The personal computing world has changed dramatically in the last few years, and buyers -- even first-timers -- are far more sophisticated than they once were.
Instead of looking for the cheapest PC they can buy to do one particular thing, such as word processing or desktop publishing, they're looking at the personal computer as a multimedia information and entertainment machine for their homes and businesses.
As a result, they're worried that the PC they buy today may be outmoded in a couple of years. They're also willing to invest more to keep that from happening.
Like many computer fears, concerns about obsolescence are often exaggerated. If you buy a PC and it does what you hired it to do, nothing will change until it breaks down beyond repair. Given the reliability of PC's today, you're likely to grow tired of your computer long before it gets too tired to work for you.
The problem with an older PC arises when you want to run the latest version of your software or try out new programs. Today's popular word processors, spreadsheets, data bases and multimedia programs require a lot of computing horsepower -- more than most bargain-basement computers on the market three to five years ago can deliver.
For example, WordPerfect 6.0 won't work on the old AT-class computers that populate many of today's offices, and the program requires 33 megabytes of hard disk space -- more than the storage capacity of some of those machines.
The programs on the market five years from now will undoubtedly require even more computing power. But investing in a computer with more than the minimum hardware required for today's programs can save you money and angst in the future. So here are my general recommendations for a PC that will still be a workhorse years from now -- without busting the budget.
Processor: The microprocessor is the heart of your computer. Most machines on the market today use Intel 80486 series chips, but they come in lots of flavors. Be careful.
To make sure you're getting adequate horsepower, look for the letters "DX" in the chip designation. A good buy for the money today is an 80486DX2/66 processor, which runs internally at 66 mHz. Stay away from the cheaper "SX" machines, which don't have a built-in math coprocessor or the relatively large, on-board memory cache of the DX chip.
For a few hundred dollars more, you can hook up with a new 486DX4/100 machine, which will run 50 percent faster than 66 mHz models. For real speed freaks, Intel's new Pentium chip is the hottest thing going, although Pentiums are still pricey for home or small business applications, and a DX4 chip will come close to Pentium performance.
Memory: Get at least 8 megabytes of internal memory. You'll need it to run Microsoft Windows efficiently. Unfortunately, many low-end machines come with only 4 megabytes as standard equipment. The extra four megabytes can make many Windows programs run twice as fast. Memory is relatively inexpensive (about $50 per megabyte), so go for it when you buy your computer instead of waiting till later.
Hard disk storage: Hard disks are like closets. With today's huge programs and data files, you'll eventually fill up all the space you have. The question is when. To make it later rather than sooner, find a computer with a 340 megabyte drive or larger.
Video: Make sure the computer comes with a local bus video board that has at least one megabyte of memory. The local bus is a supplemental wiring and timing system that connects the central processor with video boards and sometimes with hard disk controllers. It was created to make up for a deficiency in the original IBM design that limits the flow of data from controllers plugged into the regular system bus. It's particularly important for computers that use Microsoft Windows or other high-resolution graphics programs.
Monitor: Your monitor should have a dot pitch of .28 millimeters or less. The dot pitch is the distance between the centers of adjacent pixels on the screen. The smaller the pitch, the better the resolution and the sharper the image. Avoid cheap monitors with .39mm or .42mm dot pitch.
Most systems come with 14 or 15-inch monitors. This size was fine in the days when DOS-based programs used standard character sets with a white-on-black screen. But graphical environments such as Windows often display text and other objects in smaller sizes which are particularly tough on middle-aged eyes like mine. If you can afford it, spend an additional $400 to $600 for a sharp 17-inch monitor. You'll be amazed at the difference.
CD-ROM: Compact disks for computers can store hundreds of megabytes of information, and CD-ROM drives that read them are the workhorses of the multimedia age. Make sure you get a drive marked "double speed," or for best performance, get one of the newer triple-speed drives (about $200 more).
Sound Board: The other half of a multimedia system gives your computer voice and music capabilities. Get a 16-bit card that's compatible with a Creative Labs' Sound Blaster series. Sound boards are often sold with CD-ROM drives and can serve as CD-ROM controllers. Buy them as a package to make sure they'll work together properly.
The Case: Get a case that's big enough for additional disk drives and other devices. For example, you may want a 5 1/4 -inch floppy disk drive to supplement the 3 1/2 -inch drive that comes with most systems. You may also want to add a tape backup or CD-ROM drive if your computer doesn't come with one. Inexpensive machines don't offer this kind of expandability. I recommend a vertical mini-tower case or a larger, floor-standing tower unit.
How much will all this set you back? I checked a few ads from major mail order companies and found two typical systems, the Zeos Pantera and Dell Dimension multimedia packages (486DX2/66, 8 megabytes of RAM and 426-megabyte hard drive) with a standard monitor for $2,400 to $2600. That's about $800 more than a low-end system, but the extra money can extend the useful life of your investment for years.
Michael J. Himowitz is a staff writer for The Sun.