What kind of computer should I buy? This is a question which people ask me frequently. There are two answers I give, depending on the skill level of the poser. I currently have three computers at home, all purchased for less than $1,000. The last system I bought cost me less than $500 and yet provides all the capabilities needed by the casual home user. In this document I'll give you my suggestions and also provide a couple of tips on how to get the most bang for your buck.
In order to determine the appropriate level of computing power required by a home user, we have to realistically analyze the typical uses of a home system. Quite frankly, most home users need a computer to perform the following tasks:
Given these typical tasks, what kind of a machine will fit the bill? Actually, the cheapest machine you can find will provide more than enough power to support these tasks. These machines are typically referred to as "sub-zeros" since they cost less than $1,000. Consider the power of the original IBM PC: an Intel 8088 processor running at 4.77 MHz. Maximum memory at that time was 640 KB. Hard disk drives for the Radio Shack TRS-80 ran $5,000 for a 5 MB model. Hard drives were not even included on the original IBM PC; a 5 MB drive was included in the AT (Advanced Technology) model.
While not particularly speedy, the PC revolutionized many aspects of computer processing. My first machine boasted a "turbo" mode which ran the processor at 12.5 MHz! Over time, both the operating system and the applications made greater demands on the base architecture. We outgrew the 1 MB limitation of the original processor, and memory and hard disk capacity grew larger and cheaper. We've gone from $1,000 per MB of disk space to $10 per GB today. One can purchase a 12 GB drive these days for around $120.
The original processor for the IBM PC was manufactured by Intel and was an upgraded 8008. This processor was originally utilized to control traffic lights! After many years of development, Intel now makes the Pentium processor in a variety of flavours. They also face competition, primarily from Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). AMD, with their K6 line, has been able to provide compatible processors running at higher speeds and for less money than Intel. Personally, I choose to purchase systems which utilize AMD processors (see my home page for justification of this view.)
The entry-level computers now being sold boast processor speeds of 350 MHz and up, along with 56 Kbps modems, sound capability, 64 MB of RAM and hard drives with capacities of 6 GB and up. These machines are incredibly capable, permitting me to run my own web servers as well as develop Java/CORBA applications. Granted, I do this using the Red Hat Linux system, but the power of the current crop of machines is readily evident. Systems available from Compaq, HP and IBM represent great value.
What exactly should you look for when shopping for a home computer? I would use the following checklist:
Here are some justifications for my choices. First off, the hardware requirements are fairly basic, save for the ethernet interface. Given the proliferation of ADSL and cable modem, the ethernet interface is fast becoming an essential element rather than an option. I prefer 128 MB of memory, even if it means that you have to purchase the extra 64 MB separately. USB ports have become ubiquitous and any future peripheral purchases should use this interface rather than serial or parallel ports. The 56 Kbps modem will be used for traditional dial-up access to an ISP.
Some of you may have noticed that I recommend the AMD K6 processor rather than the Intel chips used in some of the products I've recommended. While I personally don't like the Intel product line, one has to be pragmatic when it comes to value for money. If you can find a system for $500 using the new Celeron II processor then you're still going to be getting a good deal. I would only warn you that inexpensive systems using the original Celeron will not be good performers. You will also note that systems which use Intel Pentium chips tend to be $100-200 more expensive than those using AMD processors.
On the software side, stay away from systems which include Microsoft Works. This is a crippled suite which doesn't provide any more value than freeware. While the Corel suite is powerful, if you absolutely need to be able to import and export in the most widely deployed format, you really want Microsoft Word. I run Star Office on my Linux boxes and it's also a very capable product. The prices is also attractive: free! The operating system requirement is not concrete, as Windows 95 OSR2 is quite functional. You won't generally run into software which requires Windows 98 rather than 95, so if you can save some bucks here then you're ahead of the game.
The Outlook recommendation is a bit more difficult to explain. It's certainly not the best e-mail client available (even though it's based on Network Communicator, written by a Vancouver company) but it's fairly easy to configure and has become a de-facto industry standard. It doesn't handle multiple mail servers readilly but this shouldn't interfere with typical home use, where a single ISP is the norm. The information presentation in Outlook is pretty decent and so most residential users will find it easy to use. Spam filtering is better accomplished with other products, or can even be done at the ISP level, so attention to the initial configuration (including identity) is vital.
Finally, I can heartily recommend products from Apple. When it comes to PCs which are simple to set-up, nobody comes close to Apple. Plug in the power and the telephone cords and you're ready to go! I'm planning on purchasing an iBook since it will permit me to work, entirely cordless, for up to six hours. It might not incorporate the latest-and-greatest technology, but the overall package is very intelligently designed. I know that I will be able to integrate this new machine into my existing network with no trouble at all. This is the nature of Apple computers and one of the biggest reasons why I recommend them to neophytes.
I promised earlier that I would provide a couple of hints regarding getting the best price on a home computer. First off, a number of manufacturers offer a "factory outlet" somewhere in their web site. As an example, check out the Compaq Factory Outlet. Keep an eye out for "Excess New" for some truly spectacular deals on brand new, never opened systems. While they claim to take up to three business days to deliver, the last system I purchased from Compaq arrived the very next day via FedEx. I can't guarantee that you'll experience the same level of service, but it sure beats lugging a heavy and bulky system home from the local computer store!
May 1st, 2000