Shopping for a Personal Computer

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ILLUSTRATION: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Since its introduction some ten years ago, the small (or micro, as it's known in the industry) computer has grown in popularity to the point where 25% of all households in the U.S. now own or have access to one.

Now that the computer revolution has settled down to capable equipment at attractive prices, maybe it’s time for you to start thinking about shopping for a personal computer.

This is the time of year when most of us are planning our
holiday shopping lists. And we’d naturally like to select
presents that are as practical as they are attractive. One
item that has both appeal and purpose is a home computer.
Since its introduction some ten years ago, the small (or
micro, as it’s known in the industry) computer has grown in
popularity to the point where 25% of all households in the
U.S. now own or have access to one. What’s more, it’s
estimated that over 40% of all homes will have a personal
computer by 1990.

What is a Computer?

Contrary to popular lore, the computer isn’t the
number-crunching monster so many of us have come to
envision. Rather, it’s a tool that can be used to lighten
our daily burden. Like the plow or tractor, a computer can
relieve us of chores and allow us to use our time more
productively. The variety of tasks a computer can take on
increases daily. To many people, a computer is merely an
expensive video game . . . but to an increasing number, it
serves such roles as teacher, tax consultant, or
even–as the sidebar on software shows–garden
planner.

In each case, the computer offers a service. The extent of
that service is a topic MOTHER will take up in future
issues as we discuss some of the specific tasks a home
computer can perform. For now, though, let’s concern
ourselves with the task of selecting a suitable machine by
sorting through the many options available.

Choosing a Personal Computer

There are literally hundreds of computers to choose from
today, ranging in price from a few hundred to many
thousands of dollars. Home computers, the ones we’ll be
talking about here, generally fall into the $200 to $1,200
price range. And within this range, package prices will
vary depending on the particular components needed. Some
tasks, for instance, require a mechanical printer, while
other applications need a device to hook the computer to a
telephone line. The more complex you make your system, the
more it will cost.

Basically, computer systems can be broken down into two
types of components. First there’s the hardware, central to
which is the computer itself–the seemingly magical
“black box” that makes everything happen. A video monitor
connected to the computer tells you what the machine is
thinking, and a keyboard lets you tell the computer what
you’re thinking. Keyboards come as a part of the computer
package and may actually be integral. Monitors, however,
are usually purchased separately–largely because
there are a number of choices (see the sidebar “Video
Monitors”), not because they’re dispensable.

The second main component of a computer system is its
software. Each of these packages of numerical instructions
tells the computer how to perform a certain task. This
article, for example, was written using a software package
called a word processor. There are software packages that
calculate taxes, estimate profits, and plan menus. The
applications are limited only by your imagination and the
physical traits of your machine. With the right software,
even an inexpensive computer can perform an amazing variety
of tasks; without it, the fanciest rig is useless.

Shopping for a Personal Computer: Make a Plan

Before you even start shopping for a computer, you should
decide what you want the computer to do for you and how
much you’re willing to pay for that service.

What will be the computer’s main use? Will it be for
education–such as teaching the young ones their ABCs?
Or perhaps you want a computer in order to hone your own
math skills. If education fits your computer’s job
description, look for one that has a large and broad base
of learning software. The computer itself should be capable
of displaying attractive graphics, which are so important
to keeping the attention of a child. Both the Radio Shack
Color Computer and the Atari 800 handle graphics well, are
inexpensive, and have quite a bit of educational software
written for them. Apple may have the largest selection of
educational software–because their II-series
computers are often used in schools–but the firm’s
hardware and software are relatively expensive.

If you want a computer primarily for playing games, you
should once again be looking for good graphics and a broad
software base. Bear in mind, though, that most popular
games are written for more than one computer, so don’t let
the availability of a particular game sway you too much.
After all, when you tire of that game, what’s to take its
place?

For the more serious computer user, there are software
packages for record keeping and for information processing.
For these applications, a clear display of characters is
more important than graphics capability. In computer lingo,
a machine’s record-keeping software is called a data
base,
and its information processing falls under the
guise of a word processor or a
spreadsheet. Don’t let the jargon throw you: Word
processors handle words, and spreadsheets manipulate
numbers (it could as well be called a number processor). A
knowledgeable salesperson can explain the capabilities of
each and help you anticipate your needs.

Selecting Computer Memory

If you’re going to be using your computer for one of the
more serious applications–which involve processing
and sometimes storing data–you’ll need to know about
computer memory. There are essentially two types: permanent
and temporary.

Permanent memory usually refers to the amount of
information that can be stored on a program diskette. These
plastic packages–which measure about 1/8 inches thick and
5-1/4 inches square–contain a round platter coated with
magnetic material, usually iron oxide. This material
records electrical impulses that the computer can recognize
as program information. The maximum amount of data a
diskette is able to store varies, depending on the make and
model of computer.

Temporary memory will probably be the more important of the
two types for your purposes. It resides inside the computer
in an area called RAM (Random Access Memory), and is so
named because it has no particular pattern to it. This
memory is managed by the computer itself–you have no
direct control over it–and is used to store bits of
information as a program executes.

Let’s say, for instance, that your software program lets
you enter a sequence of numbers from the keyboard (it could
be anything from a phone number list to the amounts on
checks you’ve written). The numbers will undoubtedly be
used in a subsequent process, but for the time being they
just need to be put somewhere. So the computer places them
in RAM. As the numbers are needed, the computer fetches
them from the temporary memory and plugs them into the
program.

Some programs require more memory than others, and it’s
usually information-processing software that requires the
most. So when you’re shopping for a computer, keep in mind
the memory needs of the programs you plan to
use–specifications are printed right on the software
package–and make sure that the machine can meet the
requirements. In the case of some computers, such as the
IBM PCjr, RAM memory is expandable. The machine
comes with the minimum complement of RAM, to which you can
add more memory cells, up to a certain maximum set by the
machine. Other computers, however, are limited to a set
amount of RAM.

Where to Buy a Personal Computer

Once you’ve decided which computer to buy, your next hurdle
is to find a place to purchase it. This can be trickier
than it sounds, because many retailers who used to carry
computers have found that the profit margins are no longer
great enough to warrant stocking them. Your neighborhood
computer store probably handles mostly business-oriented
machines with capabilities and prices beyond your wants. Of
the computers listed in the chart that accompanies this
article, only the Apple IIc and the IBM PCjr
(both of which are at the upper end of the price range) can
be widely found in computer stores. The Radio Shack Color
Computer, of course, is sold through that company’s chain
of stores.

Major department store chains are a good source of home
computers, though you can’t expect to do much bargaining.
Look for sales to avoid paying full ticket price. Discount
outlets, such as K-Mart, also have computers on hand this
time of year, and they’re likely to be heavily discounted.

Mail-order houses are often the lowest-price outlets for
computers. In fact, MOTHER NO. 95 had an advertisement from
a wholesale liquidator selling a $1,000 computing system
for only $488. You should always be careful when buying
through the mail, but I’ve checked out this particular
advertiser personally and can guarantee that you would get
just what is promised. The computer itself is a
discontinued model made by one of the manufacturers
mentioned in this article. In too many cases, however, you
have to read the small print very carefully to see if the
product being offered is the genuine article or a
reasonable facsimile (see the sidebar “Compatibles”) and if
the system is actually complete.

The main disadvantages of buying at discount outlets or
through the mail are that you’ll receive little or no
assistance in learning to use the machine, and that in most
cases you’ll be on your own in finding service after the
sale. A good local dealer–ask other people who own
computers which dealers are knowledgeable–can be
worth paying extra money for.

An interesting approach that’s becoming more popular these
days is co-op buying. Computer-buying co-ops work just like
any other cooperative–people band together to
purchase in bulk at a reduced price. This is to the
advantage of the manufacturer, retailer, and customer
alike. To find out if there’s a buying co-op near you,
check with computer clubs, which can be located through
dealers in the area.

You could also consider trying to buy secondhand,
but–oddly enough–used computers aren’t all that
easy to find. Most people seem to affectionately hang on to
their old computers when they upgrade, as if that old
system were some long-standing relative. What’s more,
those who do part with their old computers often do so
because they’ve been having problems with
them–difficulties that you’d prefer not to inherit.
In the home computer category, the main unit should
probably be bought new. Peripherals such as printers and
monitors, however, can be found used, often at significant
savings.

When choosing a home computer, the software is at least as
important as the hardware. You don’t want to buy a
computer–no matter how inexpensive–that has
little software written for it; you also want to be sure
that the machine has enough memory to run the software
that’s available for it. The final choice will usually be a
compromise between your needs (and wants) and your
finances.


More About Personal Computers

If you’re looking for a fully featured
computer package at a reasonable price, the
Coleco Adam is one good choice. The system comes
complete with a keyboard, a high-speed tape cassette
for saving and retrieving data, software, and a letter-
quality printer. All you have to add is a video monitor.

An interesting feature of the Adam system is
a built-in word processor–a feature that accounts for 38%
of most people’s use of a computer. When you turn the Adam on,
it becomes an electronic typewriter, printing whatever you
type on the keyboard onto paper in the printer. Pressing the
ESCAPE key, however, starts the word processor, which
allows you to edit material on the screen before it’s printed.

Adam computers list for $800, but sluggish sales have forced
most retailers to drop prices. As I write this, a local merchant is
offering his entire stock at a very low $200 each.

Computer Video Monitors

Most computers, you will find, come without a display
screen . . . yet you can’t do much without one. Fortunately,
almost all home computers are designed to be used
with a television set. Inside the computer is a device called an RF
modulator that converts the signals from the computer into television
frequencies (usually channel 3 or 4). A connector ties the
computer to the antenna terminals of the television receiver.
By tuning the television to the appropriate channel, you’ll get a computer
display. . . and if it’s a color TV, you will, in most cases, get a color display.

Unfortunately, televisions weren’t designed to be computer monitors
–their bandwidth is too narrow. So, computers display better on a
specially designed monitor than they do on a TV. And computers such as the
Apple llc don’t display well at all on a television. In lieu of using a TV for display,
then, you’ll have to buy a computer monitor. Depending on whether you choose
monochrome (black and white) or color, this will cost between $100 and $500.

Selecting Computer Software

The question most people ask when the topic of home
computers comes up is “What practical purpose do they
serve?” As I already mentioned, MOTHER will, in future issues, be discussing some of the software that
may be of interest to her readers. But to give you a better
idea of what to expect, MOTHER’s staffers have reviewed a
couple of pieces of gardening software: ORTHO’S
COMPUTERIZED GARDENING and Home & Hobby Software’s
PLANTIN’ PAL.

ORTHO’S COMPUTERIZED GARDENING is a two-sided disk and
book package that has two main features: a personalized
plant selector to help you choose–by zip code,
height, bloom, light needs, etc.–the right landscape
plants or houseplants for you (OCG does not deal
with vegetables) . . . and a calendar recordkeeping aid. The
plant selector is excellent: You tell the computer what
requirements you have, and it shows you all the plants in
its 750-entry master list that will work in your region,
along with their caretaking needs. The calendar is limited
by the fact that you can read only one day’s entry at a
time. COMPUTERIZED GARDENING comes in versions for IBM,
Commodore 64, and Apple (11e, 11c, and MacIntosh) computers
and costs $49.95 plus $3.00 shipping and handling from
Ortho Information Services, San Francisco, CA. Recommended only for computerphiles who have real
plant/ landscaping needs.

PLANTIN’ PAL, on the other hand, deals with vegetable
gardening. Its intent is to help you lay out your year’s
garden. Using an actual garden map and crop
symbols–all of which you can print out to
keep–PP helps you determine how much space you’ll
need for each of 40 crops (based on how many people you’re
feeding and whether or not you want to store the crop as
well as eat it fresh). It can even incorporate companion
planting. PAL costs $29.95 postpaid from Home & Hobby
Software, Inc., Minneapolis, MN; in versions for IBM PC/PCjr, Apple II+/IIe,
and Commodore 64. The program allows you to juggle crops to
find the perfect plan for your plot. It is, however,
somewhat limited in that it presumes you’ll use a wide-row
garden (20 inch rows, 16 inch paths) and that it doesn’t really
incorporate succession plantings.

Computer Compatibles

You’ll often run across the expression compatible
when you’re shopping for a computer. What is a
compatible? Basically it’s a copy of a popular computer.
Not an exact copy, mind you–that would be
illegal–but a reasonable facsimile. These imitators
are often worth pursuing because they’re less expensive.
The most copied personal computer is the IBM PC, the
machine that put the computer revolution into high gear. As
a testimony to its achievements, no less than 20 IBM
compatibles are available today, most of which sell for
around two-thirds of what the genuine article costs. Some
are duplicates (even down to the placement of the logo);
others–such as Compaq–imitate IBM only at the
software level. Some could be said to be superior to the
original . . . others are clearly inferior.

In all instances, however, the compatible is supposed
to run the same software that the original handles. In
fact, the crux of the issue is software compatibility.
It’s far more important for the compatible to act like
the original than to look like it.

When shopping for a compatible, keep in mind that
compatibility can be a relative term. Some differences do
exist (because of copyright laws), and some software
written for the original may not run on a particular
compatible. Let’s hope it’s not yours!