Knowledge is Power: How To Buy A Computer

Buying a personal computer can be as difficult as buying a car. No matter how
much one investigates, how many dealers a person visits, and how much bargaining
a person has done on the price, he still may not be really certain that he has
gotten a good deal. There are good reasons for this uncertainty. Computers
change at much faster rate than any other kind of product. A two-year-old car
will always get a person where he wants to go, but a two-year-old computer may
be completely inadequate for his needs. Also, the average person is not
technically savvy enough to make an informed decision on the best processor to
buy, the right size for a hard drive, or how much memory he or she really needs.
Just because buying a computer can be confusing does not mean one should throw
up his hands and put himself at the mercy of some salesman who may not know much
more than he does. If one would follow a few basic guidelines, he could be
assured of making a wise purchase decision.

A computer has only one purpose; to run programs. Some programs require more
computing power than others. In order to figure out how powerful a computer the
consumer needs, therefore, a person must first determine which programs he wants
to run. For many buyers, this creates a problem. They cannot buy a computer
until they know what they want to do with it, but they cannot really know all
of the uses there are for a computer until they own one. This problem is not as
tough as it seems, however. The consumer should go to his local computer store,
and look at the software that\'s available. Most programs explain their minimum
hardware requirements right on the box. After looking at a few packages, it
should be pretty clear to the consumer that any mid-range system will run 99% of
the available software. A person should only need a top-of-the-line system for
professional applications such as graphic design, video production, or
engineering. Software tends to lag behind hardware, because it\'s written to
reach the widest possible audience. A program that only works on the fastest
Pentium Pro system has very limited sales potential, so most programs written in
1985 work just fine on a fast \'486, or an entry-level Pentium system. More
importantly, very few programs are optimized to take advantage of a Pentium\'s
power. That means that even if the consumer pays a large premium for the fastest
possible system, he may not see a corresponding increase in performance.

Buying the latest computer system is like buying a fancy new car. One pays a
high premium just to get the newest model. When the consumer drives the car out
of the showroom, it becomes a used car, and its value goes down several thousand
dollars. Similarly, when a new computer model comes out in a few weeks, his
"latest and greatest" becomes a has-been, and its value plummets. Some people
think that if they only buy the most powerful computer available, they will not
have to upgrade for a long time. These people forget, however, that a generation
of computer technology lasts less than a year. By computer standards, a two-
year-old model is really old, and a three-year-old model is practically
worthless. Sinking a lot of money into today\'s top-of-the-line computer makes
one less willing (and less financially able) to upgrade a couple of years from
now, when a person may really need it. Here\'s something else to consider. While
a faster processor will usually increase the speed of a system, merely doubling
the processor speed usually will not double the performance. A 133MHz Pentium
system may only be 50% faster than 75 MHz Pentium system, for example. That\'s
because there are a lot of other limiting factors. Memory is a prime example.
One may be better off buying a 75MHz Pentium system with 16MB of RAM than a 133
MHz system with 8MB. Even if buying the top machine did double a machine\'s
performance, however, it still might not make as big a difference as a person
might think. If his software performs any given task in under a second, doubling
its speed saves the consumer less than half a second.

No products change as quickly as computers. Considering the pace of this change,
it does not make sense to buy a computer today without planning for tomorrow.
Every computer claims to be upgradeable, but there are varying degrees of
expandability. A truly expandable unit has:

At least