Subscribe to Inc. magazine
LEAD

Personal Computers

Complete guide to buying personal computers.
Advertisement

Are your invoices late? Are you losing track of customers? Computers can help you fix the inefficiencies in your company

For companies buying personal computers for the first time or upgrading a purchase made a few years ago, now is the best time ever to be shopping. Price wars and volume production have driven down the cost of computers and peripherals even while the tasks they are capable of performing have become much more sophisticated.

Choosing a model can be a bewildering experience, given the array of features available from scores of manufacturers. As with all purchases of office equipment, the place to start is with an assessment of who in your company will be using the machines and for what purposes. The answers will bring into sharp focus the features you really need.

Long before making a purchase, outline every step your company takes, from soliciting business to billing receivables. Timm Runnion, president of Moving Systems Inc., in Newburyport, Mass., a company that provides services for employee relocation, bought computers for his business seven years ago when sales reached $1 million. He laid out graph paper on the walls of his office and plotted every important task his employees performed. Then he asked questions such as these:

Where are the bottlenecks in the process, places where a computer could perform a job faster and more accurately? On my present growth curve, how much labor cost can I avoid by adding computers in certain departments? Whose productivity can I increase the most by introducing computers? Where can I remove redundancies in the work process, such as redrafting of reports each time a change is needed? Is invoicing slow because of manual record keeping? Am I getting information out to customers quickly, and does it include the kind of first-class presentation that will command their attention? Does my manual system provide information on costs in a timely fashion, and does it immediately tell me how it will affect the bottom line? Are there problems tracking inventory?

Once you pinpoint where you need computers and how they will be used, as Runnion did, defining the right blend of features is fairly easy. Will you be manipulating a large database of customers? A fast computer with plenty of hard disk capacity is a must. Want to automate your billing department? A low-cost machine with an inexpensive dot matrix printer will do just fine. Will you produce reports with sophisticated graphics and design some of your own ads in-house? Buy a computer with plenty of memory and top it off with a good laser printer.

Whatever your choice, consider following this cost-effective strategy: Buy the cheapest acceptable models for the mass of machines you need and faster, costlier models only for the most sophisticated tasks. As prices come down, you can upgrade the systems of critical users and turn over their models to others. Then sell the obsolete bottom-end machines for a nominal sum to employees for home use.

* * *

PC or Macintosh?
Competition in the personal-computer industry has narrowed the field to two competing systems, the IBM PC and PC clones, and the Apple Macintosh. The PC standard was established by IBM Corp. in 1981 and has continued with the introduction of successive models. Numerous companies sell IBM clones through normal retail channels or through mail order. The second standard, the Macintosh, was established by Apple Computer Inc. in 1984; because the Mac utilizes proprietary technology, Apple remains the only supplier, although other vendors do offer peripheral equipment. A handful of other competing systems exist, but these are not widely used in business.

The biggest difference between the two leading systems is that Macs are easier to learn and use. PCs rely on a program called DOS, or disk operating system, to control the basic functions of the computer. Software that runs on DOS requires a user to memorize and execute a series of keyboard strokes to perform every function, and these commands are different for every applications program you buy.

On the other hand, Macs require no memorization of commands, working instead through graphic representations. Users move a handheld device called a mouse across a pad on their desks. The mouse enables a user to position an arrow on the screen on top of a visual icon or a menu that embodies all the commands needed to operate the machine. Clicking the mouse on the right icon or menu entry activates the function you want. These icons and menus are consistent from program to program.

PC makers have been trying hard, with partial success, to make PCs behave more like Macs. Microsoft Corp., the developer of DOS, released a program in 1990 called Microsoft Windows, version 3, which works as an add-on to DOS and enables a PC to work somewhat like a Mac. Although Windows makes a PC look like a Mac, the fact that it still relies on DOS makes it more difficult to use.

IBM has also tried to move away from DOS with a new operating system, OS/2, but at present few programs are available for OS/2 compared with Windows. That is unfortunate because OS/2 is technically more advanced than Windows.

If the Mac is easier to use, it is also more expensive than a PC. The price difference is hard to pin down, since Macs and PCs are equipped differently. A Mac costs about the same as an equivalent high-end PC or $500 to $1,000 per machine more than the cheapest clone.

Another advantage of the PC is its dominant position in the business world. Although Apple has made major inroads in corporate America, it still holds only a 13% share of the computers sold in this country.

This advantage is no longer as important as it once was. Although more programs have been written for the PC, much of the top business software now comes in versions for both the PC and the Mac. Both computers perform business tasks well. The only task in which one clearly outshines the other is in graphics work and desktop publishing -- here, Mac is your choice.

If you already have a few PCs or Macs in your office, it is generally easier to expand by buying more of the same. Spreadsheet, word processing, and other software designed to run on one system will not run on the other, although many of the files and documents you create with that software can be manipulated to run on the other system. Mixing PCs and Macs means that you will have to provide training and support for two systems, which may become a nuisance or worse if you don't have a computer expert on staff.

So, which system will it be -- Mac or PC ? If low-cost computing is your foremost concern, then buy PCs. Otherwise, the choice is a matter of personal taste. Try out both systems and decide which you and your employees prefer.

* * *

Features
The purchase of a computer involves a series of decisions on features and peripherals. They include the processing chip that powers the machine, various media for storing information, a keyboard, a monitor, a printer, a modem, and more. The sum of all these items determines the capabilities of the computer -- what kinds of tasks it will be able to perform and at what speed.

Most computers come with a keyboard included in the package. Keyboards have become fairly standardized; the biggest difference between models is often the feel of the keys as you type. Ask employees to try out several keyboards before you buy.

* * *

Random Access Memory (RAM): Memory resides in several different places. RAM is the memory unit that stores programs and files you are actively using.

The amount of RAM in your computer will help determine the sophistication of the work you can do. RAM is measured in megabytes (MB), or millions of bytes; 1 megabyte can store about a 600-page novel. That's a lot of storage, to be sure, but many of the most sophisticated programs use a megabyte or more of memory. If your computer doesn't have sufficient memory, it can't run the program.

How many megabytes should you get? You'll be safe with 2 megabytes for most business applications, but you'll need 4 megabytes for the most sophisticated applications, such as desktop publishing. If you have a particular piece of software in mind, your dealer can tell you how large a RAM you'll need. If in doubt, err on the side of buying more RAM; at $50 to $75 per megabyte, it's a relatively inexpensive upgrade.

* * *

Hard Disk Drives: Another magnetic storage medium is the hard disk drive. It is used for permanent storage of programs and files. Hard disk drives come in many capacities, typically 20, 40, 80, and 100 megabytes. The most common is the 40-megabyte drive, which provides sufficient capacity for average business applications. In typical use, DOS, Windows, and a half dozen other programs take up about 6 megabytes of hard disk storage, leaving 34 megabytes for the files you create. That's plenty of storage, especially if you routinely erase old files you won't need again. However, if you plan to keep big databases, it might be worthwhile to upgrade to a 80-megabyte hard disk.

* * *

Central Processing Unit (CPU): The CPU is the "brains" directing the flow of work within a computer. When a salesperson asks whether you want a 286 or a 386 machine, he or she is referring to the power of the microprocessor, the tiny chip that forms the core of the CPU.

Most CPUs come in several speeds, given in megahertz (MHz), or millions of clock ticks per second. Typical speeds are 8, 12, 16, and 20 MHz or more. Within a CPU type, the higher the megahertz rating, the faster the computer performs its tasks. Speed is important in many applications that require large amounts of computation, such as the manipulation of a large customer database. What type of machine do you need?

* 8088 and 8086 microprocessors: Computers with these chips are tempting to buy because of their low price -- $750 or so for CPU, monitor, and keyboard. But they are old, slow, and obsolete. They can't handle more than 640 kilobytes of memory, a serious limitation, and cannot run the new Windows or OS/2 programs. They are still acceptable for such basic tasks as letter writing and data entry, but their inability to handle advanced software limits their usefulness. If you already have a few of these machines, they are not worth the cost of repairs if they break.

* 80286 ("286") microprocessors: These machines follow the design of the IBM PC/AT and can typically handle 4 megabytes of memory. They are adequate for most business applications and can run the current versions of Windows and OS/2, provided they have at least 2 megabytes of memory and a CPU with at least 12-MHz speed. Basic computers with 286 chips, complete with hard disk drive and keyboard and monochrome monitor, sell for $900 to $1,400.

But 286 machines are no longer a wise purchase for companies whose computational needs are growing. New versions of software based on Windows and OS/2 that are due in the coming months will not run on a 286 machine. Generally, when the newest and most sophisticated software cannot run on a particular class of computer, its obsolescence as a product is assured.

The comparable product in the Macintosh arena is the Mac Classic. It can run most Mac software. Its main drawbacks are its slow speed and small screen. The Mac Classic sells for about $1,200 and can accept up to 4 megabytes of RAM.

* 80386SX or 386SX microprocessor: These are the minimum recommended for business. They can run all software effectively, including the present and the next versions of Windows and OS/2, provided you get at least 2 megabytes of memory. Prices are very attractive, beginning at $875 to $1,500 with a monochrome display, $1,125 to about $2,500 for color. 386SX machines come in three speeds: 16 MHz, 20 MHz, and 25 MHz, with a spread of about $200 between the 16- and 25-MHz models. The 16-MHz model should be adequate unless you will be manipulating large amounts of data. The equivalent Mac is the LC, which costs about $1,900 with a monochrome monitor, $2,100 with color.

* 80386 or 386 microprocessors: The 386 chip is sometimes called the 386DX to distinguish it from the 386SX. These are medium- to high-performance computers, capable of handling all Windows and OS/2 software well. The 386 machines come in three main speeds: 25 MHz, 33 MHz, and 40 MHz. It's best to buy these models with at least 4 megabytes of RAM.

Many manufacturers now boast that their computers come with what's called "cache memory," a section of the RAM set aside to store information that is frequently accessed. A 386 machine can get a speed boost of roughly 20% with a cache, which costs from $100 to $250.

Who needs a 386? People who do desktop publishing or maintain a database with tens of thousands of listings. For more routine work, a fast 386 is nice but not necessary. Fully configured 386 models sell for $1,300 to $4,500 with a color monitor.

The equivalent Mac to the slower 386 models is the Mac IIsi, which with keyboard and monitor costs $3,000 to $4,000, depending on the size of the RAM and the hard disk. The more powerful Mac IIci, which costs $4,000 to $5,000, can keep up with the fastest 386 models. Mac prices include more standard equipment than PCs, so the prices are not directly comparable.

* 80486 or 486 microprocessors: The 486 is the fastest PC available today. Unfortunately, 486 models cost much more than 386 ones. They go for as little as $2,400 with a color monitor to as much as $8,000.

The 486 machines incorporate a math coprocessor, a special chip that speeds mathematical computations. The coprocessor, which is a $300 accessory for a 386 machine, is useful only with certain software. For word processing and most databases, a coprocessor is of no use; for spreadsheets, a coprocessor helps if you are calculating many exponential functions. For computer-aided design (CAD), in which thousands of lines and curves must be calculated over and over again, as when an architect lays out the plans for a building, a coprocessor can speed up the program two to four times -- a major improvement.

The Mac IIfx has power comparable with 486 models and sells in the range of $5,500 to $6,000. Both the Mac IIci and IIfx include a math coprocessor.

* * *

Disk Drives: These are the mechanisms into which you insert diskettes, those fragile pieces of magnetic memory that store programs and data. Diskettes are used to load programs and data into the computer. Every computer comes with at least one disk drive.

Your choice involves the size of the disk drive that comes with your machine. There are two sizes, 5.25 inch and 3.5 inch. The 3.5-inch drives are standard on laptops and portable PCs and a growing proportion of desktop models; all Macs use the 3.5-inch drives.

Because the 3.5-inch format is much less fragile, easier to handle, and is now becoming standard, you should insist that your computers come with them. To retain flexibility in case a customer or other business contact gives you records on a 5.25-inch disk, you should buy at least one computer with both disk formats.

* * *

Expansion Slots: Your computer may meet all your needs today, but next year you may want to add additional circuit boards that expand its capabilities. Expansion slots are connectors inside the computer that accept circuit boards for particular tasks, such as linking your machine to a network of computers.

Many PCs use expansion slots for basic functions such as connecting to a hard disk drive or a video display, so the sheer number of expansion slots is less important than the number of open slots after basic functions have been installed. Few people need more than one or two open expansion slots. All Macs come with network and hard disk connections built in, so expansion slots are much less important than for PCs.

* * *

Monitors: A video display consists of a monitor, which looks like a television tube, and a video display adapter, a circuit card inside the CPU. The adapter takes information generated by the computer and translates it into a form for display on the monitor. Some computers, especially the smaller models, have the display adapter built in. In many units they are priced separately.

For DOS software, such as Lotus 1-2-3, a monochrome monitor is fine. For these programs all you need is a Hercules-compatible (monographics) display board with a monochrome monitor, which together should cost less than $100.

Software based on Windows or OS/2, however, needs more flexible video displays. VGA (video graphics array) displays can be color or monochrome and support 8 or more levels of brightness or 16 to 256 colors. For normal business applications, VGA is the minimum quality you should buy. Standard VGA shows an image 640 pixels horizontally by 480 pixels vertically; a pixel is a single dot in the image, and theoretically at least, more pixels bring better clarity to the image.

Many computer manufacturers tout two enhanced modes, SuperVGA with 800 by 600 pixels, and another format with 1024 by 768 pixels. But beware: Not all software takes advantage of these. They produce squashed images on the common 12-inch to 14-inch video monitors ($350 to $650 in color). For a decent image, SuperVGA requires a 16-inch screen ($700 to $1,000) and the 1,024 by 768 mode requires a 19-inch screen ($2,000 to $3,000). Your software must be modified for these modes; otherwise, you will see a standard VGA image, even if it is projected on a large screen. If you can afford it, Super- VGA is great for desktop publishing and computer-aided design applications. Otherwise, stick to standard VGA.

Many buyers are unaware of two problems with VGA. The original VGA specification calls for monitors that refresh ("repaint") the image on the screen 60 times a second, or 60 Hz. But 60 Hz appears to flicker in many office situations and can cause eye fatigue. Newer VGA monitors and adapter cards produce a 72-Hz image free of flicker. Insist on it.

The second problem applies to color VGA monitors. The pitch of a monitor is the size of the smallest color element. Low-cost VGA color monitors have a pitch of 0.39 millimeters or larger. These are too coarse for regular work; insist on 0.31 millimeters or finer.

Video on the Mac is simpler because all monitors work with all software; pitch and flicker are not problems.

* * *

Cary Lu is the author of The Apple- Macintosh Book.

* * *

SMART TIPS . . .

Involve employees in your buying decision. Insist that they try out different models. They'll appreciate the opportunity to be involved - and you'll probably make a better choice because of it.

*
It's tempting to save money by downgrading the monitors you buy. But eye fatigue from bad monitors will cost plenty in productivity and is sure to bring loud complaints from employees

*
Style isn't as important as substance, but it still means a lot in business. It pays to dress up your reports and letters with a laser printer, which provides crisp printouts of text and graphics. They start as low as $800.



Mouse

This is one mouse you won't mind having in your office. It first arrived with the Macintosh line as a device that made it much easier for users to enter commands into the computer. Now it is an option on PCs as well. A mouse enables you to avoid memorizing complex commands and instead choose functions represented by visual icons.

* * *

Random Access Memory

The RAM is the computer's working memory, the place where files in active use are stored. It consists of memory chips each the size of a thumbnail. Each contains more components than did the first electronic computer in 1946, which weighed 30 tons and took up 1,800 square feet. Today chips can store more than a million times more information than the first commercial chip in 1970.

* * *

Modem

A modem enables you to send documents to another computer many miles away and to hook up with information services that provide a wide range of business information.

* * *

Central Processing Unit

The CPU contains the electronic circuitry that controls the computer's operation. Its most important element is the microprocessor, a chip that processes information. The development of microprocessors and memory chips made possible the birth of the personal computer. Before they arrived, only about 230,000 computers were in use in the U.S. Today the total number of computers in use exceeds 55 million.

* * *

Expansion Slots

Some wide open space inside your computer is a good thing. Expansion slots enable you to add electronic devices in the future as your computational needs grow and you want to expand the computer's capabilities.

* * *

Hard Disk

Without permanent mass storage of information, computers would be much less useful than they are today. Hard disks store data on magnetically sensitive material. Typical capacity for business applications is 40 megabytes, enough to store 20 novels the length of War and Peace.

Monitor

The monitor consists of a video display unit, essentially a television set, and an adaptor card inside the computer. The adaptor card translates information produced by the computer into video signals for the display.

* * *

Disk Drive

These are the devices, visible to users as slots on the front of the computer, into which you insert diskettes. Old 5.25-inch "floppy" disks, and newer 3.5-inch cartridges enable users to introduce new software and files into their computers.

* * *

SCSI Ports

Most computers are hooked up to peripheral devices such as laser printers and drives. The connection takes place at the SCSI (scuzzy) ports located on the back of your computer.


BUYER BEWARE

Some advertised deals (like the example below) entice you with a low price, but careful analysis may tell you that the features won't serve your needs.

COMPUTERS INC.

Calling All Businesses!

286/16 MHz ? 20 MB HD ? 1 MB RAM

5 1/4" 1.2 MB drive

Keyboard included

1 Parallel port ? 1 Serial port

MS DOS 4.1

Super VGA Color Monitor

All for $895.00!!

* Inexpensive it is, but 286 computers are on the brink of obsolescence. You'll do better with a 386SX.

* The vendor is saving a few dollars by throwing in a low-capacity hard disk. Get at least a 40 megabyte drive.

* This random access memory is too small for many business applications. Buy at least 2 megabytes.

* 31/2-inch disk drives are now standard. The 5 1/4-inch format is on the way out.

* A super VGA color monitor may be a waste of money. Super VGA doesn't help much with a standard-size color screen, and a monochrome VGA monitor will do fine for most business applications.


LAPTOP COMPUTERS FOR WORK ON THE ROAD

Laptop computers are the fastest growing segment of the computer industry. They come with the same range of choices as desktop models, and the same advice applies.

Laptops are usually no bigger than a briefcase and generally weigh less than 10 pounds. They are useful for executives who work on reports while out of the office and for salespeople who enter orders while visiting customers. Laptops generally cost about 50% more than the same machine in a desktop model.

The biggest problem with the current generation of laptops is limited battery life. Many units can run only for 90 minutes on a battery charge; the better ones get up to three hours. However, look for new models entering the market that extend battery life by several hours; they may be advertised as utilizing an electronics package called a 386 SL CPU.

Video displays and keyboards can also be a problem for some users. The most popular displays, made of liquid crystals, may have poor resolution and be difficult to see well except in the best lighting conditions. Try them out before buying. Try out the keyboard, too; to save space, designers use shallow keyboards with fewer special keys. Some are uncomfortable to use.

Laptops have been missing from the Macintosh lineup, but Apple is expected to introduce models this fall.

(continued)


WHICH PERIPHERALS ARE RIGHT FOR YOU

Many users need three accessories: printers, modems, and a device for backing up (copying) the contents of a hard disk drive. And some companies may need to link their computers into a network.

Printers: Laser printers produce the print quality that everyone expects; for reports, letters, and documents, you can't have anything less. Fortunately, prices have dropped to $800 or so for a basic model. The leading vendor is Hewlett- Packard Co., with many other manufacturers selling HP clones. The standard laser printers work fine for documents that consist mainly of text and simple, limited graphics such as financial charts.

But standard laser printers are not effective for desktop publishing or other applications with intensive graphics. For these jobs you need a laser printer with PostScript software, developed by Adobe Systems Inc., which enables you to print photographs and decorative graphics and publish text in a much wider choice of fonts. PostScript capability adds $600 to $1,000 to the price of a laser printer. Some of the newest laser printers can switch between PCs and Macs and between Hewlett-Packard emulation and PostScript automatically.

Laser printers dominate business printing so completely that other types of printers are left only for specialized uses. Impact dot matrix printers cost from $150 to $600; they are noisy and produce poor print quality. Nevertheless, these printers are still useful for printing checks and other forms, especially if you need carbon copies. The print quality of ink-jet printers is far better than dot matrix printers, but it is coarse compared with a laser printer. They are useful for such business forms as invoices. They cost $350 to $600.

Modems: With a modem you can send and receive data over a phone line. Modems can link branch offices with headquarters for electronic mail and enable you to connect to information services.

The best buy in modems is described by a mouthful of jargon: a 2,400 bits per second (bps) Hayes-compatible modem with V.42/V.42bis error correction/data compression. They are available for about $200.

For faster transmission, you could move up to a 9,600-bps modem for about $500, but in the long run you'll be better off with a 14,400-bps modem following the V.32bis standard (and with V.42/V.42bis). But many PCs have trouble running fast modems at full speed. You may need to modify or replace the serial port circuitry in your computer; check with your vendor. All Macs can run fast modems without difficulty.

Backup Devices: Hard drives are generally reliable but are susceptible to various malfunctions that can make them crash -- a failure that can cause a loss of data. To protect yourself from losing data, you must routinely copy all your files to another medium. A cartridge tape drive is a good choice. A low-cost tape drive can put 60 to 120 megabytes on a single tape and costs $250 to $400.

Networks: Networks linking office computers make it easy for users to share files and to send messages to one another through a feature called electronic mail.

Networks often are oversold, though. They may not be worth the price unless your employees share files frequently throughout the day. Talk to owners of other companies who have installed networks to see if it was cost-effective for them.

Small PC networks cost $300 to $600 per computer for the hardware, $500 to $1,000 for the software to run the system, plus the cost of cabling, which is variable. Small Mac networks can be set up for no more than the cost of cabling. For larger networks involving more than about a dozen machines, the price for Macs is comparable with that of PCs, and both systems may need an additional computer called a file server ($2,000 and up) to run them.


HOW TO BUY FOR BEST PRICE AND SERVICE

The prices of PCs vary by a factor of two or more. A 386SX computer running at 16 MHz with a 40-megabyte hard disk, 4 megabytes of RAM, and a color monitor may cost anywhere from $1,125 to $2,500.

Familiar brand names tend to be at the middle to high end of the price spectrum and are generally sold by dealers. Many PC clones in the low to middle price range are available from manufacturers by mail order through ads in PC Magazine, Byte, and other computer publications. These PCs are made by scores of companies whose names you've probably never heard before. Don't let this scare you away. Help is available through the comparative reviews published in the computer magazines. The differences among the top two dozen models -- brand name or mystery name -- in any category are slight, and you probably won't go wrong with any of them.

Macs do not have the same wide disparities in price because Apple is the only supplier; there are no Mac clones. Some price differences are found among the dealers authorized to sell Macs, so it pays to shop around.

Support services are a vital consideration for most small companies. They include help in installing and integrating the computers in your workplace, training employees, and installing a network that enables users to send files to one another and receive electronic mail. If you don't have the expertise on staff, consider dealing with a retailer who can help with these tasks. But be careful: Not all dealers are created equal. Check references carefully, ask the Better Business Bureau about any complaints, and inquire about the dealer's reputation with a local users group. The best mail-order companies offer good technical support by telephone and on-site service if you need it, but you will have to install the equipment yourself.

(continued)


A BUYER'S WORKSHEET FOR PERSONAL COMPUTERS

PC or Mac? Either one will work well on business applications. PCs have the advantage if price is the major consideration; Macs win if you use a lot of graphics in your reports or perform desktop publishing. Otherwise, try out both systems and make your choice.

Central Processing Unit At the lowest end are the 8088 and 8086 processors, now obsolete except for basic tasks such as entering data and writing letters. It's best to avoid them. The next step up are the 286 machines, adequate for most business applications but not a wise choice if your computational needs are growing because they don't run the newest generation of software. They will soon be obsolete. Next up are the 386SX machines, the best choice for the vast majority of small and growing companies; long useful life is assured because they run the newest and most




Register on Inc.com today to get full access to:
All articles  |  Magazine archives | Livestream events | Comments
EMAIL
PASSWORD
EMAIL
FIRST NAME
LAST NAME
EMAIL
PASSWORD

Or sign up using: