PURCHASING A COMPUTER Make sure to identify your specific needs


You've finally decided to take the plunge and buy a computer. But what kind should you buy? And what questions should you ask the computer salesperson?

There are numerous computer makes and models, hundreds of accessories available for them, and literally thousands of software titles out there. Here are some guidelines to help you make the best choices.

Make a list of the things you'd like to do with the computer. Try to be as specific as possible. For example, most everyone wants a word processor. But do you need to write simple letters or are you going to write the great American novel? Most word processors these days come with a spell checker, but others also provide a thesaurus, correct your grammar and offer a dictionary complete with definitions.

Some can even automatically generate an index and table of contents. Hardly necessary when writing home to mom. These extra features can add up to extra dollars. The more specific you are, the more accurate you'll be when you make your selection.

Check with other people who will be using your computer. If this is for the home and you want your children to use it, see what type of computers are in their school. Find out if what you are buying is compatible. However, this should not be a major factor in your final decision. What's right for a school might not be right for you.

Now you're ready to go shopping. The two most popular computer types, or platforms, are the IBM PC and compatibles, and the Apple Macintosh. Computer stores are motivated by the same factors as any other retail store. Obviously, if you go to a store that sells only one platform, that's what they are going to push.

Try to find a store that offers both platforms. If you can't, then listen to what each dealer has to say. This is probably going to be a large investment, so take the time to listen. If you have the time, go to another dealer for a second opinion. In either case, make sure you sit down with the salesperson and carefully go over your list.

Computing power: If you decide to go with an IBM or compatible, make sure it contains an 80286 microprocessor, and I strongly

suggest you go with at least a 80386. The 80386 and 80486 are today's most popular microprocessors, and most of the newer programs run best with them. For example, Microsoft Windows 3.0 will run on an 80286 system, but you need an 80386 to take full advantage of the program's extra features.

Avoid the 8088 or 8086, because they are considered old technology and cannot run the newer programs.

If the letters "SX" follow, like 80386SX, then it is a cheaper version, not as powerful, but still acceptable. The other factor is megahertz, or Mhz. Popular ratings are 16 (slow), 25 and 33Mhz (fast). As a frame of reference, the average user should be content with a 80386 running at 16 Mhz.

Ease of use: For first-time computer users, when it comes to ease of use, the Macintosh wins hands down. Every program written for the Mac uses a pointing and selection device called a mouse. You merely point at little pictures on the Mac's screen to accomplish computer operations.

For example, to delete a document on the Mac, you simply move a little picture of the document to a picture of a trash can. If you are considering the Mac, the Classic is black and white only, but a great buy at $999 (some stores sell it for as low as $700). The LC is the least expensive model to offer color. It will run you between $2,500 and $3,000.

Memory: In the IBM world, make sure the system minimally has 1024k, or one megabyte of memory (RAM). Apple should have at least two megabytes of RAM. These memory requirements are necessary because the newer and more complex programs require additional room to operate.

Monitors: In the IBM world, color is the way to go, and make sure it is via a VGA or Super VGA monitor, because they display the most colors and the highest resolution. For the Macintosh, there is only one color standard. Your only choice is the size of the screen.

Printers: If you choose a dot matrix, it should be a 24-pin letter-quality model. Any other type should have at least a 300-dot-per-inch (dpi) resolution. Dot matrix printers are less expensive, but laser printers produce a higher-quality printout and therefore are favored in the business world.

Modems: These devices connect your computer to other computers via a normal telephone line. There are hundreds of computer services available that provide a wide range of information. Some of the more popular ones are Prodigy, America Online, GEnie and CompuServe.

A modem's "baud rate" determines how fast you can send and receive information. Although 2400-baud modems are the most popular, and you should not accept anything slower, you should check out the new, faster 9600-baud modems. They are becoming more affordable, and more of the popular services are starting to offer 9600-baud access.

Floppy disk drives: With an IBM or compatible, you should have one 5 1/4 -inch, high-density drive and one 3 1/2 -inch, high-density drive. These are the two disk standards, so if you have one of each, you are assured complete compatibility.

The Macintosh comes standard with one 3 1/2 -inch drive. If you do not have a hard disk drive, you should have a second 3 1/2 -inch drive because the Mac doesn't use 5 1/4 -inch disks. Without two drives, you would be constantly inserting and removing disks.

Hard disk drive: It is highly recommended that you have a hard disk drive. A minimum of 30 megabytes is suggested for home use and at least 80 megabytes for a business.

Software: Almost everyone needs a word processor, spreadsheet and data base program. Software can become a major expense. A spreadsheet program such as Lotus 1-2-3 costs $495.

You might want to look at some of the newer, "integrated" programs that offer several functions in one package. The trade-off is that usually each application is not as full-featured as its single-application counterpart.

Some of the more popular integrated programs are Microsoft Works, Lotus Works and GreatWorks. GreatWorks, for example, offers Write, Database, Spreadsheet, Chart, Draw, Paint, Outline and Communications functions and sells for $299.

Finally, and very important, is the warranty and support. Accept no computer that offers less than a one-year warranty, and make sure the dealer fully honors the manufacturer's warranty.

Understand the dealer's service policies. If this is for your business, check to see if the dealer offers on-site service and provides a loaner if your machine cannot be repaired immediately.

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