The personal computer: hints for the would-be buyer

Shopping for a personal computer is not like buying a refrigerator or a new car. Small computers are a uniquely new product, creating an entirely new market. As a result, the buyer must either devote considerable time to learn the special jargon of this brave new technological world or else find sales people he or she trusts.

When considering the purchase of a computer, the first step is to make a list of the things you think you need it for. A computer can speed such tasks as preparing manuscripts and reports, billing customers, setting up filing systems, aiding in the preparation of income tax forms, giving access to specialized information such as stock market quotes in a timely fashion -- or even writing and typesetting this article.

If you are curious about the nuts and bolts of this new technology and feel it worth your time to learn about it, the first step is to do some background reading. A number of introductory books on microcomputers are on the market, but they tend to be oversimplified and quickly go out of date. It would be better to sample some of the plethora of computer magazines that have sprung into being. By far the most comprehensive and in-depth of these is Byte; it may , however, be a little overwhelming to the computer novice. Byte also has the most advertisements, so it aids in surveying the available wares. Other magazines such as Creative Computing, Personal Computing, On Computing, and Interface Age are more accessible but less comprehensive.

Another good source of information is the local computer club. Here you will find people with experience on the various models available. A drawback of this approach is that computer owners tend to have fairly strong biases in favor of the systems they have purchased.

The much-vaunted home computer -- an inexpensive machine that will control appliances, act as the nerve center for a security system, educate and entertain the children, give access to news and other useful information, or operate a household heating system for optimum comfort and efficiency -- remains a novelty.Industry observers believe that this market will not develop in a substantial way until the mid-1980s. As a result, those considering buying such a computer for home use should justify it on recreational or educational, rather than economic, grounds.

For the small-business person, however, the $2,000-to-$18,000 price tag for these computers can usually be justified. As Data General's "The Insider's Guide to Small Business Computers" points out, "In 1970, a business computer equivalent in power to today's $18,000 small business system would have cost over $100,000. Over the decade, the decline in computer prices has averaged about 16 percent per year. Over the same time, the costs of personnel required to do manually what a small business computer can do electronically have been increasing at an annual rate of 7 percent."

When buying a computer, you must be aware of the relationship between "hardware" and "software." Hardware means equipment. Software -- the programs or instructions that turn the computer from useless machinery into a valuable tool -- is the most important aspect of a purchase. To a large extent, software determines how well a computer will perform the tasks in which you are interested.

Because of considerable variation in ability and business acumen among software writers, purchasers cannot count on getting the performance they think they pay for. The problem is compounded by the fact that software vendors, concerned with unauthorized duplication, will not give dealers demonstration copies of their products. Thus it is difficult to be sure you are getting the best software available. This is not a trivial problem, because buying software can add up to more than a quarter of the total cost of a computer system.

When you walk into a reputable computer store with your list of tasks, however, the sales people will do their best to match these with the available software. Because the software, in general, is tailored to a specific brand of computer, it will dtermine which hardware you consider.

In shopping for personal computers, you should plan to visit several stores. No single shop carries all the brands you will want to consider. The TRS-80, the biggest-selling brand of personal computer, is sold only at Radio Shack stores. Other stores sell Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Vector Graphics, Cromemco, Commodore, and other varieties.

It may take you a while to find a good salesman. They are in the minority. When you test them, you find that many do not know very much about their product. And those who do may have an unfortunate tendency to be arrogant in their dealings with customers. Do not let this put you off. It is a widely recognized problem, which the computer retial industry is trying to correct.

Each computer system has its strengths and weaknesses. Apple has outstanding graphics. Radio Shack models tend to be a little bit cheaper per unit capacity. Hewlett-Packard is especially powerful for scientific and engineering computations. Vector Graphics is tailored to word processing. Cromemco is a "Cadillac" microcomputer system. Commodore is only beginning to be extensively distributed in the US at this time.

There are software distinctions as well. Apple has actively encouraged independent software writers, with the result that a great deal of high-quality software is available. Radio Shack, on the other hand, has attempted to discourage the independents. As a result, it is particularly difficult to assess the quality of non-Radio Shack software written for TRS-80 machines.

Texas Instruments has been even more proprietary with its system, so very little software has become available. The problem became so acute that TI reversed its position recently and has begun soliciting outside software developers.

Another aspect of a computer purchase that requires major consideration is servicing. The computeers, almost entirely solidstate electronics, generally fail "out of the box" or not at all. Printers and some of the other peripherals , on the other hand, may require substantial servicing. It is generally possible to get computer equipment at a considerable discount through the mail or through outlets that will not service what they sell. If the computer is to be critical piece of equipment, the costs that can result when it fails -- especially if the only way to service it is to mail it to a distant repair center -- can easily outweigh the initial savings.

Once you have become conversant with the magazines and have visited the shops , it is probably time to redo your list of needs. When returning to the salesmen with this final set of tasks for the computer to do, you should insist on getting a statement of how completely a given system will meet your specific needs. It is seldom, if ever, that the computer will be able to do everything the way you want in exactly the way you wish. In fact, it may prove necessary for you to change the way you do things in order to get the maximum benefit from a computer system.

Although the computer market has improved considerably in the last few years, the buyer must still be wary. Buying a computer, and getting what one bargains for, requires a major effort.

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