I'm a little nervous about posting this since I'm not totally clear on its origins, but it's just too fun to pass up. As you might imagine, I have some pretty impressive digital archives, with electronic documents detailing all of the books I've written, notes I've taken, articles I've written, and other materials. These archives date back to the early 1990s, where I can see my Amiga documents, the Visual Basic class handout I helped turned into my first book, company logos I created, and drafts and final copy from my early books. All kinds of stuff.
Among these files is a curious Word document whose origins I'm not quite clear on. Actually, there are two versions, one called BUY_A_PC.DOC from April 26, 1994 and a second, reproduced below, called BUYCMPTR.DOC. (You gotta love 8.3 files names.) The latter dates to January 1995. I'm not clear on the origins of these documents because they're clearly written as letters, of sorts, from me in Phoenix to someone back home in the Boston area. I asked a friend and my father in law if these documents were familiar, but both said no, pretty much shutting down the obvious avenues. So I'm at a loss.
Both documents, as you might guess, involve new PC buying advice. The first is more informal ("a handy guide, if I do say so myself!" it reads, ugh) and shorter, at three pages (1800 words). It covers all the main components to look for in a PC, including CPU, motherboard/bus, memory, video card, monitor, hard drive, and floppies.
The second version was written just after Christmas 1994 and finished on January 14, 1995. It bears a "Scottsdale Community College" mark under "last modified by," which suggests that I either edited some of it at work or that my initial co-author, Gary Brent, helped me write and/or edit it. This version is much longer, at 9 pages (and almost 5200 words). It's also very clearly written in a style meant to emulate Jerry Pournelle. I am not proud of this.
If you're somehow not familiar, Jerry Pournelle is a god among tech writers, the original blogger, and an award-winning science fiction author who wrote my favorite-ever tech column, Chaos Manor, in BYTE Magazine. I was an avid fan of Pournelle and his way of making technology approachable. (Still am.) And you can see the influences of this all over this document. Clearly I hadn't really found my own voice yet, though there are hints here and there.
Paul in 1994: This is the first photo of me that was taken with a digital camera, an Apple QuickTake.
By the way, one of the weird things about being me, if you will, is that I write so much I can't keep it in my head. On more than one occasion, I've performed a Google search on some topic and begun reading an article from the search results before suddenly realizing that it seemed familiar and then even later realizing, heck, I wrote that. And I don't recall writing this document, or its predecessor, at all.
There are clues that I did write it, of course, not the least of which is that the second one ends with my name, the date, my phone numbers, and email addresses of the day. Both documents include Word metadata listing me as the author. And none of that means anything, of course.
More meaningful to me are clues in the document itself. I mention Lechmere's, which was a Boston-area consumer electronics store, similar to and predating Best Buy, which when I moved to Phoenix was a west coast chain only. (Lechmere's is long gone, but growing up it was our version of Best Buy, if that makes sense.) I mention a 15-inch monitor that I distinctly remember buying and liking (it was a CRT of course, but with a flat face), and the commentary about "dot pitch" clearly came from Gary, my co-author. He was all over that stuff and probably insisted I mention it. And then there is a curious comment comparing adding a sound card/CD-ROM to a PC after the fact to "adding a[n aftermarket] sunroof to a car". I happened to know someone who did this as a business briefly, and I fought off his attempts to scar my own vehicle after hearing complaints from others about water leaks. This always seemed like a dumb idea to me, and using it this way in a letter/article just seems familiar.
So. With that all in mind, here's the document, reproduced as faithfully as possible. There are going to be formatting issues, I know, but I think it will be readable.
Buying a Computer 1995
This is a fairly comprehensive look at the components of a new computer system. I will provide a buying guide check-list on a separate page at the end that you may want to bring along with you as you shop for your computer. This checklist, and the section on “looking at ads” will enable you to wade through all the terminology and know how to ask the right questions.
Monitor / Video Card
CD-ROM / Sound Card
Operating System software
There are two major types of CPU’s you should consider today, the i80486 (486) and the Pentium. Both come in a variety of flavors and both are upgradable. The i80386 is yesterday’s technology, and is generally not upgradable (at least not in any way that is price/performance acceptable).
The 486 is available in a variety of forms: the 486SX, 486DX, 486DX2, and the DX4 (the “486” part was dropped when Intel discovered they couldn’t copyright a number. This is the same reason that the Pentium isn’t called the 586). Sound confusing? It gets worse. Each chip is upgradeable in certain ways and there is even a Pentium-class upgrade on the horizon for most 486 chips. All 486 chips are 32-bit chips, and all have built-in math coprocessers, or FPU’s (except the SX models, where the math coprocesser was disabled) and 8K of internal cache (except the DX4 which has 16K of internal cache). Cache is memory internal to the CPU. This means that it is much faster than external memory, and it is used to store frequently used code. For the 486 family, in rough order of processing power, from less to more, we have:
486SX-16, SX-20 - older models, upgradeable to SX2-50. Speed, measured in Mhz (megahertz) is 16Mhz or 20Mhz. No FPU.
486SX-25 - upgradeable to SX2-50. 25Mhz. No FPU.
486SX-33 - upgradeable to SX2-66. 33Mhz. No FPU.
486DX-25 - upgradeable to DX2-50 or DX4-75. 25Mhz.
486DX-33 - upgradeable to DX2-66 or DX4-100. 33Mhz.
486DX2-50 - runs at 25Mhz externally, 50Mhz internally
486DX-50 - runs at 50Mhz both internally (inside the CPU) and externally (across the motherboard bus).
486DX2-66 - runs at 33Mhz externally, 66Mhz internally. Upgradeable to DX4-100. If you buy a 486, this is the one to get.
DX4-75 - 75Mhz internally, 25Mhz externally. Mostly used in laptops.
DX4-100 - 100Mhz internally, 33Mhz externally. Pentium-60/66 performance, but expensive. 16K cache.
Note that the above list only includes those chips made by Intel. AMD, IBM, Cyrix and other companies manufacture 486 clone chips with various attributes that in some cases make them superior to their Intel cousins. Despite this, I favor the Intel chips because of the built-in upgrade path that Intel has made available to owners of 486-based and better computers.
The 486 is an excellent chip and has yet to be effectively replaced by the Pentium. This Christmas, the 486 will outsell Pentium although by next year the tallies should be closer. The 486 offers an upgrade path to “Pentium-jr” type performance. In other words, the Pentium upgrades will not be quite as fast as a true Pentium, however, they will be faster than the current 486 upgrades. The 486 represents the best deal in CPUs.
The Pentium is Intel’s current champion CPU. It is a 64-bit chip, which means it has the possibility of outgunning a 486 by a factor of 4 at similiar chip speeds. All Pentiums have 16K internal cache, which is optimized for better performance than the 486’s cache. Also, all models of the Pentium have built-in FPU’s (the source of Intel’s current snafu). The main difference between Pentium models is dye-size and speed. Early Pentiums (60Mhz models) were 5-volt designs which were bigger and hotter than the current offerings. Avoid them! Many early Pentium systems have failed because of heat problems. Newer models are 3-volt and do not suffer from the heat problem (although most have a built in heat sink or fan as a precaution).
Pentium models are as follows:
Pentium-60 - the “cheapo” Pentium. Avoid it. This is the processer used in all those cheap Pentium systems. If you see “60” in the name, avoid it. A Pentium-60 is simply a Pentium-66 that can’t run reliably enough at 66Mhz, so they run it a 60Mhz instead. Nice, huh?
Pentium-66 - 3 volt redesign of the P-60.
Pentium-90 - the current big seller for high end computers. Very fast - 90Mhz. If I’m not mistaken, this chip is 300 times faster than the first PC. If you buy a Pentium, get this one. Interestingly, a P-90 is a P-100 that can’t run reliably at 100 Mhz, yet I am suggesting you buy it. Hmm.
Pentium-100 - 15% speed increase over the P-90. Runs at 100Mhz. Limited supply right now, and expensive. Intel is having trouble getting the P-100’s to run reliably at 100 Mhz.
Pentium chips are still in their infancy and are expensive. In most instances, the price of the system does not justify the speed increase you will get. Also, the number of Pentium-enhanced software packages is extremely small. This will change obviously, but as with all technology buying, early adopters will pay a premium. Personally, I do not think the Pentium is worth it yet, and I have never seen a program (game or otherwise) tax a 486DX2-66. If you really have to buy one, get the P-90.
The motherboard is something that most people don't consider, but the style you buy will directly affect every upgrade you make later. There are several issues with the Motherboard: upgrade sockets, bus style, and memory-type (covered in the memory section).
Make sure the computer you buy has a ZIF socket on the motherboard. All Pentiums and most 486 motherboards will have this, and it makes upgrading the CPU a “no-brainer.” The ZIF (Zero Insertion Force) socket uses a small lever to seat and unseat the CPU -- no chip-puller needed. A godsend.
There are four major bus types:
ISA (Industry Standard Architecture) - a 16-bit expansion bus first used in the 286. This is the defacto standard. 90% of all PC’s today have an ISA bus. Although this is the primary type, they are slower than newer buses and are becoming outdated (finally).
MCA (Micro-Channel Architecture) - a proprietary 32-bit bus only used in IBM PS/2 computers. It was such a disaster that even IBM stopped using it essentially. It offered no backwards compatibility with ISA so it was avoided like the plague. Avoid it yourself (this will be easy as only IBM offers it, and even on IBM systems it is scarce at this point).
EISA (Extended Industry Standard Architecture) - ISA compatible 32-bit bus. EISA specific cards are few and far between so the 32-bit performance is wasted for most people. Still, it’s the best PC bus for non-Pentium computers. EISA is apparently popular with network server computers where the extra speed would justify the cost. Most home computers still use ISA, however.
PCI (Peripheral Connect Interface) - An Intel designed 64-bit bus used primarily with Pentium systems. PCI cards are still rare, so if you buy a Pentium, get an ISA/PCI combo motherboard. These are a great idea - half ISA slots, half PCI. PCI motherboards are still pretty rare but they are extremely fast.
Motherboards will typically contain 5-8 “slots,” where expansion cards like sound cards, internal fax/modems, etc are plugged in. The bus type determines what cards the slots can accept. EISA, ISA and PCI/ISA combo motherboards can accept the industry standard ISA cards that are flooding the market currently. In many ways, this is something you won’t have to worry too much about as most home computers are sold in either the ISA or PC/ISA combo configuration.
The other bus issue is Local Bus Video (VLB). 486 class systems with an ISA bus will usually have 2 slots that are “local bus,” or directly connected to the CPU for better performance. On these systems, it is typical to use these slots for the Video Card and the Hard Drive interface card. The standard is called VESA. DO NOT buy any local bus system that is not VESA compatible. If you buy a 486, you should get a Vesa/ISA MB; Pentium, you should buy an ISA/PCI combo. The ISA/PCI combo motherboards will probably have one or two VLB slots as well, truly the best of both worlds. I know three people who have PCI/ISA combo motherboards on their P-90’s, and they work great.
Memory is sold on SIMMs (Single Inline Memory Module), mini cards that plug into specific slots on the motherboard. SIMMs come in two sizes, 32-pin and 70-pin. There are also different size modules: 256K (rarely used today), 1Mb, 4Mb, 16Mb and 32Mb (expensive is an understatement). Memory is usually $35-40 per megabyte, with larger sizes offering smaller per-megabyte pricing.
The big issue with memory modules is how many you need to buy and install at a time. Older systems, (including most 486 systems) based around the 32-pin modules require you to install SIMMs four at a time. Also, each of those four SIMMS must be the same size and speed. Speed for SIMMs is measured in Nanoseconds; most speeds are in the 50-70NS range. For example, if you have eight sockets, each with a 1-Mb, 70NS SIMM in them, your only udgrade is to buy 4 4-Mb, 70NS SIMMs, and remove 4 of the existing 1-Mb SIMMS (for a total of 20-Mb in the new system). This can be expensive - 4-Mb SIMMs are $150 apiece, so this little upgrade costs $600.
The newer, 70-pin SIMMs can be replaced one at a time and they are cheaper. Some systems today have 2 70-pin sockets and 4 32-pin sockets. When you buy a system, find out your upgrade options and make sure you aren’t looking at a monster upgrade like in the example above.
There are three basic hard-drive types: IDE, EIDE and SCSI.
IDE, or Integrated Drive Electronics, is the oldest and most common hard drive interface used on PCs. IDE drives have only one limitation, and that is that drive size tops out at 540 megabytes. If you see a hard drive bigger than that on a PC, it is using a non-IDE interface. Typically, an IDE system will allow one or two hard drives to connect to one computer (there are hacks that allow for up to four hard drives, however).
EIDE, or Extended Integrated Drive Electronics, is an update of the IDE standard, and is of course, backwards compatible. EIDE essentially breaks the 540 megabyte hard drive size limit of IDE, allowing all those 1 Gigabyte and bigger hard drives to be used in home PCs for the first time.
SCSI, or Small Computer System Interface (pronounced “scuzzy”), is the odd-man out in the PC world, although it is the defacto standard on the Macintosh. SCSI is is good idea; it allows a theoretically unlimited amount of drives (hard drives, CD-ROM drives, whatever) to be “chained” together. As popular as it is on the Mac, it just never took off on the PC and my advice is to avoid it. A few years ago, the only reason to have a SCSI interface on your PC was so that you could connect a CD-ROM drive. Today, PC CD-ROM drives have IDE interfaces, proprietary plug-in cards, or use a Sound-Blaster (a popular sound card) to connect themselves to your PC, making SCSI unnecesary.
Hard drive access speed is measured in milliseconds, where the smaller number is faster. Typically hard drive speed is 10-13 ms. Speeds below 10 ms are extremely fast. Note that you can buy caching hard drive controllers. These cards accept standard SIMMs and, like the cache memory in a CPU, will speed up hard drive access.
My suggestion here is simple: IDE or EIDE. This is something that you will most likely not need to worry too much about as basically all home systems use these interfaces. In fact, most IDE controller cards come complete with 2 floppy controllers, 2 hard drive controllers, 2 parallel ports (for printers, etc), 2-4 serial ports (for modems, serial mice, printers, etc), a mouse port, and other ports. These all-in-one cards are quite common and cheap.
Monitor / Video Card
The Monitor and Video card are tightly connected and in some ways are the most important piece you will buy. Consider that you will be staring at the Monitor every second you use the computer and it becomes obvious that this is not the place to be thrifty. When I built my PC in late 1993, the monitor represented a full 50% of the total cost of the system.
Monitors come in various sizes (and prices), the most typical being 14 inches, 15 inches, 17 inches and 21 inches. Most home systems come with 14 or 15 inch monitors. A monitor’s resolution is measures in dot pitch, where a lower number is superior. The following is very important: DO NOT buy a monitor with a .39” dot pitch! Those unbelievably cheap “for-sale” systems you see in ads will typically cut corners in this area. You need to get a monitor that has .28” or .26” dot pitch. If the ad doesn’t say so (and it won’t), ASK! .39” monitors will cause eye-strain, headaches and possibly dizziness. They are practically dangerous.
My recommendation for a monitor designed for home use is 15”. They are relatively cheap and offer a slightly larger screen than the 14” models. Most importantly, 15” monitors typically use a flat-screen which nullifies the glare and curved image problems that 14” models are famous for. 17” and bigger monitors are expensive (usually $750 or more) and are overkill for home, unless you feel the need for some heavy duty CAD work. 15” monitors are fine for 800 x 600 resolution in Windows. Once you’ve used Windows in 800 x 600 mode you’ll never want to go back to the blocky looking 640 x 480 standard.
I have a nice 15” flat screen model that was quite obviously superior to it’s 14” cousins when viewed side by side in the store. The colors are deeper and darker, and glare is practically non-existant. This is the best way to compare monitors in a store. Ask the salespeople to put Windows in different resolutions so you can see the difference between different monitors.
Video cards come in a variety of flavors now, as well. Video cards have several characteristics, the first of which is the type of slot they require. The most significant ones are ISA cards and VESA-VLB cards. The VESA models are usually much faster , but are also more expensive. You’ll see “Windows accelerator” cards which are video cards specifically optimized for Windows. My only real recommendation is to get at least 1 megabyte of Video RAM on the card, which will allow you to get 65,000 colors at 800 x 600 resolution in Windows. Video cards use different types of memory (DRAM or VRAM) and some are upgradeable memory-wise (say from 1 megabyte to 2 or 4 megabutes). Don’t worry too much about this stuff. Just get at least 1 megabyte of video memory on the card and look for a VESA Windows accelerator. ‘Nuff said.
CD-ROM / Sound Card
Finally, we get to the fun stuff! Seriously, though, DO NOT buy a new computer WITHOUT a CD-ROM/Sound Card combo and tell yourself you can add one later. It’s like adding a sunroof to a car: sure, you can do it, but it will never work right and you’ll always have problems. Everything is coming out on CD-ROM today. If you bought OS/2 Warp, for example, you could buy one of two versions - one that comes with one CD, or one that comes with over 30 diskettes. Imagine installing that beast from floppies. Windows95, due next year, is another good example of this. Like it or not, the CD-ROM is taking over the desktop. Besides, they’re excellent! All the best entertainment titles come on CD, featuring live actors, CD-quality music and sound and a depth of play that floppy-based games could never attempt. Don’t get me wrong, there are many useless CD-ROMs. One of the problems with the CD-ROM explosion is that a lot of crap has been shovelled at the public. This doesn’t change the facts, however: CD-ROM is a necessary add-in today. You’ll love it.
So, what should you look for? CD-ROM drives come in a variety of speeds. Single speed CD-ROM drives are absolete; avoid them. Today’s standard is the double-speed CD-ROM. You will sometimes see a system that says it is MPC-2 compatible. This is exactly what you want. MPC stands for Multimedia Personal Computer, and the 2 means that this is the second standard that the Multimedia council has come up with. There are other criteria involved, which I’m not going to get into as everything I’m suggesting meets these criteria.
Note that there are also triple and quad-speed CD-ROMs. These units are faster and more expensive than the double speed units, but their advantages are also largely unutilised by software makers. It is most likely that you will be buying a system that includes a CD-ROM drive and these overwhelmingly contain the double speed units.
Sound cards are the “big lie” of the PC hardware world. Everyone in the world touts the fact that “16-bit” sound cards are the end-all and that the cheap, cheesy-sounding 8-bit cards are an out-dated dead-end. Why is it then, that the game “Doom” sounds as good on my $65 stereo 8-bit Sound Blaster Pro, as it does on my friends’s $300 Sound Blaster-AWE32 card? Because they are LYING. The Sound Blaster (SB) is the standard of sound cards, and offers FM-synthesis sound, where a chip on the card “synthesizes” instrument sounds to create music and sound. Newer cards, like the afore-mentioned AWE32 (which is a 16-bit sound card - the “32” means number of instruments), include a “Wave-table” chip that has actual musical instruments recorded into its circuity. If a program is written to take advantage of this Wave Table, the music it creates is literally CD quality. So what’s the problem, you ask? No one uses it! The standard Sound Blaster has sold in the millions so everyone writes software to use that. The real advantage of an SB-Pro or an SB-16 over the old SB is that they support stereo sound.
However, the big seller for Creative labs, maker of the Sound Blaster line, is the SB-16. Everyone has to have the biggest and best, and the 16-bit SB-16 looks more impressive than the SB or SB-Pro (which I have). What could it possibly offer that the SB-Pro doesn’t? The SB-16 allows you to record in 16-bit, or CD-quality sound. How many people do you know that need, or even use, just once, this feature? None. All the software that produces any sound will sound the same on any SB-16 model as it does on the SB-Pro.
Ok, so that was a bloated little expose. Here are the basic SB models:
Sound Blaster - the old 8-bit, mono sound unit with FM synth. Avoid it.
Sound Blaster-Pro - 8-bit, stereo sound with FM synthesis. Includes CD- ROM connector for Panasonic, Sony, Mitsumi and Creative Labs CD-ROM drives. Great value.
Sound Blaster-16 - 16-bit stereo card with FM. This is the unit that most likely will come with a Multimedia Upgrade Kit, or pre- installed in your system. Don’t forget to make those 10 second, CD-quality recordings with it!
Sound Blaster-16 SCSI - same as DB-16, but includes SCSI connector for SCSI CD-ROM drives.
Sound Blaster-16 AWE32 - features a Wave Table Chip. Expensive, but the sound is AWEsome.
Basically, if you buy a system that includes a sound card and CD-ROM, you will most likely get the Creative Labs CD-ROM unit with a SB-16. This is a good little setup and I know two people who have it. Adding this stuff on later is not suggested, but if you are that cheap, be prepared to spend some quality time with your computer or pay someone else big bucks to do it. Also, if you must add these things separately, might I humbly suggest the SB-Pro and any random double-speed CD-ROM drive. This will cost less and work just as well as the Creative Labs setup.
This one is easy. The 5 1/4” floppy is obsolete and probably won’t come on any system you buy anyway. You don't need it. The 3 1/2” floppy is a standard component of any system and is still the standard way to install software on you computer. 3 1/2” disks come in a variety of formats, but the standard is still 1.44 megabytes. IBM is selling a 2.88 megabyte drive, but the disks are expensive and uncommon. Again, all systems will have a 1.44 mb 3 1/2” drive, unless it is a notebook computer.
Some other considerations: tape backup and PCMCIA (“credit card”) drives. I will not go into much detail with these, as they are not usually part of a consumer setup. However, the tape backup offers a convenient way to back up your hard drive, and the PCMCIA cards are useful for exchanging data with portable computers that support them. Both units are fairly cheap.
Operating System Software
We live in a MS-DOS/Windows world and there is just no way around it. Most consumer systems will include these programs. Here is a little survey of the recent versions of the most popular OS’s:
MS-DOS 6.x - MS-DOS is the most popular OS for PCs by far. MS-DOS is a command-line OS, which requires a lot of typing and offers little in the way of help. Based on Unix and CP/M, MS-DOS is hard to use, yet fairly powerful. It includes utilities to manage memory, make backups, double available hard disk space by using on-the-fly compression of files, and other useful programs. It’s limitations include the famous 640K memory barrier, which has haunted the PC world since 1982. The most recent version is 6.22.
Windows 3.x - Windows works in tandem with MS-DOS to provide an integrated Operating System. Windows has many advantages, including a huge memory allowance, similiar “look and feel” between programs (learning how to use one program gives you a great head start on any other), and a fairly easy-to-use mouse-driven graphical user-interface. Windows is, however, not as friendly as Microsoft would have you believe. It is a slow, memory-hogging monster that crashes more that its Macintosh rival. It is difficult to customize and the system tools are hard to locate. All that aside, it is the defacto standard of the PC world, and in one way or another, is here to stay. The most recent version, 3.11 is essentially the same OS that was introduced in 1990 as 3.0, with few improvements, and is due for an overhaul. There is also a version called “Windows for Workgroups.” WfW is the networking version of Windows and offers a look at some of the Win95 features coming later in the year, like 32-bit disk access (this means that WfW, unlike Win3.x, can bypass DOS and access drives by itself in a faster, more efficient way). WfW is sold with many home systems now, so don't be put off by the name.
Windows95 - the “sequel” to Windows 3.x (or Windows 4.0 as it should be called) offers a radical “new” graphical user interface that is easy to use, powerful and flexible. I say “new” because Macintosh and OS/2 users have been using a suspiciously similiar interface for years. For Windows users, however, Win95 offers quite a departure from the 3.x version, with true multitasking (run more than one program at a time), long filename support (MYFILE.TXT can become “My Letter to Dad about Computers” for example), and many built in applications including Internet software, a full-featured Word Processer, Personal Information Manager, Networking, On-line Service, Full-featured Paint program and more. Windows95 will set the PC world on its ear if it’s ever released: the latest word from Microsoft is that the release date has slipped yet again to August, 1995. One interesting note: Microsoft is touting Win95 as the death of DOS. It’s not true; hidden away under the grahical interface is something called MS-DOS 7.0. Not that it really matters, but this DOS underpinning is the reason Win95 is so backwards compatible.
IBM OS/2 Warp - formerly known as just OS/2 (get it? MS-DOS was like OS/1). OS/2 Warp is everything that Win95 WILL be and more. It runs DOS and Windows programs as well as its own (albeit limited) software selection. Any program that crashes will not bring down the entire system, like in Windows. So why isn’t OS/2 Warp more popular? DOS and Windows owns the desktop due to (unfair) price structuring and better marketing from Microsoft. With Win95 delayed yet again, this is OS/2 Warp’s best chance to succeed. IBM has pledged hundred of millions of dollars for OS/2 Warp advertising and sales have been phenominal. Still, Microsoft has little to fear. Win95 WILL be a resounding success and, I suspect, the end of OS/2 Warp when it is released.
Looking at Ads
Glancing through this Sunday’s ad from “Best Buy,” a local electronics store similiar to Circuit City, or Lechmere’s, I notice the following ads (with my comments in parenthesis):
Packard Bell 486DX2/50 Mhz Multimedia System (the new Packard Bells are nice)
420 MB Hard Drive (good)
8 MB memory (good)
14” Super VGA Monitor (“Super VGA” is meaningless. What’s the dot pitch? 15” is highly preferrable, as the 14” will have a curved screen)
1 MB Video Memory (good, but it is probably a low-end card)
16-bit Stereo Sound Card & Speakers (NOT a SB-16 apparently. The speakers are
integrated into the monitor and look pretty slick. They sound bad, though)
Double-Speed CD-ROM Drive (good)
Internal Fax/Modem (what’s the speed? It should be 14,400 baud not 2400 baud)
Telephone Answering System (either a gimmick or a neat little tool. Good units will determine if the incoming call is a phone call, fax, or modem communication and route it to the proper unit. That is extremely useful)
Includes over $800 worth of Pre-loaded and CD-ROM software (This is where they make a pile of useless CDs that you would never buy look like a deal. Squinting at the tiny picture shows it includes Prodigy software [free anyways], Microsoft Works [yeacch], Microsoft Money [sells for $10.99], US Atlas [that will get used once], Groliers Encyclopedia [1992 edition], Windows for Workgroups 3.11, MS-DOS 6.20 and some other useless looking CDs I can’t even decipher. The pont here is that DOS and Windows always come for free and no-one would ever buy any of that other stuff (well, maybe Money, but that is the cheapest software around).
Price - $1498
What does this show? Basically, it’s an OK deal. The 486DX2/50 is probably 90% the overall speed of a 486DX2/66. The CDs are throw-away, but so what? The main questions you need to ask involve the monitor (dot-pitch?), sound card (SB-16?) and the modem (baud rate?). Other than that, it doesn’t look too bad. Let’s look at another one:
Packard Bell Pentium 90Mhz Multimedia Computer with Color Printer (looks good)
810 MB Hard Drive (well, it must have the new EIDE interface. VERY good)
8 MB Memory (good, but I think a Pentium justifies 16Mb. How much is an upgrade?)
15” Super VGA Color Monitor (again, SVGA is meaningless. Color? I should hope so)
1 MB Video Memory (good again, but I think a P90 justifies 2 or more. Is it upgradeable? Is it Windows accelerated?)
Double Speed CD-ROM drive (good)
16-Bit Sound Card and Speakers (see the system above. Ask questions)
14.4 Internal Fax/Modem (here we go. This is good. It makes me think the Packard Bell above doesn’t come with a 14.4 or they would have mentioned it there as well)
Canon Color Bubble Jet Printer (the photo shows a model BJC4000, which is an excellent 720 x 360 DPI laser-like color printer.. On the downside, almost no- one I know needs color printing)
Software and Accessories (let’s take a look at the jumble of boxes it shows. The same MS-DOS, WFW, Prodigy, Money, Grolier, Works etc. This one also includes Microsoft “Entertainment Pack,” a collection of games that are both useless and literally fun-free. In other words, everything here is a throw-away as well.)
Price - $3386
So what’s the total? The price is right (for a Pentium, anyway, or a small mortgage), and the bundled printer is an exceptional value - it is on the next page separately for $400. Questions are similiar to the first one, with memory upgradeability, Monitor, and Sound Card topping the list. Assuming these all pan out, this computer represents an exceptional value, especially if you need a printer.
Elsewhere in the ad is an Acer Pentium-60 selling for $2298. This unit has a P-60, which is the obvious problem, and the other specs are similiar to the units above, although it does include a Canon BJ-200e B/W printer which is nice (I have one myself). The bundled software is as throw-away as with the other two.
Overall, I would have to say that my preference is toward a 486DX2-66 system with the following: 8 Mb memory, 420 - 540 Mb hard drive, Accelerated Video Card with 1 Mb memory, 15” flat screen monitor with .28 dot pitch, double speed CD-ROM, SB-16 sound card, 1 3-1/2” floppy, MS-DOS and Windows. Anything you get over that is nice, but unnecesary. No-one, and I mean no-one NEEDS a Pentium, at least not at home. Currently, the Pentium price tag is high, and the premium does not justify the performance increase. Maybe by next Christmas this will change, but for now the 486 price/performance ratio is king. The prices above, and on the last page’s buying guide bear this out.
Buying Guide Check-list
CPU - 486DX2-66
Motherboard - ISA with VESA VLB
Memory - 8 Mb
Hard Drive - 420 Mb or more
Monitor - 15” flat screen, .28 dot pitch
Video Card - 1 Mb video RAM
double speed CD-ROM
16-bit Sound Blaster or 100%
3-1/2” High Density Floppy Drive
MS-DOS 6.22 / Windows 3.11
(or WfW 3.11)
expected cost: $1100-1500
CPU - Pentium-90
Motherboard - PCI/ISA combo
Memory - 8 or 16 Mb
Hard Drive - 540 Mb or more
Monitor - 15” flat screen, .28 dot pitch
Video Card - 1-2 Mb video RAM
double speed CD-ROM
16-bit Sound Blaster or 100%
3-1/2” High Density Floppy Drive
MS-DOS 6.22 / Windows 3.11
(or WfW 3.11)
expected cost: $3000-3800