This is a bit of text I wrote before I opened a business. I was asked to write documentation when I worked for an ISP and I wrote this information at that time. It is about two years old but I have edited it to be up to date with today's prices. This is basically what it claims to be, "The Layman's Guide to Buying a Computer". I hope you find this information helpful. I have received countless responses stating it helped, so I am providing to you for that purpose.

Click on a rule to jump to the description, or read them one by one.
1.Buy a computer that is designed along the IBM PC/AT clone standard.
2. In computers, most of the time you do get what you pay for.
3. Know what hardware is in the computer.
4. Make the salesman earn his money.
5. There is not one computer that is right for everybody.
6. Be sure the computer is legal.
7. Illegal software.
8. Legal Software

Layman’s Guide to Buying a Computer

1. The cardinal rule for buying computers is: buy a computer that is designed along the IBM PC/AT clone standard.  The following computer manufacturers do NOT follow the clone standard:

Packard Bell
Leading Edge
Most Dell Computers
Most Gateway Computers

The XT (
extended Technology) design was introduced in the early eighties when the IBM personal computer was first introduced.  At that time there were no Packard Bells or Compaqs. Only Apple, and IBM dominated the personal computer market.  There were of course other business computer companies like sun, Wang and other giants that still exist today, but we are talking about personal computers.  When other manufacturers started producing IBM compatible hardware, they used the original IBM PC/XT design.  The computers today are described as AT (Advanced Technology) and greatly surpass their XT predecessors however they are modeled almost exactly the way they were in the first XT. One could take a modem he purchased in 1984 and use it in a computer he just bought.  This is because manufacturers have followed what is called the AT clone standard when designing the configuration of the slots that cards are plugged into on the motherboard.  These slots are called expansion slots, (ISA, and PCI are the most common today).  Though every manufacturer follows this part of the clone standard, the models fore-mentioned are not 100% AT clone compatible.  For example, lets say you buy a Packard Bell, in 5 years your Packard Bell is slow and out of date.  You decide you want to upgrade it.  Only Packard Bell motherboards will fit in Packard Bell cases.  This means you have to buy a new case and a new motherboard.  Packard Bell video cards are built in to their motherboards, if you replace the motherboard you have to buy a new video card.  The list goes on and on;  by the time you are done, it is cheaper just to buy a new computer.  On the other hand, if you buy a computer that is 100% clone compatible, every part is interchangeable with the next, you can reuse your cards on the new motherboard.  There are a few exceptions however.  There once were expansion slots called EISA and VESA, these were high performance slots before PCI was available.  When PCI came out manufacturers stopped putting EISA and VESA slots on the motherboards.  This meant all EISA and VESA cards became paperweights. Name brand machines may be cheaper now, but they will end up costing much more in the long term.

2. In computers, most of the time you do get what you pay for --Back to the Top--
Specifications used to be an accurate way to measure system quality.  Everything was comparable in price and quality.  This was back when the cheapest computer was $2000. Now you can buy a computer for under $1000.  So what has happened?  It is a combination of things.  Computer chips are cheaper to manufacture, there are many more computer manufacturers and everyone is buying computers today.  In today’s computer market you can see two different computers for sale, I’ll label them computer A and computer B.  Both computers are clone standard and all the specifications. Let’s say computer A is priced at $700 and computer B is priced at $900.  If the computers are at different computer stores the obvious choice is, computer A is a better buy, right?  Not necessarily.  I am going to break this down into different possibilities.

A. Computer shop B has a higher markup.
While this is totally possible it is highly unlikely.  Computer stores generally add $100 to $150 per machine.  In the past stores made a lot more, but with so much competition it is hard for shops to build a good quality machine and have people buy it.  The expense of doing so puts the machine $200 more than the competition, who has the same specifications, technically.  I will discuss this next…

B. Computer A has Packard Bell Syndrome.
Specifications alone can not be used to judge price.  Packard Bell computers are notorious for their problems.  As discussed before, Packard Bells are a bad choice because, while they may be cheaper, they will cost you more money in the long term.  Some of the motherboard manufacturers offer an all in one motherboard much like the Packard Bell motherboards.  They have connectors in the back that look like expansion cards but when you open them up, it’s a Packard Bell in disguise.  They mount the connectors to cover slips (metal pieces meant to cover expansion slot holes) and run a ribbon cable to the motherboard.  Though this is technically AT clone standard, it is just as bad as a non-standard machine because if you replace the motherboard, you have to replace those cards.  Why do computer stores do this?  It all comes down to profit.  Here is a breakdown of average wholesale prices and how each system could be built.  These prices do not include other things that drive the price of the system up like labor costs and shipping.

Computer A                                           Computer B
All-In-One Motherboard   $85.00     Good Motherboard   $120.00
Hard Disk   $150.00                                     Hard Disk   $150.00
Modem   $20.00                                                Modem   $20.00
CD-ROM   $45.00                                          CD-ROM   $45.00
Floppy   $20.00                                                  Floppy   $20.00
Monitor   $150.00                                            Monitor   $150.00
CPU   $120.00                                                      CPU   $120.00
                                                           Good Sound Card   $35.00
                                                            Good Video Card   $40.00
                                                                 Good Modem   $55.00

 Total  $590.00                                                   Total  $755.00

 This is cost of production, average markup per machine is anywhere between $100 and $150.  See the $200 difference now?  Because the markup per machine is fairly common among small shops, the differences in price are often reflective of the difference in parts.  If both machines were marked up $150, Computer A would be $740 and Computer B would be $905 but both would have the exact same specifications.  The tricky part is they look identical on the outside.  Which brings me to the next point.

3. Know what hardware is in the computer.--Back to the Top--
Hard Drives:
This is an area of much debate.  It is almost as pointless as what is better, Mustang or Camaro, (go Mustang).  For the most part, Hard drives are made well, the brand to stay away from is Samsung.  Some people dislike Seagate.  I have had nothing but success with these drives.  Their performance is less than others, but dependability is good.  Nothing is better than Western Digital, Maxtor falls to a close second but WD is the way to go for performance and quality, though you do pay more for them.
So many people today are Intel freaks.  Every processor they buy has to be Intel.  I used to be one of them, until about a year ago.  AMD has been making processors since the late 80’s and in the beginning they had compatibility problems.  This has scared many people away.  I have been running their K62-300
over clocked at 333mhz for a year.  Over-clocking a CPU is like taking a ¾ ton pickup and hauling 3-4 tons, which I am sure all of us has done it at least once. ?  The point is, you wouldn’t slap on the weight all the time.  This processor has not frozen one time.  As a matter of fact, it ran 3 months non-stop without any problems until the power went out.  This is also because I have all name-brand parts in my machine, but I have seen many Pentium machines lock up on a regular basis.  As long as you stay with AMD or Intel, you’ll be fine.  There is a new chip called the Winchip.  I would stay away from this chip for a few years.

The motherboard is the backbone of the computer.  You can have the fastest CPU, RAM, et cetera but if you do not have a fast MB it bottlenecks and speed is wasted.  Good MB manufacturers are Shuttle, DFI, Tyan, and Amptron.  There are other motherboards that are good but if its not broke, don’t fix it, right?  There are two major types of socketed processors today, P5 and Pentium2 (Yes, P5 came before P2).  P5 processors fit on socket 7 motherboards.  AMD and Cyrix manufacture chips for the socket 7 motherboards up to 500 MHz.  All Intel processors use the P2 socket.  The fastest Intel processor made for socket 7 was the Intel Pentium 233.  It doesn’t matter which socket configuration you get, as long as the MB supports PC100 DIMM modules, a 100mhz-bus speed and has AGP.
Just because the specs say “56K Fax/Data Modem”, one can not be satisfied with just that. Ask what BRAND is the modem, if it is a generic brand, ask for the TI chipset. Some of the generic modems have chips just as good as the name brands, but most do not.
Sound Cards:
This is probably the most important.  Sound cards use so many system addresses they can conflict with everything from your modem to your printer port.  I am a 100% believer in Creative Labs.  I have never had a conflict with their cards conflicting.  The generic sound cards can cause so many system conflicts and lockups, it is worth they extra money for a creative sound card.  Ask for one when you buy your PC.
Video Cards:
There are so many good video cards to choose from it is hard to be biased.  The high dollar cards are made by Matrox.  Their cards range from $150 to $300 and often have more RAM than some computers do.  While the graphics and full motion video are superb, I am not willing to pay that much for a video card.  The good, affordable cards are made by Creative Labs, ATI, S3, and Trident. (In descending order).  Any of these cards is fine but for good quality and customer support, go with Creative Labs or ATI.  (Noticing a pattern yet?)
Most CD-ROMs are comparable in quality.  Of course, Creative Labs CD-ROMS are the top brand in quality and definitely performance.  When Creative rates their drives, the rate it at average speed.  Most other companies rate theirs at max speed so if it advertises 44X, its average speed is probably around 30X where creative labs advertises it as a 30X.  A good generic brand is Cyberdrive. They do however rate their drives for max but most applications today only require an 8x CD-ROM.  Make sure that you get an IDE drive (or SCSII if you REALLY want to get expensive, but that opens a whole other can of worms) and ask if it is an ATAPI drive.  All the new CD’s I have seen are ATAPI but you never know, anytime you say something as an absolute, I think they make something just to prove you wrong.
The brand name of monitors is virtually unimportant.  Most are made in the same factory by the same people.  When a monitor is advertised, the size is not the viewable size but only the size of the picture tube.  The size is measured from top left to bottom right (or LL to TR).  On a 14’’ monitor the actual viewable size will vary from 11.5’’ to 13'’.  A 15 will vary from 13’’-14’’ and so on.  Take a tape measurer and measure the viewable.  The other point of interest for monitors is the “dot pitch” or DPI (dots per square inch).  A picture on a TV or monitor screen is nothing more than millions of colored dots on a phosphorous screen.  The dpi measures the distance between these dots.  The lower the number, the closer the dots are, making a better picture.  In the old days, monitors had a DPI of .39.  These monitors would give the user headaches and was blurry.  Make sure you get a monitor with .28 or better.
Printers are a lost cause.  No one makes money on printers except the manufacturers.  Most the time stores lose money in shipping costs.  Why do stores have printers? Because customers want them.  They make nothing on them, so it is just an added extra for the customer.  Go with Hewlett Packard printers.  There are other popular printers, such as Cannon and Epson but HP is the best and most interchangeable.  Some computer systems are advertised as including a printer.  I would strongly discourage accepting that printer.  It is most the time a $70 printer, usually made by Cannon or Lexmark.  Sometimes they’ll throw an NEC at you.  These printers are terrible. Spend the extra $200 and buy an HP.  Remember, the store is not marking them up much at all, if any.

4. Make the salesman earn his money.--Back to the Top--
Make him explain how a hard drive works, what a FAT table is, what is RAM, ask him about the internet and any other computer question you have, even if you know the answer.  This will tell you about the salesman.  Is he there to help you, or help himself, to your money.  Ask him a question that you already know the answer to, to see if you gives you an honest answer or simply a story that sounds good.  Is the salesman able to say “I don’t know”, and most of all, is he patient.  Buying a computer is a big step and you need to be sure you want to take that step with him.  After all, when (yes, when) you have a problem with the computer, it will be he that helps you.  If his computers are more expensive, make him justify why.  Many times, the more expensive computer is the way to go, other times it is not.

5. There is not one computer that is right for everybody.--Back to the Top--
In computers, the more money you spend in the beginning, the better off you are in the long run (within reason).  There are some exceptions.  What I am referring to is, if you are debating between spending the extra $50 to upgrade that 3.2 gig hard drive to a 4.3, I would say definitely do it.  The extra space will be better for you in the long run.  I would not however, go out and buy the biggest fastest hard drive one could find.

6. Be sure the computer is legal.--Back to the Top--
Every computer sold must have an operating system.  That is what enables you to use it.  Most computers have Windows95 or Windows98.  If you buy a new computer that has Windows95 on it be real suspicious.  Windows95 is not sold anymore.  If it has Windows98 on it THEY MUST GIVE YOU A WINDOWS98 ORIGINAL CD, CERTIFICATE OF AUTHENTICITY AND A WINDOWS98 MANUAL.  It is the law.  If something in the future comes along and you need help from Microsoft technical support and you do not have this certificate, you get no help whatsoever.  Many small computer businesses ignore this law to save money and be competitive.  It costs the store $95 per machine to abide by this law.  These stores are dishonest because they are pocketing this money as profit.  If they are dishonest about this, they are probably dishonest about other things as well.  The parts they put in the computer will be cheap.  They will cut corners whenever possible to save money and increase profit.  Avoid these shops.  Some of them say they have copied it to the hard drive so you do not need the CD.  While this is true, it is not legal.  As soon as you hear that, I would advise you to back out of the sale peacefully and go somewhere else that is not going to cut corners.

7. Illegal software.--Back to the Top--
Be prepared to pay extra for every piece of software you want.  If the computer store offers to include programs such as Microsoft Office, Word Perfect, Microsoft Works, or any other well known program without giving you the original CD, it is technically illegal.  You notice I said technically.  This is kind of tricky.  Where everyone who owns a computer has to buy an operating system, not everyone has to buy a particular piece of software.  For example,  every time a computer is sold without the windows CD. Microsoft is being cheated out of $95.  However, if I have a friend  who never intends to buy office, and I give him a copy, Microsoft has lost nothing because my friend was never going to buy it anyway.  Both are technically wrong, but the second is more forgivable and generally overlooked.

8. Legal Software--Back to the Top--
Some programs are legal to give away.  These programs are shareware and freeware.  Shareware is a thing like “try before you buy”.  They enable just enough of the program to let you see how it works and if you like it, you buy it from the programmer directly and you get a registered version which has no limitations.  Freeware is fully functional and is free.  These are the best because you don’t get “nag messages” which are things  included in shareware programs that remind you to pay for it.  Do not be alarmed if Windows Games, and other small programs are included free, most of these are Freeware.

That about does it.  Computers open so many opportunities it is inconceivable.  If you or your kids plan on going to college, a computer is a must.  Just remember what I have talked about, dive out there, and have fun.  Oh yeah, Internet is a big plus too.  Despite all the bad things said about it, Internet is definitely a necessity in college.  Have Fun,
 Copyright 1999 by Christophor Ronk

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© Copyright 1999 by Christophor Ronk- All Rights Reserved