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" Tips For Selecting The Right Computer "

A. Introduction

You probably thought that mastering computer and developing a general understanding of computers and what they can do for you was the hard part. Think again. The task of actually buying the machine is often the most difficult. With so many types of computers and peripherals available, it can be difficult to decide which is best for you. For example, ask yourself which you should buy, Computer 'X' or Computer 'Y' :

Computer X is a Pentium 166 MHz multimedia PC with 256Kb cache, 2Mb VRAM, 16Mb RAM expandable to 64Mb, plus an internal 1.0 Gb hard drive.

Computer Y is a AMD K6 - 133 MHZ PC with a graphics card, 12-speed CD-ROM, and a 2.1 Gb hard drive.

Which computer is best for you? Who knows? And you probably won't figure out which is best suited to your purposes by simply comparing their specs. The countless different computers, monitors, printers, hard drives and other devices lining the shelves can make a trip to the computer store a big headache. Do you want to become part of the Macintosh world or the IBM world? If it's IBM, do you want an actual IBM machine, a Compaq, an Acer, a Dell or one of the many other IBM-clones available in the market? Should you buy a black and white monitor, a colour monitor, a VGA colour monitor or a super VGA? Is a 1.0 Gb hard drive enough? The best way to begin your quest for the perfect computer is to forget about which computer you'll be buying. For now, forget about the hardware, too. Hardware is one of the last items to consider when selecting a computer.

B. What do people want when buying computers?

That depends on whether or not it's their first computer. According to a 1995 survey conducted by Computer Life magazine, 65 percent of first-time buyers rated good value for their money as their primary concern. The manufacturer's reputation was their second most important consideration. But priorities flipped when people purchased their second computer. This time, the manufacturer's reputation was the main consideration, with multimedia capability and technical support taking second and third place.

C. Asking yourself the right questions

Begin the buying process by deciding what you want your computer to do. Then, find the software that will do it. Only then should you look for the hardware to run that software. Long before thinking about which brand of computers or how many megs of RAM you need, ask yourself these 11 questions stated below. Asking yourself the right questions and seriously considering the answers can save you a lot of grief, time and money.

1. What are you going to use the computer for?

If you only want the computer to write reports and keep track of your checkbook, or to play some games, an inexpensive, bare-bones computer may be all that you need. But if you're going to be doing some serious number crunching, surfing the Internet in search of information, or handling large graphics or multimedia projects, you'll need a more extensive and expensive setup. Just running Windows 95 on an IBM-compatible PC requires significant computer power.

2. What software will you likely be using?

Now that you know what you want your computer to do, start thinking about the software you'll need to do it. This is perhaps the hardest but most vital step in deciding which computer to buy. Go to the computer laboratory at school, to a friend's house or to the computer store and try out some software. Find out if you need separate word processing, graphics and database programs, or if a 'combined' program such as Microsoft Office will work for you. Be sure to find out what kind of software your school uses. It's best to use the same kind, if possible. If your school uses several kinds, find out which is used most in your department or among friends or study partners you'll be working with. Below are some types of software :

Word processing Database Multimedia Spreadsheet Graphics Games Desktop publishing

3. What kind of hardware does it take to run that software?

Some software runs quite well on stripped-down, inexpensive machines. Almost any old Mac or IBM-compatible can handle basic word processing programs and smaller data bases. But other applications require more hardware power. For example:

Microsoft's 'Windows 95' requires a 386DX or higher processor, a VGA or higher-resolution graphics card and either a 3.5" high density disk drive or a CD-ROM drive.

Microsoft's 'Encarta 97' multimedia encyclopedia requires a 386SX or higher processor, a CD-ROM drive, an audio board, a SVGA 256-colour monitor, a mouse and speakers.

A modem is a must for going online.

The point of this list is not to dazzle you with computer-talk, but to emphasize the importance of thinking about software before hardware. Remember that although most software ia available for both Macs and IBM-compatibles, some programs are only available for one or the other. Go to the computer store and get information off the boxes for each of the important programs you'll be using. Put it all together by selecting the most common requirements in each category.

4. How much memory and hard drive space do you need to run your software?

How much RAM and hard drive space do you expect to need now and in the near-to-medium distant future? No one can predict what you'll need two years from now, but you can plan ahead by thinking about programs you'll be using, then checking their requirements. For example:

System software 'Windows 95' requires a minimum of 4 Mb RAM (but 8 Mb are recommended), with at least 45 Mb of available hard drive space.

Microsoft's 'Word for Windows 95' requires at least 6 Mb RAM and 16 Mb hard drive space for the typical setup.

Think about which programs you'll be using before you lock yourself in by purchasing a computer with inadequate memory. You can add memory to some computers after you buy them, but it costs extra. And you may not be able to add enough, no matter what you're willing to spend. Remember that some programs function with a minimum amount of RAM and hard drive space, but do much better with more memory.

5. What kind of hardware does your school use?

If your school uses the Mac, it makes sense for you to buy a Mac rather than an IBM-compatible, and vice versa. Purchasing equipment that's identical or similar to that used at school makes your life simpler.

6. Where will you be using the computer?

Will you be putting the computer on a large, specially built desk in a spacious study, or setting it on a little table in a crowded room? If you have a lot of room, you can handle a more expensive setup. If not, you'll have to look for something more compact. Therefore, check to see how much space is available. Will you be moving the computer around? If you'll be using the computer in multiple locations (at home, in the library and on airplanes), a laptop may make more sense.

7. How are you going to protect your files?

Do you intend to copy sensitive files that you can't afford to lose on extra discs? On a separate hard drive or a tape backup system? The answer depends on how many important files you'll be creating, how long / big they are, and how often you'll be working with them. If you're simply writing short papers and keeping a simple database on your computer, you can easily back up the data on 3.5" discs. But if you have more complex files, and you access them often, a separate hard drive or a tape backup system will make it easier for you to protect your work.

8. How much can you afford to spend?

It's remarkably easy to convince yourself you simply must have that 24-speed CD-ROM drive or that super-fast colour printer. And computer sales people will be more than happy to show you the exciting, costly extras. That's why it's best to decide how much you can afford to spend before you go shopping, and stick to your budget. Although prices vary greatly from store to store and sale to sale, you can expect to spend anywhere from RM2000 to RM 3000 for a personal computer. Don't forget to include the cost of software in your budget. The software you need can cost anywhere from a couple hundred ringgit on upwards.

9. Will you pay more for a recognizable brand name, or do you want to save money with a lesser-known company?

Buying an IBM will cost more than an almost identical clone made by Compaq. And, even more compared with an unknown brand. But some people prefer to go with known manufacturers that have a long and strong record of customer service.

10. How much time do you want to spend setting up and configuring your computer?

You can design the perfect computer system for yourself by mixing and matching components from various manufacturers. But if you purchase a CPU from one company, an external hard drive from another, a monitor from a third and a printer from yet another, you may spend quite a bit of time trying to make all the pieces fit together. On the other hand, an 'all-in-one' system made by a single manufacturer will probably require relatively little time and effort to assemble and put into operating order, especially if it comes with software pre-installed. The Mac is the leader in the 'plug and play' area. Its hardware is easy to set up, and you don't have to configure your computer when installing new software.

11. Does the manufacturer of the computer you're considering offer service and support?

If you have a question, does the company provide a toll-free number to call for help? Do they offer that help at no cost, or do you have to pay? What about the warranty? And if your computer breaks down, can you take it to the local computer fix-it shop, or do you have to mail it to its main office far away to be serviced?

D. What you would really like

Now that you've answered these questions to help you decide what you absolutely must have, you can think about what you'd like to have. For example:

You might only need a dot matrix printer, but a laser printer will make your reports and graphics look better.

A slow printer is fine if you don't print very often, but a faster one may be necessary if you have to print out hard copies often.

A small monitor is adequate for most purposes, but if you're doing a lot of desktop publishing, a screen that shows the entire page is better. And if you're using spreadsheets a lot, an extra wide screen will be helpful.

A colour screen with 256 colours is more than enough for most applications, but if you're studying art or graphic arts, you may need more.

E. Some final tips before you buy

Shop around. You'll find computer in computer stores, department stores and large discount warehouses.

Get written quotes, and make sure that everything you want is included in the quote.

Don't be afraid to haggle. Prices are rarely fixed, and you can often negotiate a better deal.

Find out if the computer you want is in stock, or if you have to wait for delivery.

Ask whether or not the store stands behind what they sell, or you have to go to the manufacturer in case of a problem.

Tell the sales person that you want your system software and other key programs pre-installed by the store - especially if you're a computer novice.

Be prepared to go elsewhere if the sales people don't answer all your questions. If they aren't terribly helpful before they have your money, how helpful will they be once they have it?