knew what they were talking about. So here we go.


This is the "brain" of the computer. This is measured in two ways: The brand name and the speed. In the IBM PC family (the same family that today runs Microsoft Windows), first there was the 8088. Then came the 80286, or "286" for short. The 286 has a more advanced design than the 8088, so it's faster and better. Then came the 386, then the 486. Then... well, they would have called it the 586, but by this time Intel, the big microchip manufacturer, was intimidated by some new competition from other manufacturers who were making their own 486s. They wanted to have a name they could trademark. So they chose "Pentium". (As you probably know, "penta" means five, so their name makes sense.) The other companies came out with their own processors and called them the 586, assuming that a 5-year-old could figure out that it was a Pentium clone.

Anyway, then there was the Pentium Pro, then the Pentium II, and now there's the Pentium III. But Intel also has a low-end chip called the Celeron. I don't know how fast it is, but I'm sure it's at least Pentium speed. Other companies now have their own names for chips, such as K6. It's starting to get confusing. I don't know which chips are faster any more, and, actually, I don't care. Forgive me for saying this, but they're all damn fast. Maybe a technician who uses a processor-intensive computer-aided design (CAD) tool and lots of other software on their computer will notice the difference between a Pentium II and III. But for you, it doesn't matter. Your connection to the Internet is a lot slower than the computer's brain anyway, so you will not notice much of a difference.

As for the speed: Well, that gives you a general idea as to how fast a processor runs. So a 450 MHz Pentium II is faster than a 400 MHz chip of the same type. 450 MHz means 450,000,000 times a second. But newer chips can think two or more "thoughts" simultaneously, so the number doesn't necessarily translate into something you can understand. Also, the brand name of a chip makes a lot of difference. A 400 MHz Pentium III is faster than a 400 MHz Pentium II, and possibly faster than a 500 MHz Pentium II.

If you really want to know which chip is faster than another you can study what is called "benchmarking." This is where people sit down in a lab and try to scientifically compare one processor to another and come up with some relative performance number. But who cares? Why not spend more time looking at the price of the processors instead of the speed?

Memory and Hard Drive Space

People confuse memory and hard drive space all the time. They are not the same. Memory is kind of like a desk. If you have a lot of computer memory, then you have a lot of desk space. If you have a small desk, then the computer, like you, is going to slow down if it runs out of space on the desk for all of its "papers". It will have to get up out of the chair, walk to the coffee table, throw some papers down there, pick up a couple of new ones, work for a while, etc. When you turn the computer off, the computer first takes all of the papers on the desk and either throws them in the trash or files them away.

Hard drive space is permanent storage: like a file cabinet. These papers don't disappear when you turn your computer off. The more hard drive space you have, the more information you can store away. Note, though, that in order for the computer to actually use the information, it has to take the paper out of the file cabinet and put it on the desk. This takes a little time. Once it's on the desk, it takes less time.

The bottom line is this: Memory can affect the speed of the computer; the Hard Drive Space can affect how much your computer can store. So they are significantly different concepts. Also note that both the memory and the hard drive space that is available now is insanely high.

For memory, the minimum I see now is 32 megabytes. This should be fine. If you are at all worried about the future and you want to plan ahead a little, well, maybe 64 megabytes would be good. But anything over that is unnecessary. Also, if this insane obsolete-in-two-years trend continues, you might be buying a new computer later on anyway, so who cares about planning for the future; in that case, 32 is fine.

For hard drive space, I think the minimum now is 3 gigabytes. This is super-duper overkill. Let me give you an idea. A "byte" is one character, or a "letter" if you will. So the name "Bugs Bunny" requires 10 bytes to store on a computer, if you count the space. A kilobyte, or KB, is 1,024 bytes. Kilo means "1,000", so naturally, a kilobytes is 1,024 bytes. Right? Well, it's a long story to explain why 1,000 means 1,024 in the computer world. (For you math gurus, it has a lot to do with the fact that 2 to the 10th power is 1,024.) But let's forget being technical and say that a kilobyte is 1,000 bytes. Close enough!! The extra 24 can be a "baker's dozen" concept or something like that.

"Milli" means million, and "Giga" means billion, so a megabyte is a million bytes and a gigabyte is a billion bytes. How big is that? Well, first let me say that the computer has the ability to compact information into a smaller space. For example, I could take the sentence "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country", which is 68 bytes long, and make it smaller by taking out all the spaces and using capital letters to start each word, like this: "NowIsTheTimeForAllGoodMenToTheAidOfTheirCountry". Now it's only 53 bytes long, a 22% savings.

The computer can easily put the spaces back in and make the letters lower case again before displaying it to you on the screen, so it's a nice scheme. That's just one reason computers are so neat. You can't do that with all of the papers in your physical file cabinet because it would take a year just to retype and mash all of the letters again, then another year to retype and expand the sentences when you want to view the papers again. The computer can use its largely-wasted, insane, 400,000,000-times-a-second processing power to do this "compression" and "uncompression" stuff without a hitch. So by doing this, you can store a lot more in your file cabinet (hard drive) than you could before. In fact, by using more sophisticated techniques, we can do a lot better than 22%... with English sentences, we can actually get up to a 70% reduction in size!

So where was I? Oh, yes, what does 3 gigabytes mean to you? Well, if you took both the books "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" and compressed them 70% using special techniques like what I described, then both books only take up approximately 600,000 bytes (600 Kilobytes) of space. If there are 3,000,000,000 bytes on a 3 gigabyte hard drive, then you can fit both books 5,000 times! The Bible, which take up approximately 2,000,000 bytes (2 megabytes) when compressed, would fit 1,500 times. That's a lot of space, folks. What are you going to do with it all? If you get Microsoft Windows, that will hog maybe 100 or 200 megabytes, and maybe other pre-installed software will take up another 100 or 200 megabytes, but you still have tons left over. And this is only for the lowest-end, 3 gigabyte hard drive! You are not going to fill it unless you start doing insane things like spending hours copying video clips from the Internet to your hard drive.


You can live without it, but they're so dirt cheap now, you ought to just get a computer that has one. Almost all do now. You probably won't use it that much, but it's usually needed when installing new software on your computer that didn't come with it when you bought it. Also, you can play music CDs with it, so it's like getting a free CD player with your computer.

A CD ROM is kind of like a hard drive that is permanent. Like a file cabinet which you can't put anything new into. But unlike the hard drive, which is permanently mounted in your computer, CD ROM drives have a drawer that opens out that you can put a CD into. CDs can be mass-produced, and it's a good way of distributing a lot of information. A single CD ROM disc can hold up to 650 megabytes of information.

Floppy Drive

All computers have a 3.5" floppy drive, so no one even talks about it anymore. Especially since a 3.5" disk can only hold 1,400,000 bytes -- small when compared with a hard drive or CD ROM. But you can put your own information on these disks. It's like a hard drive you can take with you. By the way, they're called "floppy" disks even though they are no longer floppy... the disks are now in a hard, protective shell.


Forget all of the fine differences; all modern monitors are nice. The only thing you should care about is 1) price, and 2) screen size in terms of inches. Larger monitors, like larger TVs, are a nice luxury, but certainly not required. 15" monitors are fine. If you want a 20" monitor, be prepared to shell out a lot of money.


You'll need this if you want to connect to the Internet. This is what converts computer "signals" into kind of an audio-based format that can be transmitted over a phone line. (The audio-based format, by the way, sounds like a loud screech, as if someone selected a non-existent station on the radio dial and turned the volume way up. But computers can talk to each other via screeching! By the way, if your computer is connected to the Internet, do not pick up the phone. Not only will you scorch your ears, your computer will also lose its connection because you will introduce noise when you lift the phone that confuses the computer.)

Now days, I don't think anyone is selling anything less than a "56K" modem. This is the fastest possible on current telephone lines. Actually, it's faster than what is possible. Your 56K modem will have to slow down in order to work, usually to about "40-45K", which translates into approximately 4,400-5,000 bytes per second. This means you will have to wait about 2 minutes to copy, or "download", "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" from the Internet. This is the fastest you can get... unless you want to go some unconventional route and spend lots of dollars (e.g., $100/month).


Get one only if you need one. For example, you want to use a "word processor" to write letters, then print out what you typed. Or perhaps you see some interesting information on the Internet and you want a "hardcopy" on paper so you can take it with you and show your friends. (Or maybe you just don't like looking at computer screens so would rather consume trees by printing out lots of stuff to read instead of reading it on your computer screen.) Well, printers are cheap... color printers are even going for less than $100 now, so probably you're just going to get one.

The printers you see will be ink jets (or bubble jets or some variation) and laser printers. Ink jets are the cheap ones. They are just fine. The only reason some people don't like them is because the ink may smear if it gets a little water on it. Laser printers are like xerox copiers; the ink won't smear. But they're also more expensive... and expensive to maintain (toner cartridges typically cost $50). If you insist on a color printer, it will have to be an ink jet; color laser printers are still very expensive ($2,000?).

Operating System and Other Software

If you are joining the IBM PC family, you basically only have one choice: Windows. Well, there are other choices, but everyone's on the Windows bandwagon, so you'll be totally on your own if you go another route. So, reluctantly, you'll have to ship off more money to Bill Gates. What the heck do you do with $40 billion? Anyway, right now it seems to be either Windows 98 or Windows NT. (Other versions of Windows, not surprisingly, are no longer available.) Definitely get Windows 98. Windows NT is even more complicated than 98. Eventually Windows 2000 will come out with a lot of hype. This is supposed to be a replacement for NT if I understand correctly. I sincerely hope they do not discontinue 98 at that point because 98 is intended for home use and NT is more for business use.

Make sure Windows 98 is "preinstalled" on your hard drive. It almost always is, but just check to make sure. If it's "preinstalled", then all you have to do is turn your computer on, answer a few questions (what is your name, etc.), and then you will be set to go. Otherwise, you have to insert a CD and install it for yourself. Usually installation is easy, but if something goes wrong, you're really in trouble. That's why it's best to get a computer that has all the software you plan to use already installed on it... if possible.

For example, if you plan to do word processing, ask your salesman if the computer you want to buy has a word processor. If he says, "yes, this computer has Microsoft Works on it, which has a word processor, spreadsheet and database, and it's preinstalled," then you're set! If he says, "yes, but this more expensive model has a better word processor called Microsoft Word 97 on it... you probably want this one," then don't get suckered into his sales pitch; ask him again about the lower-end computer you really want. If you are extremely new to computers, you won't care what kind of word processor you get. In fact, you'll probably want "Works" since "Word" is much more complicated. Usually you only need Word if you use Word at work and need to use it at home.

If you've decided to go with the Mac world... well, I don't know very much about it. It has its own software. But it should also be pre-installed and ready to go, to. Ask the salesman about that. A Mac might be good for you if you know someone else who has a Mac who can help you with it, or if they're using Macs at school and you want to use what they use. Otherwise, Macs are more expensive, and, since there's fewer Macs out there, it's a bit harder to get help for them from people you know. But at least the money won't go to Bill Gates.

Actually, Microsoft isn't that bad, but they need some competition to keep them in line; otherwise, they will control the market and us, and the market is already out of control (insane). Example: Windows 95 was around, then 98 came out, so everyone was forced to shell out bucks to upgrade; Microsoft raked in the money. Familiar theme? What do you think will happen when Windows 2000 comes out? Perfect excuse to rake in more money. Try to buy your computer pre-installed with all the software you'll need and plan to need (within reason) when you get it. Then you won't need to upgrade (as long as you can withstand the big peer pressure).

Other Features

I'm looking at an article right now. "AMD K6-2 475MHz Processor." That's the processor. Whatever it is, it's fine. "128MB High-Speed PC100 SDRAM". That's a cryptic way of describing the memory. If you see "RAM" somewhere, that means memory. 128 megabytes? Whoa! Plenty!! Next: "13GB Ultra DMA/33 Hard Disk." That's the hard drive. 13 gigabytes? Yikes!! Next: "ATI 3D video with 8 MB memory". This is actually the video card. A video card, like a modem, also converts computer signals into another format; in this case, it converts them to colors and such for display on a screen. The "8 MB memory" is just a curve ball; it just so happens that the video card is so complicated that it also has its own memory. I wouldn't even care about this; whatever fancy video card they're offering, I'm sure it's fine. The "3-D" part is probably more of a gimmick. Now why didn't they say "memory" on the "SDRAM" part so as not to confuse you? I guess that's part of the marketing scheme.

Next: "Cannon BJC-1000 Bubble-Jet Printer." That's fine with me. Since it doesn't say "color", I assume it's black and white. That'll make it cheaper (and cheaper to maintain, as I won't have to buy color ink cartridges for it). "AcerScan Prisa 320P 36-bit Flatbed Scanner." If a laser printer is like a xerox copier with the top part removed (where you put the item on the glass to "copy"), then a scanner is the opposite: a xerox copier with the printing part removed. This lets you take a photograph, "scan" it, then you can see it on your computer screen in electronic form. Extra toy, as far as I'm concerned. It may be fun, but it's more of an unnecessary luxury. I might try to find an even cheaper computer that doesn't have the scanner with it.

Next: "Incredible software bundle." Oh, whoopie. So it probably has Windows 98 in it and a word processor. Windows 98 will have a "web browser" with it and other Internet stuff. So I'm fine. The rest of the software is probably a bunch of junk I won't use. Ask the salesman for specifics. Next: "Kinyo Speaker with Subwoofer." A computer with speakers is nice, but optional. You can certainly use your computer without any speaker on it. Let's see... at the top, it says it comes with a 15-inch monitor. That's good. Hmm... I don't see a CD ROM mentioned anywhere. I probably would want to ask about that.

Still lots more to learn. What brand of computer do I buy? Do I get the cheapest one or kind of a mid-range one? Do I need a service contract? Do I go to a store or do I order from a catalog? I'll answer these questions in part 3. Eventually I may also get to the other stuff I said I'd talk about, such as choosing an Internet Service Provider and protecting your computer from viruses.

Click here for part 3

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

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