by Dr. Thomas W. Shinder, MCSE
It's 1999, spring is in the air, and if you weren't one of the lucky ones who got a new computer system for Christmas, you may be thinking about making a purchase now. And you may be a little bewildered at all the choices available -- an even larger variety than when we addressed this subject last year.
What do you want? What do you need? These are two separate questions and the answers may not be the same. How do you evaluate all of the options and get the best value for your hard-earned dollars? Those are some of the issues I want to discuss in this month's column. How to make wise purchase decisions is at the heart of many of the questions I get from readers and students. Let's look at a few of their specific concerns:
Should I buy a new desktop computer, or one of those fancy laptops that do everything a desktop will do?
Well, that depends on a couple of things -- your budget, and the answer to Microsoft's infamous question: where do you want to go today? If you want to stay home (and are able to act in accordance with your wishes), a desktop is probably the best choice. It's true that today's notebook/laptop computers are as powerful as their big brother/sister machines, and prices on the portables have fallen dramatically over the past twelve months.
But the "little guys" still cost significantly more for the same configuration, so buying one to use as your primary computer makes sense only if you really need and will use the portability. It probably doesn't make sense to spend 1/3 more for a notebook computer just because you anticipate that you "might" want to take it along on an annual trip out of town. On the other hand, if you travel every week, and access to your files or to the Internet is important to you when you're on the go, buying a laptop which can easily be "docked" to a full size monitor and keyboard when you're at home may end up being very cost effective for you.
Do remember that the portables not only cost more initially; they also cost more to upgrade, they're more difficult to troubleshoot and repair, and they're more fragile (thus more likely to NEED repairs) than desktop machines.
Should I buy a PC or a MacIntosh?
This is very much a matter of personal preference. PC users scorn the Apple products, berating them for their proprietary architecture and high cost, while MacIntosh users adamantly "stand by their Macs" and point to the ease of use and stability of their systems. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and what's right for one may not be best for another.
If you like to "mess with the hardware," try out new video cards, upgrade your own motherboard, rebuild your system from the ground up every six months, or experiment a lot with new programs, get a PC. There are far more accessories available, and a larger variety of software.
If you "just want it to work" and aren't interested in tweaking the operating system or having to learn any of that "technical stuff," a Mac might be a better choice for you.
Try them both and decide.
If I go with a PC, should I buy a high-profile brand name machine or will the lower-cost generic machines work just as well?
The advantages of buying a Hewlett Packard, Dell, or Compaq are the big-company warranty and tech support. If you don't know how to or don't want to work on the system yourself when something goes wrong, you may be more comfortable with a big name brand.
The disadvantages of the major brands include the proprietary (non-standard) hardware that many use, which makes them costlier and more difficult to upgrade yourself, and the higher initial cost.
If you're a bit of a techie, or interested in becoming one, a good custom-built machine from a local computer shop may serve you better, and will usually cost less.
How much RAM do I need? How big should the hard drive be? How fast the processor? Do I really need the top of the line with all the bells and whistles like the salesman says I do?
To be honest, probably not. In fact, your kids probably "need" a super-duper Pentium IV 500mhz quad-processor with 512mb of RAM and a 20 gig hard drive more than you do. The applications that require the most computing power these days are ... you guessed it: games.
On the other hand, if you don't spend your time playing Quake (or some other graphics-intensive game), and you aren't doing complex 3-D rendering or editing movies on your computer, and you aren't running a SQL server or an Oracle database, that powerful (and expensive) configuration is probably overkill. A top-of-the-line system's resources are wasted on someone who just wants to surf the web, do some word processing, send and receive e-mail and other activities that make up 80% of the average person's use of the computer.
One step down from the top usually knocks hundreds of dollars off the price of a system -- and if you're determined to spend the extra money, you might get more enjoyment out of investing it in a bigger monitor instead of insisting on the fastest available processor.
For most computer users today, a Pentium II or AMD K-6 II 333, with 64mb RAM and a 6 gig hard drive, has more than enough power to do all they want to do today and for the next year or so. Salesmen may try to convince you that you "need" a 450 or 500mhz processor, but the truth is that for most programs, the difference in performance won't even be noticeable - certainly not nearly as noticeable as the price difference.
Buying a new computer is a little like new clothes. It's a personal choice. What "fits" you, what you're most comfortable with, may be all wrong for someone else. Try the different systems in the store if you can. Determine which one "feels" best to you. Don't let a pushy salesman, who thinks women don't know anything about technology and thus make good "suckers" -- talk you into buying more than you need just so he can collect a bigger commission. Read some of the computer magazines and educate yourself. Then stand your ground and get what you REALLY want, at a price you can afford.
Thomas W. Shinder, M.D., M.C.P. is a neurologist-turned-computer systems engineer who practiced medicine in Texas, Oregon and Arkansas before moving to his present home in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas metropolitan area.
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