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

How to shop

Here’s how to shop for a computer — and deal with the jargon that’s involved.


Kinds of computers

Up until 1940, computers were people. Dictionaries said a “computer” was “a person who computes”. Astronomers hired many “computers”, who computed the positions of stars.

People who computed were called “computers”. Machines that computed were called “calculators”.

After 1940, “human computers” were gradually replaced by gigantic machines, called “electronic computers”. Today the word “computer” means “a machine that computes”. This book explains how to buy and use such machines.

During the 1950’s, people realized that electronic computers can do more than compute.

Today’s computers spend hardly any time doing math. They spend most of their time thinking about words and ideas instead. They ought to be called “thinkers” instead!

If an alien visits our planet and sees how our computers act, the alien might deduce that a “computer” is “a thinking machine”. If the alien comes from a strange colony of uptight chatterboxes called “lawyers”, the alien will analyze further and say more precisely:

A “computer” is “any machine that can seem to do useful thinking”.

That’s the definition I’ll use in this book!

Today’s computers spend most of their time analyzing words & ideas — and very little time doing math. So you need to know just a little math to understand computers. If you know 5.2 is more than 5 and less than 6, you know enough math to master this book and get hired as a computer expert! Becoming a computer expert is easier than becoming an auto mechanic, and you don’t get greasy!

3 computer sizes

Computers come in 3 sizes: big, small, and teeny-weeny.

If the computer is big,                   it’s called a maxicomputer.

If the computer is small,                it’s called a minicomputer.

If the computer is teeny-weeny,    it’s called a microcomputer.

How big must a computer be for folks to call it a maxicomputer? Opinions differ, but here are some guidelines:

Typically, a maxicomputer  fills a whole room;

                 a minicomputer  fits in a corner of a room;

                 a microcomputer    can fit on a desk.

Typically, a microcomputer    costs between            $1 and        $10,000;

                 a minicomputer     costs between   $10,000 and      $300,000;

                 a maxicomputer     costs between $300,000 and $20,000,000.

Here are some comments about those terms:

Instead of saying “maxicomputer”, most computerists says “mainframe”, which is an old-fashioned term; but I’ll say “maxicomputer”, which is more modern and easier to understand.

The term “microcomputer” is handy. Especially if you’re male, you should say “I have a microcomputer” rather than “I have a teeny weeny”.

If a new computer understands the same commands as an old computer, the new computer is labeled the same as the old computer, regardless of its price. For example, if somebody invents a new computer that understands the same commands as an old minicomputer, the new computer is called a “minicomputer” too, even if it costs less than $10,000 or more than $300,000. If it costs less than $10,000, it’s called a low-end minicomputer (and probably runs slowly); if it costs more than $300,000, it’s called a high-end minicomputer or supermini (and probably runs fast).

Companies began selling maxicomputers in the 1950’s, minicomputers in the 1960’s, and microcomputers in the 1970’s. Now you can buy all three sizes.

Microcomputers are the most popular, because they’re the most affordable and most modern. Over 99.9% of all computers sold are microcomputers. This book will therefore emphasize microcomputers — but analyze bigger computers too!

The typical microcomputer is used by just one person at a time and therefore called a personal computer (PC). The typical maxicomputer or minicomputer handles several people simultaneously and therefore called a multi-user system, but a special kind of minicomputer serves a different purpose: it produces beautiful drawings for artistic engineers and therefore called a graphics/engineering workstation. Like microcomputers, graphics/engineering workstations are modern and nifty.

If your employer bought an old minicomputer or maxicomputer years ago and refuses to replace it with something more modern, the polite way to describe your situation is to say that you’re stuck using a legacy system, because your employer’s computer is a legacy handed down from the folks who preceded you. Yes, a legacy system is an outdated maxicomputer or minicomputer.


Instead of buying a big computer, the typical big company buys many little computers and wires them together, to form a network.

If the network’s computers all sit in the same office building,

the network is called a local-area network (LAN).

If the computers are farther apart,

the network is called a wide-area network (WAN).

Each computer in the network is called a node.

A special person, called the network supervisor, manages the network by controlling the network’s main computer, called the server. Ordinary folks (called users) sit at the network’s lesser computers (called workstations), which all are wired to the server.

In a typical network, the workstations are all simple personal computers, but the server is fancier (a souped-up microcomputer or minicomputer or maxicomputer). Many computer companies brag that they sell powerful servers, because that sounds more upbeat than saying they sell “maxicomputers and minicomputers for networks”.

The most famous wide-area network is the Internet. It began in the 1950’s as a small network (a few universities communicating with each other), but during the 1990’s it expanded dramatically, so now it includes millions of computers all over the world. If you buy a personal computer and attach it to the Internet by phone, you can share info with other folks all over the world!


Who makes computers?

IBM The most famous computer manufacturer is IBM, which stands for International Business Machines Corporation.

Too often, it’s also stood for “Incredibly Boring Machines”, “Inertia Breeds Mediocrity”, “International Big Mother”, “Imperialism By Marketing”, “Idolized By Management”, “Incompetents Becoming Managers”, “Intolerant of Beards & Mustaches”, “It Baffles Me”, “It’s a Big Mess”, and “It’s Better Manually”. But those negative comments apply just to IBM’s past: in the 1990’s IBM switched; it became open-minded and friendly.

IBM makes maxicomputers, minicomputers, and microcomputers.

Maxicomputers The first maxicomputer that was mass-produced was the Univac 1. It was built in 1951 by the Remington Rand company, which is now part of Unisys.

The Univac 1 is no longer built. Now most maxicomputers are souped-up versions of the IBM System/360, which IBM announced in 1964. IBM called it the “360” because it could handle the “full circle” of computer applications, instead of just science applications or just business applications. In 1970, IBM invented a souped-up version (called the IBM System/370) and then further improvements.

IBM’s newest maxicomputer is the IBM System/390. It understands the same commands as the IBM 360 and IBM 370 but performs them faster and understands extra commands. The newest version of the IBM System/390 is called the Generation 6 (G6).

Since IBM’s first popular maxicomputers were colored blue, IBM is nicknamed “Big Blue”.

IBM sells more maxicomputers than all IBM’s competitors combined.

During the 1960’s, maxicomputers were made by eight companies, called “IBM and the Seven Dwarfs”. The dwarfs were Burroughs, Univac,
NCR (which stood for National Cash Register), Control Data, Honeywell (whose original factory was next to a well), RCA (which stood for “Radio Corporation of America”), and General Electric.

In 1970, General Electric sold its computer division to Honeywell. In 1971, RCA’s computer division shut down. That left just five dwarfs, whose initials spelled the word BUNCH. Cynics said that maxicomputers were made by “IBM and the BUNCH”.

IBM’s top engineer (Gene Amdahl) and Control Data’s top engineer (Seymour Cray) both quit and started their own computer companies, called Amdahl and Cray.

During the 1980’s and 1990’s, each company in the BUNCH disintegrated: Burroughs merged with Univac to form Unisys; NCR was bought by AT&T (but then split away from AT&T and became independent again); Control Data stopped building computers; and Honeywell sold its computer division to a French company, Bull.

Since maxicomputers are big and old-fashioned, they’re called dinosaurs — and so are the folks who use them. When maxicomputer manufacturers merge, to form bigger conglomerate companies, the merger is called dinosaur mating.

While the BUNCH was disintegrating, a Japanese company (Hitachi) started building maxicomputers that imitate IBM’s.

Microcomputers The most popular microcomputers are made by 4 companies:

IBM sells mainly by having its salespeople phone big corporations.

Hewlett-Packard (HP) sells mainly through retail stores.

Dell and Gateway sell mainly by mail-order ads in computer magazines.

Their microcomputers all resemble an old personal computer called the IBM PC, so they’re called IBM-compatible PCs (or IBM PC clones).

IBM-compatible PCs were also made by big companies called Compaq and Emachines.

HP bought Compaq in 2002.

Gateway bought Emachines in 2004.

You can buy an IBM-compatible PC from smaller companies that charge less, such as ABS (which sells mainly by mail-order ads in Computer Shopper magazine and on the Internet).

The strangest microcomputer manufacturer is Apple. Apple’s first computer was called the original Apple. Then came the Apple 2. Now Apple sells a newer computer instead, called the Macintosh (Mac). Apple’s computers all dare to be different: they are not IBM-compatible.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s, many people bought computers made by Commodore, Atari, Texas Instruments, Timex Sinclair, and Tandy’s Radio Shack; but those companies have stopped manufacturing computers.

Minicomputers Instead of buying minicomputers, most companies buy microcomputers (which are pleasantly cheap) or maxicomputers (which are pleasantly powerful). But some minicomputers are still sold.

The first popular minicomputers were made by
Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). DEC’s earliest minicomputers were called PDP computers; then came an improved version (called the Vax, which was a very powerful server), then came an even faster version (called the Alpha).

In 1998, DEC was bought by Compaq, which mainly built microcomputers instead. In 2002, Compaq was bought by HP.

Another company that builds minicomputer servers is IBM.

The most popular graphics/engineering workstations are minicomputers built by Californians: HP, Silicon Graphics Incorporated (SGI), and Sun (which was started by Stanford University students and stands for “Stanford University Network”). Sun’s computer, called the Scalable Processor ARChitecture computer (SPARC computer), can also be used as an Internet server.

What’s popular? Here’s the surprising truth.

Of all the general-purpose computers sold today in the world,

  6% are personal computers built by IBM,

14% are clones by Dell,

16% are clones by Hewlett-Packard,

  4% are clones by Gateway,

  4% are clones by Toshiba,

  4% are clones by Fujitsu-Siemens,

48% are clones built by a wide variety of other manufacturers,

  2% are Macs (built by Apple),

the remaining 2% are weird (maxicomputers, minicomputers, strange microcomputers)

Since percentages bob up and down by 2% each month, I’ve rounded all those percentages to the nearest 2%.

In the USA, Dell is much stronger.

Of all the general-purpose computers sold today in the USA,

  6% are personal computers built by IBM,

28% are clones by Dell,

22% are clones by Hewlett-Packard,

  6% are clones by Gateway,

  4% are clones by Toshiba,

28% are clones built by a wide variety of other manufacturers,

  4% are Macs (built by Apple),

the remaining 2% are weird (maxicomputers, minicomputers, strange microcomputers)

Though IBM sells fewer computers than Dell and Hewlett-Packard, IBM makes huge profits because:

IBM sells fancy computers that are big and expensive

IBM sells mainly computer services, rather than just computers

Standard computers

Computers come in all shapes and sizes, but during the 1990’s a new standard arose. Now most computers being sold meet this standard — and cost about $1,000 (so they are microcomputers).

Prices can vary. The fastest such computers cost more than $1,000: you can pay up to $3000. The slowest such computers cost less than $1,000: you can pay as little as $500.

A standard computer includes the following parts.…

The main part is a box called the system unit. If the system unit is tall, it’s called a tower; if the system unit is wide instead, it’s called a desktop unit.

The typical tower is about 17 inches tall (and just 8 inches wide). The typical desktop unit is about 17 inches wide (and just 6 inches tall).

Since a tower (17"´8") is slightly bigger than a desktop unit (17"´6"), a tower costs slightly more and can contain more goodies.

Regardless of whether you buy a tower or a desktop unit, the distance from front to back is 16½ inches.

If you buy a desktop unit, put it on your desk. If you buy a tower instead, erect it on the floor under your desk, next to one of the desk’s legs. Men are particularly proud of their towering erections next to the legs.

8 cables What comes out of your rear? Since this is a family publication, I’m not supposed to answer that question, but I can tell you this: out of the system unit’s rear come 8 cables.

One of those cables is the power cord. It goes to a source of electricity (the electrical outlet socket in the room’s wall — or a power strip connected to that outlet). That cable feeds power to the computer.

One cable goes to the keyboard, which looks like a typewriter’s keyboard. To send a message to the computer, type the message on the keyboard. A standard computer keyboard contains 104 keys, which let you type all the letters of the alphabet, all the digits, all the punctuation symbols, and other symbols too. Some of the keys are for editing: they help you edit what you typed.

One cable goes to the monitor, which looks like a TV set: it contains a screen that shows the words you typed, the computer’s answers, and pictures.

One cable goes to the mouse, which is a small box about the size of a pack of cigarettes. If you slide the mouse across your desk, an arrow moves across your monitor’s screen. So to move the screen’s arrow, slide the mouse! To manipulate an object on the monitor’s screen, slide the mouse until the screen’s arrow moves to that object; then press the mouse’s left button.

One cable goes to the printer, which is a box that prints on paper.

One cable goes to stereo speakers, so the computer can produce sound effects, play music, sing, and talk to you!

The final two cables are phone cords. One of them goes to your telephone; the other goes to the telephone jack in your room’s wall. By using those cables, the computer can make phone calls: it can phone other computers (such as computers that are on the Internet), chat with them, make love to them, and control your phone calls too!

Altogether, the standard computer includes:

the system unit

a keyboard, monitor, mouse, printer, speakers, and cables from them to system unit

power cords from wall (or power strip) to the system unit, monitor, and printer

phone cords from the system unit to the phone and to the wall’s phone jack

Advertised price When you buy a computer, the advertised price includes most of those items: it typically includes the system unit, computer keyboard, mouse, and pair of stereo speakers. But the printer is not included in the advertised price: it costs extra.

Does the advertised price include the monitor? To find out, read the ad carefully!

If you’re lucky, the ad says “monitor included”. If the ad says “monitor optional” instead, the monitor is not included in the advertised price and costs extra.

Fortunately, ads from mail-order companies usually say the monitor is “included”. But ads from local stores usually say the monitor is not included in the advertised price: the monitor is “optional” and costs extra. If a mail-order company and a local store each advertise a computer for $1000, the mail-order company is probably offering a better deal, since the mail-order price probably includes the monitor, while the local store’s price does not.

Extras If your computer is extra-fancy, three extra cables come out of the system unit’s rear:

A cable goes to a microphone (mike), which lets you feed sounds into the computer. If you talk and sing into the mike, the computer can make digital recordings of your speech and performance, analyze them, and react accordingly!

A cable goes to a scanner, which is a box that you can shove a sheet of paper into; the scanner reads what’s on the paper and tells the computer what the paper said. If you rip an article out of a newspaper and feed it into the scanner, the scanner will transmit the newspaper’s article to the computer, so the computer can analyze what’s in the newspaper’s article and become a smarter computer! If you feed a photo into the scanner, the scanner will transmit the photo to the computer, and the photo will appear on the computer’s screen.

If your computer is part of a local-area network, a network cable goes to other computers that are part of the network.

Summary In a standard computer system, the main box is called the system unit. Cables run out the back of it to other computer devices, called external peripherals, such as the keyboard, monitor, mouse, printer, speakers, and — if your system is fancy — a microphone and scanner.

Ports On the system unit’s back wall, you’ll see many sockets to plug cables into. Each of those sockets is called a port. Here’s what the 11 most important ports look like (on a standard IBM-compatible PC):

Whose cable goes to port  Port’s name              Port’s appearance

keyboard                                    keyboard port                   circle, with 5 round pinholes in it

monitor                                     video port                       D shape, with 15 round pinholes in it

modern mouse                           PS/2 mouse port              circle, with 6 round pinholes in it

traditional mouse                       9-pin serial COM1 port    D shape, with 9 pins in it

modern printer (or scanner)       USB port                         rectangular hole with 4 wires in it

traditional printer (or scanner)   parallel printer LPT1 port  D shape, with 25 round pinholes in it

phone on your desk                   phone jack                       square hole (4 wires in it) labeled “PHONE”

phone jack on room’s wall         modem port                     square hole (4 wires in it) labeled “LINE”

another computer or fast Internet RJ-45 Ethernet port         slightly widened square hole (8 wires in it)

speakers                                     speaker jack                     1 big round pinhole, next to loudspeaker picture

microphone                               microphone jack              1 big round pinhole, labeled “MIC”

Unfortunately, the speaker jack has the same shape as the microphone jack. Make sure you don’t mix them up! If you accidentally plug a speaker into the microphone jack, you’ll hear a loud buzz!

The phone jack has the same shape as the modem port, but many computers still work even if you mix up those ports.

All the other ports are safer: they have different shapes to prevent mix-ups.

A connector (a port or the end of a cable) that has pins sticking out of it is called male (because the pins look like little penises). A connector that has holes instead is called female (because it’s eager to have a male connector plugged into it).

Setup Setting up the computer is easy! Just plug the cables into the components and ports, and you’re done!

Portable computers

Instead of buying a standard computer (tower or desktop), you can buy a portable computer, which is easier to carry.

To be called portable, the computer must weigh less than 32 pounds. That weight must include all parts except the printer. The computer must be small enough to be carried with one hand. (To make it easy to carry with one hand, the computer might include a handle.)

Classic definitions Here’s how computer experts defined 5 kinds of portable computers:

A luggable computer          weighs between   16 and 32 pounds.

A laptop computer            weighs between     8 and 16 pounds.

A notebook computer      weighs between     4 and   8 pounds.

A subnotebook computer weighs between     2 and   4 pounds.

A pocket computer            weighs less than    2 pounds.

Here are more details:

A luggable computer is about the size of a portable sewing machine or bulging briefcase. Carrying it is not pleasant, but you can lug it if you have a strong arm.

A laptop computer is smaller. It’s small enough to fit in your lap.

A notebook computer is even smaller. It’s about the size of a student’s 3-ring-binder notebook holding a ream of paper. It’s about 12 inches wide, 11 inches from front to back, and 2 inches thick.

A subnotebook computer is even smaller.

A pocket computer is the smallest kind of portable computer. It’s small enough to fit in your pocket. It looks like a pocket calculator but lets you type all the letters of the alphabet (because it includes extra keys or includes a touch-sensitive screen you can scribble on).

New definitions Now most people speak differently

Any computer from 1¾ to 16 pounds is called a      laptop computer.

Any computer from 1¾ to   8 pounds is called a      notebook computer.

Any computer from 1¾ to   4 pounds is called an ultralight notebook computer.

Any computer from 1¾ to   2 pounds is called an amazingly ultralight notebook computer.

Any computer under 1¾   pounds is called a handheld computer.

Any computer between 16 and 32 pounds is called a barely portable computer.

Here are more details:

A laptop computer is any computer small enough to fit in your lap but not small enough to fit in your hand. If the laptop computer weighs less than 8 pounds, it’s called a notebook computer, because it’s no bigger than a student’s 3-ring binder notebook holding a ream of paper. If the notebook computer is very light (less than 4 pounds), it’s called an ultralight notebook computer. If the ultralight notebook computer weighs less than 2 pounds, it’s an amazingly ultralight notebook computer.

A handheld computer is any computer small enough to fit in the palm of your hand (or in your pocket).

A barely portable computer is any computer that’s too big to fit in your lap but can be carried with one hand if you have a strong arm.

What’s popular? Portable computers over 8 pounds are unpopular because they’re too heavy to carry pleasantly. Portable computers between 1¾ and 4 pounds are unpopular because, to make the weight so low, they tend to be missing some features, and miniaturizing the included features requires high technology that costs too much.

That leaves two categories, which are popular.…

4-to-8 pound notebook computers include most of the features of huge computers and can be cheap. You can get 7¾-pound versions for just $800 from manufacturers such as HP and Toshiba.

The typical notebook computer (such as ones by HP and Toshiba) uses a clamshell design: it opens, like a clamshell, to reveal two parts:

The bottom part (1 inch high) contains the main system-unit circuitry with a built-in keyboard, built-in pair of stereo speakers, built-in touchpad (a square pad you rub with your finger instead of using a mouse), and built-in battery.

The top part pries up to become a screen (made of the same materials used in screens of pocket calculators and digital wristwatches).

The notebook computer can get power from its built-in battery; but if you plug the computer into a wall’s electrical outlet, the computer will use the wall’s power instead while the battery recharges.

Though notebook computers can be as cheap as $800, tower computers can be even cheaper: just $400! Notebook computers cost about twice as much as desktop computers having similar abilities. Buy a notebook computer instead of a desktop computer just if you insist on portability and are willing to pay for it.

Handheld computers (which are also called pocket computers and palmtop computers) weigh very little and are cheap. You can get a ¼-pound version (called the Zire 21), manufactured by PalmOne, for just $99.

The typical handheld computer (such as the Zire 21) comes with programs that help you jot notes, store phone numbers, and keep track of appointments and to-do lists. That kind of handheld computer is called a personal digital assistant (PDA).

The typical handheld computer (such as the Zire 21) uses a touch-sensitive screen instead of a keyboard.

If you want a handheld PDA with a touch-sensitive screen, you can buy either the Zire 21 or one of its competitors, such as the Handspring Treo, the Sony Clié, the Compaq iPaq Pocket PC, and the
HP Journada.

Some handheld computers are more traditional: they use a keyboard instead of a touch-sensitive screen. Those traditional handheld computers (which are usually still called “pocket computers”) are made by Sharp, Casio, HP, and Radio Shack.

Hidden computers

A hidden computer (or embedded computer) hides inside another device. For example, a computer hides inside your digital watch. Other computers hide inside your pocket calculator, your Nintendo video-game machine, your microwave oven, and your car’s dashboard.

Since such a computer dedicates its entire life to performing just one task (such as “telling the time”), it’s also called a dedicated computer. Most such computers cost under $10.

Prices drop

On average, computer prices drop 3% per month. That price decline’s been in effect ever since the 1940’s, and there’s no sign of it stopping.

Suppose for a particular computer item the average price charged by dealers is $100. Next month, that item’s average price will probably drop 3%, to $97. After two months, its average price will have dropped about 3% again, so its price will be 97% of $97, which is $94.09.

Here’s how the math works out:

On the average, computer prices drop

about 3% per month,

30% per year,

50% every two years,

90% every six years,

99% every twelve years.


If a computer item’s average price is $100 today,

it will probably be   $97 next month,

                              $70 a year from now,

                              $50 two years from now,

                              $10 six years from now,

                                $1 twelve years from now.

The typical computer costs about $1000. Here’s what the math looks like for a $1000 system:

If a computer system costs you $1000 today,

it will probably cost you

$970 if you buy a month from now,

$700 if you buy a year from now,

$500 if you buy 2 years from now,

$100 if you buy 6 years from now,

  $10 if you buy 12 years from now.

Does that mean computer stores will be selling lots of computers for $10 twelve years from now? No! Instead, computer stores will still be selling computers for about $1000, but those $1000 systems will be much fancier than the systems sold today. By comparison, today’s systems will look primitive — much too primitive to run the programs-of-the-future — so they’ll be sold off as old, quaint, primitive junk in flea markets and garage sales.

Find that hard to believe? To become a believer in rapidly dropping prices, just try this experiment: walk into a flea market or garage sale today, and you’ll see computer systems selling for $10 that sold for $1000 twelve years ago!

So the longer you wait to buy a computer, the less you’ll pay. But the longer you wait, the longer you’ll be deprived of having a computer, and the further behind you’ll be in computerizing your life and becoming a computer expert.

Don’t wait. Begin your new computerized life now!

Inside the system unit

The system unit is a magical box that you’ll probably never need to open. But someday, you’ll get curious about what’s inside.

How to peek

Here’s how to peek inside the system unit of a standard computer (tower or desktop).

Make sure the computer’s turned off.

Remove the screws from the 4 corners of the system unit’s back wall. Notice how big those screws are. Remove any other screws of that size from the back wall’s edges.

Then remove the system unit’s cover:

If the unit’s a tower, pull the cover back slightly, then lift it.

If the unit’s a desktop, slide the cover forward — or if it refuses, try sliding the cover back — then lift it slightly.

If the cover doesn’t quite come off, jiggle it slightly, and also double-check whether you’ve removed all the screws holding it in place.

Finally, peek into the system unit and admire the goodies within! To be safe, avoid touching them.

Circuit boards

Inside the system unit, you see several green plastic boards, called circuit boards (because they have electric circuits on them). On each circuit board, you see many black rectangular objects, called chips: each chip contains a miniature electronic circuit inside!


The biggest circuit board is called the motherboard (or, more briefly, mobo). It’s about the size of sheet of paper (8½" ´ 11"). In a desktop unit, the mobo lies flat on the bottom; in a tower, the mobo is vertical, attached to the tower’s right edge.


On the mobo, the biggest chip is the one that does most of the thinking. That chip is called the central processing unit (CPU). It’s also called the microprocessor. A standard computer uses a brand of microprocessor called a Pentium, manufactured by an intelligent California company called Intel.

Yes, in a microcomputer, most of the thinking is done by a single chip, called the microprocessor.

In older, bigger computers, the thinking is done by a gigantic collection of chips working together, instead of a single microprocessor chip. That collection is called the processor. The term microprocessor was invented by folks amazed that a processor could be made small enough to fit on a single chip.

Expansion cards

Besides the motherboard, the system unit contains smaller circuit boards (called expansion cards) that snap into slots in the motherboard.

The most important expansion card is the video card. It manages the monitor. It includes the video port, which attaches to the cable that comes from the monitor.

Another expansion card is the sound card. It manages the stereo speakers and microphone and attaches to the cables that comes from them.

Another expansion card is the modem (pronounced “mode em”). It manages phone signals and attaches to cables that come from the phone and the phone jack.

If your computer is part of a local-area network, your computer includes a network interface card (NIC), which attaches to the network cable that comes from the network’s other computers.

The keyboard does not have its own expansion card. Instead, the keyboard’s cable plugs directly into the motherboard.


The three most popular kinds of memory are ROM chips, RAM chips, and disks.

ROM chips remember info permanently. Even if you turn off the computer’s power, ROM chips continue to remember what they’ve been told. The most important ROM chips are on the motherboard.

RAM chips remember info temporarily. They’re electronic scratchpads that the CPU uses to store temporary reminders. For example, they remember what problem the computer’s working on at the moment. They get erased when you switch to a different computer problem or turn the computer off.

In an old computer, most RAM chips are on the motherboard, where the RAM chips are arranged in rows, 8 or 9 RAM chips per row. In a new computer, the RAM chips are instead on tiny expansion cards, which snap into tiny slots on the motherboard: each tiny RAM cards is called a single in-line memory module (SIMM) and holds 3, 8, or 9 RAM chips.

Disks work slower than ROM chips and RAM chips but can hold more info. Like ROM chips, disks can remember info permanently: unplugging the computer does not erase the disks. To use a disk, you must put it into a disk drive, which reads what’s on the disk. In a standard computer, the system unit includes 3 disk drives, to handle 3 kinds of disks:

A CD-ROM disk looks like a Compact Disk (CD) that music comes on, but a CD-ROM disk contain computer data instead of just music.

A floppy disk is made of flimsy material but comes encased is a sturdy square jacket, which is typically 3½ inches on each side (though older disks come in 5¼-inch jackets instead). You can insert the floppy disk (including its jacket)  into the floppy-disk drive. You can also remove the floppy disk (including its jacket) from the drive.

The typical hard disk is made of hard material, hides in the hard-disk drive permanently, and never comes out, so you never see it.

Each of those three types has its own advantages:

CD-ROM and floppy disks can be removed from their drives.

The typical hard disk cannot.

You can edit info if it’s on a hard disk or floppy disk,

but not if it’s on a typical CD-ROM disk.

The typical hard disk can hold lots of info.

The typical CD-ROM disk holds less.

A floppy disk holds even less.

Power supply

The power cord comes from your office’s wall and goes into the back of the system unit. Look inside the system unit, at the back wall, where the power cord goes in. There you see, inside the system unit, a big metal box, called the power supply.

If you look in a tower, the power supply is usually at the top of the back wall.

If you stand in front of a desktop computer and look down into it, so you see an aerial view, the power supply is usually in the back right corner.

The power supply is an AC/DC transformer: it converts the alternating current (coming from your office’s wall) to the direct current that your computer requires.








The 3 wares

To build a complete computer system, you need hardware, software, and liveware.


Computer equipment is called hardware because it’s built from wires, screws, and other parts you can buy in hardware & electronics stores. Cynics say it’s called “hardware” because it’s hard to fix and because, when you try to buy hardware, you’ll get screwed and go nuts.

I/O The info that the computer gives out is called the computer’s output: it includes the computer’s answers and reports. The info that the computer takes in is called the input: it includes your questions and commands.

The computer hardware that that handle input and output are called input/output devices (I/O devices). The most popular I/O devices to buy are a keyboard, monitor, mouse, printer, microphone, modem (which connects to the phone system), and speakers.

3 types of hardware I said that a computer is “any machine that can seem to do useful thinking”. For a computer to do “useful thinking”, you must buy 3 types of hardware:

The processor does the thinking itself; it processes info.

The memory remembers the computer’s thoughts; it includes RAM, ROM, disks.

The I/O devices communicate those thoughts.

Each type is important and useful. A computer without memory is as useless as a person who says “I had a great idea but can’t remember it.” A computer without an input/output system is as useless as a person who says, “I had a great idea and remember it but won’t tell you.”

When you’re buying a computer, check all 3 types and make sure they’re good. This book explains how to judge them.


The info that the computer deals with is called software, because you can’t feel it: it flows through the computer’s circuits as coded pulses of electricity.

The computer can handle two kinds of software: data (lists of names, addresses, numbers, words, and facts) and programs (lists of instructions that tell the computer what to do).

To feed the computer software (data and programs), you can type on the keyboard, or insert ROM chips or disks containing the software, or let the computer receive the software from another computer (by running wires between the computers or letting the computers chat with each other by phone).

If you feed the computer wrong software — wrong facts or wrong instructions — the computer will print wrong answers. Wrong stuff is called garbage. If you feed the computer some garbage, the computer spits out garbage answers.

If a computer prints wrong answers, the computer might not be broken; it might just have been fed wrong data or programs. If you tell a technician to fix it, the technician might reply, “Hey, the computer’s fine! Don’t blame the computer! It’s your fault for feeding it garbage! If you put garbage in, you get garbage out!” That’s called the principle of garbage in, garbage out (which is abbreviated GIGO, pronounced “guy go”). The technician will say, “it’s just a case of GIGO”.


The person sitting at the computer is called the liveware, operator, user, or meathead — because the person’s head is made of meat instead of wires.

The term meathead was first shouted publicly by that TV character from New York: Archie Bunker. The term liveware was invented in 1982 by Garry Trudeau, creator of the Doonesbury cartoons.


For a complete computer system, you need all 3 wares: the hardware (equipment), software (info), and liveware (people).

Beware of the 3 wares! You can spend lots to buy hardware (and repair it), buy software (and improve it), and hire helpers (and train them). Make sure you’ve budgeted for all 3 wares!

Congratulations! Now you know the 3 ways that buying a computer can suck up your money. Yes, buying a computer can really suck.



Computers are like drugs: you begin by spending just a little on them but soon get so excited by the experience — and so hooked — that you wind up spending more and more to feed your habit.

Your first computer experience seems innocent: you spend just a little money for a cute little computer. You turn the computer on and suddenly the computer’s screen shows dazzling superhuman colors that swirl hypnotically before you. You say “Wow, look at all those colors!” and feel a supernatural high.

But after two months of freaking out with your new computer, the high wears off and you wonder, “What can I buy that’s new, exciting, and gives me an even bigger high?” So you buy more stuff to attach to your computer. Now you’re in really deep, financially and spiritually. You’re hooked. You’ve become addicted to computers. Each month you return to your favorite computer store to search for an even bigger high — and spend more money.

Look at me. I’m a typical computer junkie. I’ve already bought 50 computers, and I’m still going. Somebody help me! My computers have taken over my home. Whenever I try to go to sleep, I see those computers staring at me, their lights winking, tempting me to spend a few more hours in naughty fun, even if the sun’s already beginning to rise.

Computerists use the same lingo as druggies: to buy a computer, you go to a dealer; and when you finally start using your computer, you’re called a user.

As your addiction deepens and you search for greater highs, you squander even more money on computer equipment, called hardware. You stay up late (playing computer games or removing errors), so next morning you go to work bleary-eyed. Your boss soon suspects your computer habit, realizes you’re not giving full attention to your job, and fires you.

Jobless while your computer bills mount ever higher, you run out of money to spend on computers, but your computer addiction still runs through your brain. To support your habit, you write or buy programs and try to resell them to friends. That makes you a pusher. You turn your friends into addicts too, and you all join the increasing subculture of computer junkies.

Drugs differ from computers in just one way: if you’re into drugs, people call you a “washout”; but if you’re into computers, people say you have a “wonderful career” — and they’re right!

As a computer pusher, you can make lots of dough, but just if instead of calling yourself a “pusher” you call yourself a computer consultant. Yes, a computer consultant is a person who gives computer advice to other victims — and pushes them into buying more computers!

A computer consultant who gives free help seems kind, but the truth is revealed in these lines of Tom Lehrer’s song, “The Old Dope Peddler”:

He gives the kids free samples

Because he knows full well

That today’s young innocent faces

Will be tomorrow’s clientele.

Your marriage

The computer will fascinate you. It’ll seduce you to spend more time with it. You’ll fall in love with it. You’ll start buying it presents: exotic foods (expensive programs to munch on) and expensive jewels (a printer and fancier speakers).

Then the computer will demand you give it more. While you enjoy an exciting orgy with your computer and think it’s the most joyous thing that ever happened to you, suddenly the computer will demand you buy it more memory. It’ll refuse to continue the orgy until you agree to its demand. And you’ll agree — eagerly!

The computer’s a demanding lover. You’ll feel married to it.

Marrying a computer is much groovier than marrying a person: computers are good at “getting it on” (they make you feel all electric and tingly) and they never argue (they’re always ready to “do it”, except when they “have a headache”).

I wanted to call this book “The Sexual Guide to Computers” and put a photo of my computer wife and me on the cover; but some communities still prohibit mixed marriages. That cover would be banned in Boston, which is where I’ve lived. So I had to play cool and say “Secret” Guide to Computers. But here’s the real secret: this book’s about sex.

If you marry a computer but already married a human, your human spouse will call you a “bigamist” and feel jealous of the computer. Your marriage to that human can deteriorate and end in divorce.

Several women got divorced because they took my computer course. Their husbands had two complaints:

“You spend most of your time with the computer instead of with me.

When you do spend time with me, all you want to talk about is the computer.”

To prevent such marital problems, coax your spouse to play a game on the computer. Your spouse will get hooked on the game, become as addicted to the computer as you, enjoy blabbing about the computer with you, and encourage you spend money on your habit. Sociologists call that technological progress.

Why buy a computer?

The average American has three goals: to make money, have fun, and “become a better person”. Making money is called business; having fun is called pleasure; and becoming a better person is called personal development. The computer will help you do all three: it’ll improve your business, increase your pleasure, and help you grow into a better person.

Nowadays, computers are bought by men, women, and children of all ages, but the traditional computer buyer has been a male following this pattern (called “male-pattern badness”):

During lunch hour, he walks into a computer store, says he wants to computerize his business, and buys a computer, especially when the salesperson reminds him that the IRS gives a tax break for buying it since it’s a “business expense”.

He brings it home but feels guilty about having spent so much. How will he convince his wife that the purchase was wise?

Suppose his wife’s an old-fashioned mom who cooks. He tries to convince her that the computer will help her cook.…

“It will help you store your recipes, darling,” he coos.

“No thanks,” she replies. “When I find a recipe in the newspaper, I don’t want to spend 20 minutes typing the recipe into the computer. I’d rather just clip it from the newspaper and — presto! — tape it to a file card. My manual system is faster than a computerized one!”

He tries again. “You could use the computer to store your phone numbers. When you want to find a phone number, the computer will tell you instantly.”

She retorts, “No thanks. To make a phone call, I don’t want to turn the computer on, request the phone-number program, wait for the computer to ask whose number I’m interested in, type in the jerk’s name, then wait for the computer to respond. Instead of doing all that, I can more quickly open my little black phone book, flip to the page where the number is, and dial my friend. Try again, lover-boy!”

“Well, darling, you could use the computer to remind you of birthdays and appointments.”

“You must be crazy! I remember them quite well without a computer. I scribble a note on my calendar, which serves fine and costs $10 instead of $700. I understand how a disorganized bird-brain male (like you!) might need a computer to survive; but since we women are better organized, we don’t need to rely on mechanical help.”

Though the computer does not fulfill any real need in the home, he buys the computer anyway — for the thrill of it — and looks for an excuse to justify the cost. The computer’s a solution looking for a problem.

If you buy a computer, the idea of “using the computer to run your business” and “using the computer to store recipes” are just excuses. Here are the REAL reasons why people buy computers.…

Teenager: “Computers are a blast: sci-fi come true! They’re even more fun than becoming an astronaut! And I can use them to chat with my friends without parents complaining that I’m wasting time on the phone. Cool!”

Parent: “Computers are taking over the world! My kids must become computer-competent to survive! If I buy my kids a computer, they’ll explore it (instead of sex & drugs), wonder how it’s programmed, become programmers, get straight A’s in school, become computer consultants, and make lots of dough, so they can support me in my old age and I can brag about them to my neighbors.”

Grandparent: “I want to be part of the new century. The world’s becoming computerized, and I don’t want my grandkids to say I’m ‘out of it.’ I want to savor this new excitement. I wouldn’t blow money on this stuff myself, but my kids are giving me a computer so grandkids can send me mail and photos electronically, using the Internet. Those grandkids are so cute! Computers are so much fun!”

Kindergartner: “Grandma, I wanna computer for my birthday! And if you don’t buy it, they say I’ll never go to Harvard.”

Social climber: “Damn! Now that big cars and cell phones are passé, the computer’s the only status symbol left. I’m sick of being intimidated by neighbors and bosses spouting computer jargon, and I’m tired of the guys at the bar bragging about how big their computers are. I’m gonna learn that mumbo-jumbo myself so I can get back at those pompous asses and intimidate them!”

Worried worker: “My company is computerizing. If I don’t master computers, they’ll master me and steal my job! If I learn enough about computers, I can keep my job, get promoted, then quit and become a rich computer consultant!”

Middle-aged: “My life’s a bore. I need a fun new hobby — a computer! It would also help my business. I could fondle that cute toy when my company retires me, then start my own business, advertise on the Internet, and become internationally famous!”

Adventurer: “The computer’s a challenge. If I can master it, that’ll prove I’m not as stupid as people say!”

Wanting what’s due: “I’ve been treated like shit all my life; I deserve a computer! I’m gonna get my hands on that mean machine and make it my personal slave.”

Subversive: “If Big Brother has Big Blue watching me, I’ll turn my computer into Big Mama and scramble their waves!”

Doctor: “Playing with the computer’s anatomy is like playing God — and the computer could make my patients pay their bills!”

English teacher: “My students are hooked on computers. I’m gonna find out why, then make computers channel the kids’ excitement toward a higher good: poetry!”

Social-studies teacher: “The Internet is amazing! So much info is  published there about current events and history and the future! I’ve gotta show it to my students, so they’ll become part what this world is about! Then they’ll do research by using the Internet, publish their own papers on the Internet, become internationally famous, and make me famous for being their teacher!”

Will your computer fulfill all those dreams? This Guide will help you find out!


When you buy a new computer for your business, you’ll have lots of hassles.

Repairs Since a complete computer system includes so many parts (CPU, ROM, RAM, disks, keyboard, screen, mouse, printer, stereo speakers, modem, microphone, scanner, network card, software, etc.), at least one of them won’t work properly, and you’ll need to fix it. Since the manufacturer or store typically provides free repairs during the first year, you’ll lose nothing but your temper.

Manuals You won’t completely understand the manuals for your hardware & software, so you’ll ask your friends and me for help. You can also try getting help from the manufacturers and dealers; but if your question’s long-winded, their answers will be curt.

If the dealer who sold you the computer is honest, he’ll say, “I don’t know how to run all the hardware and software I sold you. To learn how, read the manuals and buy books in bookstores. No, I haven’t read them myself, because they’re too long-winded, complicated, and vague. If you don’t like the manuals, take our courses, which are expensive and won’t teach you as much as you need but at least make you feel you’re making some progress.”

Most dealers are not that candid.

Programs If you try writing your own programs, you’ll discover Murphy’s law: no matter how long you think a program will take to write, it will take you longer. If you’re wiser and try to buy a finished program from somebody else, you’ll find the program works worse than advertised, its manual is missing or unintelligible, and you’ll need to modify the program to meet your personal needs.

Data entry If you figure out how to use the program, your next torture is to type the data you want the program to process. The typing is sheer drudgery, but you must do it.

Worthwhile? Those headaches are just the beginning of what can become an extended nightmare. Buying a computer starts by being exciting but quickly becomes nerve-racking.

Eventually, you’ll pass that nerve-racking transition stage and be thrilled.

That painful transition is worth the effort if you plan to use the computer a lot. If you plan to use a computer just occasionally, you’d be better off not buying a computer at all: continue doing your work manually.

Promises Salespeople wanting you to buy fancy hardware or software say “it will be great”, but computer stuff never turns out as good as promised.

For example, here’s the tale of the woman who was married 3 times but remained a virgin:

Her first husband, on his wedding night, discovered he was impotent; her second husband, on his wedding night, decided he was gay; and her third husband was a computer salesman who spent the whole night saying how great it was going to be. Computer salesmen make great promises but don’t deliver.

Here’s the story of the programmer who died and went to Heaven’s gate, guarded by St. Peter, who let the programmer choose between Heaven and Hell:

The programmer peeked at Heaven and saw angels singing boring songs. He peeked at Hell and saw a beach full of beautiful bodies sunbathing and frolicking, so he chose Hell. Suddenly the beach vanished, and he was dragged to a chamber of eternal torture. When he asked “What happened to the beach?”, the devil replied “Oh, that was just the demo.”

Though hot technologies look beautifully enticing, when you try to experience them you’ll have a devil of a time!



To keep up-to-date about computers, read newspapers and magazines. They contain the latest computer news, criticize hardware and software, advise you on what to buy, and include ads for the newest products, services, and discount dealers.

Some ads and articles use technical computer jargon, which you’ll understand by reading this book.

How to get periodicals

Visit your local computer stores, bookstores, and newspaper stands, and buy a copy of each newspaper and magazine that interests you.

If you live near Boston, you’ll find many computer magazines in the kiosks in the middle of Harvard Square (at Out of Town News and Nini’s Corner) and at a chain of convenience stores called White Hen Pantry. Two computer-store chains (Comp USA and Micro Center) sell computer magazines at discounted prices.

After reading the periodicals you bought — or borrowed from your local library — subscribe to the ones you like best.

Most periodicals come with a coupon that gives you a “special” discount off the subscription price “for new subscribers, if you hurry”. Don’t bother hurrying: the same discount is offered to practically everybody every year. And next year, when you renew, you’ll be offered the same “special” discount, “for our loyal readers, if you hurry”.

Shortly after buying a one-year subscription, you’ll receive a dishonest letter from the publisher warning that your subscription will “run out soon” and that “if you renew now, you’ll get a special discount”. Don’t believe the letter; “run out soon” usually means “run out eight months from now”, and “if you renew now” means “if you renew sometime within the eight months, or even later”. Feel free to wait.

How to read reviews

Many computer periodicals review the newest hardware and software. Don’t take the reviews too seriously: the typical review is written by just one person and reflects just that individual’s opinion.

Some reviewers are too easy: they heap praise and say everything is “excellent”. Other reviewers are too demanding: they say everything is “terrible”. If one product gets a rave review, and a competing product gets a scathing review, the reason might be the difference between reviewers rather than the difference between products.

Giant conglomerates

Most computer magazines and newspapers are published by two giant conglomerates: Ziff-Davis and IDG.

Ziff-Davis is a gigantic publisher in Manhattan. By the 1970’s Ziff-Davis was publishing magazines about many hobbies. In 1982, when computers became a popular hobby, Ziff-Davis bought several computer-magazine publishers, so it’s become a conglomerate of hobby-magazine and computer-magazine publishers. Ziff-Davis is usually called ZD or just Ziff. It’s based in Manhattan. It was bought by a Japanese company called Softbank, which then resold it to a group of American investors.

IDG (based in Framingham, Massachusetts) began publishing Computerworld in 1967. Later it bought up and published many other computer periodicals around the world. Now IDG publishes 270 computer periodicals in 75 countries.

Ziff and IDG have declared war on each other. For example, IDG refuses to publish articles by columnists who submit articles to Ziff. Each computer columnist must choose between either being a Ziffer or an IDG’er.

Mostly monthly

Most computer magazines are published monthly and let you buy individual issues (for under $5) or an annual subscription (for about $25).

General computer magazines

Here are the 5 best computer magazines for the general public:

Magazine            Publisher   Price Pages  1 year           2 yr.  Editorial office   Toll free

Computer Shopper CNet           $4.99 200       12 issues, $25  $45    NY 212-503-3900 800-274-6384

PC World              IDG             $6.99 200       12 issues, $25  $50    CA  415-243-0500 800-825-7595

PC Magazine         Ziff-Davis    $5.99 150       22 issues, $40  $60    NY 212-503-5100 800-289-0429

Maximum PC        FutureNetwk    $8.99 150       12 issues, $12  $24    CA  415-468-4684 800-274-3421

Smart Computing   Sandhills      $5.99 100       12 issues, $29  $48    NE  402-479-2104 800-733-3809

I’ve put the most important (Computer Shopper) at the top of the list, and listed the others in order of importance. That list shows each periodical’s name, publisher, price (for a single issue), number of pages (rounded to the nearest 50), how many issues are printed per year, price of a 1-year subscription (using the discount card that’s in the magazine), price of a 2-year subscription, editorial office’s state and phone number, and any toll-free number for ordering a subscription.

To be fully aware of what’s happening with computers, get all 6 of those magazines. If you can’t afford all 6, start at the list’s top and work your way down.

Topping the list is Computer Shopper.

It’s the magazine where the most aggressive discount dealers advertise. It’s where you’ll find the lowest prices. That’s why people buy it: to look at the ads. It’s also the only magazine that includes an ad index, where you can look up any vendor and find its ad.

Subscribers receive Computer Shopper about the 15th day of the preceding month: for example, they receive the February issue on about January 15th. You won’t find it in stores until about 2 weeks after that: for example, you won’t find the February issue in stores until the last few days of January.

Computer Shopper used to be independent but was bought by Ziff-Davis, which in turn was bought by Softbank, which sold Computer Shopper to CNet.

PC World is the best-balanced magazine. It’s more carefully edited than Computer Shopper.

Of all the computer magazines, PC World does the best job of surveying readers to find out which computer brands are the most reliable and which computer companies are most helpful when answering phone calls. PC World publishes the survey results twice a year.

Even if you buy just one issue of PC World, you can learn a lot from it, since each issue includes an updated list of the best brands of desktop computers, notebook computers, printers, video cards, and modems, with detailed ratings.

Each issue of PC Magazine concentrates on a few topics and covers them more thoroughly than any other magazine. For example, a PC Magazine article about printers will compare more printers than any other magazine.

Since the typical PC Magazine article is thorough and long, just a few articles appear in each issue. But a 1-year subscription gets you lots of issues: 22 of them (1 issue in July, 1 in August, and 2 in each other month).

PC Magazine tends to recommend computer equipment that’s expensive, since PC Magazine assumes its typical reader is willing to spend $3,000 on a computer system. I wish the magazine would try to help readers whose income is lower.

I can’t imagine anybody reading a complete issue of PC Magazine from cover to cover. Do you really want to read so many details about every printer? PC Magazine is like an encyclopedia: you’re not supposed to read it all, but you’re glad to know it’s all there.

PC Magazine is historic: it was the first magazine about the IBM PC and clones. At first, it was independent. When Ziff-Davis bought it, most of the staff quit and started PC World for Ziff-Davis’s competitor, IDG. Then Ziff-Davis hired a new staff, which was excellent but eventually left to start newer magazines.

Maximum PC is the most youthful, exciting, and irreverent computer magazine. The writers aren’t afraid to get cocky and trash the products they hate, using almost-four-letter words. They emphasize advanced hardware fiddling (explained from the ground up), computer games (and the graphics tricks underlying them), and other high-tech wow. Subscriptions cost just $12 per year. A single issue is expensive ($8.99) because it includes a CD-ROM disk (which is not included in the subscription price).

Of all the magazines, the easiest to read is Smart Computing.

Since it’s easy, it was called “PC Novice” but changed its name to “Smart Computing” to emphasize that it helps everybody who wants to become smarter, not just beginners.

Each article is superbly crafted to explain even hard topics simply. If you want to understand how computers work, this is the magazine to get. Unlike other computer magazines, this magazine emphasizes “how computers work” rather than “which brands to buy”. It also has the best “consumer complaint” department, where the Action Editor phones the companies that have screwed customers; the Action Editor usually succeeds in getting the companies to give refunds or exchanges.

This magazine is the shortest — but sweetest!

All other computer magazines are published in California or on the East Coast, but Smart Computing is published in Nebraska instead. Maybe that’s why its writing is straightforward instead of strung out.

Mac magazines

Here are the best magazines about Apple’s Mac computers:

Magazine  Publisher          Price Pages     1 year           2 yr.  Editorial office   Toll free

Macworld     Mac Publishing   $7.99 150          12 issues, $35  $60    CA  415-243-0505 800-627-2247

Mac Addict  FutureNetwk       $7.99 150+CD    12 issues, $30  $60    CA  415-468-4869

The two serious Mac magazines used to be IDG’s Macworld and Ziff’s Mac User, but in 1997 those magazines merged into a combo called Macworld, It’s published by a company called Mac Publishing, owned by IDG and Ziff working together. Mac Addict is wackier and costs more because it comes with a CD.

Computer newsweeklies

Here are the best sources of weekly news about computers:

Newsweekly    Publisher   Price Pages  1 year                        Editorial office   Toll free

Computerworld   IDG             $5      50         51 issues, $100 or $0 MA 508-879-0700 888-559-7327

E Week               Ziff-Davis    $6      50         51 issues, $195 or $0 MA781-938-2600 888-663-8438

Each is published weekly (except the week after Christmas). E Week (which used to be called PC Week) emphasizes the IBM PC and clones. Computerworld emphasizes bigger systems and management/social issues.

They’re intended for computerists who buy lots of computers. To subscribe, you complete application forms asking how many computer purchases you make or influence yearly. If you answer acceptably, you get the newspapers free; otherwise, you must pay a lot.

That method of distribution — “specialists get it free, idiots pay through the nose” — is called controlled circulation. It assures advertisers that the readers are either influential or rich. Alas, it widens the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots”: if you’re a low-income novice, this policy is guaranteed to “keep you in your place”, unless you’re lucky enough to find those magazines in your local library.

Examine the back page

In many computer magazines and newspapers, the most fascinating writing occurs on the back page. For example, the best humorist is Connolly (whose cartoons grace E Week’s back page), and the best rumor-mongerer is Spencer F. Katt (who’s a cartoon cat on E Week’s back page).

Daily newspapers

For today’s news about computers, read the business section of your town’s daily newspaper, or read national newspapers such as USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.

Every Thursday is computer day. That’s when The New York Times publishes its Circuits section (which is section E), and that’s when The Wall Street Journal runs Walter Mossberg’s computer column (on the first page of the Marketplace section).


Discount dealers

In computer magazines and newspapers, many ads offering big discounts. And if you buy from a dealer who isn’t in your state, the dealer won’t charge you sales tax.

Discount dealers change prices every month. Instead of asking them for catalogs (which might be out of date), examine their most recent ads. Then phone to confirm the prices. Usually, prices go down every month, but sometimes they rise.

Before buying, ask whether the product’s in stock, how long the dealer will take to fill your order, and how it will be shipped. Ask what the dealer charges for shipping: many dealers overcharge! Ask whether there’s a surcharge for using a credit card. Since products are improved often, make sure the dealer is selling you the newest version.

If the product you get is defective, the dealer or manufacturer will fix or replace it. But if the product is merely “disappointing” or doesn’t do what you expected or isn’t compatible with the rest of your computer system, tough luck!

Many discount dealers say “all sales are final.” Other dealers let you return computers but not printers, monitors, or software. Some dealers let you return products but charge you a “restocking fee”, which can be up to 25% of the purchase price!

So before you buy, ask questions about the product’s abilities to make sure it will do what you expect. Tell the dealer what hardware and software you own, and ask the dealer whether the product’s compatible with your system.

The typical product comes in a cardboard box. On the back of the box (or on some other side), you’ll usually see a list of the system requirements. That’s a list of what hardware and software you must already own to make that product work with your computer.

Use your credit card

Pay by credit card rather than a check. If you pay by credit card and have an unresolved complaint about what you bought, Federal laws say that the credit-card company can’t bill you! Moreover, if the mail-order company takes your money, spends it, and then goes bankrupt before shipping your goods, the credit-card company gets stuck, not you!

The nicest credit cards (such as Citibank’s) double the manufacturer’s warranty, so a “one-year warranty” becomes a two-year warranty! Does your credit card give you that warranty extension? Ask your bank!

What’s missing?

When buying computer equipment, find out what the advertised price does not include.

For example, the advertised price for a “complete computer system” might not include the screen. Ask! In a typical printer ad, the price does not include the cable that goes from the printer to your computer.

Read the fine print

When reading an ad, make sure you read the fine print at the bottom of the ad. It contains many disclaimers, which admit that the deal isn’t quite as good as the rest of the ad implies.

Asterisk In the middle of an ad, next to an exciting price or feature or warranty, you’ll often see an asterisk (*). The asterisk means: “for details, read the fine print at the bottom of the ad”. That fine print contains disclaimers that will disappoint you. In long multi-page ads, the fine print is often buried at the bottom of just one of the ad’s pages, far away from the page where the asterisk appeared, in the hope that you won’t notice the fine print.

So if you see what looks like a great deal, but the deal has an asterisk next to it, the asterisk means “the deal is not really as great as we imply”.

Fine-print phrases In many computer ads, the fine print contains these phrases.…

“Monitor optional” means this price does not include a monitor. The monitor costs extra, even though the ad shows a photo of a computer with a monitor.

“Upgrade price” means you get this price just if you already own an older version of this stuff.

“With system purchase” means you get this price just if you’re stupid enough to also buy an overpriced full computer system at the same time.

“Reflects cash discount” means you get this price just if you’re stupid enough to pay cash instead of using a credit card. (By paying cash, you can’t complain to a credit-card company if you get ripped you off.) If you use a credit card, the seller will charge you about 3% above the advertised price.

“Includes rebate” means you must pay more, then request a rebate from the manufacturer. (You’ll probably never get that rebate, since you’ll forget to ask for the rebate form, or you’ll forget to mail the rebate form to the manufacturer, or the rebate form will have already expired, or you’ll lose the receipt or code number you must mail with the rebate form to get the rebate, or you can’t mail the receipt because you already used it to apply for a rebate on a second item you bought simultaneously, or the manufacturer loses your paperwork or is a jerk who waits many months to send the rebate or goes bankrupt.)

“Manufacturer’s warranty” means that if the stuff breaks, don’t ask the seller for help. Phone the original manufacturer instead (who’ll probably ignore you).

“Factory serviced” means another customer bought this stuff, didn’t like it, and returned it to the factory, which examined it and thinks it’s good enough to resell (after jiggling it a bit), so now you’re getting stuck with this lemon.

“For in-stock items” means that although the seller promised to ship immediately, the seller won’t if you order stuff that’s not yet in the warehouse.

“25% restocking fee” means that if you return the stuff, you won’t get your money back. Instead, the seller will keep 25% of your money (as a restocking fee) and return just 75% to you.

Mail-order dealers

Back in the 1980’s, two big mail-order dealers set the tone for the rest of the discount industry. Those dealers were Telemart and PC Connection.

When Telemart went bankrupt in 1993, its assets were sold to Computer Discount Warehouse (CDW), which continued Telemart’s tradition of low prices and wide selection. CDW also bought another competitor, called Micro Warehouse. Phone CDW in Illinois at 800-500-4CDW (for Mac goodies) or 800-454-4CDW (for IBM-compatible goodies).

PC Connection has the best reputation for service because it processes orders fast, charges little for shipping, handles hassle orders promptly and generously, and gives technical help on a toll-free 800 number.

PC Connection began in a barn in the tiny town of Marlow, New Hampshire, then expanded to fill the inn across the street. Now PC Connection has become huge and is based in the city of Merrimack, New Hampshire.

PC Connection has two divisions: IBM and Mac.

The IBM division advertises in PC World (phone 800-800-0003 or 603-446-0003) and PC Magazine (phone 800-800-0004 or 603-446-0004). The Mac division calls itself Mac Connection in Macworld (phone 800-800-3333 or 603-446-3333). You can use the 800 numbers even if you’re in Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, and Canada.

Each division works round-the-clock, 24 hours daily. Your order’s shipped immediately, even if you’ve paid by check. (Checks are cleared in less than a day.) Your order’s shipped by Airborne overnight express so it reaches you the next day; if you order between 12:01AM and 3:15AM Eastern Time, you’ll usually receive your order the same day (because the company built a warehouse next to Airborne’s airport in Ohio).

The IBM division is nice, the Mac division is even nicer! The IBM division’s toll-free number is usually busy; the Mac division’s toll-free number usually gets you a sales rep immediately. The IBM division offers fairly low prices (but not as low as other discount dealers); the Mac division offers rock-bottom prices, lower than almost any other Mac dealer.

The company isn’t quite as nice as before. For shipping, the company used to charge $5 or less, even if your order was huge, but now charges more. The company used to give a money-back guarantee but now gives no refunds for returned computers & printers and charges a 15% restocking fee for all other items.

Another competitor is Washington State’s Multiple Zones.

Like Micro Warehouse, it offers low prices on IBM and Mac goodies. Its IBM division, PC Zone, is at 800-258-2088. The Mac division, Mac Zone, is at 800-248-0800. For international calls to either division, phone 425-883-3088.

A big discount dealer called Insight used to advertise in Computer Shopper magazine but now advertises electronically instead, using the Internet. Insight is in Arizona at 800-INSIGHT or 602-902-1176.


If you need hardware or software fast and can’t wait for mail-order dealers to ship, go to the local computer stores that advertise in the business section of your local newspaper.

To encourage a store to give you a discount, mention low prices from competitors and agree to buy many items at once. Say that if you don’t get a discount, you’ll shop elsewhere. Many stores do price-matching: they’ll match the price of any other local store, though not the prices of mail-order dealers. Some stores let salespeople give 10% discounts, which are subtracted from the salesperson’s commission.

IBM and Apple give educational discounts to schools, teachers, and some college students. To find out whether you can get educational discounts, ask your school’s administrators and your town’s computer stores.

For low prices, visit a chain of huge superstores called Comp USA.

It began in Dallas in 1984, when it was called Soft Warehouse and sold software by mail-order. It opened its first retail store in 1985. It opened a bigger store — a superstore — in 1988. In 1991 it changed its name to Comp USA, because it was also selling computer hardware. It became a big chain of superstores.

In 1996, it bought a mail-order company called PCs Compleat. In 1996, it bought a competing chain of superstores, called Computer City, which had been secretly owned by Tandy’s Radio Shack.

Now Comp USA is a chain of about 200 superstores in 42 states. For example, its New York City store is at 420 5th Ave., 212-764-6224.

To find the Comp USA store nearest you, phone 800-Comp-USA. Phone day or night, 24 hours, and use that number to order computer goodies or a free catalog.

For software and Hewlett-Packard printers, Comp USA charges less than most other stores and mail-order dealers. For other printers and accessories, Comp USA’s prices aren’t as aggressive: you’ll pay less at a competing superstore chain called Staples (which sells computers and also general office supplies). But Comp USA offers a greater variety of computer products than Staples, and Comp USA’s salespeople are more knowledgeable and helpful.

Unfortunately, Comp USA handles repairs slowly (you must wait about a week), and Comp USA’s prices for most hardware are slightly above other discounters. To get an IBM clone cheaply, buy elsewhere. But Comp USA is the only big chain of stores where you can still buy a Mac.

Another computer-superstore chain is Micro Center.

It has 18 superstores (in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Kansas, Colorado, Texas, and California).

It’s the most pleasant place to browse, since the staff is friendly and the selection is huge: the typical Micro Center store contains 45,000 square feet displaying 36,000 products. A gigantic room is devoted to books, a gigantic room is devoted to Macs, a gigantic room is devoted to I/O devices (such as printers and scanners), etc. To find the store nearest you, phone 800-743-7537.

Micro Center’s salespeople are usually more knowledgeable than Comp USA’s and make customers happier.

In cities where chains compete against each other, Comp USA lowers prices to undercut competitors.

Comp USA puts up signs comparing prices and showing how much you save by shopping at Comp USA instead of Micro Center. But Micro Center still has the lowest prices on certain items, especially blank disks, computer magazines, and old editions of books.

In California’s Silicon Valley, visit a chain of superstores called Fry’s Electronics, which has been a local favorite for many years. In New York City, visit a superstore called J&R Computer World, which is near Wall Street (15 Park Row, New York City NY 10038, 800-221-8180 or 212-238-9000).

Bagel boys

Three discount dealers in New York City are called the bagel boys because most of their employees resemble me: Jewish men who enjoy eating bagels. (Yum!) Many of their employees are Hassidic Jews, an ultra-traditional sect who wear black suits, black coats, black hats, and beards. For the Jewish Sabbath, they close on Friday afternoon, stay shut on Saturday, and reopen on Sunday.

Those dealers sold cameras and other photography equipment, then started selling computer hardware also, plus a little software. They offer especially low prices on printers, monitors, modems, and notebook computers.

Here’s how to reach them:

S&W Computers & Electronics, 31 W. 21st St. 800-874-1235 212-463-8330

Tri State Computer, 650 6th Ave. (at 20th St.)    800-433-5199 212-633-2530

Harmony Computers, 1801 Flatbush Ave. Br’klyn   800-441-1144 718-692-3232

Those three stores accept both walk-ins and mail-order. They’ve all advertised in Computer Shopper and The New York Times, though lately they’ve reduced their advertising.

Since they offer rock-bottom prices and deliver fast, I often buy there. But they have these drawbacks:

Their tech-support staffs are too small. You’ll get faster repairs elsewhere.

They often buy overstocked items from other dealers and resell them; but since those items have changed hands, the manufacturer’s “limited warranty” on those items is no longer valid.

Though reputable now, their past was murky. In 1994, the biggest software company (Microsoft) sued Harmony for distributing software improperly. During the 1980’s, Tri State advertised printers at low prices but honored those prices just if you overpaid for the printer’s cable. Most of those companies removed supplies & programs from the boxes of printers & computers they sold and charged extra to put the goodies back in.

Computer shows

Another way to find low prices is at a computer show. The lowest prices are at small shows called flea markets or swap meets.

Many vendors at shows offer discounts, especially during the show’s last three hours. When you buy at a show, jot down the vendor’s name, address, and phone number, in case the goods don’t work.

Beware: many vendors at those shows are like gypsies, traveling from show to show and hard to reach if you have a complaint. Many sell computers containing illegal copies of software that was never paid for and whose instruction manuals are missing. Make sure any software you buy comes with an official instruction manual (published by the company that invented the software), not just a book from a bookstore.

New computers cheap

On pages 65-77, I’ll explain the best way to buy a complete new IBM clone cheaply.