There's no need to break the bank for 'minimalist' computing


Sam's law firm is small, but it's growing nicely. So nicely that the lawyers decided to buy some new computers for their secretaries.

They went to the local computer store and bought four pricey IBM-compatibles with high-speed 80386 microprocessors. According to Sam, they thought it would upgrade the image of the firm. Sam was out of town while it happened, and he was furious when he got back.

"We spent a fortune on these things, and the only thing we do with them is run WordPerfect," he fumed. "I've got a five-year-old computer sitting on my desk and it runs WordPerfect just fine. We could have spent $1,000 apiece for PC's, instead of $3,000, and it wouldn't have made any difference to the people who use them."

As a computer columnist, I spend a lot of time telling people that more and faster is better. So I mumbled a few things to Sam about multitasking, networking, file- and printer-sharing, high-resolution graphics and all the other wonderful things you can do with state-of-the art personal computers.

"Yeah, that's great if you have somebody around who knows all about that stuff," Sam said. "But we don't. All we do is use WordPerfect. You want me to put the cost of those fancy PC's on your bill?"

Sam has a point. A lot of people don't need the state of the art and never will. In fact, most of the people who ask me about buying personal computers want a machine for one thing -- word processing. They're looking for the cheapest, easiest way to transfer the Great American Novel from their imagination to the publisher's desk.

In truth, word processing does not require a Cray supercomputer in the closet. WordPerfect, the market leader, will run on just about any decent PC on the market today. So will Lotus 1-2-3, most accounting programs, and virtually all communications software.

As long as you don't need to simultaneously run a desktop publishing program in one window, recalculate the national debt in another, transmit a file to corporate headquarters in a third window, update your personal calendar in a fourth and fool with Flight Simulator in a fifth, you can find a good computer that won't break the bank.

After years of ignoring ordinary people, mainstream computer makers are realizing that there's an untapped market of folks who need basic computing power at a reasonable price.

Consumer electronics manufacturers such as Emerson and Magnavox also have jumped in to compete with traditional computer makers such as IBM, Tandy and Apple.

It's called the "home-computer" market, but a better description might be "minimalist" computing, because my hunch is that a lot of these low-end machines are finding their way onto small business desktops.

You don't have to go to a computer store to buy a basic computer. You can find them in mainline retailers, discount-house catalogs and office-supply stores. Many, like IBM's PS/1 and the Tandy 1000 line, come with bundled software that will take care of many users' word-processing, accounting and record-keeping needs.

These low-end computers start at less than $1,000, plus the cost of a printer. You can figure on as little as $300 for a letter-quality, dot-matrix printer, or as much as $1,000 for a bottom-of-the-line laser printer.

If you're interested in IBM-compatibles, buy one with an 80286 microprocessor. Some dealers still stock bargain basement machines with Intel 8088 processors -- the chip that powered the original IBM PC back in 1981. But these are generally too slow for modern software. Stay away from them at any price.

The minimum configuration I'd recommend is an 80286 computer with a 40-megabyte hard disk, amegabyte of memory and a high-resolution VGA color monitor. You can find these for as little as $1,000. You can cut the cost by a couple of hundred dollars with a monochrome monitor, but color is so good and so cheap that few dealers bother to advertise monochrome systems.

While 80286 machines are old technology by today's standards, they'll handle basic word processing, spreadsheets, databases and accounting programs with aplomb.

If you're looking at desktop publishing or programs that require high-resolution graphics, such as the Microsoft Windows operating environment, spend a few hundred dollars more and move up to a machine based on the 80386 processor.

While 80286 computers are commodity items, be careful about the monitor that comes with the package. To keep costs down, some pack

agers throw in cheap screens that meet IBM's VGA specs but produce grainy, unattractive text.

Ask about the monitor's "dot pitch," the space between the little dots on the screen. Cheap monitors have a .41 millimeter dot pitch. Better monitors have a .31 or .28 millimeter dot pitch, and your eyes will thank you for careful shopping.

If you're after user-friendliness, the Macintosh Classic has been a hot seller in the home and school market since Apple introduced it last year.

Essentially a tweaked-up version of the original Macintosh technology, it doesn't have the horsepower to handle high-end Mac graphics programs, but it's fine for word processing, spreadsheets and basic artwork.

The Mac's main advantage is its friendly, graphical user interface that makes using most programs a matter of pointing at a picture with a mouse and clicking a button. You can get this friendliness in an IBM-compatible under Microsoft Windows, but you'll have to move to a more expensive machine to do it.

The Mac Classic is available with a hard disk for $1,000 to $1,500. The Classic's main disadvantage is its small, built-in monochrome screen. No color here, and no way to get it unless you want to spend a lot more money for a separate monitor and video card.

While the screen display is sharp, it's a little cramped for my tired old eyes. Kids don't seem to mind it, though, and it doesn't take up much desk space.

If you want color in a Mac, you'll have to move up to the nifty Macintosh LC, which uses a standard size monitor. But LC systems start on the street at $2,000, which is getting away from minimalist computing.

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