You'd think - judging from the computers my friends own - that many people of my personal acquaintance are spending their evenings designing nuclear submarines and figuring ways to control the Hubble space telescope from home.
It's created a weird sort of modern neurosis. I think of it as PC envy. People who have relatively low-powered computers at home spend a huge amount of time fretting that they don't have a powerful enough computer. After all, they're bombarded with ads and articles that discuss the merits of having a super computer.
This morning's e-mail brought me a note from a reader who uses an old Mac Classic computer. She said she was really happy with it and wondered if she should buy a new iMac.
The answer isn't exactly what you might think. There's nothing wrong with replacing an old computer, even one you're happy with, because newer and more powerful computers do things faster (that's convenient and less frustrating) and can run more-powerful programs (some of the best new programs won't run on old machines).
If you have plenty of money and want a new computer, then there are good reasons for buying one. But if you are one of those people who have to count pennies, and who have to make decisions between buying a new computer and going to New Orleans on vacation, or paying the mortgage, then don't feel blue or compelled to buy just because you have this vague notion that you need more.
Among my power-hungry friends, the most common uses for a home computer (besides games, and we'll get to that by and by) are e-mail, using the Web, writing old-fashioned paper letters and running Quicken or some other money manager. It doesn't take a super computer to do all that.
Here comes Husted's Rule of Computer Replacement: Unless you have plenty of money to spare, only buy a new machine when the one you own won't run a program you truly need to use, or when it runs the program so slowly you just about can't stand it (put in scientific terms).
The benefit of following that rule is that you're taking advantage of a computer world truth: The computers on sale next month are always more powerful and cost less than the ones last month. So, when you do buy, you'll get the very most bang for your buck.
If playing computer games is a big part of your computing life (and it isn't necessarily a sin to have fun with that expensive piece of hardware that sits ugly and beige on your desk at home), then Husted's Rule still holds true. But you will find the games you most want to play require enormous computing power. And the demands from the games don't stop there.
You'll soon find out that games push every component. That designers - stretching to get the most realistic video and the most powerful sound - write the games with rich folks in mind. You'll find the latest video card is important to the hottest games and, if you want to hear the crunching sound just right when the Alien Creature From the Third Grade eats your hero, you'll need a hot sound card and the latest in speakers.
There is one small gleam of hope, however, that I can offer even the game players in the crowd. In a calculated way, I stay two generations behind on the games I play. That way, I save money twice. I find games that are new to me in the bargain bin at the software store, and I also postpone the day when I enrich the credit card people by dropping big money on a new machine.