Thoughts on Buying A Personal Computer

CLAIRE COTTRELL of West Kingston, R.I., doesn't beat around the bush.

"Can you answer some questions that might help me choose a computer for myself?" she writes.

Sure. Fire away.

Notebook size?

I guess you're asking whether to buy a notebook or a desktop. Unless you're going to run many peripheral devices simultaneously (printer, CD-ROM, and so on), buy a notebook. You'll love the portability.

Why not an IBM rather than IBM-compatible? And why is IBM or IBM-compatible so desirable? Why not an Apple PowerBook?

Eternal questions. IBM is starting to make reasonably priced machines again, so it's worth considering. But don't overlook compatibles like Compaq, Toshiba, or (for the budget-conscious) Gateway. All these machines run DOS, today's dominant operating system. Apple makes machines that are better-integrated and simpler to use, but they don't run DOS.

Buying a PowerBook or Macintosh is like buying a European sports car. It's different, probably better, and more expensive. But domestic models are catching up in terms of quality. Windows is like a domestic model car. It makes DOS-based machines look and feel a lot like the Macintosh.

Needs to be easy.

Hah! No computer is as easy to use as it should be. But a knowledgeable friend can make the learning process much more speedy and less challenging.

Should I be thinking about voice input, CD-ROM, or any other advanced capabilities?

Don't worry about voice input. The technology is still too experimental for anyone except those who have serious trouble typing or seeing the screen.

CD-ROM, on the other hand, is intriguing. If you think you need access to vast amounts of information or images, get one. If you're not sure, hold off. You can always add one later.

Dot-matrix, laser, or bubble-jet printer? Color?

If you want to save money and you're just printing text, get a dot-matrix. If it's images you're printing, buy one of the others. Laser and bubble-jet printers each have advantages. Affordable color lasers and bubble-jet printers are just coming on to the market.

Clear, easy-to-read screen. Is an active-matrix display necessary?

A desktop machine will almost always come with a color screen. Get a good one that you'll be comfortable looking at for hours at a time. On the notebook side, active-matrix still looks to be the better buy if you want color. I use a monochrome notebook, however, and find I get more serious writing done on it than on my desktop machine with its high-quality color monitor.

What about speed?

If you're going to run Windows or any graphics programs, then buy as much power as you can afford. On the DOS side that means at least a 486SX-class machine with 120-megabyte hard disk and four megabytes of random-access memory; eight megabytes is preferable.

If you're still hesitant about joining the computer revolution, listen to Moira Hudson of Surrey, England. "I ... did not think I was the sort of person who would have a computer," she writes. But she borrowed her son's word processor and got help from a computer-literate friend. "With the help of these and the instruction book, in no time at all I was doing all my writing on this much-loved toy!"

'Nuf said.

* Send your comments on this column to CompuServe (70541,3654) or Prodigy (BXGN44A).

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