Learn technobabble before starting to shop


Bob dropped by the other day waving a full-page ad from Honest Ed's Office Warehouse and Garden Supply Center.

"Look at this garbage," he complained. "All I want to do is figure out what kind of computer to buy. But this stuff is gobbledygook. What's this 386 and 286 and 12-10-12 and VGA and SX and DX and VGA and megahertz and megabytes? Is it supposed to tell me anything?"

"Well," I said, "the 12-10-12 looks like a fertilizer formula. The rest of the stuff is about computers. Honest Ed just got into high-tech stuff and he still gets 'em mixed up."

The Tower of Technobabble makes it hard for new users to figure out what to buy and how much to spend.

But like any language, Technobabble serves its purpose. A knowledgeable gardener can look at the numbers on a bag of fertilizer and figure out whether it's good for tomatoes or snapdragons.

If you learn a little bit about the numbers and acronyms of the computer trade, you can make an educated decision about what's right for you.

First, the numbers. If you're shopping for an IBM-compatible computer, the most important one is the number that the Intel Corp. assigned to the microprocessor that powers the machine.

The microprocessor is also referred to as the CPU, or central processing unit.

Most computers on the market today have an Intel 80386 CPU. They're frequently advertised as 386 computers. The 386 is the bottom line for today's user-friendly, graphic environments such as Microsoft Windows.

You'll also see a few bargain-basement computers advertised with

Intel 80286 chips. They're fine for basic word processing and spreadsheet work. But the demands of newer, more powerful software are too great for them. Given the relatively small price difference, go with the 386.

If you want the computer equivalent of a muscle car, the Intel 80486 is even faster and more powerful. It also contains a math co-processor that can juice up number crunching or sophisticated graphic design programs.

The bottom line is that you'll need a 386 machine to run Microsoft Windows, the popular graphic interface. You probably won't need a 486 unless you're doing high-end graphics work or need a machine that can act as a file server for a network.

Now for some letters. The 80386 chip comes in two flavors, SX and DX. These letters were dreamed up by Intel's marketing department, and they refer to the internal capabilities of the CPU.

386DX machines are the real thing. They have the ability to exchange data with the computer's memory and data bus in larger chunks. Since the DX was the original 80386 chip, manufacturers frequently leave out the DX designator.

Most software can't take advantage of this power yet, so Intel made a cheaper version of the chip that exchanges data in smaller chunks. These are called SX chips, and they're in many of the bargain 386 systems that Honest Ed and his friends advertise. The 486 also comes in an SX model, without the math co-processor.

Which should you buy? 386SX systems are perfectly good for home and small business use, as long as they're fast enough (see the next section on speed). I don't recommend the 486SX, since without the math functions, the chip doesn't give much more bang for the buck than a fast 386.

Once you've decided which CPU to buy, the next number to worry about is speed. Faster is better, period.

The speed of the CPU depends on the computer's internal clock. The clock speed is measured in millions of cycles per second, or megahertz (mHz).

Technobabblists frequently lump processor and speed together. For example, a 386SX machine with a 16 mHz processor is called a 386SX/16.

If I were buying an SX, I'd go for the faster 20 mHz models, since the premium is small and the performance is better.

If you're looking for real speed and are willing to pay the price, a 386DX/33 will rarely keep you waiting, and a 486DX/33 is the equivalent of flying an F-16.

Our last lesson in technobabble for today involves the computer's internal memory, known in technobabble as RAM (Random Access Memory).

This is the temporary, internal memory your computer uses to run programs and manipulate data when it's turned on, as opposed to the permanent storage on your disk drives.

RAM is measured in units called bytes. Think of a byte as the amount of memory needed for a single alphanumeric character, such as the letter A. These bytes are commonly clumped together in kilobytes (1,024 bytes, generally shortened to 1 thousand), or megabytes (1 million bytes).

Low-end computers come with one megabyte of RAM, although you can easily add memory chips to them. For Microsoft Windows and other graphic applications, I recommend a minimum of four megabytes. Memory is pretty cheap today, about $50 per megabyte. Buy all you can.

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