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The joy of specs - buying a computer (1994, TES)
'Who me? Tell you about this computer?' said the shop assistant. 'If I could, I wouldn't be working here would I?' It was an unwise remark and sort of funny at the time, but finding someone ten years ago that knew about computers was difficult. Search and you would find a fast-talking, fast-typing, propeller-head. Ask a question with words and you would get an answer with numbers.

Computers have got into the high street and sales people, bless them, have brushed up on social skills. 'Excuse, me... ', I say as I stare at one Archimedes, two Compaqs and three Packard-Bells on display '...aren't Apple Macs supposed to be good?' 'We can order one. How much do you want to spend?' comes the reply. That's better.

But buying a computer shouldn't start with machinery or money for that matter. It starts with a look at what you want to do and what software you want to use. Do you want to write letters? Keep your address book? Send electronic mail? Manage money? Make music? Play games? Learn?

Once you've lined up your needs, the software and then the computer, starts to fall into place. Games players will want a machine with sound capability. E-mail people will need a modem. Educational users will want a CD-Rom drive. Easy software users will manage with a basic model. Higher flyers, who use top packages, like Word and Excel, will need a machine with more storage and more poke.

But then you might want to get what the school has. A teacher might get access to laser printers and scanners. A child might use the unique software you find on machines like the Archimedes. A parent would want skills learned at home recycled at school. Some would even plump for a portable for home and school.

IT inspector, Geoff Strack adds, 'Lots of schools still have very old Nimbus's or BBC's, so you really have to look at what the school WILL be buying.'

And people do make assumptions about schools: you really need to assess whether there is any traffic of skills and work between school and home. There is occasionally, and you can but ask.

Before going shopping, a peep at a computer magazine will help you to gauge prices. Prices at £950 for a basic system, £1300 for a multimedia system, all plus ouch-VAT, make computers one of the priciest items in the high street. And there's still no choice of colour!

Shops and department stores all provide a chance to measure keyboard bounce, mouse clickiness and monitor fuzziness. You can test drive software but there are sadly, limits to what is possible in a shop. But you can get advice. As I did the rounds of London's west end, I got plenty - about software and machine 'specs', about after-sales support and brand reputations. They were good at machine 'specs', fairly good at comparing brands but pretty poor at software. Most would sell me anything. Only John Lewis and PC World were cheering.

There were some distractions, like the temptation to buy what's in stock or go for special purchases with bargain prices and bundles. Then there are those little known brands from 'a huge computer company but they're unheard of over here'.

It's wise to give yourself time, weeks even before you expect to do a deal. And get expert third-party advice on bargains - many have snags. And leave the little known brands for those amazing people who buy their houses at auctions. Established, value-added companies have got real with their prices so there's no need to take risks.

Take after-sales support. When you need help with the machine, you'll want a number you can call, and one that answers too. So Apple dealers provide direct support and there's now a helpline for Apple's Performa machines. Dell's support is legendary and open till eight while IBM runs 24 hours. Acorn and Research Machines, could never have got so big in education without delivering what is ultimately, a good service.

And getting impartial advice? Well, it is the luck of the draw - I didn't say it but if they knew about computers ...

The real  joy of specs II

You'll want to spend no more than you need on your computer. But which features are essential and which are frivolous - never mind which are obsolete? And can anyone plan for the day the machine needs a bit more memory or a bit more storage space - how good a computer should you get now?

Even the three wise bunnies are divided on that one: 'Buy the best you can, it'll delay the need to upgrade the machine' said Rag. 'Buy the cheapest, you can upgrade anytime you want to', squeaked Tag. 'Whatever you buy, aim to not upgrade within a couple of years', said Bobtail.

The right answer depends on how fast your skills develop. For example, bright children quickly develop an appetite for very powerful software - it's a sort of drug that 'kills' a not-too powerful computer. (That's why most computers are bought by people who already have one). In that case, buy the best you can. Otherwise, follow the Bobtail plan:

You need a HARD DISC to store your software and work - rather than make the machine go faster. A XX Mb hard disc is today's minimum size, Apples need a bit less because their 'windows' software is built-in.

You can't afford to buy too much MEMORY but then you can't work with too little. XMb of memory is just fine - except if you use powerful software. To compromise, prepare for a mid-term upgrade to 2X Mb.

A PRINTER is an unwelcome extra cost, but start your search with a colour ink-jet printer.

Only PCs are born mute so, if you want to hear music and sound from multimedia software you will need a sound 'card'. Be warned that sound quality can be fairly scratchy - but leave the more specialised sound cards for the music-makers.

Your computer's GRAPHICS output needs to deliver preferably 32,000 colours for good photographic colour. Some provide 61 million colours which is nice but more than the eye can perceive. Look out too for accelerated graphics which add plenty performance for little cost.

The PROCESSOR is the pulsing heart of your computer. There are legions of these - each coming in several 'clock speeds'. More is best. With the PC, more is also confusing - you can choose from twenty different processors and not all the points about diminishing returns apply.

Finally, forget benchmarks - computer performance figures are like the top speeds of cars. They are often quoted out of context and more often measured with the same tail wind.

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