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The Northern Spy
Nov 2004

Spying out a Computer Purchase

Rick Sutcliffe

In the twenty-one years and four months since this column started in Call A.P.P.L.E. magazine, the computing industry has changed dramatically. With this month, the Spy celebrates new publications joining our syndication, and the new readers they bring, by re-visiting the basics. For the next several issues, he'll consider computer buying advice, basic software selection and operation, getting on the Internet, and the mechanics of web site creation and maintenance--a potpourri for computing beginners.

The old crocs will still get their monthly dose of news and views, from the general technology industry, from the specific Apple Macintosh world, and from endeavours under the Arjay Enterprises umbrella in particular. However, newcomers will get special attention here over the next few months. Also, to meet print deadlines, column dates will be advanced, so that the November issue appears mid October, and the December one before the end of October, making three in a single month.

Establishing the need

"Hmmph. You going to tell them first why they need a computer, anyhow?"

Nellie Hacker popped into my office unannounced once again, read the beginning of this column over my shoulder, slouched in a spare swivel chair, swung her feet up on my desk, and began munching on the surplus fruit I'd brought to put in the faculty lounge. "Nice apple, by the way," she added, between bites. "What kind?"

"Northern Spy, of course," I replied, not minding her petty larceny. The tree on my Bradner property had supplied seven boxes of this juicy winter apple, so I had lots to spare. "But to address your point Nellie, not everyone should buy a computer."

"Piece of junk if they can't use it," she observed. Nellie is one of our grads, and works in the computing industry, so she's paid enough dues to be entitled to her opinions.

"It's like any purchase Nellie. If you don't know why you're buying it, don't lay down your credit card.

"Guy at my office told his wife he needed a computer at home to balance their chequebook. Said she could store her recipes on it." She spat a couple of seeds into the wastebasket.

"That's as much bunk as it was twenty years ago when we started this banter."

"Yeah, or like the old Y2K scam. Fact is he wants it to surf the net, and knowing him, not for the best kind of stuff."

"Network research and email communication are decent reasons to buy a computer."

"Yeah, I suppose," she drawled, tossing the first core and seizing another apple, "but less'n you got big time programming, research, and mail needs like me, you could spend the dough better on a library card and a roll of stamps."

I offered a few more: "Club secretary, church treasurer, ad designer, almost every student, writers, professionals needing to bring their office home..."

"Practically anyone with kids in school," she conceded. All right,, so lotsa people can use one of these gizmos I make my living on. Let's hope they do due diligence, make a cost-benefit analysis, and know why they're buying, though, or it'll still end up as an expensive doorstop. Given all that, what're you going to advise them to get?" She looked smug. "As if I didn't know." She picked up one of my journals and ignored me, leaving me to write in peace. Nellie's always been somewhat of a mooch.

Choosing the brand

There was a time when we'd have done these first two columns the other way around, for the right way was to decide which software you wanted to run, then buy the one computer (of many possible) that ran it best. Not so today, when the programs most people use most of the time--for word processing, spreadsheet, database, graphics manipulation, page publication, presentation, and communications--are all readily available in identical forms on every platform. True, there are game companies that only produce for Windows, but if a game machine is all you want, then it's all you should buy. You're better off zipping your wallet and leaving the more expensive general purpose productivity tool in the store.

Unlike those days, there are today effectively only two system choices for home/personal/small office use:

- one based on a Pentium chip from Intel (or a clone thereof) and running either the Windows or desktop Linux operating system

- one based on a PowerPC chip from Motorola/IBM and running Apple Macintosh OS X. (IBM uses these same chips in high-end industrial strength servers, but not in consumer machines.)

Since the add-in software is the same (more on this next month) the choice has to be based on the same factors one uses to purchase a car, a refrigerator, a small appliance, or a hay baler. Those are cost, performance, company reputation, personal preference, and aesthetics (the "cool" factor). Let's take these from the top.

Cost If you compare the cheapest machines in any given category, the lowest-end Pentium-based ones appear to have an advantage, for they bear smaller price tags. However, this is comparing apples to lem... er, never mind.

Apple typically packages their machines with more functionality built in than do most others. Before comparing initial price tags, ensure that the two machines have the same number of ports or connectors, the same bundled software, the same quality of monitor, same amount of memory, and other specifications. Because PowerPC chips execute instructions in about half the number of clock cycles as do Pentium chips, the clock speed of a Macintosh should be doubled (or at least multiplied by 1.5 to be conservative) to make a fair comparison for actual running speed. That is a 2.5G Hz G5 chip compares well to at least a 3.75 GHz Pentium. Once equals are compared, the price gap narrows dramatically.

The gap disappears, even swings the other way when two more factors are considered. First, because they are made with higher quality components and run a more secure operating system, Macintosh computers require less service over their lifetime. Second, they last longer. Plan on a Pentium-based machine being replaced after three years. It may last slightly longer, but only if you don't want to run current software, and don't mind ongoing repairs, particularly to hard disks, monitors, and power supplies. At that point, remove your files and give it away. It has no commercial value to speak of.

On the other hand, a Macintosh will last five years on average before an upgrade will seem pressing. Even then, it can be sold for several hundred dollars and still provide someone who doesn't mind older slower systems with another five years or more. The Spy knows of fifteen year old Macintoshes that are still in daily service, and of one that lasted that long without being rebooted even once.

The bottom line: Total cost of ownership for comparable machines, whether calculated on the lifetime of the machine or per annum is considerably less for a Macintosh machine than a Pentium-based one. At the highest end, there may not even be a comparable machine on the Pentium side.

Performance Apple also wins here, for they almost never get viruses (there are no OS X ones yet, but nearly a hundred thousand on the Windows side), they almost never have to be rebooted, they almost never have to have the operating system reinstalled, and they will run for months or even years completely trouble free.

Reputation: Pentium machines are often no-name-brand, assembled in local shops from imported components of dubious origin and questionable quality. These should be avoided in favour of known brands like IBM, Toshiba, HP, or Dell (though the latter has had its problems). But of these, only IBM has a company reputation that approaches that of Apple within a rifle shot. Those determined to purchase Intel hardware can do little better than big blue. In the technological wilderness for several years, IBM has in recent times made a big comeback, and probably makes the best quality hardware available on this side of the fence.

However, Apple has been responsible for bringing to the mass market nearly every innovation in personal computing made since the mid 1970's. This includes the expandible computer, disk drive, compact floppy, CD, laser printer, hard drive, flat screen, true portable, 64-bit computer, graphics user interface, QuickTime, numerous software categories, and FireWire to name a very few. The iPod and latest iMac prove the tradition is still alive, and help make Apple one of the most profitable hardware companies in the business. Current Macintoshes use a variation of IBM's Power4 chip (Apple calls it the G5), considered by industry insiders to represent the state of the design art, a supercomputer reduced to a single chip.

Paradoxically, this means Apple is the only company whose personal computers are IBM-compatible, for even IBM produces consumer market machines with Intel chips. It also means that everyone else in the industry plays a perpetual game of catch-up-with-Apple. Indeed, other than Apple and IBM, few hardware manufacturers spend more than token amounts on research and development, relying instead on speedy imitation.

Personal preference, and aesthetics The last two factors are in the eye of the beholder. What do you want a major (and rather expensive) piece of furniture to look like? Should it be just another featureless grey box, or a major slice of cool? How do you personally define "cool"? Enough said.

Lap top or desktop

Given that you've picked a brand for your computer, the next decision is between a laptop and a desktop version. Desktops can boast higher speeds, bigger faster drives, internal expendability, and more memory, because they need not be thrifty with electricity and can have large fans or water coolers to remove excess heat. Moreover, even for the same specifications, a desktop is cheaper, because cramming all that functionality into a small space is expensive.

On the other hand, most people like to bring their office home and to have it available for use on the road, meaning that a portable often makes sense. Moreover, a portable usually has connectors that allow full size monitors and keyboard to be attached at both home and office (sometimes using a docking device), though this adds even more to their cost.

Most people opt for portables now, apparently feeling that versatility trumps performance limitations. This trend seems likely to continue.

In the actual marketplace IBM's ThinkPad portables are a cut above everyone else's Pentium machines, and Apple makes cream-of-the-crop portables as well as desktops, the price depending on performance and features.

Where to make a purchase

When buying a Pentium-based machine it is important to purchase a known brand from an established vendor. Buy your computer from "Joe's corner store, garage, and computer emporium" and you'll get what you pay for--something that might work...sometimes...for a little while. A house brand from a big box store is no better. Instead, purchase a well-known brand from a large, established store with a silver-plated reputation. An Apple or IBM store is best where available. Next best is an established computer specialist. Of nearly equal quality and reputation (in Canada) is London Drugs' computing department. Big box general retailers and electronics stores are notorious for poorly trained sales staff eager to make any promise for a commission sale and for low-quality or non-existent service. Regard them with caution. Avoid all hole-in-the-wall operations.

Bulking up the buy

Memory The single most important computer enhancement is additional memory. Never buy a machine with less than one gigabyte (about a billion bytes) of memory. Low memory slows the operating system, requiring longer to load and store programs and files. It reduces the number of programs that can be run at once, and also dramatically shortens the time a Pentium machine will run without requiring rebooting. Adding extra memory at the time of purchase is cost effective, increases performance, and adds to the machine's effective lifetime.

Get two gigabytes if you can afford it and the machine allows you to. Desktops have higher memory limits than portables, but few need the eight gigabytes that can be installed in some G5 models. In any case buy memory from a reputable manufacturer such as Kingston, and make sure you get the right kind and speed, for there are as many different ones as there are computers. Don't buy the extra memory from the machine's manufacturer. They get it from memory specialists and mark it up, charging their customers far too much.

Monitor With a desktop, purchase the largest monitor with the most choices for resolution that you can afford, but ensure it is from a reputable manufacturer and supplier (not necessarily the same as the computer), who will exchange it if it turns out not to have true colour or if some pixels go dark (making "holes" in the display). The meaning of "reputable" changes quickly among monitor makers, so consult a trade magazine that tests monitors for colour fidelity, lack of distortion, brightness, clarity of text display, longevity, price, service, angle of vision, and other factors. This decision may be as complex as that of the basic computer. Some people like the monitors that come with the Apple or IBM product, others prefer ones from third parties. Note that the default colour setup on a monitor intended for a Macintosh is different from that intended for a Windows machine, so web sites and graphics do not appear the same way on both.

Hard drive Most computers these days, even portables, come with disk drives that will hold 60-80 gigabytes of programs and data. For a typical home or business user, this is plenty. However, if you plan to store large numbers of pictures from a digital camera, you'll need more space, much more if you plan to edit video files. In such cases, you can usually install a second, third, or even fourth disk drive with a capacity of 320 G or more internal to a desktop machine, or an external drive on a laptop. In the latter case, be sure to use at least USB 2.0 or the original FireWire to connect, as USB version one is too slow for large drives. Better still, employ FireWire version two for external disks. It is by far the fastest.

CD-ROM/DVD Almost all computers come with a drive that can read or write one or more type of CD and at least read DVDs. It's better still if they can write the latter, but that option costs more.

NOTE: Plan on using either your external hard drive or the CD burner to make periodic backups of your files. No storage medium is permanent; they all fail eventually. The Spy keeps five backups of all files, and so does not lose important data...very often.

Speakers If you plan to play a lot of music from your computer, you will soon tire of the tinny speakers that come installed. How much you spend on an external set depends on how discriminating is your ear for fine music. Another choice, if you have a wireless network, is Apple's Airport Express, which you can use to stream audio wirelessly to your existing audio equipment anywhere in the house.

Printer Most people need a printer, and this decision can be one of the most complex. There are four choice classes.

Low cost ink jet printers These are sometimes given away free, the vendor understanding they will make lots of money selling ink cartridges. The quality varies, but Epson, Canon, and HP have the best names. Most teachers will accept output from such printers, but it is far from publication quality.

Colour ink jet printers Buy a high end one of these if you want to print a lot of photographs along with your computer output. Use photographic quality paper for the pictures and ordinary bond for text. Ensure you get one that has separate colour cartridges at least for the black ink, because you'll use far more of it. You don't want to replace an entire cartridge that still has plenty of colour ink just because the black is dry. Epson, Canon, and HP all make such machines.

NOTE: Do not be fooled by claims of very large resolution numbers like 2400 dots per inch that appear to be as good as or better than a laser printer. All ink jet printers smudge to some extent, and only the very high end machines produce passable quality output.

Laser Printers A laser printer is essential for high quality output for business and professional purposes. 1200 dots per inch is the minimum acceptable resolution for camera ready copy going to a newspaper, magazine, or other publisher. Until recently, HP had the best reputation in this market, but Xerox, Lexmark (IBM), and others are catching up. In recent years, the quality of laser printers parts has declined, and they now have brittle, easily broken plastic trays and other components that may be difficult or impossible to replace--more reasons to buy only name brand. Take good care of the plastic trays and other accoutrements. Don't force anything or drop anything.

Most laser printers are black only. Buy a colour laser printer only if absolutely necessary, and expect to pay a large premium when you do. If using Photoshop or other Adobe programs, make sure to buy a genuine Postscript printer, NOT one that says it is "Postscript compatible". Regrettably, this eliminates the entire HP line. Moreover, only buy one for which the vendor carries the toner cartridge in open stock. This is a statement of good faith on their part, and an indication others have bought the same machine and it is being regularly kept supplied. Even so, do not expect a printer to outlast a computer any more. They're not as well made as they once were.

MORE NOTES: Do not buy any printer with only an old fashioned parallel port (you don't need to know what this is). Ask for one that uses USB (Universal Serial Bus). This is a standard connector that can be used for either Macintosh or Windows printing. Make sure either the printer or your computer comes with the correct "drivers" (software) to operate the two together. Some printers will not function with certain operating systems or versions thereof. If unsure, get a guarantee in writing that you can return the printer if it does not work with your system.

All purpose machines These usually combine some or all of scanner, printer, copier, and FAX machine. This can seem like a bargain, for the cost is less than the four bought separately. However, if one of the components becomes unusable, the entire unit must be replaced, so there is a degree of risk. The quality of some brands is good enough for home use, but the Spy does not recommend any for high production office environments.

Scanners Not everyone needs one of these. Buy a scanner if you have documents or slides you want to digitize. In the former case, be sure to purchase OCR (Optical character recognition) software to change the graphic image built by the scanner into editable text after scanning. In the latter case, ensure the device has a slide holder and very high resolution. The same companies that make good quality printers also produce the best machines in this category. If you need one, it's not worthwhile to go cheap. Buy the highest resolution, fastest, and most versatile unit you can afford.

Hubs If you end up with a lot of peripherals, you may not have enough ports on the computer to connect them. In this case, you may require a USB or FireWire hub (or combination thereof) to split the signal and allow more boxes to be connected. If more than two devices are connected to such a hub, it should be powered, that is, have an adaptor that plugs into the wall socket. For just two devices, an unpowered miniature USB hub suffices. Six-conductor FireWire devices draw power from the computer and do not need an adapter.

Connectivity Hardware A later column will cover networking issues in more detail, but connecting to the web has a few minimum startup requirements. If you use a slow dialup connection (not recommended) you need a modem and an account with an ISP (Internet services Provider) to connect through your telephone. No one else can use the phone when the computer is on line.

The phone company can supply a high speed (DSL) connection if you live close enough to an exchange. Likewise, your cable company can add high speed Internet services to your monthly package, if there is cable in your neighbourhood. Both keep your voice line free, and the vendor is also your ISP. More about the merits and demerits of these another time, but both do require a high speed modem to connect, and this may have to be purchased.

Firewall Never connect your computer directly to a high speed cable or phone modem directly, even for a few seconds. Always on network service like cable and high speed phone lines require one more device, lest hackers regard your unprotected computer as an open invitation to steal your files or use it as a platform to attack other computers and send spam. Any inexpensive router can act as this firewall. It becomes the only device presented to the outside world, and must be carefully password protected when set up. A hacker then sees only the router, not any computers attached to it. This has the added advantage of allowing you to connect other computers to the same outside connection, that is, to network your house. If you plan to use computers in your house wirelessly, get a router that has an 802.11g (or higher letter) radio installed. The Spy will detail networking issues more fully in a few months.

Surge Protector/UPS Also, never connect sensitive electronic equipment directly to a wall socket, especially in areas prone to blackouts, power surges, or brownouts. At least use a surge protector. If it receives a big power spike, it will blow an internal fuse rather than pass it along to fry your computer's delicate circuits. Better, buy at least a 300VA capacity UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply). These also incorporate a large battery that will keep your computer running for a few minutes when the power fails, giving you the opportunity to power down gracefully without damaging your hard drive. (If the latter happens to be writing data when the power fails, it could be permanently ruined.)

The bottom, bottom line Regardless of what level you buy into for the basic computer, expect to spend at least as much on peripheral hardware. People who buy top of the line computers usually want (may even need) the most expensive auxiliary equipment. Those who go bargain basement usually do so all around.

"Hey, what about the software?"

Nellie broke my frantic typing rhythm with a comment originating less than a millimetre from my ear. She'd been reading over my shoulder.

I shook myself to silence the ringing of her harsh tones. "That can cost almost as much again, Nellie. However, the details have to wait until next month, as I've a few news items to incorporate and my room is nearly gone.

"Yeah, well, don't forget. I gotta split for now. Thanks for the chow and the use of your magazines."

Seen in Passing

Several related items climbed to the top of this month's news. First, Apple Computer, buoyed by ever-increasing sales of iPods and their core line of computers, announced it's largest quarterly profit in nearly a decade, with net earnings of $106 million on sales of $2.35 billion over the last three months. Meanwhile, market figures indicated the iPod has captured between 80% and 90% of the disk-based music player market and between 60% and 70% of the entire portable music player market, the exact number depending on the country where data was collected. By mid-October, Apple had also passed the 150 million mark for iTunes music sold online. Finally, sales at Apple stores grew 95% year-over year.

As a result, market analysts have raised their projections for the medium term share value of the company's stock to the $49 range, up from recent values near $40. But these projections are out of date already, as the shares rapidly traded to the $45 range following the new earnings report. The company's shares have more than doubled since their 52-week low of $19.25 on Dec. 22 and are trading at levels not seen in four years. Since the overall market has been going sideways during that time, Apple shares have become the best-performing technology stock and one of the best on the entire market.

Is it a good time to buy Apple? Ah, maybe not. The good time was last December, and knowledgeable professional investors bought then. Given current earnings, the shares may already be overvalued and due for a correction. On the other hand...

Seen Passing Overhead

Burt Rutan's and Paul Allen's American Mojave Aerospace team, which rocketed their SpaceShipOne into history last week, will receive the $10 million Ansari X Prize and a 5-foot trophy for their accomplishment on November 6 at the St. Louis Science Center.

SpaceShipOne became the first private manned spacecraft to exceed an altitude of 328,000 feet twice within the span of a 14 day period when pilot Brian Binnie's flight took him to 367,442 feet or 69.6 miles above the Earth's surface. Hmmm. What's that in real Canadian units, kids?

David Grossman, team leader of ground operations for the Canadian-based daVinci team that had hoped to compete for the same prize plans to fly its own ship to orbit sometime in the near future, as soon as some new parts have been delivered and installed.

What's next in space? It seems to the Spy that privately funded space planes could deliver satellites and space station construction materials to orbit for a tiny fraction of the cost NASA pays for shuttles. Maybe Paul Allen, already wealthy beyond imagining from his earlier collaboration with Bill Gates to found Microsoft, is about to get richer still.

In Other News

Wearing his hat as a science fiction novelist, the spy attended VCON 29 (the Vancouver SF convention) on Thanksgiving weekend to participate on five panel discussions and read from his works. A great convention, well-organized, and very informative. Highly recommended for next year.

In more personal news, son Joel Sutcliffe and Jen Simington (she formerly of Walnut Grove; both now living in Vancouver) were engaged the same weekend!! Be still my beating heart.

--The Northern Spy

Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Trinity Western University. He's written two textbooks and several novels, one of which was named best in the science fiction genre for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to ArjayBB.com. Participate and you could win free web hosting from the WebNameHost.net subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Bowker's Booksurge.

NOTE: The terms Metalibrary, Fourth Civilization, New Renaissance, and others, were first exposited in a series of articles appearing in this and others of Rick Sutcliffe's columns in the early 1980s. A full explanation can be found in "The Fourth Civilization-- Technology Society and Ethics" which is available at the URL noted below.


The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com

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Arjay Books: http://www.ArjayBooks.com

Booksurge: http://www.booksurge.com

Fictionwise: http://www.fictionwise.com

The Fourth Civilization (text): http://www.4civ.com/

This Arjay Enterprises page is Copyright 1983-2006.
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Last Updated: 2006 11 08