Here's part of "The Secret Guide to Computers," copyright by Russ Walter, 30th 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! Here’s the modern definition of a computer:

A computer is any machine that thinks.

If you’re bothered by that definition, which says an inanimate object can “think,” use this alternative definition instead:

A computer is any machine that can seem to think.

If you’re bothered even by that definition, which says a machine can be called a “computer” even if it seems to be just mumbling to itself, use this stronger definition instead:

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

Today’s computers spend most of their time analyzing words & ideas — and very little time doing math. Even if you know just a little math, you can 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!

Hidden computers

One kind of computer is called a hidden computer: it hides inside another device.

For example, a computer hides inside your digital watch; it computes how the time is changing. A computer also hides inside your pocket calculator, your cell phone, your videogame machine, your microwave oven, and your car’s dashboard.

Though non-technical folks call such a computer “hidden,” computer experts call it an embedded computer instead (since the computer is embedded in another electronic device) or, more commonly, an embedded computer system or an embedded system. So if you meet a person whose career is “developing embedded systems,” that person invents computers that hide inside other devices.

Such a computer dedicates its entire life to performing just one task (such as “telling the time”), so it’s also called a dedicated computer. Most such computers can be made for under $10 each — after the manufacturer has spent many thousands of dollars to research how to make them!

Computer sizes

Visible computers (that aren’t hidden in other devices) come in several sizes.

Portable computers If the computer is small enough to be carried in one hand, it’s called a portable computer. Portable computers come in 2 sizes:

If the portable computer is small enough to fit in your pocket or the palm of your hand (so it’s about the size of a pocket calculator or a pack of cigarettes), it’s called a pocket computer or handheld computer. It’s about 3 inches wide, 5 inches from front to back, and ¾ of an inch thick. It weighs about ¼ of a pound. It runs on batteries. Because it’s so tiny, it’s awkward to use (your eyes and fingers will get tired fast), but it works! The typical handheld computer 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).

If a portable computer is too big to fit in your pocket or palm but can still be carried comfortably in one of your arms, it’s called a notebook computer or laptop computer (because it’s about the size of a student’s 3-ring-binder notebook and can fit on your lap). It’s about 13 inches wide, 10 inches from front to back, and 1½ inches thick. It weighs about 6 pounds altogether: 4½ pounds for the computer itself, plus ¾ of a pound for the rechargeable battery, plus ¾ of a pound for the recharging cable. Although it can fit on your lap, you’ll probably put it on your desk instead (for your comfort). It contains rechargeable batteries; but while you’re using the computer, the charge typically lasts just 3 hours. You must plug the computer into a wall socket (electrical outlet) often, to recharge the batteries. Historical note: during the previous century (the 1900’s), notebook computers were slightly thinner and lighter than laptop computers, but now the terms “notebook” and “laptop” are used interchangeably to refer to anything that can fit on your lap.

Desktop computers If the computer’s too big to be carried in one hand, it’s typically called a desktop computer. It’s too big to fit in your lap, but it can fit on your desk. That desktop computer must be plugged into a wall socket continuously; you can’t rely on batteries.

The desktop computer’s main part is box called the system unit. If your desk is small or cluttered, stash the system unit on your floor (under or next to your desk); but even if you put the system unit on the floor, the computer is still called a “desktop.”

The typical system unit is taller than it’s wide: such a system unit is called a tower.

Powerful servers If the computer manages many desktop computers and let them share info with each other, the computer’s called a powerful server.

The typical powerful server is big. It sits in a corner of the room, or fills a whole room, or fills several rooms.

Powerful servers are used by big organizations (such as the IRS, Social Security, banks, credit-card companies, and insurance companies) to manage your records and the people who want to use them.

Personal computers If a computer is visible (not hidden in another device) and intended to be used by just one person at a time (not a powerful server managing many people), it’s called a personal computer (PC). The typical portable computer or desktop computer acts as a personal computer: it’s visible and intended to be used by just one person at a time.

Maxi, mini, micro During the previous century (the 1900’s), computers were divided into 3 categories:

A maxicomputer consumed a whole room

and typically cost between $300,000 and $20,000,000.

A minicomputer fit in a room’s corner

and typically cost between $10,000 and $300,000.

A microcomputer fit on a desk (or lap or hand or was embedded in a tiny device)

and typically cost between $1 and $10,000.

Maxicomputers were also called mainframes. The fastest maxicomputers were called supercomputers.

But because of advances in computer manufacturing, computers have gotten cheaper and faster! Now even microcomputers (which cost under $10,000) are fast enough to handle most calculations. If you need a computer system that’s extra-fast, just wire several microcomputers together, to work as a team; that’s cheaper than buying a maxicomputer. Hardly anybody buys maxicomputers or minicomputers anymore. Now over 99.9% of all computers sold are microcomputers. Since maxicomputers and minicomputers have become rare and obsolescent, you’ll hardly ever hear the words “maxicomputer” and “minicomputer” anymore.

If your employer bought a computer years ago (such as an old minicomputer or maxicomputer) and refuses to replace it with something more modern (because switching takes too much effort), 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 computer system.


Instead of buying a big computer, the typical big company buys many little computers and lets them communicate with each other, to form a network.

If the computers communicate with each other through cables of wires, the network is called a hard-wired network. If the computers communicate with each other by using radio waves instead, the network is called a wireless 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 communicate with the server.

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: most of the world’s visible (non-embedded) computers are part of the Internet. When you buy a typical computer, it communicates with the Internet wirelessly (by using radio waves) or through an ordinary phone line (called dial-up) or through a speeded-up phone line called a digital-subscriber line (DSL) or through a cable-TV line (called cable). An ordinary phone line (dial-up) is slow; the other methods (wireless, DSL, and cable) are faster and called broadband. So if a computerist says “I want broadband,” the computerist wants fast Internet access, not a band of female musicians!

You can mix technologies. For example, the typical notebook computer communicates with the Internet by sending a radio wave (wirelessly) to a little box, called a wireless router (usually pronounced so the “rou” rhymes with “cow”), which then passes the signal to the rest of the Internet by using cable or DSL, with the help of a converter box called a modulator/demodulator (modem, pronounced “Moe dem”).

You can buy a wireless router (and modem) for your home or office.

When the wireless router is turned on (and attached to a modem), it creates a wireless access point (WAP), which is also called a hot spot. While you’re traveling with your notebook computer, you can use the hot spots that are in many coffeehouses, public libraries, and other public locations. You can use them even while you’re driving by in your car; that’s called wardriving. While wardriving, keep your eyes on the road as well as on your laptop!

Desktop computer’s parts

A typical desktop computer’s main part is a box called the system unit. The typical system unit is a tower: its height is more than its width. The typical tower is 16 inches tall (and 16 inches from front to back) but just 7 inches wide.

7 cables Out of the system unit’s rear come 7 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 cable goes toward other computers (or a modem), to form a network (such as the Internet). That cable is called a network cable. If you’re accessing the Internet by dial-up, the network cable is an ordinary phone line (which goes to your wall’s phone jack); if you’re accessing the Internet by broadband instead, the network cable is a fattened phone line, called an Ethernet cable, which goes to a modem.

If you’re accessing the Internet by dial-up, you can add an optional 8th cable, to attach to an ordinary phone, so your computer and phone can share using the wall’s phone jack.

Altogether, the typical desktop 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

a network cable to let the computer communicate with other computers

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 usually excluded from 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.

Extras If your computer is extra-fancy, 3 extra cables come out of the system unit:

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.

A cable goes to a digital camera, which takes photos and feeds them to the computer.

Summary In a typical desktop computer system, the main box is called the system unit, from which cables run out to other computer devices, called external peripherals, such as the keyboard, monitor, mouse, printer, speakers, and — if your system is fancy — a microphone, scanner, and digital camera.

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 typical desktop computer):

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, scanner, or camera  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                     big round pinhole, next to loudspeaker picture

microphone                                  microphone jack              big round pinhole, labeled “MIC”

Traditionally, all those ports are on the system unit’s back wall; but if your system unit is modern, some of those ports are on the system unit’s front wall instead, so you can reach them more easily.

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 a cable’s end) 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!

Notebook computer’s parts

The typical notebook computer 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 (square pad you rub with your finger instead of using a mouse), and built-in rechargeable battery.

The top part (½ inch thick) pries up to become a screen (made of the same materials used in screens of pocket calculators and digital watches).

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.

Once the notebook computer gets electrical power, you can operate the notebook computer without attaching anything to it. But the notebook computer includes ports to let you attach optional extras. To its USB ports, you can attach a mouse (to use instead of the awkward built-in touchpad), printer, scanner, and digital camera. You can use the notebook computer’s other ports to attach an external keyboard (to use instead of the awkward tiny built-in keyboard), an external monitor (to use instead of the awkward built-in screen), headphones (to use instead of the built-in speakers), and network cables (Ethernet cable or ordinary phone line).


Who makes computers?

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

Too often, it 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 is based in New York State.

During the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s, IBM was famous mainly for selling huge computers (called maxicomputers or mainframes or powerful servers).

Later, IBM started selling small computers also. IBM’s first successful small computer was a desktop computer called the IBM Personal Computer (IBM PC). Then other companies made imitations, called IBM-compatible computers or IBM PC clones. Now most desktop and notebook computers are IBM-compatible.

Recently, IBM’s stopped making cheap computers for consumers: instead, IBM sells just expensive computers (powerful servers) to big businesses. For example, IBM used to make a notebook computer called the ThinkPad, but IBM sold its ThinkPad division to a Hong Kong company called Lenovo (which is mainly in Hong Kong but recently created a headquarters office in North Carolina, to look American).

HP A California company called Hewlett-Packard (HP) makes more computers than any other company. It makes all five kinds of computers: powerful servers, desktop computers, notebook computers, handheld computers, and embedded systems. Some of them are sold under the name “Hewlett-Packard”; others are sold under the name “Compaq,” which is a company that Hewlett-Packard acquired. Many “HP” and “Compaq” computers are sold in electronics stores, such as Circuit City (which has the lowest prices) and Best Buy (which charges slightly more).

Dell A Texas company called Dell sells computers mainly through mail-order. It mainly makes desktop computers and notebook computers, though it dabbles in other kinds of computers also. Dell used to have a reputation for high quality, but now Dell’s computers are unexceptional.

Gateway An Iowa company called Gateway was famous for selling desktop computers through mail-order. Gateway acquired a company called “eMachines,” which was famous for selling desktop computers cheaply through stores, especially Circuit City and Best Buy. Now Gateway and its eMachines division sell desktop & notebook computers through mail order & stores. Gateway moved from Iowa to South Dakota but now is headquartered in California.

Asian notebooks Many companies in Asia make notebook computers. The most famous are Sony (from Japan), Toshiba (from Japan), Acer (from Taiwan), and Lenovo (mainly from Hong Kong, though headquartered in North Carolina). Sony & Sony concentrate on high quality; Toshiba & Acer concentrate on low cost and give you the most amazing deals, especially when buy them through Circuit City or Best Buy.

White-box computers Many tiny computer stores build their own “generic” desktop computers by throwing together parts from many suppliers. Such an unbranded computer is called a white-box computer, since the system unit is a typically a plain white metal box that has no manufacturer’s name written on it.

Apple A California company called Apple makes Macintosh (Mac) computers (desktops & notebooks), which are beautiful to look at, creatively designed, fun & easy to use, reliable, and come with good free help by phone. Apple’s Mac computers are particularly popular among graphic artists and magazine publishers.

Unfortunately, Apple Mac computers cost a bit more than the competition, and Apple Mac computers aren’t completely compatible with other computers: if you buy an Apple Mac computer, you must learn to do things differently and buy different accessories for it.

Palm The main company making handheld (“palmtop”) computers is Palm. Its most popular models are the Zire (pronounced like the climax syllable of “desire”) and the Treo (which also acts as a cell phone).

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

Of all the visible (non-embedded) computers sold today in the world,

18% are by Hewlett-Packard (and its Compaq division),

16% are by Dell (which sells mainly by mail-order),

  8% are by Lenovo (whose computers are especially popular in Hong Kong, China, and India),

  8% are by Acer (whose computers are especially popular in Taiwan, South America, and Europe),

  4% are by Toshiba (whose notebook computers are especially popular),

  4% are by Sony,

  4% are by Gateway (and its eMachines division),

  2% are by Apple (and called “Macs”),

  2% are by Palm (whose computers are handhelds),

  2% are by IBM (whose computers are mainly powerful servers),

and the remaining 32% are by a wide variety of other manufacturers.

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

In the U.S., Dell is much stronger.

Of all the visible (non-embedded) computers sold today in the U.S.,

30% are by Dell (which sells mainly by mail-order),

24% are by Hewlett-Packard (and its Compaq division),

  6% are by Gateway (and its eMachines division),

  6% are by Apple (and called “Macs”),

  6% are by Toshiba,

  6% are by Acer,

  4% are by Sony,

  2% are by Lenovo,

  2% are by Palm,

  2% are by IBM,

and the remaining 12% are by a wide variety of other manufacturers.

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 a desktop computer’s system unit.

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 the typical desktop computer (which is 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 traditional 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.

The newest computers can also handle DVD disks (which hold movies and computer data) but don’t bother handling floppy disks.

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.

The reasons why people buy computers are emotional:

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 (CompUSA 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 8 months from now”, and “if you renew now” means “if you renew sometime within the 8 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 about $6) or an annual subscription (for about $20).

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           $4.99 150       12 issues, $15  $30    NY 212-503-3900 800-274-6384

PC World              IDG             $6.99 150       12 issues, $20  $25    CA  415-243-0500 800-825-7595

PC Magazine         Ziff-Davis    $5.99 150       23 issues, $23  $45    NY 212-503-3500 800-289-0429

Maximum PC        Future          $8.99 100       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: 23 of them (1 issue in July, 1 in August, 3 in November, 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   $6.99 100          12 issues, $30  $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.

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 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.


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 CompUSA.

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 CompUSA, 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.

CompUSA became a chain of about 200 superstores, but recently it closed some of them, so now the chain has 103 stores (in 39 states plus Puerto Rico). For example, its New York City store is at 420 5th Ave., 212-764-6224. The company is now owned by Carlos Slim Helú, who’s a billionaire in Mexico; he’s the world’s richest person.

To find the CompUSA 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, CompUSA charges less than most other stores and mail-order dealers. For other printers and accessories, CompUSA’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 CompUSA offers a greater variety of computer products than Staples, and CompUSA’s salespeople are more knowledgeable and helpful.

Unfortunately, CompUSA handles repairs slowly (you must wait about a week), and CompUSA’s prices for most hardware are slightly above other discounters. To get an IBM clone cheaply, buy elsewhere. But CompUSA is the only big chain of stores that sells a wide variety of Macs.

Another computer-superstore chain is Micro Center.

It has 20 superstores (in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Georgia, Ohio, Michigan, 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 CompUSA’s and make customers happier.

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

CompUSA puts up signs comparing prices and showing how much you save by shopping at CompUSA 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 Music & Computer World, which is run by Joe & Rachelle Friedman near Wall Street (15 Park Row, New York City NY 10038, 800-221-8180 or 212-238-9000).

For many computer items, the lowest prices are now at 3 chains: Circuit City, Best Buy, and Office Max. Check your Sunday newspaper for flyers advertising their weekly specials.

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 62-72, I’ll explain the best way to buy a complete new IBM clone cheaply.