Shrinking prices mean more computer for your money


* Second of two parts on home computers.

The immense drop in the price of personal computers means that you now can get more computer for less money than ever before.

But the decline in computer prices can lead to confusion. If you are a newcomer to computer science, you need to sort it out.

A couple of years ago, most people couldn't afford (nor had they any real reason to buy) much more than a compatible equivalent of the IBM personal computer. Such machines, devoid of bells and whistles, commonly were called "plain vanilla clones." They used the programs written for the IBM PC, sometimes offered low-quality color monitors, and that was that. A system complete with a printer and enough software to perform a few tasks cost between $1,500 and $2,000.

You can purchase the same system today for well under $1,000. The $2,000 you might have spent two years ago now will get you a top-drawer home system that won't be rendered obsolete in the foreseeable future.

What's the difference between them?

The most significant difference is the microprocessor chip -- the postage-stamp-sized package of electronics that does all the actual computing. Everything else in the computer is there to help make or carry out the microprocessor's electronic decisions.

The bottom of the line is the Intel 8088 chip. It was in the original IBM PC and clones. Remarkable a decade ago, it has been left behind by the more demanding applications software of today.

The next step is the 80286. It was an interim chip, much more capable than the 8088, but it, too, has been left behind. (In fact, Intel last year took out full-page advertisements in national publications, announcing that the 80286 was "dead.")

Then comes the 80386 in its various forms. This chip allows the computer to perform many advanced functions called for by elaborate software packages, and allows programs written for the other, older microprocessors to run at blazing speed.

The top of the line is the Intel 80486, which is very powerful, expensive and well beyond anything you would reasonably need at home, unless your hobby is designing nuclear power plants.)

"I advise clients to take advantage of lower prices by getting more computer for the same money, rather than the same computer for less money," says Michael J. DeNigris III of Comtec, a White Plains, N.Y., computer consulting firm. "The older technology machines, the 8088s and 80286s, are being left behind. A lot of programs you would want to use do technically run on them, but very slowly and inefficiently. The standard has become the 80386-SX computer. There are some very good values on them. It's a computer you won't have to replace soon."

Other important points, says DeNigris, are the size of the computer's hard-disk drive and the amount of memory with which it's equipped.

The hard disk is where you store the computer's programs and the records and documents you create. Memory is the space in the computer where the microprocessor puts data and instructions it is currently using.

"The hard drive is the important item when you're buying," says DeNigris. "You can always put additional memory in a computer, but you can't make a hard drive bigger." People tend to underestimate the size of the hard disk they will need, he says, which is unfortunate, since higher capacity drives are less expensive per unit of storage area.

"You should pay attention to the amount of memory that comes standard with the computer and the amount of additional memory you can add later," he explains. "The great popularity of Microsoft's Windows program, which requires at least 2 megabytes of memory to operate well, sets that amount as the new standard minimum."

He points out that Windows -- a program in which other programs run -- is currently of greatest use to businesses, but more and more home programs for it are being written. As that happens, the prices for those programs --currently very high--are starting to come down.

"An 80386-SX with an 80-megabyte harad drive and 2 megabytes of memory is an excellent all-around computer for the home user," he says. "It allows you to do evearytthing you want to do today, plus the things you'll want to do tomorrow."

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