Here's part of "The Secret Guide to Computers," copyright by Russ Walter, 29th edition. For newer info, read the 33rd edition at

Complete systems

Let’s see how to put all the pieces together and create a complete system.


IBM’s early computers

During the 1950’s, 1960’s, and most of the 1970’s, all of IBM’s computers were big. IBM ignored the whole concept of microcomputers for many years.

Eventually, IBM created microcomputers. But IBM’s first microcomputers, the IBM 5100 and IBM System 23, weren’t taken seriously — not even by IBM.


When many IBM customers began switching to Apple 2 microcomputers to handle spreadsheets, IBM got alarmed, so IBM decided to develop an improved microcomputer, called the IBM Personal Computer (IBM PC), which would be more powerful than Apple 2 computers.

To invent the IBM PC, IBM created 3 secret research teams who competed against each other. The winner was the research team headed by Philip “Don” Estridge in Boca Raton, Florida. His team examined everything created by the other microcomputer companies (Apple, Radio Shack, Commodore, etc.) and combined their best ideas, to produce a relatively low-cost computer better than all competitors.

Don’s team developed the IBM PC secretly. IBM didn’t announce it to the public until August 12, 1981.

The IBM PC was a smashing success: IBM quickly became the #1 microcomputer company — and Apple dropped to #2.

Improved versions

After inventing the IBM PC, IBM invented improved versions:

Month        Computer’s long name Short name Nickname  Main new feature

1981 August IBM Personal Computer         IBM PC           PC                many!

1983 March IBM PC eXTended              IBM PC XT    XT                hard drive (instead of just floppy)

1984 August IBM PC AdvancedTechnology   IBM PC AT     AT               faster CPU (286 instead of 8088)

1987 April   IBM Personal System 2          IBM PS/2        PS/2            better color video

After 1987, IBM invented many other improved versions.

While IBM was inventing improvements, IBM’s competitors invented imitations called clones, which were often better than IBM’s originals. Here’s how they all compared.…

Hard drive

The PC didn’t have a hard drive. Here’s what happened afterwards:

The XT included a 10M hard drive.

The AT included a 20M hard drive. AT clones typically included a 40M hard drive.

Modern computers include hard drives that hold 1000 times as much: 40G or even more!


RAM has grown:

The PC    typically came with 64K, 128K, or 256K of RAM.

The XT    typically came with 256K, 512K, or 640K of RAM.

The AT   typically came with 512K, 1M, or 2M of RAM.

The PS/2 typically came with 1M, 2M, or 4M of RAM.

Modern computers typically come with 128M, 256M, or 512M of RAM.


The PC and XT each contained an Intel 8088 CPU chip at 4.77MHz. Most XT clones ran twice as fast (and thus called turbo XT clones) because they contained an 8088-1 chip at 10MHz.

The AT contained an Intel 286 chip (which works more efficiently than an 8088) at 6MHz. In 1986, IBM switched to 8MHz. AT clones ran at 12MHz.

The PS/2 came in many models: depending on how wealthy you were, you could choose an 8086 chip at 8MHz, a 286 chip at 10MHz, a 386SX chip at 16MHz, a 386DX chip at 16, 20, or 25 MHz, or several 486 models.

Modern computers contain an Intel Pentium chip or AMD Athlon chip. They run at about 2700MHz (which is 2.7GHz).


The PC’s keyboard contained 83 keys:

26 keys contained the letters of the alphabet.

10 keys (in the top row) contained the digits.

10 keys (on the keyboard’s right side) contained the digits rearranged to imitate a calculator.

13 keys contained symbols for punctuation & math.

14 keys gave you control. They let you edit your mistakes, create blank spaces and capitals, etc.

10 function keys (labeled F1 through F10) could be programmed to mean whatever you wished!

The keyboard was designed by Don Estridge personally. To fit all those keys on the small keyboard, he had to make the ENTER and SHIFT keys smaller than typists liked.

Above the top row of keys, he put a shelf to hold pencils. To make room for that shelf, he put the 10 function keys at the left side of the keyboard, even though it would have been more natural to put the F1 key near the 1 key, the F2 key near the 2 key, etc.

The XT’s keyboard was the same, but XT clones rearranged the keys to make the ENTER and SHIFT keys be bigger.

The AT’s keyboard made the ENTER and SHIFT keys be bigger and included 1 extra key (making a total of 84 keys). In January 1986, IBM began selling a bigger AT keyboard that included 101 keys and put the function keys in the top row (near the pencil ledge) instead of at the left.

Modern computers include 3 extra keys to handle modern Windows (making a total of 104 keys) and often include even more keys, to handle the Internet!

Floppy disks

For the PC, IBM used 5¼-inch floppy disks holding just 160K. Then IBM switched to 180K, then 360K. The XT used 360K disks also. The AT used 1.2M disks. All those disks were 5¼-inch.

The PS/2 used 3½-inch disks instead, because they were sturdier, more reliable, easier to carry, and permitted the drive & computer to be smaller. Those 3½-inch disks typically held 1.44M. (Exceptions: the cheapest PS/2 models handled just 720K; some experimental models could handle 2.88M.)

Modern computers imitate the PS/2 and use 1.44M.


The PC’s base price didn’t include a monitor — or even a video card to attach the monitor to.

Color versus monochrome When IBM announced the PC, it announced two kinds of video cards. One kind attached to a color monitor and was called the Color Graphics Adapter (CGA). The other kind attached to a monochrome monitor and was called the Monochrome Display Adapter (MDA).

Which was better: CGA or MDA? CGA had two advantages: it could handle colors, and it could handle graphics. MDA had two advantages: it could produce prettier characters (though no graphics), and it could underline.

CGA could handle these display modes:

a graphic showing 4 colors,     at a resolution of 320´200

a graphic in black-and-white,  at a resolution of 640´200

characters (each an 8´8 matrix, 80 characters per line, 25 lines per screen, one of 16 colors per character)

MDA could handle this display mode:

characters (each a 9´14 matrix, 80 characters per line, 25 lines per screen, one of 4 styles per character)

Hercules A company called Hercules invented the Hercules graphics card, which resembled the MDA but could also display black-and-white graphics on the monochrome monitor. Several companies made video cards imitating the Hercules card; those imitations were called Hercules-compatible graphics cards.

Hercules could handle these display modes:

a graphic in black-and-white,  at a resolution of 720´350

characters (each a 9´14 matrix, 80 characters per line, 25 lines per screen, one of 4 styles per character)

EGA In September 1984, IBM invented the Enhanced Graphics Adapter (EGA) and an EGA monitor to go with it. That combination was better than CGA: it produced more colors and higher resolution. It could handle these display modes:

a graphic showing 16 colors,   at a resolution of 640´350

characters (each an 8´14 matrix, 80 characters per line, 25 lines per screen, one of 16 colors per character)

Unfortunately, it was too expensive for most folks.

VGA The PS/2 came with an even better color monitor, called a Video Graphics Array color monitor (VGA color monitor), and a VGA chip on the motherboard to go with it. That combination produced even more colors and even higher resolution. It could produce many thousands of colors (262,144 colors!), though you could display just 256 of them simultaneously. IBM figured out a way to make the VGA chip cheaply, so it became popular. It could handle these display modes:

a graphic showing   16 colors, at a resolution of 640´480

a graphic showing 256 colors, at a resolution of 320´200

characters (each a   9´16 matrix, 80 characters per line, 25 lines per screen, one of 16 colors per character)

characters (each an 8´16 matrix, 80 characters per line, 30 lines per screen, one of 16 colors per character)

VGA downgrades For folks who were so impoverished that they couldn’t afford the VGA chip, IBM invented an cheaper good chip, called the Multi-Color Graphics Array chip (MCGA chip), which produced fewer simultaneous high-resolution colors. It could handle these display modes:

a graphic in black-and-white,  at a resolution of 640´480

a graphic showing 256 colors, at a resolution of 320´200

characters (each an 8´16 matrix, 80 characters per line, 25 lines per screen, one of 16 colors per character)

For folks who couldn’t afford a VGA color monitor, IBM invented a cheaper VGA monitor, which displayed shades of gray instead of colors.

VGA upgrades Modern computers come with better VGA monitors and chips, producing a resolution of 1024´768 or even higher.

Power supply

Inside the system unit, the PC contained a power supply, which transformed AC current to DC and could produce 63½ watts of power. It also contained a fan that acted as a farting ass: it sucked hot air from inside the computer and blew it out the computer’s backside.

The XT contained a stronger power supply that could produce 135 watts, to help it handle the hard drive.

The AT contained an even stronger power supply: 192 watts. AT clones contained an even stronger power supply: 200 watts.

Modern computers use modern circuitry, which is more energy-efficient and doesn’t require so much power. Some modern computers get by with just 135 watts. Tall towers containing extra circuitry sometimes contain bigger power supplies: 200 or 300 watts.

In modern computers, the power supply does not act as a farting ass. Instead, it pushes the air in the opposite direction. It sucks in air from outside the computer, so it acts as a nose: it breathes in fresh air.

Don’t put your new computer back-to-back with an old computer. If you do, the new computer will breathe in the old computer’s hot farts!


A computer’s motherboard contains slots, to hold printed-circuit cards.

8-bit PC bus The PC’s motherboard contained 5 slots, to hold printed-circuit cards. The motherboard’s 62 wires running to and through the slots were called the bus. Since it was in the PC, it was called the PC bus.

Of the 62 wires, just 8 carried data. The other 54 wires were “bureaucratic overhead” that helped control the flow.

Since just 8 wires carried data, the bus was called an 8-bit data bus, its slots were called 8-bit slots, and the printed-circuit cards you put into the slots were called 8-bit cards.

The XT’s motherboard used the same PC bus but included 8 slots instead of 5.

16-bit AT bus The AT’s motherboard used a wider bus: 98 wires instead of 62. Of the 98 wires, just 16 carried data, so the bus was called a 16-bit data bus. It was called the AT bus. That 98-wire technique was called the Industry Standard Architecture (ISA, pronounced “eye suh”). The bus was therefore also called the ISA bus, its slots were called ISA slots, and the printed-circuit cards you put into the slots were called ISA cards.

32-bit bus Later computers used an even wider bus: a 32-bit data bus!

If you had a PS/2 computer based on a 386 or 486 chip, it used a 32-bit bus called the Micro Channel. That technique was called Micro Channel Architecture (MCA). Into its slots, you put MCA cards.

If you had a clone containing a 386 or 486, and the clone was fancy, it used a 32-bit bus technique called Extended ISA (EISA, pronounced “ee suh”). Its bus was called the EISA bus; into its slots, you put EISA cards.

If your computer is modern (containing a Pentium or Athlon or Duron or K6), it uses a 32-bit bus technique called Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI). Its bus is called the PCI bus; into its slots, you put PCI cards. The nice thing about PCI cards is that the computer can automatically figure out what each card’s purpose is, so you can just plug the card into the slot and start using the card immediately: that feature is called plug and play, though sometimes it works imperfectly (which is why cynics call it plug and pray).

1-bit USB bus If your computer is very modern, it contains a 32-bit PCI bus but also contains a second bus, called the Universal Serial Bus (USB), which is a 1-bit bus that’s slow but has three nice properties: all USB devices are plug-and-play, external (so you can install them without opening the system unit’s case), and hot-swappable (so you can insert, remove, or swap the devices safely even while the power is still on). The typical modern computer has 1, 2, 3, or 4 USB slots, which are on the system unit’s back wall and called USB ports.


The PC’s price included no mouse, no microphone, no modem, no speakers (except for a tiny internal speaker that just beeped), and no CD-ROM drive, because all those devices were too expensive then. The XT, AT, and PS/2 had the same disappointments.

Modern computers come with a mouse, a microphone, a modem, stereo speakers (2 of them or 3 or 5!), and a CD-ROM drive (or CD-RW drive), often supplemented by a DVD drive drive.

Computer prices

Here’s how most computers are priced. (I’ll show you the prices that were in effect when this book went to press in December 2003. Prices drop about 3% per month, 30% per year.)

$700 is the standard price for a “standard” computer. That’s the cheapest kind of modern computer.

If you pay more than $700, you get a computer that’s fancier — a powerful “muscle machine” that will impress your friends. They’ll be impressed by how much money you spent. (If you pay much more than $700, they might also be impressed by how stupid you were to overspend.)

If you pay less than $700, you get a computer that’s old-fashioned. If you pay slightly less than $700, the clone will still run most programs fine, though your friends might laugh at you for buying such a puny, quaint computer. If you pay much less than $700, that’s either because your computer will have significant difficulty running modern programs or you bought the computer at a special “sale” that restricts your benefits and options. But hey, if you can’t afford $700, a substandard computer is better than no computer at all! If you buy a substandard computer, your next task is to figure out which software it can handle well; then buy just that kind of software.

Here are the details. (I’ve rounded all prices to the nearest $20.)


The standard computer’s CPU is an Intel Celeron running at a speed of 2.7 gigahertz (2.7GHz). It’s fast enough to perform most tasks quickly. If you want a faster CPU, you must pay a surcharge:

CPU                                                                             Surcharge

Intel Celeron 2.7GHz                                                      $0

Intel Celeron 2.8GHz                                                    $20

AMD Athlon XP 2600+ (or Pentium 4 at 2.6GHz)       $40

AMD Athlon XP 2800+ (or Pentium 4 at 2.8GHz)       $60

AMD Athlon XP 3000+ (or Pentium 4 at 3GHz)          $80

AMD Athlon XP 3200+ (or Pentium 4 at 3.2GHz)     $140


The standard computer’s RAM is 256 megabytes (256M). If you want more RAM, you must pay a surcharge:

RAM                  Surcharge

256 megabytes        $0

512 megabytes      $40

    1 gigabyte       $140

If you’re willing to accept just 128 megabytes (which is substandard), deduct $20. But some Windows programs are memory hogs that expect you to have at least 256 megabytes. If you have just 128 megabytes, the memory-hog programs will still run, but slowly.

I recommend getting at least 512M, because big RAM lets the computer more quickly handle big programs and big photos. If your RAM is too small, the computer makes the hard drive try to imitate the RAM that’s missing, but the hard drive acts much slower than actual RAM.

Disk drives

The standard computer’s hard drive is 80 gigabytes (80G). If you want a bigger hard drive, you must pay a surcharge:

Hard drive       Surcharge

  80 gigabytes          $0

120 gigabytes        $20

160 gigabytes        $40

200 gigabytes        $60

If you’re willing to accept just 40G (which is substandard), deduct $20. But I recommend getting at least 80G, because big drives act faster than small drives, especially when small drives get filled up and have trouble finding places to store your files. Also, music and video files take up lots of space and fill a 40G drive quickly. An 80G drive costs about $20 more than a 40G drive; that $20 is a worthwhile insurance policy against future increases in software size.

The standard computer’s optical drive is CD-RW. If you want a fancier optical drive, you must pay a surcharge:

Optical drive                                    Surcharge

1 drive (CD-RW)                                    $0

1 drive (combo of DVD and CD-RW)   $20

2 drives (DVD and CD-RW)              $40

1 drive (DVD+/-RW)                         $60

2 drives (DVD+/-RW and CD-ROM) $80

If you’re willing to accept just a CD-ROM drive instead of CD-RW, deduct $20, but a CD-RW drive is needed to make backup copies of large documents, photos, and music.

The standard computer includes a 3½-inch 1.44M floppy drive, because a floppy drive lets you most easily make backup copies of small documents. Deduct $20 if you get no floppy drive.


The standard computer includes a 17-inch CRT monitor. If you want a monitor with a bigger screen or that’s more portable (LCD instead of CRT), you must pay a surcharge:

Monitor            Surcharge

17-inch CRT            $0

19-inch CRT           $60

21-inch CRT         $360

15-inch LCD        $220

17-inch LCD        $280

19-inch LCD        $520

For most folks, I recommend a 19-inch CRT because it costs just $100 more than a 17-inch CRT but lets you see significantly more of big documents, big spreadsheets, big Web pages, and big photos. A 19-inch CRT has just 2 disadvantages: it’s heavy to lift onto your desk, and you need a big desk to hold it. A 19-inch monitor is Texas size, not New York apartment size. Deduct $120 if you get no monitor at all.

The standard video card has 64M of RAM on it. Add $20 if 128M (which lets games and other animations run faster). Deduct $20 if the video has no RAM of its own and uses the main RAM instead.


The standard computer includes a pair of stereo speakers. Add $20 if you also get a subwoofer (a third speaker, which gives you a richer bass). Add $40 if you get a total of 5 speakers (2 stereo speakers, 1 subwoofer, and 2 more speakers). Deduct $20 if the speakers are missing.

Other hardware

The standard computer includes a keyboard, mouse, 56K modem, and Ethernet port. Deduct $20 for each missing item.


The standard computer includes Windows XP Home Edition. Add $60 if you get Windows XP Professional Edition instead. Deduct $20 if you get Windows Me or Windows 98 instead. Deduct $100 if you get no Windows or no Windows manual.

The standard computer comes with a checkbook-balancing program, such as Quicken or Microsoft Money (or deduct $20).

The standard computer comes with Microsoft Works (or Corel Office WordPerfect 11). Add $20 if you get Microsoft Works Suite instead. Add $220 if you get Microsoft Office Small Business Edition instead. Add $280 if you get Microsoft Office Professional Edition instead. Deduct $20 if you get none of those.

Those prices are what big computer makers add in for software that comes with the computer. If instead you buy the software separately later, you’ll pay much more!


The standard computer comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee, a 1-year warranty, and 1 year of tech support for hardware & software.

Deduct $20 if the money-back guarantee is 15-day instead of 30-day. Deduct $40 if the money-back guarantee is missing.

Add $40 if the warranty is 3-year instead of 1-year. Deduct $20 if the warranty is 3 months instead of 1-year. Deduct $40 if the warranty is missing.

Add $40 if the tech support is 3-year instead of 1-year, $60 if the tech support is lifetime instead of 1-year.

The standard computer comes with tech support by phone, 12 hours per day. Add $20 if phone tech support is available 24 hours per day. Deduct $40 if the phone tech support is available just 8 hours per day.

Deduct $60 if the company is run by jerks. Here are signs that the company is run by jerks: you get charged a “restocking fee” for returning the computer, the advertised price applies just if you pay cash instead of using a credit card, or the tech-support phone number is usually busy or unanswered or puts on you hold for over 30 minutes or “requires you pay a fee for software questions” or staffed by idiots or by foreigners you can’t understand.

Purchase restrictions

Deduct $60 if the purchase method is ugly: you’re buying from a store that refuses to let you customize your purchase. Deduct another $160 if the purchase method is even uglier: the store forces you to pay extra temporarily and then wait for the extra to be returned to you as a rebate, which you receive just if you mail in all the paperwork accurately and completely and on time — and make sure you don’t try to buy 2, because rebates are limited to 1 per person. Deduct another $60 if the purchase method is the ugliest: the store has just a few in stock, which you get just if you read the ad in your Sunday newspaper (which warns “limited quantities, no rainchecks” and means you must rush to the store on Sunday morning as soon as it opens).

Kinds of computers

You’ve seen that a standard computer costs just $700. But an upscale computer includes extras that raise the total cost to $860; a fancy computer raises the total cost to $1240; a luxury computer raises the total cost to $1900; and a downscale computer lowers the total cost to just $420! Here’s how:

Feature         Standard       Upscale computer                    Fancy computer                   Luxury computer            Downscale computer

CPU                Celeron 2.7GHz  Celeron 2.8GHz     ($20 extra)  Athlon 2800+          ($60 extra)    Athlon 3000+                   ($40 extra)    Celeron 2.7GHz

RAM              256M                 512M                    ($40 extra)  512M                      ($40 extra)    1G                               ($140 extra)    256M

hard drive        80 gigabytes    120 gigabytes         ($20 extra)  160 gigabytes           ($40 extra)    200 gigabytes                ($60 extra)    40 gigabytes      ($20 less)

optical drives   CD-RW              comboDVD/CD-RW    ($20 extra)  DVD, CD-RW       ($40 extra)    DVD+/-RW, CD-ROM    ($40 extra)    CD-ROM       ($20 less)

video               17" CRT, 64M    17" CRT, 64M                           19" CRT, 128M       ($80 extra)    19" LCD, 128M           ($520 extra)    17" CRT, 0M     ($20 less)

stereo speakers   2                        3 (2+subwoofer)     ($20 extra)  5 (4+subwoofer)       ($40 extra)    5 (4+subwoofer)         ($40 extra)    2

Windows         Home Edition     Home Edition                            Home Edition                            Professional Edition      ($60 extra)    Home Edition

applications     chbk, Works        chbk, Works Suite  ($20 extra)  chbk, MS OfficeSB ($220 extra)    chbk, MS OfficePro     ($280 extra)    chkbk, Works

phone support 12 hours/day       24 hours/day          ($20 extra)  24 hours/day            ($20 extra)    24 hours/day                  ($20 extra)    12 hours/day

purchase          normal               normal                                       normal                                       normal                                            wait for rebate     ($220 less)

TOTAL         $700              $700 + $160 extra = $860       $700 + $540 extra = $1240    $700 + $1200 extra = $1900          $700 - $280 = $420

Those prices do not include a printer, which is priced separately. (But stores say that if you buy a computer and a slow, cheap printer at the same time, you’ll get a rebate that will make the printer become free.)

Which kind to buy Though a standard computer is adequate, a fancy computer is much nicer and will give you a happy thrill. It’s the kind of computer most computer experts recommend.

If a fancy computer is beyond your budget but you’d like something better than just “standard”, buy an upscale computer, which is a compromise. It will give you the pleasure of being uppity, better than standard.

A luxury computer is what computer experts lust for, but spending so much money is foolish. To get a taste of luxury without being a fool, buy a fancy computer but soup it up by adding whichever luxurious element excites you most. For example, if you mainly lust for an LCD monitor, go ahead: buy a fancy computer but with an LCD monitor instead of a CRT.

If you’re on a very tight budget and can’t afford even a standard computer, buy a downscale computer. It will still run most programs okay. Just be aware that within 2 years, you’ll have an urge to soup it up, and making the alterations will cost you more (in labor charges, etc.) than if you buy a standard computer all at once.

Notebooks are pricey

The first rule about buying a notebook (or laptop) computer is: don’t buy one unless you must! Try buying a desktop computer instead!

Though notebook computers are portable and cute, you pay a lot for portable cuteness. Notebook computers cost about twice as much as desktop computers.

For example, suppose you want to buy this kind of modest computer: 256-megabyte RAM, 40-gigabyte hard drive, color screen, mouse (or touchpad), DVD/CD-RW combo drive, sound, and Windows XP. You can get a desktop computer fitting that description, from discount dealers, for about $400 after waiting for rebates; to get a notebook computer fitting that description, you must pay about $800 instead.

Desktop computers give you much more equipment per dollar than notebook computers. So don’t buy a notebook unless you must.

If you need to use a computer in two locations, don’t buy a notebook: buy two desktop computers instead! Buying two desktop computers costs about the same as buying one notebook. Or buy a desktop computer that’s light enough to carry to your car easily.

Buy a notebook computer just if you need to travel often to many locations or if you’re a student or researcher needing to take notes in a lecture or library.

Search for perfection

I’d like to tell you about a company that makes reliable, powerful computers, charges you very little, and is a pleasure to call if you ever need technical help.

That’s what I’d like to tell you, but I haven’t found such a company yet! If you find one, let me know!

Each month, I falsely think I’ve finally found my hero company and give its name to folks like you who call me for advice. But my hoped-for hero eventually gets accused by my customers of degenerating into despicable behavior. How depressing! I’ve been writing this book for 30 years and have yet to find a company I still feel proud about. I’m disgusted.

Business cycle

Hero companies rise but then fall because they suffer through this business cycle:

When the company begins, it’s new and unknown, so it tries hard to get attention for itself by offering low prices. It also tries to help its customers by offering good service.

When news spreads about how the company offers low prices and good service, the company gets deluged with more customers than it can handle — and it’s also stuck answering phone calls from old customers who still need help but aren’t buying anything new.

To eliminate the overload, the company must either accept fewer customers (by raising prices — or by lowering them slower than the rest of the industry), or offer less service per customer (by refusing to hire enough staff to handle all the questions), or hire extra staff (who are usually less talented than the company’s founders but nevertheless expect high pay). In any of those cases, the company becomes less pleasant and heroism is relegated to history. The company becomes just one more inconsequential player in the vast scheme of computer life.

What’s in store for you

This chapter portrays the players. Warning: these portraits are anatomically correct — they show which companies are pricks.

The computer industry’s a soap opera in which consumers face new personal horrors daily. I wrote this in May 2004, but you can get the newest breathtaking episode of the computer industry’s drama, How the Screw-You Turns, by phoning me anytime. I’ll tell you the newest dirt about wannabe and were-to-be hero companies.

So before buying a computer, phone me at 603-666-6644 to get my new advice free. Tell me your needs, and I’ll try to recommend the best vendor for you. Before phoning me, become a knowledgeable consumer by reading this chapter.

Gateway & Emachines

Gateway and Emachines used to be two separate companies.

“Gateway” computers have been sold mainly through mail-order.

“Emachines” computers have been sold mainly through chain stores such as Best Buy and Circuit City.

In March 2004, Gateway bought Emachines, but Gateway is keeping the Emachines brand name and marketing strategy separate.

Here are the details.…


Emachines is the only major company that advertises computers for under $400 and lets you buy them in many stores.

History Here’s how the Emachines company began…

Radio Shack is owned by Tandy, which also used to own a chain of discount computer superstores called Computer City. Tandy eventually gave up trying to run Computer City and sold that chain to Comp USA. Computer City’s president (Stephen Dukker) was dismayed at becoming a Comp USA vice-president, so he quit and started his own company, Emachines, which invents cheap computer systems (under $500) and sells them to retail stores such as Comp USA.

He started Emachines in September 1998, using money invested by two Korean companies: Trigem (which makes Emachine’s computers) and Korea Data Systems (KDS) (which makes Emachine’s monitors).

He was wildly successful. Nine months later, in June 1999, his company become the third-biggest seller of desktop&tower computers in retail stores: just Compaq and Hewlett-Packard sold more desktop&tower computers than he. In the next month, July 1999, he shipped his 1 millionth computer. In March 2000, Emachines went public, with stock selling for $8 per share. In September 2000, he shipped his 3 millionth computer.

But after that, Emachines fell on hard times. For example, in January 2001, Emachines’ revenues (sales figures) were just half of the previous January’s. That was because the prices of fancy computer decreased, so consumers decided to buy them instead of the crummy computers that Emachines sold.

Its board of directors got worried. In February 2001, the board fired Stephen Dukker and hired, as the new head, Wayne Inouye, who was Best Buy’s senior vice president in charge of computer merchandising. In May 2001, the company was delisted from Nasdaq, because the shares were selling for less than $1 each. In November 2001, the board agreed to sell the whole company to KDS’s owner, Lap Shun “John” Hui, and his private company, called EM Holdings, for $1.06 per share, 161 million dollars total.

By April 2002, Emachines had sold a total of 4 million computers since the company began. That’s not much more than the 3 million sold by September 2000.

Emachines has become number 2 in retail US sales, far behind Hewlett-Packard (which sells the Hewlett-Packard and Compaq brands). Analysts worried that Emachines might go bankrupt; but in 2001, Emachines improved its computers (which had been miserable) and its tech support (which had been atrocious before Wayne Inouye spent 20 million dollars extra on tech support and customer service in 2001). Now Emachine computers are finally worth getting: they’re good computers at rock-bottom prices. Consumer surveys show that computers from Emachines are more reliable and better serviced than computers from most other computer brands.

To guard Emachines from going bankrupt, the company accepts no returns from computer stores and keeps few computers in stock: it keeps waiting for small shipments to arrive by boat from its suppliers in Asia, so it occasionally runs out of computers.

When I went to buy a computer in 2001, I found myself buying an Emachines computer, because Emachines offered much lower prices than any other computer manufacturer. Emachines is living up to its new slogan, which is “the best computer and service little money can buy”.

The computer I bought came with one “defect”: whenever I moved the mouse, the computer made a buzzing sound. I finally figured it out: the Emachines company was too cheap to include a microphone and too stupid to remember to turn off the microphone jack, which picked up interference from mouse & monitor motions. The solution was to give the computer a command to disable the microphone jack.

Emachines work better now.

In 2003, the Emachines company’s revenue was 1.1 billion dollars (a huge number!), even though Emachines had just 138 employees.

Prices Here’s what Emachine charged when this book went to press in June 2004:

Model #     CPU                       RAM     Hard drive       Optical drives              Price

T 2742        Celeron 2.7GHz     256M      40G, 5400 rpm 1 (combo DVD/CD-RW)      $450-$50=$400

T 2885        Celeron 2.8GHz     512M      80G, 5400 rpm 2 (DVD, CD-RW)                $530-$50=$480

T 3065        Athlon 3000+        512M    160G, 7200 rpm 2 (DVD, CD-RW)                $620-$50=$570

T 3085        Athlon 3000+        512M    160G, 7200 rpm 2 (DVD+/-RW, CD-ROM)    $670-$50=$620

In that chart, the “minus $50” means you get a $50 rebate. Each price includes a keyboard, mouse, 1.44M floppy drive, pair of stereo speakers, 56K fax/modem, Ethernet port, and Windows XP Home. It also includes Norton AntiVirus but with just 3 months of free updates (instead of 1 year).

The most expensive model (T 3085) includes Microsoft Money 2004 and Microsoft Works 7. The cheaper models include outdated versions (Microsoft Money 2003 and Microsoft Works 6).

Those prices do not include a monitor. Emachines advertises 3 monitors:

Model #     Type    Size                         Resolution                                           Price

eView 17f3   CRT      17" (16" viewable)    1024´768   good, 1280x1024 flickering $210-$100=$110

E15T3         LCD      15"                            1024´768   good                                     $350-$100=$250

E17T           LCD      17"                            1280´1024 good                                     $570-$100=$470

So Emachines’ cheapest computer with cheapest monitor costs a total of $400+$110=$510, after you get your rebates.

But wait! You can pay even less! Best Buy and Circuit City (chains of discount electronics stores) often have their own extra rebates, and so does Lexmark (which makes a printer). For example, when this book went to press, Best Buy was having a sale where you can get a cheap computer (T 2742), a cheap monitor (eView 17f3), and a cheap printer (Lexmark Z715) for a total price of just $340! That’s the price after rebates: you must first pay $740, then fill out forms, then wait for $400 to be mailed back to you, so your final cost is $340. You can get fancier models also. Here’s what was available when this book went to press in June:

Computer     Discount dealer price (computer + 17f3 monitor + Z715 printer)

T 2742            $740-$400 = $340 (Best Buy)

T 2885            $820-$400 = $420 (Best Buy)

T 3065            $910-$350 = $560 (Circuit City closeout)

T 3085            $960-$350 = $610 (Circuit City closeout)

Look in your local Sunday paper for the flyers from Best Buy and Circuit City, to find out what Emachine deals are available this week. (Best Buy’s flyer is blue; Circuit City’s flyer is red.) Usually, Best Buy’s deal is slightly better than Circuit City’s, but not always, so check both flyers.

You need to look at the flyers, since the deals are not advertised on the shelves. If you don’t get the local Sunday paper, walk into the stores and ask to see the flyers.

Occasionally, Best Buy and Circuit City flyers run super-special deals, but watch out for offsetting phrases (such as “limited quantities” or “5 per store” or “no rainchecks” or “closeout”), which mean you get the super-special deal just if you rush to the store as soon as it opens on Sunday morning.

Rebates are limited to one per household, so don’t try to buy several Emachine computers at once. You must mail rebate forms promptly, with the box’s UPC barcode and other paperwork: act fast and don’t screw up!

Where to buy Though Best Buy and Circuit City usually have the best rebates on Emachines, you can also buy Emachines from Comp USA, Micro Warehouse, Fry’s, Office Depot, J&R, and many other places also! Emachines distributes to retailers in the USA, Canada, Europe, and Japan.

The Emachines contribution to the world of cheap computers is: distribution!

Where to research For more info about Emachines, look at the Emachines Internet Web site, which is But don’t buy computers directly from that Web site: buy from Best Buy and Circuit City instead, to get the rebates.

“Free” computer Back in 1999, Emachines offered an extra $400 rebate if you’d sign a 3-year contract to make Compuserve your Internet service provider. The cheapest Emachines computer would cost you “$474 minus a $75 rebate minus a $400 Compuserve rebate”, making the final price be about $0. Stores advertised it as being a “free computer”. That kind of ad was popular in November 1999 and sold many Emachine computers.

Such ads neglected to mention that the price did not include a monitor and that you had to sign a 3-year Compuserve contract, at a cost of $21.95 per month, so the contract would cost you a total of “36 months times $21.95”, which is $790.20. Those ads were declared “misleading” by many state governments in the year 2000 — and banned.

How Gateway arose

Gateway was the first company to sell lots of computers by mail. Gateway became the mail-order king — until Gateway stumbled and Dell zoomed ahead. Gateway’s stumbling is what motivated Gateway to buy Emachines. Here are the details.…

Gateway began because of cows. In the 1800’s, George Waitt began a cattle company. According to legend, he got his first herd by grabbing cattle that jumped off barges into the Missouri River on the way to the stockyards. His cattle business passed to his descendants and eventually into the hands of his great-grandson, Norm, who built the Waitt Cattle Company into one of the biggest cattle firms in the Midwest. The company is on the Missouri River, in Iowa’s Sioux City (where Iowa meets South Dakota and Nebraska).

Norm’s sons — Norm Junior and Ted — preferred computers to cows, so on September 5th, 1985, they started the “Gateway 2000” company in their dad’s office. They told him computers are easier to ship than cows, since computers can take a long journey without needing to be fed and without making a mess in their boxes.

22-year-old Ted was the engineer and called himself “president”; Norm Junior was the businessman and called himself “vice president”. Their main investor was their grandma, who secured a $10,000 loan. They hired just one employee: Mike Hammond.

At first, they sold just parts for the Texas Instruments Professional Computer. Soon they began building their own computers. By the end of 1985, they’d sold 50 systems, for which customers paid a total of $100,000.

Gateway grew rapidly:

Year     Computers sold              Revenue       Employees

1985              50 computers                   $100,000                   2

1986            300 computers                $1,000,000                   4

1987            500 computers                $1,500,000                   8

1988         4,000 computers              $11,700,000                 33

1989       25,000 computers              $70,500,000               176

1990     100,000 computers            $275,500,000               600

1991     225,000 computers            $626,700,000            1,300

1992     even more computers!    $1,100,000,000            1,876

1993     even more computers!    $1,700,000,000            3,500

1994     even more computers!    $2,700,000,000            4,500

1995     1,338,000 computers         $3,700,000,000            9,300

1996     1,909,000 computers         $5,000,000,000            9,700

1997     2,580,000 computers         $6,300,000,000          13,300

1998     even more computers!    $7,500,000,000          19,300

1999     even more computers!    $8,600,000,000          21,000

2000     even more computers!    $9,600,000,000          even more employees!

For each year, that chart shows how many computers were sold during the year, the total numbers of dollars that customers paid for them and for add-ons, and how many employees Gateway had at the year’s end.

Here are highlights from the history of Ted Waitt and his employees during those years:

In 1986, they moved to a bigger office in the Sioux City Livestock Exchange Building.

In 1988, Ted began a national marketing campaign by designing his own ads and running them in Computer Shopper magazine. His most famous ad showed a gigantic two-page photo of his family’s cattle farm and the headline, “Computers from Iowa?” The computer industry was stunned — cowed — by the ad’s huge size and the low prices it offered for IBM clones. In the ad, Ted emphasized that Gateway was run by hard-working, honest Midwesterners who gave honest value. (At that time, most clones came from California or Texas; but Californians had a reputation for being “flaky”, and Texans had a reputation for being “lawless”). Though cynics called Gateway “the cow computer”, it was a success. In September, the company moved a few miles south to a larger plant in Sergeant Bluff, Iowa. Gateway’s operations there began with 28 employees.

In the summer of 1989, Gateway grew to 150 employees, so Gateway began building a bigger plant. To get tax breaks and business grants, Gateway built it upriver at North Sioux City, South Dakota, and moved there in January 1990.

In 1990, Gateway became more professional. In 1989, the “instruction manual” was 2 pages; in 1990, it was 2 books. In 1989, the “tech support staff” (which answers technical questions from customers) consisted of just 1 person, and you had to wait 2 days for him to return your call; in 1990, the tech support staff included 35 people, and you could get through in 2 minutes. Gateway also switched to superior hard drives and monitors. In 1990, customers paid Gateway 275½ million dollars, generating a net profit of $25 million.

By early 1992, Gateway was selling nearly 2,000 computers per day and had 1,300 employees, including over 100 salespeople and 200 tech-support specialists to answer technical questions. Not bad, for a company whose president was just 30! Since Gateway was owned by just Norm Junior and Ted, those two boys became quite rich!

In March 1993, Gateway hired its 2000th employee. In April 1993, Gateway sold its one millionth computer. In December 1993, Gateway went public, so now you can buy Gateway stock and own part of that dreamy company, which by May 1995 had become so big that it answered over 12,000 tech-support calls in one day.

On September 5th, 1995, Gateway’s 6000 employees celebrated the company’s 10th anniversary.

Now Ted own about 30% of Gateway’s stock; Norm Junior owns very little.

Though Gateway became huge, with offices worldwide in France, Germany, Ireland, Australia, and Japan, it was still headquartered in North Sioux City, a small behind-the-times town that got its first 4-way stop sign in 1992, first McDonald’s hamburger joint in 1994, and doesn’t have any traffic lights yet.

Gateway gets along well with its neighbors: in fact, two former mayors of Sioux City became Gateway employees!

Gateway became a rapidly growing cash cow: moo-lah, moo-lah! But Gateway didn’t lose its sense of humor. When you buy a Gateway computer, it comes in a box painted to look like a dairy cow: white with black spots.

Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream sued Gateway for copying the idea of putting cow spots on packages. Meanwhile, Gateway sued a shareware distributor called Tucows for using spotted cows to sell computer products. Those suits have been settled.

Gateway’s ads

Gateway became famous because of the amazing photography in its ads.

In early ads, the photos showed individuals in beautiful landscapes. Later ads showed hordes of Gateway employees dressed as Robin Hood’s men in Sherwood Forest, top-hatted performers in Vegas cabarets, teenagers in a nostalgic 1950’s diner bathed in neon glow, or movie directors applauding a ship full of pirates.

The eye-popping photos, which seemed to have nothing to do with computers, grabbed attention. (Gateway’s diner ad includes the only photo I’ve ever seen that makes meatloaf look romantic!) Then came headlines and florid prose that tried to relate the scene to Gateway’s computers. Finally, after all that multi-page image-building nonsense, you got to the ad’s finale, which reveals Gateway’s great technical specifications (specs), great service policies, and low prices.

That way of building an ad — fluff followed by stuff — worked wonders for Gateway! Idiots admired the photos, techies admired the specs, and everybody wanted to buy!

Gateway was the first big mail-order manufacturer to give honest pricing: the advertised price includes everything except shipping. The price even included a color monitor. And since all components were high-quality, a Gateway system was a dream system. With dreamy ads and a low price, how could you not buy?

Gateway also came up with a friendly slogan: “You’ve got a friend in the business.”

How Gateway fell

On Millennium Day — January 1, 2000 — Ted Waitt decided to semi-retire: he turned the day-to-day operation of Gateway over to Jeff Weitzen, who had joined Gateway 2 years earlier after working at AT&T for 18 years. So Jeff became Gateway’s President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO), though Ted remained Chairman of Gateway’s Board of Directors.

Jeff was proud to be chosen as the man to take Gateway past the millennium. He had many inspired ideas — most of which turned out to be wrong.

He decided to move Gateway’s executive offices to downtown San Diego, to attract executive talent who wouldn’t put up with South Dakota’s remoteness and harsh winters. Then Ted decided to move Gateway’s executive offices again, to a San Diego residential suburb called Poway, so employees living in San Diego’s suburbs wouldn’t have to commute into the city. Meanwhile, manufacturing was still back in South Dakota, along with the cow-spotted boxes. The company was schizophrenic.

Another example of corporate schizophrenia was Jeff’s decision to “think outside the box”: sell not just a box full of hardware but also sell service.

He called it the “beyond-the-box initiative”. To accomplish that, he set up Gateway Country Stores in hundreds of cities — and also inside Office Max stores — so customers could walk in and get local service.

But the Gateway Country Stores turned into sad jokes: customers there can stare at a few sample computers but typically can’t walk out the door with them; classes are offered just rarely; and calling the store for “tech support” gets you a recorded message to call headquarters instead, since the store’s “tech support” is mainly restricted to selling you upgrades and installing them.

The cost of running the Gateway Country Stores forced Gateway to raise computer prices, so Gateway started charging even more than HP, Compaq, Dell, and IBM, especially since Gateway was wasting so much energy running stores that Gateway started lagging behind Dell in making manufacturing efficient.

Gateway was no longer a low-priced discounter. Gateway had forgotten its roots.

Gateway’s new high prices and still-substandard tech support made Gateway a company to avoid. Why buy from Gateway, when Gateway was charging more than Dell and giving worse service than Dell?

Gateway’s revenues plummeted, Gateway’s profits suddenly started turning into huge losses, shares of Gateway stock became nearly worthless, and Ted Waitt became non-rich.

To be fair, you can’t blame all of Gateway’s problems on Jeff: the whole computer industry had a tough year in 2000, when consumers decided that the new computers weren’t different enough from old computers to be worth upgrading to. But Jeff’s moves were in the wrong direction.

In January 2001, a year after Jeff took over, he gave up — resigned — and Ted Waitt became the CEO again.

But it was too late. Gateway had lost its luster. The prince and king of mail-order had become a pauper.

Upon becoming CEO again, Ted’s first act was to run an ad bragging that Gateway would match the prices of 6 big competitors: IBM, HP, Compaq, Sony, Toshiba, and Dell. That ad was stupid. Gateway was supposed to be a mail-order discounter: all it can brag about is that’s not more expensive than retail? The ad bombed. So did the company. In 2001, Gateway made no profit. In fact, it lost a billion dollars. That’s a lotta moolah muck!

It’s strange that the USA’s average mom-and-pop tiny business, which makes hardly any profit, nevertheless makes more profit than a huge company such as Gateway.

Here are Gateway’s statistics:

Year     Revenue             Result

1999     $8,600,000,000        $428,000,000 profit

2000     $9,600,000,000        $241,000,000 profit

2001     $6,100,000,000     $1,034,000,000 loss

Afterwards, Ted started laying off employees, closing international sales offices, closing the Gateway Country Stores, making Gateway a tiny company, and reducing Gateway’s reliance on mail-order computer sales: he tried to diversify into selling big-screen TV sets, digital cameras, and DVD players.

By July 2002, Ted had cut half the staff, so the number of employees was down to 12,000. In 2003, the company was even smaller: revenue was just $3,402,400,000, employees were just 7,407, and the company lost “just” $514,800,000. In March 2004, Gateway bought Emachines. In April 2004, all Gateway Country Stores were shut down, and the number of Gateway employees dropped to 4,000.

Here’s my message to Ted:

Ted, I wish you luck. I also have a suggestion for you, which I’m sure you’ll ignore. If Gateway wants to offer good service cheaply, why not just include tutorials from The Secret Guide to Computers in the cow box? Page 9 of this book says reprints are free, and I give free tech support.

I feel sad about Gateway. I was one of the first journalists to recommend Gateway. I’m sorry to see Gateway go downhill.

The seeds of Gateway’s downfall were already planted back in December 1993, when Gateway went public. That’s when Gateway first lost sight of its roots, raised prices (to make the stockholders happy), and I stopped recommending Gateway: I switched to smaller, hungrier companies instead.

Now I recommend buying from Emachines — but not from the rest of Gateway.

When Gateway bought Emachines in March 2004 (for 30 million dollars plus 50 million shares of Gateway common stock), the Emachines CEO (51-year-old Wayne Inouye) became the Gateway’s CEO, replacing 41-year-old Ted Waitt (though Ted is still the chairman of Gateway’s board of directors). That move was easy for Wayne, since Gateway’s headquarters (in Poway, California) was just 50 miles from the Emachines headquarters (in Irvine, California).


Here’s how to reach Gateway — what’s left of it.


Executive offices  Manufacturing

14303 Gateway Place   610 Gateway Drive

Poway CA 92064         North Sioux City SD 57049

858-848-3401             605-232-2000

Gateway’s keyboard

Some Gateway computers have come with the AnyKey keyboard, which is manufactured by Maxiswitch and completely programmable: you can program any key to do any function. For example, if you don’t like the SHIFT key’s location, you can program a different key to act as the SHIFT key.

Unfortunately, that feature is too fancy: many beginners accidentally hit the Remap key, which then remaps all the other keys so no key works as expected! Beginners have trouble finding the instructions that explain how to reset the keyboard to act normally again.

Worry no more! Here are the instructions for how to make your AnyKey keyboard act normal again:

While holding down the Ctrl and Alt keys, tap the Suspend Macro key. That procedure will probably make your keyboard act normal again.

If that procedure doesn’t make your keyboard act normal yet, the Ctrl and Alt keys are themselves screwed up! Fix them by doing this: press the Remap key once, then the Ctrl key twice, then the Alt key twice, then the Remap key once. Then try the procedure again: while holding down the Ctrl and Alt keys, tap the Suspend Macro key.

HP & Compaq

Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Compaq were two separate companies, but in 2002 HP bought Compaq. Here are the details.

How HP arose

Hewlett-Packard (HP) was started by two young Stanford University graduates — Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard — back in 1938, in a garage in Palo Alto, California, where they built their first product: an audio oscillator (electronic test instrument used by sound engineers), which they sold to several customers, including Walt Disney, who eventually used 8 of them to test the sound in movie theaters showing the movie Fantasia.

Those boys weren’t sure whether to call the company “Hewlett-Packard” or “Packard-Hewlett”, so they flipped a coin. Hewlett won. They formalized the partnership on January 1, 1939.

The company began to grow:

Year    Revenue   Employees

1939         $5,369       2

1940       $34,396       3

1941     $106,459       6

1942     $522,803       8

1943     $953,294     45

During World War 2, HP sold the U.S. Navy devices that generated microwaves and jammed radar. Later, HP started making other lab equipment, medical equipment, plotters, printers, minicomputers, and pocket calculators but was scared to enter the field of personal computers. HP developed a reputation for making equipment that was high-quality — and somewhat pricey.

How Compaq arose

The first company that made high-quality IBM clones was Compaq. Compaq began selling them back in 1983. (Before Compaq, the only IBM clones available were crummy.)

Compaq began in a restaurant. While eating at a House of Pies restaurant, two engineers drew on the paper placemat their picture of how the ideal IBM clone would look. Instead of being a desktop computer, it would be a luggable having a 9-inch built-in screen and a handle, the whole computer system being small enough so you could pick it up with one hand. Then they built it! Since it was compact, they called it the Compaq Portable Computer and called the company Compaq Computer Corporation.

They began selling it in 1983, helped by venture-capital funding from Ben Rosen. They charged about the same for it as IBM charged for the IBM PC.

They sold it just to dealers approved by IBM to sell the IBM PC. That way, they dealt just with dealers IBM said were reliable — and they competed directly against IBM in the same stores.

They succeeded fantastically. That first year, sales totaled 100 million dollars.

In 1984, they inserted a hard drive into the computer and called that souped-up luggable the Compaq Plus. They also built a desktop computer called the Deskpro. Like Compaq’s portable computers, the Deskpro was priced about the same as IBM’s computers, was sold just through IBM dealers, and was built well — a marvel of engineering, better than IBM’s.

Later, Compaq expanded: it built IBM clones in all sizes, from gigantic towers down to tiny handheld computers. Compaq computers got the highest praise — and ridiculously high prices.

On many technological issues, Compaq was the first company to innovate: for example, when Intel invented the 386 chip, the first company to use it was Compaq, not IBM.

How Compaq cheapened

Compaq was founded by Rod Canion. Under his leadership, Compaq developed a reputation for high quality and high prices. Engineers said that Compaq’s computers were overdesigned: they were built more sturdily than necessary for average use and were therefore too expensive.

Worried about Compaq’s high prices, some Compaq employees went on a secret mission, without telling Rod: they sneaked into a computer show, pretended they weren’t from Compaq, pretended they were starting a new computer company, and tried to buy computer parts from Compaq’s suppliers. Compaq’s suppliers offered them lower prices than the suppliers were offering Compaq — because Compaq had developed a reputation as an overly fussy company to do business with.

The secret missionaries went back to Compaq and reported their findings to the board of directors, who were becoming upset at Compaq’s astronomically high prices; so in 1991 the board fired Rod and replaced him with a cost cutter, Eckhard Pfeiffer (from Germany). So Pfeiffer became the new Chief Executive Officer (CEO).

He lowered Compaq’s prices, so Compaq became affordable, and he gave up the idea that Compaq should have super-high quality. He began selling through a greater variety of dealers and through mail-order.

The low-price wide-distribution strategy worked well. More people bought Compaq computers. Sales zoomed, though Compaq’s “quality reputation” declined. To compete against a company called “Packard Bell” (which sold junky computers cheaply through department stores), Compaq imitated Packard Bell: Compaq lowered its prices and its service.

In February 1995, Compaq started this nasty new service policy:

If you phone Compaq for help, Compaq’s staff asks for your credit-card number first, then listens to your questions. Unless your difficulties are caused by a mistake made by Compaq Corporation, you’re charged $35 per question.

Eventually, Compaq dropped that nasty policy: tech-support calls are now free during the “initial period” (1 year on hardware questions, 3 months on software questions, longer if your Compaq was expensive): call 800-ok-Compaq, day or night (24 hours).

After the “initial period” is over, help costs $40 per question (or $60 per year), billed to your credit card when you call 800-ok-Compaq; or call
900-RED-HELP instead, which charges just $35 per question on your phone bill.

Compaq is based in Houston, Texas. You can still reach Compaq by phoning
800-at-Compaq or viewing Compaq’s Internet Web site,

HP Pavilion

In 1995, HP began manufacturing an IBM clone called the Pavilion, sold through local computer stores, electronics stores, office-supply stores, and department stores. Here’s why the Pavilion became popular:

HP’s Pavilion cost less than Compaq’s desktop computers.

HP’s service was slightly better than Compaq’s.

Compaq’s reaction

Compaq started having financial difficulties, for 2 reasons:

Compaq’s CEO, Eckhard Pfeiffer, made Compaq buy Digital Equipment Corporation

Compaq was having trouble competing against IBM clones priced under $700 (from companies such as HP and Packard Bell)

So in 1998, Compaq’s board of directors fired Pfeiffer.

In 1999, the board finally decided to make Compaq’s next CEO be Michael Capellas, a low-key friendly computer technician that everybody likes. Most important, he’s liked by Ben Rosen (the venture capitalist who funded the Compaq’s founder and was still chairman of the board).

Michael created computers that were low-cost but exciting. By the year 2000, Compaq was selling more computers than any other manufacturer. Yes, it was selling more computers than IBM, Gateway, HP, Dell, and the rest of the gang.

In July 2000, I had to buy a notebook computer for my stepdaughter. Since I’m supposed to be a “computer expert”, I dutifully looked at all the ads in computer magazines and talked to my friends in the computer industry, trying to find the best deal. I thought the best deal would be some sort of mail-order company; but the best deal on a notebook computer turned out to be from Compaq! That notebook was the Compaq Presario 1200-XL118. It included lots of features but cost just $999 after rebates from Compaq and Circuit City — and I paid even less than that by using price-matching and further rebates from Staples. Compaq notebooks are even cheaper now!


The Compaq-versus-HP debate ended in 2002, when HP bought Compaq, with approval from Michael Capellas and Ben Rosen. The combo is called a “merger”. The combined company is called “Hewlett-Packard”, though Compaq lovers prefer to call it “Hewlett-paq” or “Hewpaq”. So now you can get two kinds of computers from a single company, whose leader (chairperson and CEO) is a pleasant HP woman named Carleton Fiorina. (Her nickname is “Carly”.)

Michael Capellas became Carly’s assistant and got the title “President”, but a few months after the merger he quit HP and took on a new challenge: becoming the new head of scandal-ridden WorldCom. WorldCom picked him because it wanted to be led by somebody who’s really reputable!


Best Buy and Circuit City give rebates on HP and Compaq computers, so the final price you pay is just slightly higher than for Emachines — and the specs are slightly fancier.

For example, when this book went to press in June 2004, Best Buy offered these prices:

Brand      CPU                          Hard drive    Optical drives              Price

Compaq Celeron 2.8GHz           80G               2 (DVD, CD-RW)                  $840-$320=$520

HP            Athlon XP 2800+       80G               2 (DVD, CD-RW)                  $880-$300=$580

HP            Athlon XP 3000+     120G               2 (DVD, CD-RW)                  $940-$300=$640

HP            Athlon XP 2800+     160G               1 (DVD+RW)                        $950-$300=$650

HP            Athlon XP 3200+     160G               2 (DVD+RW, CD-ROM)      $1030-$300=$730

Each includes 512M RAM, pair of stereo speakers, 17" CRT monitor, inkjet printer, and other typical hardware & software.

Bargain notebooks

To buy a good notebook computer for under $900, look at ads from Circuit City and Best Buy for rebates on notebooks by Compaq and Toshiba.

Compaq’s include the most equipment per dollar and have the nicest speakers.

Toshiba’s are the most reliable, have the best keyboard layout, and include the best software.

When I was writing this book in May 2004, the best deals on notebook computers were these:

Manufacturer Model            CPU                          RAM     Price

Toshiba                  Satellite 121    Celeron 2.8GHz         256M    $1000-$200=$800 (Circuit City)

Compaq              Presario 2199  Athlon XP-M 2800+ 512M    $1150-$300=$850 (Best Buy)

Each includes a 15" LCD screen (resolution 1024´768), 40G hard disk that’s slow (4200 rpm), DVD/CD-RW combo drive, TouchPad, modem, Ethernet port, pair of stereo speakers (built into the keyboard), Windows XP Home, Microsoft Works, and Quicken. The “-$200” or “-$300” is the rebate. The price does not include a floppy drive.


ABS & NuTrend

If you want to buy a modest computer, buy from Emachines, HP, or Compaq; but if you want to buy a fancier computer, buy from ABS (which originally stood for “American Business Service” but now claims to stand for “Always Better Service”). Of all the major reputable computer manufacturers, ABS charges the least for fancy, high-quality computers.


Here’s what ABS charged when this book went to press in May 2004:

Model #     CPU                          RAM Hard drive    Optical drives       Video   Price

1300            Athlon XP 2500+     256M   40G               1 (DVD)                         64M      $499

2300            Athlon XP 2600+     512M   80G               2 (DVD, CD-RW)         128M      $669

3300            Athlon XP 2800+     512M   80G               2 (DVD, CD-RW)         128M      $799

4500            Pentium 4 2.8GHz     512M 120G               2 (DVD+/-RW, DVD) 128M    $1099

5500            Pentium 4 3GHz            1G  160G               2 (DVD+RW, DVD)      128M    $1599

Each hard drive rotates fast (7200 rpm). The price includes a tower case, keyboard, 1.44M floppy disk drive, Ethernet port, and Windows XP Home (add $60 if you want Windows XP Professional instead). Add $21 for a mouse (except for model 1300, which includes a cheap mouse). Add $19 if you want a modem.

Since prices drop each month, they’ll probably be even lower by the time you read this book.

Speakers cost extra. ABS offers these choices:

Manufacturer Model #     Type                               Price

Labtec                    Pulse-420     2 speakers + subwoofer $35

Logitech                Z-640              5 speakers + subwoofer $60

A monitor costs extra. ABS offers these choices, all manufactured by NEC:

Model #     Type    Size  Resolution                                                                      Price

FE 770         CRT      17"    1024´768   good (85Hz), 1280x1024 flickering (66Hz) $140

FE 991         CRT      19"    1280´1024 good (89Hz), 1792x1344 flickering (68Hz) $238

FE 21111     CRT      22"    1600´1200 good (85Hz), 1920x1440 flickering (76Hz) $541

V 50             LCD      15"    1024´768   good (25 milliseconds)                                    $317

1760 V         LCD      17"    1280´1024 good (16 milliseconds)                                    $434

Productivity software costs extra. ABS offers these choices:

Model #                                     What it includes                                                                  Price

Corel PC Treasures Elite Suite       stripped-down versions of WordPerfect 11 & Quattro Pro 11     $31

Microsoft Works 7                        stripped-down word processor, spreadsheet, database               $32

Microsoft Works Suite 2004          Microsoft Works 7, Word 2002, and more                                  $51

Microsoft Office Small Business Word 2003, Excel, Outlook, Publisher, PowerPoint              $252

Microsoft Office Professional    Word 2003, Excel, Outlook, Publisher, PowerPoint, Access  $301

You get those low software prices just if you buy the hardware at the same time.


ABS is a mail-order company, near Los Angeles. It ships just to the US (not to other countries).

ABS charges sales tax for shipments to California, New Jersey, and Tennessee. If you’re in a different state, ABS won’t charge you tax.

Shipping typically takes 4 “business days” (by FedEx Saver) and costs $110. (Pay slightly less for shipments to California or shipments without a monitor. Pay slightly more for shipments with a 19" CRT monitor, rush shipments, and shipments to Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.) Before shipping, ABS spends 3 “business days” building your computer.

“Business days” do not include weekends or holidays, so be patient!


After you’ve become an ABS customer (by getting an ABS computer), you get a $50 “credit” for each friend you convince to buy an ABS computer. You can apply the credits toward your future purchases.

I’d be rich if I could take advantage of that kickback scheme, but journalist ethics prevent me from accepting kickbacks.


If you buy a complete assembled computer system from ABS, you get:

a 30-day money-back guarantee (so if you change your mind and return the computer within 30 days, you get your money back, except for shipping costs and opened software)

a 1-year warranty (so if your hardware breaks during the first 1 years, you get free repairs, unless the computer was abused or improperly maintained)

lifetime labor (so even after your warranty has expired, you still get free labor on repairs — just pay for parts)

lifetime tech support (so you get free advice by phone about making your computer work)

How to order

The best way to order from ABS is to use ABS’s Internet Web site, which is (The Internet chapter explains how to use the Internet. If you don’t have a computer yet, you can place your order by using a friend’s computer, or ask to use the freely available computers at your company, school, or public library.)

At ABS’s Internet Web site, you can place your order and also customize it. For example, after you’ve chosen what kind of computer you’re interested in, you see a list of component choices: you can alter the hard drive size, RAM size, video card, etc., and see how the price changes. To give yourself an education about component prices, pretend you want to buy a computer from ABS, but stop the process just before giving out your credit-card number (if you want to avoid paying).

If you refuse to order by Internet from ABS, you can order by phoning ABS instead at 800-876-8088.


ABS computers have been sold from 3 locations:

ABS Computer Technologies (headquarters, in California)

9997 Rose Hills Road

Whittier CA 90601

Internet Web site: (or or

main phone & sales: 800-876-8088 or 562-695-8823 (Mon-Fri 6AM-5:30PM, Pacific Time)

tech support questions: or 800-685-3471          (Mon-Fri, 8:30AM-5:30PM Pacific Time)

ABS Computers (an affiliate, in Pennsylvania, same price as headquarters)

Luxembourg Corporate Center

407 Executive Drive

Langhorne PA 19047

Internet Web site:

main phone & sales: 800-321-6458 or 215-612-8687                 (Mon-Fri, 9AM-6PM Eastern Time)

tech support questions: or 800-685-3471          (Mon-Fri, 8:30AM-5:30PM Pacific Time)

NuTrend Computer (was next door to headquarters but shut down in May 2004)

was at 9999 Rose Hills Road,

NuTrend warranties are still honored by headquarters

ABS also has secret locations in Tennessee and in the New Jersey town of South River.

How ABS arose

ABS was started by a Chinese immigrant, Fred Chang, during the 1980’s. “ABS” stood for “American Business Service”. (Many immigrants like to invent companies that have “American” in the name, to sound patriotic.) Eventually, he operated under 6 names (“American Business Service”, “ABS Computers”, “ABS Computer Technologies”, “NuTrend”, “Magnell Associates”, and “Nyton”), to appeal to different markets and hide the company’s ownership).

Tech support

At first, he offered poor tech support. Customers complained to me that they got put on hold for 20 minutes, then disconnected. In 1999, tech support improved, and most people got through to tech support immediately, in less than 10 seconds! Tech support was better than big-name brands!

Unfortunately, tech support has gone downhill again. Weekend and evening tech support have been eliminated, and you can get put on hold a long time with a message saying “please hold for the next available sales rep”, even though you’ve dialed the phone number for tech support, not a sales rep. But the rest of the computer industry has gotten even worse at tech support, so by comparison ABS is “above average”.


ABS is a member of the Better Business Bureau. Some customers complained to the Better Business Bureau about ABS. ABS finally handled most of the complaints to the customers’ satisfaction, but a few of the complaints were never resolved. Most of the complaints concerned confusions about what the guarantees cover.

I’d buy from ABS again

I’ve bought 2 computers from ABS’s NuTrend division. The first machine (bought several years ago) needed a little fiddling to work well, but the more recent machine came working wonderfully without hassles. If I were to buy another fancy computer now, I’d buy from ABS again.

Besides the low prices and fancy parts, another reason I like ABS is that ABS computers come with many disks full of software: you get many CD-ROM and floppy disks containing the operating system, drivers, and application software. If something goes wrong, those disks let you reinstall the software without having to erase everything and start over.

Also, the computer comes with software that’s set up normally, unlike big-name competitors whose software is customized to force you to watch annoying ads and face annoying peculiarities. What ABS gives you is straightforward standard simplicity.


ABS headquarters advertises in Computer Shopper and PC World. Its affiliate, ABS Computers, doesn’t advertise: it just grabs customers who accidentally type instead of

Price drops

ABS tends to drop prices on the 15th of each month, because Computer Shopper magazine reaches subscribers about then.

ABS versus Emachines

ABS charges more than Emachines because ABS computers contain fancier components. ABS’s Web site says:

People ask us why we don’t offer super-cheap computers, and we answer it’s because we don’t use any cheap generic components. If you want cheap components with sub-par performance, go find yourself a local superstore and go nuts.

Past problems

In the past, ABS didn’t use enough packing material.

Customers often complained that the cable to the floppy drive fell out during shipping. They had to open the computer and push the cable into the back of the drive again. When they asked ABS about the problem, the technician seemed to say “It’s a Peking problem”; but he was trying to say “It’s a packing problem” with a Chinese accent. (Customers complain they can’t understand the accents of ABS’s technicians.)

But ABS computers I received recently were packed fine.

Women used to complain to me that ABS employees assume all women are stupid. Examples:

When a woman asked a question about Windows, the ABS staff brushed her off by saying, “It’s not our job to explain Windows.”

When an Alaska woman who runs a computer company bought 5 ABS computers and then tried asking a question, the ABS staff tried to brush her off by saying, “Why don’t you ask your husband?” She replied, “Because I know more about computers than he does. He’s a fisherman.”

But I haven’t heard such complaints lately. Apparently ABS has improved.

ABS’s NuTrend ads used to show just men using computers. Then, to appeal to women customers, they showed just women using computers. Then, to interest both sexes, they showed a woman choking her son. Well, I guess it was supposed to be a woman patting her son on the neck, but the fake grins looked like a scene from a horror movie. ABS’s current ad plays safe and shows a woman in a lab coat.

Micro Center

Though Emachines sells computers for under $500, the first major company to sell good computers for under $500 was Micro Electronics Incorporated (MEI), which runs a chain of stores called Micro Center. It manufactures a computer called the PowerSpec and sells it for just $430. It also sells fancier versions:

Model #     CPU                       RAM Hard dr.  Optical drives        Video   Windows       Price

4986            Celeron 2.7GHz     256M   80G        1 (CD-RW)                       0M    Home                $430

6243            Celeron 2.8GHz     512M   80G        1 (CD-RW)                       0M    Home                $500

8735            Pentium 4 2.8GHz 512M   80G        1 (CD-RW)                       0M    Professional      $700

8923            Pentium 4 2.8GHz 512M 120G        2 (DVD, CD-RW)             0M    Home                $800

8980            Pentium 4 3GHz        1G  160G        2 (DVD+/-RW, DVD)     0M    Home              $1000

9260            Pentium 4 3.2GHz     1G  160G        2 (DVD+/-RW, DVD) 128M    Professional    $1300

9360            Pentium 4 3.4GHz     1G  160G        2 (DVD+/-RW, DVD) 128M    Professional    $1700

Each price includes a keyboard, mouse, modem, Ethernet port, and pair of speakers. Those prices do not include a monitor or printer.

Those were Micro Center’s prices as of May 2004. Prices continually drop.

You can buy PowerSpec computers at a Micro Center superstore (a pleasant place to shop!) or mail-order (800-382-2390).



Though Compaq was the first company to make good IBM clones, its clones were expensive. The first company that sold fast IBM clones cheaply was PC’s Limited, founded in 1984 by a 19-year-old kid, Michael Dell. He operated out of the bedroom of his condo apartment, near the University of Texas in Austin.

At first, his prices were low — and so were his quality and service. Many of the computers he shipped didn’t work: they were dead on arrival (DOA). When his customers tried to return the defective computer equipment to him for repair or a refund, his company ignored the customer altogether. By 1986, many upset customers considered him a con artist and wrote bitter letters about him to computer magazines. He responded by saying that his multi-million-dollar company was growing faster than expected and couldn’t keep up with the demand for after-sale service.

In 1987, Dell raised his quality and service — and his prices. In 1988, he changed the company’s name to Dell Computer Corporation.

Now he charges almost as much as IBM and Compaq.

His quality and service have become top-notch. They’ve set the standard for the rest of the computer industry. In speed and quality contests, his computers often beat IBM and Compaq.

In 1997 Dell officially became the top dog in the computer-quality wars: according to PC World magazine’s surveys of its readers, Dell’s computers were more reliable than any other brand, and Dell’s tech-support staff did the best job of fixing any problems promptly.

Dell’s ads bashed Compaq for having higher prices than Dell and worse policies about getting repairs — since Dell offered on-site service and Compaq doesn’t.

For example, in 1991 Dell ran an ad calling Dell’s notebook computer a “road warrior” and Compaq’s a “road worrier”. It showed the Dell screen saying, “With next day on-site service in 50 states, nothing’s going to stop you.” It showed the Compaq screen saying, “Just pray you don’t need any service while you’re on the road, or you’re dead meat.”

His ads were misleading. His prices were much lower than Compaq’s list price but just slightly less than the discount price at which Compaq computers were normally sold. Though Compaq didn’t provide free on-site service, you could sometimes get your Compaq repaired fast by driving to a nearby Compaq dealer.

Dell tried selling through discount-store chains but gave up and decided to return to selling just by mail. Though HP/Compaq is king of retail sales, Dell’s become king of mail-order sales.

Dell computers used to come with this guarantee: if Dell doesn’t answer your tech-support call within 5 minutes, Dell will give you $25! Dell doesn’t make that guarantee anymore.

Dell gives lifetime toll-free technical support for hardware questions and usually answers its phones promptly. Unfortunately, Dell has reduced Windows technical support from “lifetime” to “30 days”.

Dell’s downfall

Though Dell’s tech support used to be good, now it’s terrible — because Dell’s decided to save money by sending most tech-support calls to Bangalore, India, where your call is answered by a person whose English is hard to understand and who doesn’t understand American slang and whose computer knowledge is minimal. After receiving many complaints from business customers, Dell’s adopted this new policy: if you buy an expensive “business” computer from Dell, Dell will have your call answered in the USA; but if you buy a cheap “consumer” computer from Dell, Dell’s gonna still treat you like dirt and have your call answered in India. All recent surveys show that consumers who buy Emachines or ABS computers are happier than consumers who buy from Dell. Stay away from Dell.

HP’s CEO, Carly Fiorina, laughs at Dell and asks “Is Dell really a computer company?” since Dell doesn’t really research, invent, manufacture, or service computers anymore: it just rebrands and markets computers manufactured by others and gives hardly any support. What a disappointment!

How to get Dell

If you want a free Dell catalog or want to chat with a Dell sales rep, phone 800-BUY-DELL.

If you want to buy a Dell computer, don’t react to the first ad you see: Dell sells the same computer at many different prices. For example, prices in Dell’s catalogs, magazine ads, and Web sites are all different from each other. Consumers have discovered that the cheapest way to buy a Dell computer is often at Costco warehouse clubs.


Other IBM clones

Here are other choices to consider.…

Industrial nuts

To get the lowest computer prices, many people have been phoning a secret group of amazing companies advertising in Computer Shopper. The group is called the industrial nuts because the employees are industrious, the prices are nutty, and the location is these two Los Angeles suburbs: “City of Industry” and “Walnut”. The owners and employees seem mostly Chinese.

Recently, most of those companies shut down, but the following are still in business:

Company            Phone                                   Address                        City              State ZIP

ProStar Computers 800-243-5654, 626-854-3428   1128 Coiner Ct.               City of Industry CA  91748

Sager                      800-669-1624, 626-964-8682   18005 Cortney Ct.          City of Industry CA  91748

Tempest Micro      800-818-5163, 909-595-0550   18760 East Amar Rd. #188 Walnut               CA  91789

HyperData Tech.   800-786-3343, 909-468-2960   809 South Lemon Ave.    Walnut               CA  91789

ProStar, Sager, and HyperData sell notebook computers.

These 21 industrial nuts have gone out of business:

A+ Computer, All Computer, Altus, Atlas Micro Logistic, Bit Computer, Comtrade, Cornell Computer Systems, CS Source, Cyberex, Digitron, EDO Micro, Enpower, Multiwave, Nimble, PC Channel, Premio, Professional Technologies, Quanson, Royal, Syscon Technology, Wonderex, Zenon

Cleveland commandos

In 1997, Computer Shopper was deluged with ads from a horde of companies in Cleveland and its suburbs. Those companies offered low prices, nearly as low as the industrial nuts. Recently, most of those companies shut down, but the following are still in business:

Company                Phone                                   Address                        City          State   ZIP

Adamant Computers  800-236-3550, 216-595-1211   4572 Renaissance Pkwy.  Cleveland  OH     44128

Americomp               800-217-2667, 440-498-0993   5380 Naiman Pkwy. #E   Solon        OH     44139

United Micro             800-943-7255, 440-498-7214   31200 Solon Rd. #5         Solon        OH     44139

A2Z Computers         800-983-8889, 330-995-3355   325 Harris Dr.                  Aurora      OH     44202

Those companies have advertised under alternative names:

Company                Alternative names

A2Z Computers         First Compuchoice, Computer King

Americomp               American Computech, Microvision

Those alternative names are no longer used.

These 15 commandos have dived to their death and gone out of business:

American Micro, Amp Tech, Artcomp, ABC Computers, Cyberspace Computers, Digit Micro, Legend Micro, Magic PC, Micro Pro, Micro Pulse, Micro X, Micronix, New Age Micro, Odyssey Technology, PC Importers, Quickline Micro, Starquest, Unicent


Micron is one of America’s biggest manufacturers of RAM chips. Micron sells complete computer systems also.

Its computers come with lots of RAM (since the RAM chips cost Micron nearly nothing) and run fast. According to surveys of computer users by PC World, Micron’s computers are extremely reliable. Micron used to be excellent at answering tech-support calls and resolving problems immediately, but at the end of 1995 Micron’s tech-support staff started becoming overloaded. To reduce the overload, in February 1996 Micron started a new nasty policy: tech-support about software is now restricted to just 30 days. Micron’s prices are high, like prices from Dell.

Micron bought a competitor called Zeos and phased out the Zeos name. Micron’s in Idaho at 800-700-0591 or 208-893-8970.


For many years, I recommended Quantex computers, because Quantex computers were high-quality but priced low. Of all the quality-oriented computer companies, Quantex charged the least. Occasionally, Quantex offered poor technical support, but in most months the technical support was fine.

That changed in January 2000, when many people who worked for Quantex technical-support department quit, to work for another company that paid higher. Also, though Quantex offered wonderfully fancy computers for about $2000, Quantex wasn’t creative enough in developing computers priced at $1000, which was the price most consumers were starting to demand.

Quantex and its sister companies (CyberMax, Pionex, Micro Professionals, and Computer Sales Professional’s PC Professional) were all secretly owned by Fountain, which was based in New Jersey and Taiwan. In August 2000, Fountain went chapter-11 bankrupt. Quantex disappeared shortly afterwards.


Acer is a huge consortium of Taiwanese computer companies.

It makes “Acer computers” and “Acros computers”. They’re particularly popular in Southeast Asia and Latin America. They’ve also been sold in the USA, through computer stores and department stores.

In 2001, Acer split into 3 companies:

The main company is still called Acer.

The Communications & Multimedia Division is now a separate company called BenQ. It’s Taiwan’s biggest cell phone manufacturer. It also makes CD-RW drives, CD-RW disks, printers, scanners, and screens, under its own name and also secretly for Motorola & NEC. Its annual sales are 3 billion dollars.

The Design, Manufacturing, and Services Division is now called Wistron. It secretly designs, manufactures, and repairs computers for Dell, HP, Fujitsu, and Hitachi. Acer owns 40% of Wistron’s stock.


AST was a big computer manufacturer in Irvine, California. “AST” stood for the names of its founders, “Albert, Safi, and Tom”. AST built fine computers, sold through computer stores and priced below computers from IBM & Compaq, though above mail-order.

In 1993, Tandy (which owns Radio Shack) stopped building computers and sold its factories to AST. For a while, AST manufactured all Tandy and Radio Shack computers and also Dell’s notebook computers.

Later, Radio Shack and Dell switched from AST to other suppliers, and AST went out of business.

Packard Bell

Packard Bell was the first company to successfully sell cheap IBM clones through department stores. In November 1999, Packard Bell went out of business, but its influence lives on. Here are the details.

Packard Bell marketed to average Americans in the early 1990’s, when Americans started to get curious about computers but didn’t understand them and didn’t want to spend much. Since the average American avoided computer stores and feared buying a computer by mail, Packard Bell sold cheap clones in non-computer chain stores (such as Sears, Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Costco, Staples, and Office Max). Those stores had been afraid to sell computers because the stores didn’t want to deal with repairs; but Packard Bell told the stores, “Don’t worry: if the computer breaks, we’ll fix it, and we’ll handle all tech support.” So those stores tried selling Packard Bell computers, priced about $1000 (which was much cheaper than other brands then). They were popular because they were cheap, available in those stores, and included 15 easy-to-use programs (loaded already on the hard disk). The programs included games, tutorials, educational experiences, and simple productivity tools (such as Microsoft Works).

To keep the advertised price low, Packard Bell took 2 shortcuts:

It included a poor monitor (.39mm dot pitch, interlaced) or no monitor at all.

It provided programs on the hard disk but not on floppy disks. If you accidentally erased the hard disk, you lost the programs!

During the early 1990’s, getting a Packard Bell computer repaired was tough. I wrote this comment in the 1990 edition of The Secret Guide to Computers:

Warning: getting a Packard Bell computer repaired is tough. Dealers complain that Packard Bell doesn’t provide replacement parts; customers complain that dealers say to phone Packard Bell, which rarely answers the phone. When it does answer, it says to leave your phone number for a call back. Then it either neglects to call you or tells you to phone a service company that tells you to get lost.

By 1993, Packard Bell improved slightly, but then Packard Bell’s phone-support center got wrecked by the earthquake in Northridge & Los Angeles in January 1994. Customers who called after that got just circuit-busy messages.

In July 1994, Packard Bell moved its support center to Utah, which has fewer earthquakes. The support center was in the town of Magna, a suburb of Salt Lake City. But if you tried phoning Packard Bell’s support center, you still usually got a recorded message saying that all lines were busy and you should try writing a letter or sending electronic mail instead. But sending “electronic mail” was difficult when your computer was broken!

In 1996, Packard Bell began requiring most callers to call a 900 number instead for software help.

In spite of its questionable repair record, Packard Bell grew rapidly and became one of the biggest computer companies in the USA. That’s because Packard Bell had the right formula:

good distribution (you can find Packard Bell computers at most department stores across the USA)

good price (cheaper than IBM, Compaq, and other famous brands)

good easy-to-use programs (though they’re the cheap kind that don’t cost Packard Bell much)

repairs handled directly by Packard Bell (so the department stores don’t need to hire technicians)

a good-sounding name (“Packard Bell”)

The name “Packard Bell” sounded good because it reminded consumers of the Bell Telephone companies, and consumers thought “Packard Bell” might be related to “Pacific Bell” or some other well-respected phone company — perhaps a merger between Hewlett-Packard and Ma Bell? To encourage that misconception, Packard Bell’s slogan was “America grew up listening to us.”

But actually, Packard Bell began as an independent company that never had anything to do with phone companies. Back in the 1950’s, some radios were built by a company called “Packard Bell”. In 1986, an Israeli tank driver (Mr. Beny Alagem) came to the United States, started a computer company, and bought the name “Packard Bell” from the radio company for $100,000 to make his new computer company sound related to a phone company. Some states required him to sell his “Packard Bell computers” with a disclaimer warning consumers that Packard Bell computers are “not affiliated with any Bell System entity”.

In surveys of customer satisfaction done by PC Magazine and PC World, customers who bought Packard Bell computers were much less happy than customers who bought other brands. Though the typical Packard Bell computer worked okay, if you did need a repair you’d get very frustrated trying to reach Packard Bell’s tech-support center.

But a few Packard Bell customers were thrilled with tech support! That’s because they bought their Packard Bell computers from computer stores instead of department stores, and the computer stores were willing to fix computers immediately without waiting for the customers to phone Packard Bell.

Eventually, Packard Bell became more traditional:

Packard Bell switched to a better monitor (.28mm dot pitch, non-interlaced), though it was typically “not included” in the advertised price. Fewer programs were included. Packard Bell provided 2 disks (1 floppy disk plus 1 CD-ROM disk) that contained copies of what was on the hard disk.

Packard Bell’s competitors eventually copied Packard Bell’s good features and avoided Packard Bell’s bad features, so consumers switched to those nicer companies and avoided Packard Bell. Finally, in 1998, Packard Bell ran into financial difficulties and couldn’t pay its suppliers. To bail itself out, it sold its stock to a Japanese company, Nippon Electric Company (NEC), so Packard Bell became owned by NEC and was called NEC Packard Bell. But in November 1999, NEC finally gave up trying to run Packard Bell and shut Packard Bell down.

Packard Bell’s good features (low cost and high distribution) were later copied by Emachines.


Monorail manufactured a wonderful computer that was the ideal compromise between being a desktop computer and a laptop computer.

It was small (almost as small as a laptop computer) but cost much less than any laptop or notebook. It was the ideal computer for somebody living in a cramped apartment and cramped budget. Though small and cheap, the computer was full-featured, so you could get your work done and use the Internet, too.

It was sexy black and consisted of 3 parts: a mouse (which was black), a keyboard (which was also black), and a black box (15" wide, 11" high, and just 3¼" thick). The black box’s front was an LCD screen, but the black box also contained the rest of the computer: CPU, RAM, hard drive, floppy drive, CD-ROM drive, stereo speakers, microphone, and modem! Though the black box contained all those goodies, notebook-computer technology let the box be just 3¼" thick.

The price was just $799 for the standard version. I bought a souped-up version myself, and it’s been the most trouble-free computer I’ve ever owned. Though slightly too large to fit in my lap, it fits in a big lady’s handbag, which makes it easy to carry. The price was low because the computer included no battery: the computer had to be plugged directly into your room’s electrical socket.

Unfortunately, when the price of traditional notebook computers dropped, Monorail gave up trying to compete. Monorail tried selling boring computers, like everybody else, then went out of business.


Bargain-brand computers are sold by stores at low prices. Those computers cost so little because they’re crummy. Check the specs! Here’s another reason why those computers cost little: when you ask the dealer for help, the dealer will typically say “I don’t know. Phone the manufacturer.” But the manufacturer’s phone is usually busy. Before buying a computer, ask the dealer what phone number to call for repairs or technical assistance, then try phoning that number and see whether anybody answers!

In many towns, entrepreneurs sell computers for ridiculously low prices in computer shows and tiny stores. Before buying, check the computer’s technical specifications and the dealer’s reputation. If the dealer offers you software, make sure the dealer also gives you an official manual from the software’s publisher, with a warranty/registration card; otherwise, the software might be an illegal hot copy.

If you can’t afford a normal computer, remember that $80 can get you a used computer, including even the hard disk and monitor, if the CPU is slow (a 486). Buy it from a friend, relative, or neighbor moving up to a fancier computer.

For further advice, phone me anytime at 603-666-6644.


What’s the most important computer company? IBM? Microsoft?

No! The most important computer company is actually Apple. That’s the company that’s had the greatest influence on how we deal with computers today.

Apple was the first computer manufacturer to popularize these ideas successfully:

screens showing colors (instead of just black-and-white)

3½-inch floppy disks (instead of 5¼-inch, which are flimsy and less reliable)

CD-ROM disks (instead of just floppy disks, which hold less data)

using a mouse (instead of just the keyboard’s arrow keys and TAB keys)

using pictures (called icons) instead of just words

pull-down menus (coming down from a menu bar, which is at the screen’s top)

laser printers (instead of just dot-matrix printers, which print in an ugly way)

desktop publishing (instead of word processing, which can’t handle beauty)

pretty fonts (instead of typewriter-style fonts, which are monospaced and ugly)

paint & draw programs (so you can create graphics easily, without math)

Apple didn’t invent any of those ideas, but Apple was the first company to popularize them, make people want them, and thereby change our idea of what a computer should do.

3½-inch disks were invented by Sony. The first mouse was invented by the Stanford Research Institute. The first good mouse software was invented by Xerox. The first personal laser printers were invented by Hewlett-Packard. The first modern desktop-publishing program was invented by a software company, Aldus. But it was Apple’s further product development and marketing that made those products desirable.

Though just 4% of the computers sold today are made by Apple, we all owe a big debt to Apple for how that company improved our world.

Here’s how Apple arose and changed our lives.…

Original Apple

The original Apple computer was invented by Steve Wozniak, who was an engineer at Hewlett-Packard. In 1975, he offered the plans to his boss at Hewlett-Packard, but his boss said Steve’s computer didn’t fit into Hewlett-Packard’s marketing plan. His boss suggested that Steve start his own company. Steve did.

He worked with his friend, Steve Jobs. Steve Wozniak was the engineer; Steve Jobs was the businessman. Both were young: Steve Wozniak was 22; Steve Jobs was 19. Both were college drop-outs. They’d worked together before: when high-school students, they’d built and sold blue boxes (boxes that people attached to telephones to illegally make long-distance calls free). Steve & Steve had sold 200 blue boxes at $80 each, giving them a total of $16,000 in illegal money.

To begin Apple Computer Company, Steve & Steve invested just $1300, which they got by selling a used Volkswagen Micro Bus and a used calculator.

They built the first Apple computer in their garage. They sold it by word of mouth, then later by ads. The advertised price was just $666.60.

Like all computers of that era, the first Apple computer was primitive: it had none of the features for which Apple is now famous. (No color, no 3½-inch floppy disks, no CD-ROM disks, no mouse, no icons, no pull-down menus, no laser printers, no desktop publishing, no pretty fonts, no paint & draw programs.)

Apple 2

The original Apple computer looked pathetic. But in 1977, Steve & Steve invented a slicker version, called the Apple 2. Unlike the original Apple, the Apple 2 included a keyboard and displayed graphics in color. It cost $970.

The Apple 2 became a smashing success, because it was the first computer for under $1000 that could display colors on a TV. It was the only such computer for many years, until Commodore finally invented the Vic, which was even cheaper (under $300).

At first, folks used the Apple 2 just to play games and didn’t take it seriously. But two surprise events changed the world’s feelings about Apple.

MECC The first surprise was that the Minnesota state government decided to buy lots of Apple 2 computers, put them in Minnesota schools, and write programs for them. That state agency, called the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), then distributed the programs free to other schools across America.

Soon, schools across America discovered that personal computers could be useful in education. Since the only good educational programs came from Minnesota and required Apples, schools across America bought Apples — and then wrote more programs for the Apples they’d bought. Apple became the “standard” computer for education — just because of the chain reaction that started with a chance event in Minnesota. The chain reaction spread fast, as teachers fell in love with the Apple’s color graphics.

VisiCalc The next surprise was that a graduate student at the Harvard Business School and his friend at M.I.T. got together and wrote the first spreadsheet program, called VisiCalc. They wrote it for the Apple 2 computer, because it was the only low-cost computer that had a reliable disk operating system.

(Commodore’s computers didn’t have disks yet, and Radio Shack’s disk operating system was buggy until the following year. Apple’s success was due to Steve Wozniak’s brilliance: he invented a disk-controller card that was amazingly cheap and reliable.)

The VisiCalc spreadsheet program was so wonderful that accountants and business managers all over the country bought it — and therefore had to buy Apple computers to run it on.

VisiCalc was more nifty than any accounting program that had been invented on even the largest IBM maxicomputers. VisiCalc proved that little Apples could be more convenient than even the most gigantic IBM.

Eventually, VisiCalc became available for other computers; but at first, VisiCalc required an Apple, and VisiCalc’s success led to the success of Apple.

In a typical large corporation, the corporate accountant wanted to buy an Apple with VisiCalc. Since the corporation’s data-processing director liked big computers and refused to buy microcomputers, the accountant who wanted VisiCalc resorted to an old business trick: he lied. He pretended to spend $2000 for “typewriters” but bought an Apple instead. He snuck it into the company and plopped it on his desk. That happened all across America, so all large corporations had thousands of Apples sitting on the desks of accountants and managers but disguised as “typewriters” or “word processors”.

Yes, Apple computers infiltrated American corporations by subversion. It was an underground movement that annoyed IBM so much that IBM eventually decided to invent a personal computer of its own.

Apple 2+ In 1979, Apple Computer Corporation began shipping an improved Apple 2, called the Apple 2+.

Its main improvement was that its ROM chips contained a better version of BASIC, called Applesoft BASIC, which could handle decimals. (The version of BASIC in the old Apple 2’s ROM chips handled just integers.)

Another improvement was how the RESET key acted.

On the old Apple 2, pressing the RESET key would abort a program, so the program would stop running. Too many consumers pressed the RESET key accidentally and got upset. On the Apple 2+, pressing the RESET key aborted a program just if you simultaneously held down the CONTROL key.

Slots In the Apple 2+ and its predecessors, the motherboard contained eight slots, numbered from 0 to 7. Each slot could hold a printed-circuit card.

Slot 0 was for a memory card (containing extra RAM).

Slot 1 was for a printer card (containing a parallel printer port).

Slot 2 was for an internal modem (for attaching to a phone).

Slot 3 was for an 80-column card (to make the screen display 80 characters per line instead of 40).

Slot 6 was for a disk controller.

Cards in slots 4, 5, and 7 were more exotic.

Apple 2e In 1983, Apple began shipping a further improvement, called the
Apple 2 extended, expanded, enhanced (Apple 2e). Most programs written for the Apple 1, 2, and 2+ also ran on the Apple 2e.

To improve on the Apple 2+ keyboard (which contained just 52 keys), the Apple 2e keyboard contained 11 extra keys, making a total of 63.

The extra keys helped you type lowercase letters, type special symbols, edit your writing, and control your programs.

For example, the Apple 2e keyboard contained all four arrow keys (, , , and ), so you could easily move around the screen in all four directions. (The and keys were missing from the Apple 2+ keyboard.)

The Apple 2e keyboard contained a DELETE key, so you could easily delete an error from the middle of your writing. (The DELETE key was missing from the Apple 2+ keyboard.)

Unlike its predecessors, the Apple 2e omitted slot 0, because the Apple 2e didn’t need a RAM card: the Apple 2e’s motherboard already contained lots of RAM (64K).

The Apple 2e contained an extra slot, called slot 3A. It resembled slot 3 but held a more modern kind of video card that came in two versions: the plain version let your Apple display 80 characters per line; the fancy version did the same but also included a row of 64K RAM chips, so that your Apple contains 128K of RAM altogether.

The Apple 2e was invented in 1983 — the same year as the IBM XT. Which was better?

An Apple 2e was generally worse than an IBM XT or an IBM XT clone. For example, the Apple 2e system had less RAM (128K instead of 640K), fewer keys on the keyboard (63 instead of 83), inferior disk drives (writing just 140K on the disk instead of 360K), and a crippled version of BASIC (understanding just 114 words instead of 178).

Though worse than an IBM XT, the Apple 2e became quite popular in 1983, because more educational programs and games were available for the Apple 2e than for any other computer. That’s because the Apple 2e still ran thousands of programs that were invented years earlier for its predecessors: the Apple 1, 2, and 2+. Fewer educational programs and games were being written for the IBM XT and clones, because the IBM XT cost more than schools and kids could afford. Although the IBM XT became the standard computer for business, the Apple 2e became the standard computer for schools and kids.

Apple 2c In 1984, Apple created a shrunken Apple 2e called the
Apple 2 compact (Apple 2c). Besides being smaller and lighter than the Apple 2e, it cost less. It also consumed less electricity.

But advanced hobbyists spurned the 2c — and stayed with the 2e instead — because the 2c didn’t have any slots for adding cards; it wasn’t expandable.

The typical consumer didn’t need extra cards anyway, since the 2c’s motherboard included everything a beginner wanted: 128K of RAM, 80-character-per-line video circuitry, a disk controller, and two serial ports. You could run cables from the back of the 2c to a serial printer, modem, second disk drive, and joystick.

When the 2c first came out, its ROM was fancier than the 2e’s, so that the 2c could handle BASIC and a mouse better than the 2e. But in February 1985, Apple began putting the fancy ROM chips in the 2e also, so that every new 2e handles BASIC and a mouse as well as the 2c.

Apple invented an improved Apple 2c, called the Apple 2c+, whose disk drive was 3½-inch instead of 5¼-inch. Apple’s 3½-inch drive was technologically superior to Apple’s 5¼-inch drive; but unfortunately, most educational software still came on 5¼-inch disks and was not available on 3½-inch disks yet.

Apple 2GS In 1986, Apple created an improved version of the Apple 2e and called it the Apple 2 with amazing graphics & sound (Apple 2GS).

Its graphics were fairly good (better than EGA, though not as good as VGA).

Its musical abilities were amazing. They arose from Apple’s Ensoniq chip, which could produce 32 musical voices simultaneously!

The computer contained an extra-fast CPU (the 65816), 128k of ROM, 256K of general-purpose RAM, and 64K of RAM for the sound synthesizer.

To run the popular 2GS programs, you needed add an extra 256K of RAM, to bring the total RAM up to 512K. Many folks went further and bought 1M of RAM.

Discount dealers sold the 2GS with 1M RAM for $800. That price did not include a monitor or any disk drives. To run the popular programs well, you had to buy a color monitor and two disk drives.

Apple 2 family All those computers resembled each other, so that most programs written for the Apple 2 also worked on the Apple 2+, 2e, 2c, 2c+, and 2GS.

Apple has stopped marketing all those computers, but you can still buy them as “used computers” from your neighbors.

Clones Instead of buying computers built by Apple, some folks bought imitations, such as the Pineapple, the Orange, the Pear, and the Franklin. Such imitations were popular in the United States, Hong Kong, and especially the Soviet Union. Apple sued most of those companies (because they illegally copied Apple’s ROM) and made them stop building clones.

Apple permitted one clone to remain: the Laser 128, because that clone’s designer imitated the functions of Apple’s ROM without exactly copying it.

The Laser 128 imitated the Apple 2c. Like the Apple 2c, the Laser 128 included 128K of RAM, a disk drive, and a serial port. In three ways, it was better than an Apple 2c: it included a parallel printer port (so you could attach a greater variety of printers), a numeric keypad (so you could enter data into spreadsheets more easily), and a slot (so you could add an Apple 2e expansion card). It ran most Apple 2c programs perfectly. (Just 5% of the popular Apple 2c programs were incompatible with the Laser 128.)

A souped-up version, called the Laser 128EX, went three times as fast.

The Laser 128 and 128EX were built by the Laser Computer division of VTech, the same company that made IBM clones.

Apple 3

Back in 1980, shortly after the Apple 2+ was invented, Apple began selling the Apple 3. It was much fancier than the Apple 2+. Unfortunately, it was ridiculously expensive (it listed for $4995, plus a monitor and hard drive), it couldn’t run some of the Apple 2+ software, and the first ones off the assembly line were defective. Few people bought it.

When the IBM PC came out and consumers realized the PC was better and cheaper than the Apple 3, interest in the Apple 3 vanished. Apple gave up trying to sell the Apple 3 but incorporated the Apple 3’s best features into later, cheaper Apples: the Apple 2e and the Apple 2GS.


Back in 1963, when Steve & Steve were just kids in elementary school, Doug Engelbart invented the world’s first computer mouse. He was at the Stanford Research Institute. During the 1970’s, researchers at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC) used his mouse as the basis of a fancy computer system, called the Alto. Xerox considered the Alto too big and expensive to sell well but invited the world to see it.

In 1979, Apple employees nudged Steve Jobs to go to Xerox and see the Alto. Steve was impressed by the Alto and decided to invent a smaller, cheaper version, which he called the Lisa, because that was his daughter’s name.

The Lisa changed the computer world forever. Before the Lisa, personal computers were awkward to use. The Lisa was the first affordable personal computer that made good use of a mouse, icons, horizontal menus, and pull-down menus.

The Lisa’s screen displayed cute little drawings, called icons. Some of the icons stood for activities. To make the Lisa perform an activity, you looked on the screen for the activity’s icon. (For example, to make the computer delete a file, you began by looking for a picture of a garbage can.) When you pointed at the icon by using a mouse, and clicked the mouse’s button, the Lisa performed the icon’s activity.

The Lisa also used horizontal menus and pull-down menus. (A horizontal menu is a list of topics printed across the top line of the screen. If you choose one of those general topics by using the mouse, a column of more specific choices appears underneath that topic; that column of specific activities is called a pull-down menu. You then look at the pull-down menu, find the specific activity you’re interested in, click at it by using the mouse, and the computer immediately starts performing that activity.)

Pointing at icons, horizontal menus, and pull-down menus is much easier to learn than using the kinds of computer systems other manufacturers had developed before. It’s also fun! Yes, the Lisa was the first computer whose business programs were truly fun to run. And because it was so easy to learn to use, customers could start using it without reading the manuals. Everybody praised the Lisa and called it a new breakthrough in software technology.

Though the Lisa was “affordable”, it was affordable by just the rich: it cost nearly $10,000. For the Lisa, Apple invented some special business programs that were fun and easy to use; but the Lisa could not run Apple 2 programs, since the Lisa had a completely different CPU.

Independent programmers had difficulty developing their own programs for the Lisa, since Apple didn’t supply enough programming tools. Apple never invented a version of BASIC, delayed introducing a version of PASCAL, and didn’t make detailed manuals available to the average programmer. And though icons and pull-down menus are easy to use, they’re difficult for programmers to invent.

Apple gradually lowered the Lisa’s price.


In January 1984, Apple introduced the Macintosh (Mac), which was a stripped-down Lisa. Like the original Lisa, the Mac uses a mouse, icons, horizontal menus, and pull-down menus. The Mac’s price is low enough to make it popular.

The Mac is even more fun and easy than the Lisa! It appeals to beginners scared of computers. Advanced computerists like it also, because it feels ultra-modern, handles graphics quickly, and passes data from one program to another simply.

The original version of the Mac ran too slowly, but the newest versions run faster. They’re priced nearly as low as IBM clones.

Since the Mac’s so easy to use and priced nearly as low as IBM clones, many people have bought it. Lots of software’s been developed for it — much more than for the Lisa.

To run Mac software well, you must buy a Mac. Since popular Mac software does not run well on the Lisa, Apple has stopped selling the Lisa and stopped selling a compromise called the Mac XL.

Let’s take a closer look at the various Macs.…

The first Macs

Apple began selling the Mac for $2495. The Mac’s original version consisted of three parts: the mouse, the keyboard, and the system unit.

The system unit contained a 9-inch black-and-white screen (whose resolution was 512 by 384), a 3½-inch floppy disk drive, and a motherboard. On the motherboard sat an 8-megahertz 68000 CPU, two ROM chips (containing most of the operating system and many routines for drawing graphics), rows of RAM chips, a disk controller, and two serial ports (for attaching a printer and a modem).

That Mac was called the original 128K Mac because it includes 128K of RAM (plus 64K of ROM).

Then Apple invented an improvement called the 512K Mac because it included 512K of RAM. (It used two rows of 256K chips instead of two rows of 64K chips.) Apple wanted to call it the “Big Mac” but feared that customers would think it was a hamburger.

In January 1986, Apple began selling a new, improved Mac, called the Mac Plus. It surpassed the 512K Mac in several ways:

It contains a bigger RAM (1 megabyte instead of 512K), a bigger ROM (128K instead of 64K), a better disk drive (double-sided instead of single-sided), a bigger keyboard (which contains extra keys), and a port that let you add a hard-disk drive more easily. The improved ROM, RAM, disk drive, keyboard, and port all served the same goal: they provided hardware and software tricks that let Mac programs run faster.

Like the 128K and 512K Macs, the Mac Plus included one floppy drive.

Mac SE

In 1987, Apple introduced an even fancier Mac, called the Mac SE. It ran software 15% faster than the Mac Plus because it contains a cleverer ROM (256K instead of 128K) and fancier support chips. It was also more expandable: it let you insert extra circuitry more easily. The keyboard cost extra: you could buy the standard keyboard (which had 81 keys) or the extended keyboard (which had 105 keys and cost more).

Mac 2

When Apple introduced the Mac SE, Apple also introduced a luxury model, called the Mac 2. It contains a faster CPU (a 16-megahertz 68020) and 6 slots for inserting printed-circuit cards.

Instead of sticking you with a 9-inch black-and-white monitor, it let you use any kind of monitor you wish: you could choose big or small; you could choose black-and-white or gray-scale or color. The monitor cost extra; so did the keyboard (standard or extended) and video card (which you put into a slot and attached the monitor to).

Since the Mac 2 let you choose your own monitor, the Mac 2 was called a modular Mac. When buying a modular Mac, remember that the monitor costs extra!

Performas vs. Quadras

In 1990, Apple stopped selling all the Macs that I’ve mentioned so far — the 128K Mac, 512K Mac, Mac Plus, Mac SE, and Mac 2. Apple switched to Macs that are more modern.

Apple’s first great modern Mac came in 1991. It was called the Quadra. It contained a 68040 CPU. It was called the Quadra because of the “4” in “68040”. The Quadra was intended for folks smart enough to know that “quadra” is the Latin word for “4”. It was intended to be sold by expert salespeople to expert customers.

In 1992, Apple invented a “simplified Quadra”, called the Performa, for beginners. It was intended to be sold by idiotic salespeople to idiotic customers, who think the word “performer” should be pronounced “performa”.

Then customers could choose between the Performa (for beginners) and the Quadra (which was still available, for experts).

Performa computers were sold mainly by idiots in office-supply stores (such as Staples & Office Max).

Quadra computers were sold just by computer experts from computer stores (such as Comp USA).

A Performa’s price included lots of software — especially games and tutorials for beginners.

A Quadra’s price included very little software. You bought your own — or invented it yourself!

For help with a Performa computer, you phoned “babysitters” at Apple’s headquarters (800-sos-Apple).

To repair a Quadra, you phoned the computer technicians at the computer store where you bought it.

A Performa’s price was simple: it included a keyboard, monitor, & fax/modem; no surcharges or choices!

For a Quadra, you had to decide which keyboard, monitor, and fax/modem you wanted; they cost extra.

Though Performas were idiotic, they were the best values: you got more hardware and software per dollar when you bought a Performa than when you bought a Quadra. The Quadras were just for annoyingly fussy nerds who insisted on customizing the computers, making their own decisions about which keyboard, monitor, and fax/modem to use.

At first, the rule was simple: Quadras were sold just at computer stores; Performas were sold just at general stores. At the end of 1994, Apple began letting computer stores sell both kinds of computers (Quadras and Performas), to handle both kinds of customers (experts and idiots). Non-computer stores (such as Staples) were still restricted to selling to idiots: they sold just Performas, no Quadras.

Performas came in several varieties: you could choose a normal CPU (a 68030), a faster CPU (a 68040), or an even faster CPU (a Power PC chip).

Power Macs

After watching the Performa-versus-Quadra war, Apple decided on a compromise: all new Macs include a keyboard (Performa won that battle!), but you can typically choose your own monitor (Quadra won that battle!).

In 1994, Apple began selling powerful Macs, called Power Macs. Each contains a fast CPU chip, called the Power PC.

The newest Power Mac is the Power Mac G5. When this book went to press in May 2004, Apple offered the Power Mac G5 in 3 versions:

Power PC G5 CPU  RAM    Hard drive       Price

1.6 GHz                     256M      80 gigs           $1799

a pair of 1.8GHz           512M    160 gigs           $2499  

a pair of 2GHz           512M    160 gigs           $2999

Each version includes a modem, mouse, keyboard, tower case (graphite gray front, silver gray sides, clear handles), Apple’s SuperDrive (a CD-RW drive that can also write to DVD-R disks), 64M of video RAM, Apple’s operating system (“OS 10”, which is written OS X), QuickBooks (which does accounting) and iLife (software for manipulating graphics and music, including iPhoto, iTunes, iMovie, iDVD, and GarageBand).

Those prices do not include a monitor. Here’s what Apple charges for an LCD monitor:

Model name              Size  Resolution   Price

Studio Display            17"    1280´1024       $699

Cinema Display            20"    2680´1050     $1299

Cinema HD Display      23"    1920´1200     $1999

If you buy the $1999 display at the same time you buy a Power Mac, you get a $500 rebate, so the display costs you just $1499.

Those prices do not include speakers. Apple charges $249 for a 5.1 set of speakers (5 speakers plus a subwoofer).

Those prices do not include a floppy-disk drive. Apple expects you to use CD-RW disks instead.

Your total starting cost is therefore $1799 (for the base system) + $699 (for a 17" LCD monitor) + $249 (for 5.1 speakers), which adds up to $2747. (You’ll also want to add a printer.)


In August 1998, Apple began selling simplified Macs, to help beginners use the Internet. Each simplified Mac is called an Internet Mac (iMac).

Apple has sold it in 3 styles:

Style name  Monitor         Current prices

classic iMac 15-inch CRT   discontinued

eMac              17-inch CRT   $799, $999

new iMac        LCD                $1299, $1799, $2199

Here are the details.…

Classic iMac The classic iMac looks out-of-this-world!

It looks like an airplane’s nose cone — or an ostrich egg from outer space. It’s translucent — which means you can almost see through it, like trying to look through a frosted shower-stall door to see the sexy woman inside. Intriguing! Every reviewer who saw the classic iMac loved it, and so did Apple’s customers. I bought one myself. It’s great!

It includes a 15-inch CRT, video RAM, pair of speakers, 56K fax/modem, keyboard, mouse, and software. Just add a printer, and you’ll be thrilled! The translucent case is tinted in a wild color. The first iMac was in a color called Bondi Blue (named after Australia’s Bondi beach); later iMacs were in colors called Blueberry, Strawberry, Grape, Lime, Tangerine, Blue Dalmatian (white spots on a blue background), Flower Power (a floral print inspired by the 1960’s), Indigo (blue), Graphite (black) and Snow (white). Apple got lots of praise for creatively avoiding beige, and many hardware manufacturers imitated Apple’s wild color schemes.

Thought the classic iMac is wonderful, Apple has stopped selling it, because the eMacs and new iMacs are even more powerful.

The eMac The eMac resembles a classic iMac but has a bigger screen (17" instead of 15"). It was designed for schools (“eMac” means “educational Mac”) and was originally sold just to schools, but now everybody can buy it. You can buy 2 versions:

Hard drive    Optical drive                              Price

40G                 combo drive (DVD/CD-RW)         $799

80G                 SuperDrive   (DVD-R/CD-RW)  $999

Each includes a 17" CRT, white case, PowerPC G4 1.25GHz CPU, 256M RAM, 32M of video RAM, pair of speakers, modem, Ethernet port, keyboard, mouse, OS X, iLife, Sound Studio (to edit music), Quicken (which balances your checkbook), AppleWorks 6 (an integrated program that handles word processing, spreadsheets, databases, graphics, and desktop publishing). World Book Encyclopedia CD, and games (Mac OS X Chess, Pro Skater 4, and Deimos Rising).

New iMac The new iMac looks totally different: even more out-of-this-world!

It’s a white hemisphere (so it looks like a mound of mashed potatoes), with an arm coming out of its top. At the arm’s end, instead of a hand, you get a 15-inch LCD thin screen monitor. The monitor hovers in front of the arm and hides the arm from your view, so the monitor seems to hover by itself mysteriously in the air, like a UFO propelled by aliens.

People who buy, use, and love the new iMac are said to “do the mashed potato”, “play with their hover craft”, and “kiss aliens”.

Since the new iMac looks so mysteriously intriguing, many IBM-clone manufacturers copied Apple’s idea of using a 15-inch flat screen monitor. Those companies bought so many 15-inch LCD screens from suppliers that Apple could no longer get enough supplies for itself, and suppliers raised their prices, forcing Apple to raise its prices by $100.

But now prices have come back down. You can buy 3 versions:

LCD   G4 CPU Video RAM  Optical drive                                 Price

15"    1GHz        32M                combo drive (DVD/CD-RW)             $1299

17"    1.25GHz   64M                SuperDrive (DVD-R/CD-RW)        $1799

20"    1.25GHz   64M                SuperDrive (DVD-R/CD-RW)        $2199

Each includes a white case, 256M RAM, 80G hard drive, pair of speakers, modem, Ethernet port, keyboard, mouse, and the same software as the eMac (except you get Quicken Deluxe instead of Quicken).

Notebook computers

Back in 1991, Apple began selling powerful notebook computers, called PowerBooks, which now come in 5 versions:

LCD                    Optical drive                          G4 CPU   RAM     Hard drive    Keyboard  Price

12", 1024´768   combo drive (DVD/CD-RW)       1.33GHz   256M    60G                plain            $1599

12", 1024´768   SuperDrive (DVD-R/CD-RW)  1.33GHz   256M    60G                 plain            $1799

15", 1280´854   combo drive (DVD/CD-RW)       1.33GHz   256M    60G                 plain            $1999

15", 1280´854   SuperDrive (DVD-R/CD-RW)  1.5GHz     512M    80G                 backlit          $2499

17", 1440´900   SuperDrive (DVD-R/CD-RW)  1.5GHz     512M    80G                 backlit          $2799

Each includes 64M of video RAM, keyboard, Trackpad (Apple’s version of a Touchpad), and software (OS X, iLife, and QuickBooks).

Apple also sells cheaper notebook computers, called iBooks, which are inspired by the iMac. You can buy 3 versions:

LCD   G4 CPU   Hard drive    Price

12"    1GHz        30G                 $1199

14"    1GHz        40G                $1499

14"    1.2GHz     60G                  $1799

Each includes 1024´768 resolution (regardless of the number of inches), 256M main RAM, 32M video RAM, combo drive (DVD/CD-RW), modem, keyboard, Trackpad, and the same software as the eMac.


You can buy directly from Apple by phoning 800-MY-APPLE or using the Internet to go to or visiting Apple’s stores (which are in just a few cities). You can also buy Apple’s computers from chain stores (such as Comp USA), local Apple dealers, and these mail-order dealers:

Dealer                  Internet address           Phone number

Mac Mall                 800-222-2808

Mac Connection 800-800-2222

Mac Mall usually has more exciting ads, but Mac Connection usually charges less for shipping and installation.

I’ve been showing you Apple’s list prices. Unlike IBM clones, whose prices drop each month, Apple’s list prices stay constant for many months, then drop suddenly. But while Apple’s list prices stay “constant”, Apple secretly gives bigger discounts to dealers, who in turn give “deals” to customers. Here’s what the “deals” usually involve:

You pay $5 less than the list price — the discount is just $5 because Apple gets angry if dealers advertise bigger discounts.

You get 512K of extra RAM for “free” — but just if you pay a $40 “required professional RAM-installation charge”.

You get a “free” printer — but just if you pay $99 first, remember to mail the rebate forms, wait to receive rebate checks totaling $99, and put up with a below-average printer.

You get a special computer for $200 less than any of Apple’s current prices — because the computer you’re getting is an outdated model that Apple no longer sells, and the dealer is having a clearance sale.

You get rebates from Apple — but just if you buy Apple’s most expensive computers or overpriced monitors.


Each Mac comes with a “1-year warranty”, which says Apple will fix the hardware if it breaks during the first year. Your iMac normally comes with just “3 months of tech support”, which means Apple will give you free help about hardware and the operating system for just 3 months.

If you buy Apple’s support contract, called AppleCare, your warranty and tech support are extended, so they last for 3 years. AppleCare covers Apple’s hardware (system unit, monitor, etc.), operating system, and preloaded Apple software. It does not cover other hardware and software.

The price depends on what kind of Mac you bought:

Mac                         AppleCare price (covers Mac, monitor, etc.)

eMac or new iMac     $169

Power Mac or iBook $249

PowerBook               $349

I recommend you do not buy AppleCare. Instead, pay consultants and repair shops when necessary.


In 1995, Apple’s executives began letting other companies make clones of Macs.

Those companies paid Apple a licensing fee. The most successful of those companies was Power Computing, whose clones run much faster than Apple’s originals! Clones were also made by Radius, Motorola, and Umax.

But in 1997, Apple had a change of heart and withdrew the licenses of all the clone makers except Umax. Apple restricted Umax to making just clones that are “junk” (priced under $1000).

Umax no longer bothers to make Mac clones.

Should you buy a Mac?

When the Mac first came out, computer experts loved it and praised it for being easier than an IBM PC.

Then Microsoft invented Windows, which made the IBM PC resemble a Mac.

The first version of Windows was terrible, much worse than a Mac. Nobody took that version of Windows seriously. But over the years, Microsoft gradually improved Windows.

When Windows 3.0 came out, it was good enough to be useable. Though still not as nice as a Mac, it became popular because it ran on IBM PC clones, which cost much less than Macs.

When Windows 3.1 came out, some folks even liked it.

When Windows 95 came out in 1995, the Mac became doomed. Most critics agreed that Windows 95 was better than a Mac. Windows 98, Windows Me, and Windows XP were further improvements. Moreover, an IBM PC running Windows XP costs less than a Mac. Apple’s new operating system, OS X, looks lovely but is incompatible with a lot of old software and old hardware, so Apple ships OS 9 and OS X with each computer, making Apple’s customers schizophrenic.

Apple faces a new problem: since practically everybody has switched to buying IBM clones (with Windows XP) instead of Macs, and since writing “a program for Mac users” requires writing two versions of it (for OS 9 and OS X), most programmers aren’t bothering to write Mac programs anymore. So if you have a Mac, you’re stuck running old programs written years ago, in versions less pleasant than new IBM versions. As a result, the Mac has actually become harder to use than an IBM clone!

The big exception to Mac’s downfall is the graphics-art community. Years ago, before Windows became good, the Mac became the standard for folks in the graphics-arts community (such as ad agencies, newspapers, magazines, artists, and companies running printing presses). They still use Macs.

Some universities standardized on Macs because Apple Computer Inc. gave those universities a discount. As the discounts expire, many of those universities are shifting to buying IBM clones instead.

Who runs Apple?

After being founded by Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, Apple’s leadership changed.

Steve Wozniak got in an airplane crash that hurt his head and gave him amnesia, so he left the company and enrolled in college under a fake name (“Rocky Clark”). After he graduated, he returned to Apple Computer Company quietly. Steve Jobs managed the company.

Though Apple was successful, Steve Jobs’ strategies upset some computerists.

For example, Apple’s ads claimed that the Apple was the first personal computer (it was not the first!); Apple launched a big campaign to make businessmen buy Apple PASCAL (though Apple PASCAL didn’t help the average businessman at all); Apple prohibited its dealers from displaying games (though Apple later relented); and Apple prohibited authorized dealers from selling Apples by mail order.

Apple Computer Inc. donated computers to schools for three reasons: to be nice, get a tax write-off, and lure schools into buying Apples (to be compatible with the Apples that the schools received free). But if Apple were really nice, it would have lowered prices to let low-income consumers afford them. Apple sold just to the “chic”, not the poor.

Steve & Steve both left Apple and went separate ways.

Apple’s next head was John Sculley, a marketer who used to be a vice-president of Pepsi. He made Pepsi the #2 soft drink (just behind Coke) and kept Apple the #2 microcomputer company (just behind IBM).

In 1993, he had Apple invent and sell a palmtop computer called the Newton. Instead of containing a keyboard, it contained a tablet you could write on with a pen. The computer tried to read your handwritten words. But the computer couldn’t read handwriting accurately enough. Apple’s board of directors ousted him for spending too much effort on the Newton and not enough on Apple’s mainstream products.

Apple’s next head was Michael Spindler, an efficient German who dropped Apple’s costs and prices. But in 1995, Apple’s profits plunged for three reasons:

Microsoft began selling Windows 95 (which let IBM clones become nearly as pleasant as Macs).

Intel dramatically dropped prices on the Pentium chips used in IBM clones.

Spindler predicted incorrectly which Macs would sell well, so Apple got stuck with unsold inventory of some models, parts shortages for others.

In January 1996, Apple’s board of directors fired him and replaced him with Gil Amelio.

To cut costs, Gil fired lots of employees. Then the board fired him.

Now Steve Jobs is back in charge. He’s popular.