'Hard' Choices: IBM vs. Mac, Desktop vs. Laptop
OK, you've decided to buy a computer and you think you know why.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
That's the most important hurdle. Once you focus on what you intend to do with the machine, it's far easier to decide what hardware to buy.
We're about to narrow down your choices. But, since you're a novice in the computer world, you need all the help you can get. The best source of help is a computer buddy. Ideally, this is a knowledgeable user who lives nearby and is willing to answer all your questions (even the ones you're embarrassed about asking). You don't have a computer-knowledgeable friend? Maybe there's a computer-using acquaintance you could invite to lunch. Or you can find one through a local computer club. (Clubs often offer programs designed for new users. Ask a computer dealer for one in your area or call the automated locator service of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups at 914-876-6678.)
If you still can't find a buddy, a computer dealer may be able to fill the role. But make sure the dealer is willing to play this role even after you buy the system. And make sure you return the courtesy by making your subsequent computer-related purchases at his store.
Don't be afraid to ask questions of your computer buddy. Secretly, I suspect, they enjoy demonstrating what they know.
The next step is to choose a computer standard. There are two major types: IBM-compatible and Macintosh. The first is called IBM-compatible because, more than a decade ago, IBM built its first successful personal computer, which it called the PC. Anxious to establish its machine as a standard, IBM allowed other companies to make copies - or clones. So many companies decided to get into the business of clone-making that the standard came to dominate the industry. Today, roughly eight out of every 10 PCs in the world is IBM-compatible.
The Macintosh - or Mac - is made by Apple Computer. Unlike IBM, Apple didn't let anyone copy its machines until this year. Because the same company made all the hardware and the machine's operating system software, the Mac advanced faster than the IBM clones. It was easier to use and introduced several innovations to the PC world. But Apple's exclusivity also made the Mac more expensive and not as popular as its IBM cousins. As a result, the Mac represents only about one out of 10 of the world's computers.
Which should you buy? That depends. I recommend getting the same kind of machine as your computer buddy. If she or he has a Mac, get a Mac. If it's an IBM-compatible, get that. The differences that once separated these two machines have narrowed considerably, and you will not be making a terrible mistake either way.
If you don't have a computer buddy, visit a computer store and try out both machines.
Personally, I find the Mac easier to use, so I generally recommend it to beginners. The Mac is also a good buy for people who will use it for certain purposes, such as music and graphic-design software. On the other hand, IBM-compatibles are 10 percent to 15 percent cheaper than the Mac, run far more software, and are particularly strong in office applications, such as keeping a database or running a spreadsheet. If you're trying to upgrade your office skills, buy an IBM-compatible.
Now it's time to choose the kind of machine. Do you want a model that sits on your desk or a portable you can move around with? Each has its advantages. Desktop models are cheaper and come with larger screens than portables. They also have room to install add-ons - peripherals - to your system, such as a CD-ROM player, which allows computers to run interesting games and reference software.
Portables are useful for people who like to take their work along. When I travel, I find it immensely useful to carry my data with me. Right now, I'm using a portable to write this portion of the series on my porch. Portable screens have drawbacks and advantages. Even the largest ones are cramped. On the other hand, they use a technology that is easier to look at for long periods of time.
What brand to buy depends on the choices you've made so far. If you're buying a Mac, stick with Apple Computer. (Mac clones are just beginning to appear and are unproven so far.) For an IBM-compatible, the choices are nearly endless. Buy a brand you've heard of (such as IBM, Compaq, Packard-Bell, or, in the portable market, Toshiba). I've bought brand-name clones and no-name clones. While I've saved money on the latter, I've always had to work extra hard when changing or upgrading the machine. In the end, it wasn't worth it. Also, you want a company that's going to be around to offer the necessary technical support.