'Hard' Choices: IBM vs. Mac, Desktop vs. Laptop

OK, you've decided to buy a computer and you think you know why.

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.

Competition is fierce in the computer industry. Part of your decision will hinge on whether you're buying mail-order. I buy all my computers this way because they're cheaper. But I don't recommend this for the beginner. If something goes wrong, you want to be able to take it back and look the dealer in the eye. Better yet, have your computer buddy go with you. The more specialized the store, the better its technical support, generally speaking.

Having decided whom you're going to buy from, it's time to decide what model you're going to buy. This can get complicated because the choices are so varied. So keep in mind the reason you're buying the computer. If you'll mostly be writing letters, you don't need a top-of-the-line machine. On the other hand, you don't want to try recording video clips onto some two-bit clunker.

Most computer users should concentrate on these four questions: 1) How much data am I likely to store? 2) How much memory does my most demanding software need? 3) How much speed and power do I want? 4) How big do I like the display?

The first question involves the size of the computer's hard drive, or storage space. These days, entry-level PCs come with 400-megabyte hard drives. That sounds huge, but the drive not only carries your work, it has to hold the software programs you use. These are becoming huge. Installing a package of four or five integrated programs can take 100 megabytes. So if you plan to store any non-text data - such as voice or pictures, buy as big a hard drive as you can afford.

The same principles that apply to hard drives apply to memory. Memory, or more correctly, random-access memory (RAM), acts as temporary storage space for data used by your computer. It, too, is measured in megabytes. Don't buy less than 4 MB, and I really recommend 8 MB as a minimum. The more RAM your machine has, the faster it goes and the more programs it can run at the same time.

A computer's speed is largely determined by the microprocessor it uses. You can adopt one of two strategies here: the low-end or the high-end approach. The low-end buyer waits until the computer world moves on to a speedier chip and then buys the left-overs at sharply discounted prices. In the IBM-compatible world today, that would be a machine with a 486-class chip. (The subcategories can get confusing. Just remember that an SX model is slower than a DX, which is slower than a DX2, which is slower than a DX4). In the Mac world, the low end means a Performa or a Quadra.

I prefer the high-end approach because computer technology is on a relentless march. Today's high-end machines are Pentiums in the IBM-compatible world, Power Macintoshes in the Mac world. These models will be considered entry-level machines three years from now. But with additional memory or a new hard drive, they will still likely run the newest software. Today's low-end machine won't be able to. This may not be important. Today's low-end machine can last for years if you never plan to upgrade the software. I suggest most novices start with a low-end machine. After all, you want to make sure you like computing before you go out and buy the top-of-the-line.

The fourth consideration is the computer display. On desktop models, it's called a monitor. The bigger the monitor, the easier it will be to see what you're doing. Since I sometimes spend the better part of a day in front of my monitor, I get the highest quality I can.

For desktop computers, a color monitor is standard these days. Don't get anything smaller than a 15-inch model. I use a 17-inch monitor that, while more expensive, makes it easier to run several programs at the same time. You want as fine a picture as possible, so insist that the monitor have no more than a 0.28 millimeter separation between pixels. And to make it safe, make sure the monitor conforms to the Swedish emission standards known as MPR-II.

We've already said the display on laptop computers is cramped. So get as much as you can afford - at least a 9.5-inch display. I happen to think size is more important than color which comes in two flavors: cheaper passive-matrix and nicer-looking active-matrix. Portable display technology differs from that of desktop monitors, so you don't have to worry about emissions.

Finally, a caution for procrastinators. Many novices put off buying a computer because they know it will be cheaper in six months. Six months later, it is cheaper, but they delay again because a new model has come out that will be cheaper in six months.

This is silly. Six months after I bought my first portable computer - a 486-class machine - its price dropped $500. But I didn't regret my purchase. That portable computer improved my work immeasurably. Having it six months sooner was worth far more than $500.

If you're buying a PC that improves your work or hobbies, it will be worth the money you spend on it today.

* Part 1 appeared Tuesday. Part 3, Choosing Software, runs tomorrow.

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