Here’s how to shop for a computer — and deal with the jargon that’s involved.
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:
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.
How big must a computer be for folks to call it a maxicomputer? Opinions differ, but here are some guidelines:
Here are some comments about those terms:
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.
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.
Microcomputers The most popular microcomputers are made by 4 companies:
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.
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.
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.
Though IBM sells fewer computers than Dell and Hewlett-Packard, IBM makes huge profits because:
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.
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:
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:
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):
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!
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:
Here are more details:
New definitions Now most people speak differently
Here are more details:
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 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,
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.
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.
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:
The typical computer costs about $1000. Here’s what the math looks like for a $1000 system:
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!
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:
Finally, peek into the system unit and admire the goodies within! To be safe, avoid touching them.
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.
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:
Each of those three types has its own advantages:
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.
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.
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:
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”:
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:
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”):
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.…
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:
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:
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.
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.
Most computer magazines and newspapers are published by two giant conglomerates: Ziff-Davis and IDG.
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.
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:
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.
PC World is the best-balanced magazine. It’s more carefully edited than Computer Shopper.
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.
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.
Here are the best magazines about Apple’s Mac computers:
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.
Here are the best sources of weekly news about computers:
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).
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).
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!
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.
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.
Another competitor is Washington State’s Multiple Zones.
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.
Another computer-superstore chain is Micro Center.
In cities where chains compete against each other, Comp USA lowers prices to undercut competitors.
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).
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:
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:
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.