Here's part of the "Secret Guide to Computers & Tricky Living," copyright by Russ Walter, 32nd 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

Hey kid, wanna getta computer? You got lotsa choices, and they keep changing.

How computers changed

The definition of “computer” has changed.

Before 1940, dictionaries said a “computer” was “a person who computes.” If you could add, subtract, multiply, and divide quickly, in your head, you were called “a good computer.” Astronomers hired computers who computed the positions of heavenly bodies, though not my wife’s.

In the 1940’s, engineers invented giant electronic machines that could compute fast, so a “computer” meant “a giant electronic machine that can compute fast.” The typical computer was huge (it consumed a whole room), weighed several tons, and cost millions of dollars. During World War 2, American engineers built computers to do ballistics (figure out how to aim a rocket to bomb the Germans), while German engineers built computers to figure out how to bomb Americans back.

In the 1950’s, computers got slightly cheaper. Big companies bought them to do accounting and other clerical tasks, such as alphabetizing and looking up customer records. A “computer” meant “a machine that can do intellectual tasks, such as math and clerical stuff.”

In the 1960’s, engineers figured out how to make electronics be smaller and cheaper. That led to smaller computers, called minicomputers. In the 1970’s, engineers invented even smaller computers, called microcomputers. By the end of the 1970’s, you could buy all 3 sizes of computers:

A maxicomputer filled a 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

and typically cost between $100 and $10,000.

The typical big company owned a maxicomputer; but each department also had its own minicomputer (to handle the department’s special needs), and each clerk had a
personal microcomputer (to pretend to do specialized work and also play games). A microcomputer used mainly by just one person is called a personal computer (PC).

Nowadays, the typical company is run by a collection of microcomputers, all communicating with each other, because that collection costs less than buying a maxicomputer or minicomputers. “Maxicomputers” and “minicomputers” have become obsolete, and those terms aren’t used anymore. The typical computer, which is a microcomputer, costs between $100 and $1,000, though some computers fall slightly outside that price range.

Now computers do a wide variety of intellectual tasks, so the definition of “computer” has become “a machine that can do intellectual tasks.” Popular intellectual tasks include math, clerical organizing (such as alphabetizing and looking up records), playing games, editing your writing, communicating with folks in other states & countries, controlling other machines, and helping make jokes about people who read this book.

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; a legacy system is an outdated computer system.

Embedded computers

If a computer hides inside a machine and controls it, the computer is called hidden and embedded. It’s called an embedded system.

For example, a computer’s embedded in your digital watch, microwave oven, pocket calculator, home thermostat, car dashboard, videogame machine, and advanced sex toys. There’s even an embedded computer in your bed, if you bought a massager.

Such a computer dedicates its entire life to performing just one task (such as “telling the time” or “controlling the oven”), so it’s also called a dedicated computer and a dedicated controller. 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!

If you meet a person whose career is “developing embedded systems”, that person invents computers that hide inside other devices.

The typical cell phone includes an embedded computer. If that computer is advanced, the phone is called smart, so it’s a smartphone. You can buy 3 kinds of cell phones:

Kind of cell phone    What kind of computer it contains

basic phone              computer is stupid

feature phone              smart enough to give you a few fun features

smartphone                 computer is absolutely brilliant about many things

If a computer isn’t hidden, it’s visible.

This book explains how to buy & use visible computers. It also explains how to buy & use smartphones, so you too can become a smart-ass, not just a plain phony.


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.

The computer’s parts are called its components. You want several kinds of computer components.

I/O A component showing you the answer is called an output device. The most popular output devices are:

a screen (which is also called a display or monitor); it looks like a TV

 a pair of stereo speakers

a printer (which can print on paper)

A component letting you give the computer a command is called an input device. The most popular input device is a keyboard, which resembles a typewriter’s keyboard.

Another input device is a mouse, which is a little box you slide across your desk, to move a pointer that’s on your screen. Instead of a mouse, you can use a touchpad (a pad your finger rubs across) or touch-sensitive screen (touchscreen), which looks like an ordinary screen but can sense where your finger taps the screen.

You can also get a microphone (so you can talk & sing to the computer), a camera (so the computer can see what you look like), and an optical scanner (which can look at a sheet of paper and copy its info into the computer).

An all-in-one printer is a printer that includes an optical scanner, so it can imitate a Xerox copying machine. Some all-in-one printers can also imitate a fax machine.

Input & output devices are together called I/O devices. Computerists sing “I/O, I/O, it’s off to work I go!”

Processor The component that thinks is the processor. The computer’s main processor is called the
central processing unit (CPU). The most popular kind of processor is a microprocessor chip (little square onto which is stamped a fancy electric circuit).

Memory Components that remember are called memory.

The most popular memory is made of memory chips (little squares that can retain a magnetic or electric charge). Another kind of memory is a disk (a rotating circular platter, such as a CD, that holds a code made of scratches or magnetic charges).

Disks are slower than memory chips but have more capacity (can hold more info).

Why those 3? For a computer to do useful thinking, you must buy all 3 of those types of hardware:

The processor does the thinking itself; it processes info.

The memory remembers the computer’s thoughts.

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.

Communication A component letting the
computer communicate with other computers is called a communication device.

The most popular communication device is a modulator/demodulator (modem, pronounced “Moe dem”), which is a box that connects your computer to a phone system or cable-TV system. Another communication device is a router (pronounced so it rhymes with “chowder”), which lets several computers share routes to a modem (or share a similar device).

System unit The computer’s main box is the system unit, in which hide the processor, memory, and many other electronics. The system unit’s outer surface is the case.

Cables A cable (insulated bunch of wires) can connect one component to another.

The most popular kind of cable is the Universal Serial Bus cable (USB cable). For example, a USB cable typically runs from the printer to the system unit.


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.

Some software sits in your computer’s memory (in memory chips & disks). When your computer is turned on, other software flows into & out of your computer’s memory, through the computer’s wires.

For example:

Software (info) gets into the computer

when you insert disks or type on the keyboard.

You can copy software (info) from the computer’s memory

to your printer & screen.

Software (info) gets transferred into and out of your computer

by communicating with other computers.

Hardware consists of physical objects. You can hold them in your hand; you can feel hardware. You can’t feel software, which is just information, an abstract concept, though you can feel the disks or memory chips it comes on.

The info you put into the computer is called input. What the computer puts out (onto your screen & printer) is called output.

When a computer gives wrong answers, it’s usually because somebody fed it wrong input. Wrong input & wrong output are called garbage.

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 principle is called “garbage in, garbage out” (which is abbreviated GIGO, pronounced “guy go”, as a woman says on a bad date). The technician will say, “It’s just a case of GIGO”.

Your computer wants 2 kinds of software:

data             (lists of names, addresses, numbers, words, and facts)

programs (lists of instructions that tell the computer what to do)

Your computer wants 3 kinds of programs:

The basic input-output system (BIOS) tells the computer how to begin handling input & output when you turn the power on. For example, it tells the computer how to deal with the keyboard and screen. The BIOS hides in the computer’s memory chips.

The operating system (OS) tells the computer what to do afterwards. It gives the computer its personality. The most popular operating system for normal computers is Microsoft’s Windows. Though “PC” usually means “personal computer,” a more restrictive definition of “PC” is: a computer that resembles IBM’s Personal Computer and uses Windows. The main competitor to Windows is Apple’s OS X (pronounced “OS ten” or “OS ex” or “OS sex”), made for Apple’s Mac computers. The most popular operating systems for tinier computers & for smartphones are Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS.

Application programs (apps) tell the computer how to do specialized tasks, such as play a specific game or do a specific kind of advanced math.

When you buy a computer, the advertised price usually includes the important hardware, the BIOS, the OS, and applets (little apps that accomplish a little), but you must pay extra to add apps that are bigger & better.

Apps that are crappy (because they consist mainly of just ads) are called crapps. Too many computers are full of crapps.

When you buy a computer, you’ll cry, because it typically comes full of crapplets (little apps that are crapps).


How good is a computer system? That depends on the quality of 3 wares:

Hardware    (computer equipment)

Software     (info in the computer)

Liveware     (an alive human sitting at the computer)

The liveware is called the user or operator. That’s you!

If you’re stupid, your colleagues will call you a meathead (because your head is made of meat instead of wires). You’ll also be called meatware, wetware (because your brain is wetter than a computer’s), and jellyware (because your brain cells are jiggly, like jelly). For example, if you make a mistake and try to blame the computer, your boss will say:

The problem isn’t in the computer. The problem is in the wetware.

Here’s the history of stupidity:

The term “meathead” was popularized by the TV character Archie Bunker in 1971.

The term “liveware” was popularized by Garry Trudeau in a 1982 Doonesbury cartoon, though invented by others in 1966.


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 suck.


Form factors

Like people, computers come in many shapes & sizes. You can get computers that are tall or short, fat or thin, mature-looking or baby-sized.

A computer’s size & shape is called its form factor. Here are the 5 most popular form factors, listed from biggest to smallest:

tower, all-in-one, laptop, tablet, smartphone

Let’s look at the details.…


In a typical tower computer, the system unit is a 15-inch-tall tower that includes the processor & memory.

The system unit sits on or under your desk. Many wires run from the system unit’s rear to the screen, keyboard, mouse, speakers, and optional devices (printer, microphone, and camera), which all sit separately on your desk.

Cynics say a tower computer looks & smells bad, since it sits on your desk while a lot comes out of its rear.

The typical tower computer is either old (invented before the other 4 form factors improved) or owned by a rich big-shot jerk (who likes big computers and plans to buy expensive super-fast electronics to put inside the tower).

You can vary the tower’s system unit:

If you lay a tower computer’s system unit on its side, so it looks wide instead of tall, it’s called a traditional desktop computer. In that position, if it’s no more than 3½ inches tall, so it’s basically flat like a Domino’s pizza-delivery box, it’s called a pizza-box computer. It’s called
1-unit tall (1U) if it’s just 1¾ inches tall. It’s called 2-units tall (2U) if it’s 3½ inches tall. In a huge company, the main computer room contains many 1U and 2U pizza-box computers, all sitting in a cabinet full of shelves (racks) to hold them; they’re called rack-mounted computers.


In a typical all-in-one computer, the system unit includes almost everything in one case. Besides including the processor & memory, the system unit also enjoys (built into its front) a screen (typically 20-inch, measured diagonally from corner to opposite corner), speakers, a microphone, and a camera.

Wires run from the system unit to 3 other devices (the keyboard, mouse, and optional printer), unless those devices are wireless (communicate without wires, by using radio waves).

Your desk is less cluttered than with a tower computer, especially because the all-in-one’s system unit is miniaturized and hides inside the screen. It’s nice! I love mine!

Manufacturing such a system unit is easy! Just grab a fancy screen (that’s thin and has built-in speakers, microphone, camera, and a stand), then on the screen’s back just glue a traditional system unit (in a thin case). Voilà! An all-in-one!

Unfortunately, an all-in-one computer is harder than a tower computer to open up (to repair, modify, or expand), but it’s good enough so you probably won’t need to open it up anyway.

The best moderately-priced all-in-one computer is Hewett-Packard’s Envy 20. It has a 20-inch touchscreen, uses Windows, and comes with a wireless keyboard and wireless mouse.

Tower computers and all-in-one computers are both called desktop computers, because they typically sit on your desk and are too big to carry around easily.


In a typical laptop computer, the system unit is small enough to fit on your lap (though it works better on your desk) and includes everything important (processor, memory, screen, speakers, microphone, camera, and even a keyboard & touchpad). Wires run just to two optional devices: a mouse and a printer.

When you look at a typical laptop computer, you see mainly the screen and the keyboard. Most of the other electronics are hiding inside the screen & keyboard.

The keyboard is attached to the screen by a hinge, so you can pick up the keyboard and screen by a single handle. Having a hinge is called a clamshell design: opening and closing the laptop is like opening and closing a clam’s shell. Open the laptop to use it; close the laptop to transport it.

A laptop computer is smaller than an all-in-one computer and therefore easier to transport. It’s also easier to use outside your home, since it includes a built-in battery that can run several hours without being plugged into a wall socket.

Unfortunately, a laptop computer is harder to use than an all-in-one computer, because:

The laptop computer’s smaller screen (typically 15.6-inch) shows less info.

Its smaller keyboard is harder to type on.

Its smaller speakers produce worse sound.

Its advertised price includes an awkward touchpad instead of a mouse.

A modern laptop computer is also called a notebook computer, since it’s about the size of a student’s notebook.

The best moderately-priced notebook is Acer’s Aspire V5. It has a 15.6-inch touchscreen and uses Windows.

If a laptop so small that it can fit in a woman’s clutch purse, it’s called a netbook (because it’s the minimum size to handle the Internet well, though the Internet is more pleasant if you use a bigger computer instead). The typical netbook screen is just 10.1-inch (which is much smaller than a notebook’s 15.6-inch).


In a typical tablet computer, the system unit is small enough to fit in your pair of hands (though it works better on your desk) and includes almost everything important (processor, memory, touchscreen, speakers, microphone, 2 cameras, and battery) but not a keyboard, mouse, or printer.

Its screen is typically just 7-inch or 10-inch, so it’s smaller than a laptop. It’s easier to carry than a laptop but more awkward to view (since its screen is smaller) and much more awkward to type on (since you must typically type on the touchscreen instead of a real keyboard).

The most popular tablet computer is Apple’s iPad. It uses iOS. Its current versions are the iPad Air (whose touchscreen is 9.7-inch) and the iPad mini with Retina Display (whose touchscreen is 7.9-inch).

Other tablet computers use Android instead of iOS. Some folks prefer Android; others prefer iOS. Android tablet computers are made by Samsung (whose current version is the Galaxy Tab 3) and Asus (whose most popular version is the Nexus).

If a tablet’s main purpose is just to read electronic books (ebooks), it’s called an ebook reader (or e-reader). The most popular e-readers are Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook.

If a tablet computer is small enough to hold in one hand (because its screen is just 5-inch), it’s called a handheld computer.

If you’re not sure which is better for you — laptop or tablet — you can try this compromise:

If a laptop computer has a touchscreen you can rotate or detach, so the touchscreen acts like a tablet, it’s called a convertible (or 2-in-1).


A typical smartphone resembles a tablet computer but is even smaller (with a touchscreen that’s about 4½-inch). It has 2 advantages: it can fit in your pocket and handle phone calls.

The most popular smartphones are Apple’s iPhone (which uses iOS) and Samsung’s Galaxy S4 (which uses Android).

If a smartphone has a bigger touchscreen (about 5½-inch), so it’s almost as big as the typical tablet, the smartphone is called a phablet (because it’s a phone tablet and, if you like big phones, you think it’s phabulous!). The most popular phablet is Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3.

Laptops, tablets, and smartphones are all called
portable computers and mobile devices that let you do mobile computing, because they’re easy to carry around (using just one arm or even just one hand) and contain batteries (so you can use them even when you’re not near an electrical socket). By contrast, towers and all-in-ones are harder to carry (they require both arms) and have inadequate batteries (so they’re useless unless plugged into an electrical outlet), but when sitting on your desk they’re superior (because they have bigger, better screens, keyboards, speakers, chips, and disks).

Which form factor to buy

Which form factor should you buy? That depends on your priorities. Here are the grades, from A (which is the best) to F:

                           Tower     All-in-1   Laptop     Tablet     Smartphone

Easy to carry?           F               D              C              B                      A

Can run unplugged?  F               F               B              A                     A

Includes phone?        F               F               F               F                      A

Has big memory?      A             B              C              D                     F

Has big screen?         A              A              B              C                      F

Good keyboard?        A              A              B              D                     F

AVERAGE                C              C              C+            C-                    C

Notice that for each form factor, the “AVERAGE” grade is approximately C. That’s why each form factor is still being used.

Which form factor is best for you? That depends on your priorities.

Since I was stupid enough to write this book, I had to buy all 5 form factors, to try them out. Each form factor has its own joys — and its own form of hell.



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 later it expanded dramatically, so now it includes millions of computers all over the world: most of the world’s visible 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 ridiculously slow; the other methods (wireless, DSL, and cable) are reasonably fast 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 laptop 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 laptop computer, you can use the hot spots that are in many coffeehouses, restaurants, 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!


Who makes computers?


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 laptop 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 laptop 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).


A California company called Hewlett-Packard (HP) makes more computers than any other company. It makes many kinds of computers: powerful servers, tower computers, laptop computers, tablet computers, and hidden computers. Most of them are sold under the name “HP”; others have been sold under the names “Compaq” and “Palm” which are companies that Hewlett-Packard acquired. Many of HP’s computers are sold in chain stores such as Staples, Best Buy, and Walmart.


A Texas company called Dell sold computers through mail-order but now also sells computers through chain stores (such as Staples and Best Buy). It mainly makes desktop computers and laptop 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.

Acer’s 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 chain stores, especially Circuit City and Best Buy. Now Gateway and its eMachines division sell tower & laptop computers through mail order & stores. Gateway moved from Iowa to South Dakota but now is headquartered in California. The entire Gateway company was bought by a Taiwan company called Acer.

Asian laptops

Many companies in Asia make laptop computers. The most famous are Sony (from Japan), Toshiba (from Japan), Acer (from Taiwan), Asus (from Taiwan and means “Pegasus but let’s begin with A”), and Lenovo (mainly from Hong Kong, though headquartered in North Carolina). Sony & Lenovo concentrate on high quality; Toshiba & Acer &Asus concentrate on low cost and give you the most amazing deals, especially when you buy them through Staples 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.


A California company called Apple makes Macintosh (Mac) computers (all-in-ones & laptops), the iPad (a tablet computer), and the iPhone (a smartphone). They’re all 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’s computers cost more than the competition, and Apple’s computers aren’t completely compatible with other computers: if you buy an Apple computer, you must learn to do things differently and buy different accessories for it.

What’s popular?

Here’s the surprising truth.

Of all the normal computers (not tablet, not phone, not embedded) sold today in the world:

18% are by Lenovo (mainly for China & India)

16% are by Hewlett-Packard

12% are by Dell

  6% are by Acer (and its Gateway division)

  6% are by Asus

  4% are by Toshiba (mainly Toshiba’s laptops)

  4% are by Sony

  2% are by Apple (and called “Macs”)

  2% are by IBM (mainly powerful servers)

30% 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., different brands are stronger.

Of all the normal computers (not tablet, not phone, not embedded) sold today in the U.S.:

26% are by Hewlett-Packard (and its Compaq)

24% are by Dell (mainly by mail-order)

12% are by Apple (and called “Macs”)

10% are by Lenovo

  6% are by Acer (and its Gateway & eMachines)

  4% are by Toshiba

  4% are by Asus

  4% are by Sony

  2% are by IBM

  8% are by a wide variety of other manufacturers

For tablet computers, Apple is strongest:

Of all the tablet computers sold today in the world:

34% are by Apple (and called “iPads”),

18% are by Samsung,

  8% are by Amazon,

  6% are by Asus,

  4% are by Lenovo,

30% are by a wide variety of other manufacturers.

For smartphones, Samsung is strongest.

Of all the smartphones sold today in the world,

28% are by Samsung,

18% are by Apple (and called “iPhones”),

  6% are by Huawei,

  4% are by Lenovo,

  4% are by LG,

40% 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 system costs about $1000 (by the time you get done paying for all the extras & accessories). 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 garage sales.

Find that hard to believe? To become a believer in rapidly dropping prices, just try this experiment: walk into a 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!


A computer has many parts.

Tower computer’s parts

A tower computer’s main part is the box called the system unit, which is a tower that’s 15 inches tall (and 15 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 tower 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 tower computer, 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 traditional tower 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!

Laptop computer’s parts

The typical laptop computer uses a clamshell design: it opens, like a clamshell, to reveal two parts:

The bottom part (¾" 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" thick) pries up to become a screen (made of the same materials used in screens of pocket calculators and digital watches).

The laptop 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 laptop computer gets electrical power, you can operate the laptop computer without attaching anything to it. But the laptop 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 laptop 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).

Inside the system unit

The system unit is a magical box 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 tower (or desktop) computer.

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 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 that’s not a tower, 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!

Mobo 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.

CPU 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.

Memory 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 back wall’s top.

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.


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, swirling hypnotically. You say “Wow, look at all those colors!” and feel a supernatural high.

But after 2 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 since some communities prohibit mixed marriages, 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 into 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 3 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 3: 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!”

Parent: “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: “The world’s becoming computerized, and I don’t want my grandkids to say I’m out of it. 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: “Now that big cars are passé, the computer’s the only status symbol left. I’m sick of being intimidated by neighbors and bosses spouting computer jargon and tired of the guys at the bar bragging 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’s computerizing. If I don’t master computers, they’ll master me and steal my job! If I learn 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 hobby — a computer! 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 proves 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 machine and make it my 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!”

Social-studies teacher: “The Internet’s amazing! So much info is published there about current events, history, and the future! I’ll make my students do research using the Internet and publish their papers there, so they’ll become internationally famous and make me famous for being their teacher!”


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.

Instructions You won’t completely understand the instructions for your hardware & software, so you’ll ask your friends & 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 & software I sold you. To learn how, read the instructions 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 those instructions, take our courses: they’re expensive and won’t teach you as much as you need, but they’ll make you feel you’re making some progress.”

Most dealers aren’t 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. 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!

Discount dealers

In newspapers & magazines and on the Internet, 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. Examine their most recent ads then phone to confirm 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, how it will ship, and what the shipping charge is: 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 forget to mail the rebate form, 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.


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, such as Micro Center.

It has 23 superstores (in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, 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.

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 4 chains: Staples, Best Buy, Walmart, and Target. Check your Sunday newspaper for flyers advertising their weekly specials.