--  Advice About PCs --

The following table is a list of items that can be used to build a PC. The comment section is deliberately brief because individual requirements can vary widely. Buying the latest/fastest version of any PC item is not usually worth while. If you want a PC for general purpose use you will find that buying one that runs at only half the speed of the fastest available will generally cost less than one quarter the price. General business and internet work can be carried out on a very modest PC. Anything that runs at 500 MHz or faster is good enough for most people. Many users manage quite well using even slower PCs. Games fanatics need deep pockets to keep up with what is available. A fast processor and a brilliant video card can provide excellent moving effects in games these days - at a price! However, games and serious work on the same PC do not often work very welll together. It is best to use an older.slower PC for serious work and to have a separate faster PC for action games.

As a rough and ready guide you can buy next year for £60 what costs you £100 this year. Prices are always falling for the same performance or functionality is always improving for the same price.

The Hardware Bits

 ITEM

 FUNCTION

 COMMENT

 COST £

 ESSENTIAL?
 Case  Container + Power  Tower Preferred. Bigger is better.

 20 - 60
 Yes
 Motherboard  Connects Everything  No frills boards are best (AT or ATX)

 40 -150
 Yes
 Processor Does most of the work Faster maybe better Check price/speed

 22 - 350
 Yes
 Cooler Keeps processor cool Choose to suit processor (AMD now included)

4-16
 Yes
 Memory Scratchpad for programs 256Mb will do but more is better

25-150
 Yes
Video Card Runs Screen Display Basic OK except for games & graphics

25 -660
 Yes
Floppy Drive Booter & backup Standard Item

10 - 15
 Yes
Hard Disk Drive Master storage  20Gb now around £70 - why buy less?

30 - 200
 Yes
Keyboard General Input Cheap ones don't last long

4 -30
 Yes
 Mouse Program Control Get one you like

2.50 - 20
Yes
CD/DVD R/W Drive Programs and Music Most available are OK now

25 -40
Yes
 Monitor Your view of the PC  A bigger screen is usually better

 90 - 300
Yes
Sound Card Music and Speech Soundblaster is not the best

20 - 120
If you are not deaf
 Broadband Modem  Connect to Internet  Depends on broadband provider    Yes if you have BB
Dial Up Modem Connect to phone system 56K V90 is standard - Now Obsolescent

16 - 100
Only if you don't have BB
Printer Hard copy output Choose to suit work

60 - 360
Yes
Scanner Copy images and for OCR  Lots of memory needed

 40 - 200
Depends on user
TV Camera Computer movies  Used for TV phone on internet

 45 - 100
 Depends on user

Operating System and Programs

There is very little choice of operating system these days. Most modern programs require at least Windows 200 and some need Windows XP.  However, there are a lot of incredibly usable and useful programs around that will work well and fast under the old DOS and Windows 98SE operating systems. Windows Vista will only run software that has been approved by Microsoft.

I never recommend any Microsoft product to anyone when there is an alternative available that will do the job better. I refer to Linux elsewhere in these pages and I advise you to consider using Linux if you need more security and reliability than Microsoft products can offer. Although Microsoft Word has become a sort of standard in wordprocessors it is clunky when compared with Corel Wordperfect or Lotus Wordpro. Both of these can be obtained in Windows and Linux versions. Word has been the subject of several virus attacks. The other wordprocessors have had no problems. Microsoft Internet Explorer is much less secure than Firefox . Internet Explorer is always totally open to external modification by web sites or totally closed. Firefox allows a special code to erect a secure interface for credit card transactions while remaining closed to other modifications.

Almost all business requirements can be catered for under Linux and there is a lot of other Linux software available to suit almost every taste. Any part of Linux can be downloaded from the internet free but it is often more convenient to get a Linux operating system from one of the many Linux distributors on a set of CDs and to pay a modest amount for the service.

When contemplating software to run under Windows 95/98 beware of anything bundled with a PC. Most of the stuff will be tried a few times and then ignored for ever afterwards. Good names to look out for include Adobe, Norton/Symantec, Corel and Lotus. There are others who produce good specialised software but a careful check of what is available for a specific purpose will soon lead you to what is really usable and worthwhile.

A Sad Story
Some years ago when I was running a small business selling computers I was asked to quote for a reasonable 486 PC. The customer discussed the price with his wife before telling me that he could not buy from me without hire purchase. He could not raise enough cash at once. He went to Dixons to buy a computer because they could provide a hire purchase service.
About a week later he came to me and said: "My new computer starts up OK but it does not seem able to run anything.."
When I checked I found that it had only 2 megabytes of memory fitted. Memory was expensive in those days so I assumed that it would not be difficult to upgrade his PC with another 2 megabytes to enable it to run programs like Word and Excel. I got two 1 megabyte 30 pin SIMMS to do the upgrade for him. When I got the computer to do the upgrade I found that it had been fitted with one of the very new (at the time) 72 pin SIMM modules. There was only one SIMM socket on the motherboard. The only way to upgrade the PC was to throw away the 2 megabyte SIMM that had been fitted and replace it with a 4 or 8 megabyte 72 pin SIMM.
(4 megabytes cost around £90 in those days so wasting 2 megabytes was not a trivial matter.)

In these days when it is customary to have 500 megabytes or more memory in a PC it is hard to imagine what it was like to run a PC with only 4 megabytes of RAM. However, software did not need so much memory then. Microsoft had not progressed to the current fashion for bloatware. 2 megabytes were needed to run Windows 3.11 for Workgroups and most programs then available would run in another 2 megabytes.
You can gather from this that any computer sold with only 2 megabytes fitted (and Windows 3.11 for Workgroups installed) was effectively useless. Only the worst of despicable money-grabbing companies would produce and sell a PC that would be impossible to use by a total newbie. The company that sold that PC was Dixons - now called Currys!
Now, whenever someone asks me about what PC to buy (and where to buy it) I have a ready-made answer for them. Guess what I tell them?

This story is true so it cannot be libellous.

I have included this piece as a warning to all would-be buyers of a new PC.
If you want to buy a new PC, don't buy one from a company where the shop assistants are more interested in the commission that they will earn than providing what the customer needs.  Beware of anything "bundled" with the PC. If it is hardware like a printer or a scanner you can be sure that it is likely to be either a discontinued model or one that is a non-seller because of its deficiencies.  If it is software that is bundled with the PC you can be sure that it is not what you would like to buy if you could choose.
Finally, beware of "Corporate" PCs. These are made to suit companies that require ten or more identical computers. If one fails it can be replaced by a new identical model.  The snag is that these PCs have many custom-made parts that can only be obtained from the PC manufacturer - at a price that will shock you.  Generally speaking these PCs cannot be upgraded. All of these "Corporate" PCs are made by big name companies like Apple, Compaq, Dell, Hewlett Packard, Packard Bell and IBM. In the PC trade these are known as "Dead End" PCs because they just get more and more out of date as time goes by.
When they are new these PCs seem to be OK and they are. However, from then on it is all downhill.
An anonymous PC uses parts that fit together as easily as Lego bricks.  Upgrades are always possible at a modest cost. To a degree it is better to get as big a case as possible so that there is room for more items to be added later.

Buy the complete computer or the upgrade parts from a Computer Fair (prices are generally cheaper) or from a small high street shop that is not a part of a chain of stores. You will get good service from someone who really knows what he (or she) is talking about. The seller will want you to come back for more so he or she will be as helpful as possible.
Note:
All traders at Computer Fairs are covered by the same trading laws as high street shops. In addition, Computer Fair organisers will blacklist any trader who causes trouble to customers. Most British Computer Fair organisers will circulate the name and details of any trader who is blacklisted by one of them. They all want to have happy customers and none of them want Computer Fairs to get a bad name.

I condense my advice about buying a computer down to one sentence:

AVOID BIG NAMES AND LITTLE BOXES.
 

Miscellany Page
Buying a Printer

Cleaning Printer Printheads
The Essential Bits and the Less Essential Bits
How It works
Windows 98, Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Vista and Linux
Installing Red Hat 6.1 Linux
Nickel Cadmium Batteries

Winemaking

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Please send your comments to: Wilf James:  wilf dot james at ntlworld dot com