A friend who lives in a small apartment was looking for a computer and wondered what I thought of a "slim-line" model from a major manufacturer.
He liked it because it didn't take up much desk space, looked a lot less clunky than the other computers in the store, and had the same 80486 processor and hard disk drive as the bigger models.
His question was a simple one: "Does the size of the computer have anything to do with how good it is?"
Like many computer questions, this one has a simple answer: yes and no.
My friend was quite right in assuming that size and power don't necessarily go hand-in-hand. In fact, no matter what the wrapping, the "computer" part of any system -- the part that determines how fast and powerful the machine is -- resides on a circuit board that's about 11 inches square.
Some are a little bigger, some a little smaller, but the "motherboard," as it's known in the trade, doesn't occupy much real estate. In fact, if you open the case, you may not even see it at first, because it's usually buried under all the stuff that's hooked up to it.
The motherboard and other components can be bolted and snapped together in various configurations, depending on the case. Many mail-order companies, as well as local retailers who assemble their own computers, will be glad to sell you the same basic machine in a variety of shapes and sizes. Once you've decided what kind of processor, hard drive and video you want in a new machine, the other major issue should be expandability -- and this is where size is important. First, make sure the motherboard has enough free expansion slots to accommodate controller cards for additional devices, such as sound boards, CD-ROM drives and scanners. Compact machines may have only one or two slots available, and they may be hard to access.
Generally, three to four open expansion slots is a good idea. But expansion slots won't help you much if you don't have room inside the case for the devices you want to add.
Computer cases come in two basic flavors, desktop and tower. A desktop unit is designed to sit horizontally on a table, with the monitor on top. It's possible to stand a desktop unit on its side to save space, but some peripherals, such as CD-ROM drives, don't work well that way.
Tower units are designed to stand vertically. Mini-tower cases, which are 16 to 18 inches high, can go on the desktop or the floor. Full tower cases, about two-feet high, generally stand on the floor underneath or beside the desk, although there's no reason you can't stand one up on the desktop if you like the monolith look.
Computers with mini-tower and tower cases often sell for $50 to $100 more than similarly equipped desktop machines.
No matter what shape the case is, size can make a difference. A bigger case allows you to install more peripherals, namely hard drives, floppy drives, CD-ROM drives and tape backup units. You may not think this is important today, but if you buy a computer that doesn't have enough room, you may regret it later.
The important thing to look for is the number of available drive bays -- internal and external.
Internal bays are used for hard drives, which are sealed units that don't require outside access. You can't see an internal drive bay from the front of the computer.
External bays are accessible from the front of the machine, and they're usually visible as discreet panels when they're not occupied. Although you can put a hard drive in an external bay, most manufacturers use them for floppy drives, CD-ROM drives and tape backup units.
My recommendation is four external and two internal drive bays, which unfortunately, is a lot more than most computers in retail stores provide.
First, you'll want both 3 1/2 and 5 1/4 -inch floppy drives. While the PC world has switched to 3 1/2 -inch floppies (which actually hold more data than the bigger disks), you may still find software that comes on 5 1/4 -inch disks. Or, or you may have to exchange data with someone who has only a 5 1/4 -inch drive -- which is still the standard in most offices that computerized in the mid-1980s.
Look for a computer equipped with both kinds of floppies, or make sure there's room to add a 5 1/4 -inch drive.
If you run out of drive bays and need to add a second floppy, you can find external floppy drives that connect to your computer's parallel port. But at $150 to $200, they're three times as expensive as an internal floppy drive.
If you plan on adding a CD-ROM drive down the road, you'll need an external drive bay for it. Once again, you can buy an external CD-ROM, but they can be difficult to hook up, and the difference in price is more than the cost of buying a computer with a larger case at the outset.
Finally, a tape backup is a must for serious business or personal use. Years ago, you could get away with backing up just your critical data files on floppy disks and figure on reinstalling your application software from scratch if your hard disk died. But with today's bloated programs and complex data files -- some of which may contain text, graphics, spreadsheet and database information generated by several different applications -- floppy backups are too difficult and take too long.
Worse yet, many manufacturers who deliver PCs with Microsoft Windows and a dozen application programs installed on the hard disk don't provide the original floppies for the software. Almost no one I know has ever gone through the process of creating them from the files on the hard disk, which takes a couple of hours and 30 to 50 floppies. If the hard drive on one of these machines fails, you're really out of luck -- no data and no software.
It's also nice to have an extra internal drive bay.
If your hard disk fills up, as it eventually will, you'll get more storage for the buck if you can add another hard drive instead of replacing the original.
Unfortunately, many machines on retailers' shelves today don't provide enough space for everything. In fact, the slim-line unit my friend was considering came with a 3 1/2 -inch floppy drive, an internal hard drive, and only one open external drive bay. Look carefully before you buy.
Michael J. Himowitz is a staff writer for The Baltimore Sun.