Tech Talk: Volume 1 Number 1
Purchasing a Computer ..What to buy
After identifying the need for new or additional computingpower, the big question is always going to be whether to upgradeor to buy a new machine. Unfortunately, there is not always a clear answer. Upgrading can be complicated, and the first stepis to contact the technology support staff at the site or themanufacturer of the computer to find out if upgrading ispossible. In today's rapidly advancing market, it does notgenerally make sense to upgrade any machine using a processorolder than the PC 486 generation, or the MacIntosh 680630. Ifthe current machine uses a processor equal to or more powerfulthan these, it may be beneficial to upgrade.
The next step is deciding what parts of the computer need to beupgraded. Generally, upgrades are performed on the hard diskdrive and the amount of Random Access Memory, or RAM. Forexample, a 486 PC with 4 megabytes (mb) of RAM and a 340mb harddrive could be upgraded to have 8mb of RAM and 850mb of harddrive space for about $400. The processor itself can be upgradedas well, for instance replacing a slower 486-sx25 with a 486-dx2-66 for around $100. Adding a good modem or network card will add$125 to $200 more. Upgrading to all these newer and fastercomponents or to a 486dx4 or Pentium often requires a new systemboard, around $125. If it seems confusing and complicated, itis: upgrading can be difficult. To perform all the above up-grades would cost approximately $800 plus any labor charges. While the upgrade will improve a machine's performancedramatically, a new 486-dx4 can be found for $1000 and up. Thiswould likely include a 3 year warranty, faster video output, newmonitor and more. From this perspective, upgrading no longerlooks like such a good value.
(MacIntosh prices may be slightly higher. The above prices wereestimates in February of 1996. Though actual prices fluctuate,the relative prices will remain consistent.)
As the above example shows, there is a line at which upgrading isno longer the most cost-efficient option. This often depends onthe reason for the upgrade. For instance, if a new applicationsimply needs more disk space or more RAM, upgrading is often thebest choice. If a more powerful overall machine is needed, it isgenerally best to buy a new machine.
The minimum configuration for a new PC (IBM compatible) computershould be along the following lines:
Intel or PC configuration
The minimum configuration for a new macintosh or Mac clone should be along the following lines:
PowerPC 603/604 Processor @ 180 mhz (200mhz recommended)
*Recommendation:Tape backups should hold at least as much data as theharddrive) If the computer is to be installed on a network, please check withyour technology coordinator for existing backup options)
Laptop specifications will be the same, with the exception of thefollowing. 11" or larger Dual Scan or Active Matrix display replacesthe monitor. Tape backup will be external and modems will be 33.3.
The above are minimum configurations. There are other options such as type ofCD or Harddrive, Pentium Pro machines and backup media to mention a few.These choices depend on program needs, projected use, and a variety ofvariables. If there are unusual circumstances, or questions that need to beaddressed as machines are being purchased please contact the OLRC at
800-7645-7823 or email@example.com
The processor is the brains of the machine and ultimately decideshow fast the information can be processed. There are several486-DX4 processors on the market now, which start $300 to $400less than the Pentium processors. Though price makes thesesystems appealing, and they currently run about as fast as somePentium processors, key technical differences between 486 andPentium systems will likely broaden the performance gap in favorof the Pentium systems. These same differences also preventupgrading the 486 systems to true Pentium performance.
A Pentium starts at 75mhz and runs through 200mhz. (mhz is ameasure of speed; the higher the number the faster theprocessor.) The current low end is the Pentium 75, mid-rangeincludes 100, 120, and 133 mhz models, with the 150, 166, and 200at the high end. All Pentiums are very powerful computers,capable of running most any software a literacy program wouldwant to run. As the speed increases, so does the price, and thebuyer must decide how much performance he/she can afford. APentium 75 to 133 will give most literacy programs very goodperformance for the price.
In the MacIntosh world, the Power PC chips are recommended. Asthe chip gets faster, the price goes up. The same type ofconsideration must be given to price vs. performance tradeoffs.HINT: Cache memory can greatly enhance performance. Be sure toidentify the cache memory in a particular system. 256k(kilobyte) will greatly improve system speed.
RAM memory is perhaps the next largest contributor to systemperformance. RAM memory is very high-speed memory which holdskey commands the processor uses to run an application. The moreRAM in a system, the quicker the applications will run. UnderWindows and the Mac operating system, it is possible to have morethan one program open at a time. The more RAM in the system, thebetter these programs will perform. 8mb of RAM is the minimumrecommended, however, increasing to 16mb is a reasonable way togreatly improve performance. Current (February 1996) prices arerelatively low, making RAM a very good upgrade choice. Inaddition, it was not long ago that 4mb of RAM was recommended;therefore as software becomes more complex, 16mb may well be thestandard.
Next, the amount of hard disk space must be considered. The harddisk is generally located inside the computer and is used tostore software programs as well as data. As applications becomemore and more complex, it takes more and more drive space just tohold software. When data is added, the need increases. 730mb isconsidered minimal, but 1 gigabyte or larger drives are notuncommon. If cost allows, upgrading to 1 gig or more isdesirable.
A modem allows connection from one computer to another computeror from a computer into a network through telephone lines. Forlocations not connected to a LAN (Local Area Network) with aconnection to the Internet, this is required in order toelectronically communicate or transfer data. Though 14.4 modemsare still common, 28.8 is the recommended speed.
Monitors can vary in both size and dot pitch (dp). The dot pitchhelps determine the clarity of the picture. The lower the dpnumber, the sharper the picture. .28 dot pitch is recommended. Size of the monitor is measured diagonally across the screen. 14inch is the standard, but many manufacturers are now supplying 15inch monitors. The 15 inch provides suprisingly more viewablearea for a small difference in price. 17 inch monitors arereadily available and very nice to work on but at a substantialprice difference. Another key factor in video quality is thevideo card. A video card with 2mb of DRAM should be included inmost machines. Though 1mb DRAM will do, 2 will substantiallyincrease performance.
CD-ROM drives are fast becoming a necessity. Much of theeducational software incorporates the enhanced video and storagecapabilities of the CD-ROM. Also, many companies aredistributing new programs on CD-ROM, or the CD version offersenhancements not available on the floppy disk version.
Printers offer a variety of choices. For print quality, laserprinters are the best. Prices on laser printers have dropped toan affordable level. Recent improvements in the ink jet typeprinters have brought print quality close to that of some of thelaser printers. While the cost of a color laser printer is stillprohibitive, color ink jets are very affordable and the colorcapability offers nice flexibility.
The computer industry is changing rapidly. Price changes,innovations, and rapidly advancing technology make buying acomputer an adventure. Though a state-of-the-art machinepurchased today will be a middle-of-the-road machine in sixmonths, it will not be obsolete. By buying as much processor,RAM, and disk space as possible and making sure the machine isupgradable, the computer buyer will maximize his/her investmentas well as the time this equipment will be a useful tool. If youhave further questions, please call the Ohio Literacy Re-sourceCenter's technical support line at 1-800-645-7823.
Purchasing a new computer system can be a confusing task. Manychoices, brands, and well intentioned pieces of advice can cloudthe issue. It seems like everyone sells computers today. Following are some ideas and explan-ations on the types ofcomputer sellers and the advantages and disadvantages of each.
But first, talk to the technology coordinator or support staff atyour institution. There will often be buying groups,consortiums, or price structures established. In addition, thesepeople can help identify brands or types of computers generallyused and supported by the technical staff at a given area.
If there are no agreements in place or a technology coordinatorto consult, there are two main sources to consider buyingequipment: local stores and mail order companies.
In the following information, several retailers and brands arementioned by name. This is in no way any reflection orendorsement by the OLRC to a specific brand or retailer. Theyare examples given to help clarify a point.
Another option would be the appliance/electronics superstores,such as SUN, Circuit City, or Best Buy. These stores generallyhave more of a selection; the salespeople are more knowledgeable;they often do in-house repairs, upgrades, and maintenance; andthey may sell a limited number of upgrade components. One thingto watch, though, is the fact that many of the machines sold toboth department stores and superstores are often specialconfigurations which may be difficult to upgrade in the future. Ask the sales person about upgradability of the memory as well asaddition of disk drives and other peripherals.
The third type of merchant is the computer seller. These come inmany varieties but can be broken down into computer superstoresand smaller computer sellers. The computer superstores arelarge, high volume stores specializing in computers, software,and accessories. Examples include Micro-Center and Comp USA. Inaddition to the types of machines mentioned above, thesuperstores sell some higher quality, higher priced options, aswell as custom building machines according to the buyer's needs. These stores are often competitive in price with department andsuperstores, but may be a bit more expensive. However, this isoffset by the greater variety of machines, a selection of higherquality and upgradable machines, a large selection of upgradecomponents, a knowledgeable sales staff, and a greater likelihoodof doing all their own maintenance both in house and on site. Inaddition, they will often be better equipped to handleeducational or corporate business. This seller will appeal tothose with limited computer knowledge, for whom choice, quality,and support are prime factors.
The smaller computer stores are also a very viable option. Whileoften a bit more expensive, the buyer can develop a more"personal" relationship with the employees and or owners of thesesmall shops. These shops also sell custom configurations andwill often go out of their way to get certain brands or types ofparts. One specialty is often upgrading machines, and a newcomputer purchase here will likely be upgradable. The locationsoften make it easy for support or service after the sale, and thecasual, personal atmosphere appeals to many people. This type ofseller is good for those who need to ask questions and may wantto shop in a more relaxed and one-to-one situation.
1) Distributors or name brand direct retail suppliersThese include large distributors as well as established companieswho have begun to sell by mail. From these large distributors, major brand computers can be pur-chased. Many are set up to dealdirectly with the public and are often cheaper than goingdirectly to the manu-facturer. Many consortiums, schooldistricts, and buying groups go through this type of distributor. Additionally, many manufacturers are now selling direct as wellas through retail outlets. Again, support is generally done byphone and mail, and it may not be possible to examine equipmentbefore purchasing, though most mail order companies have 30-dayreturn policies. This type of sup-plier is good for people whoknow what they want, or who may be referred to a distributor orbrand due to previous success or some type of institutionalagreement. Machines purchased from this type of supplier tend tobe high quality and easily upgradable, and they generally sellthe upgrade components as well.
2) Manufacturers specializing in mail order salesThere are several major companies, for example Gateway, Micron,or Midwest-Micro, who do all or most of their volume by mail. These companies generally pro-vide quality computers at very lowprices. While perhaps not as highly rated as some of theirhigher priced competition, the performance-to-price value isexcellent. Mail order is their primary business, and they haveaddressed many of the drawbacks associated with mail order. Manyhave technical assistance options that include on-site service,30-day or longer trial periods, large numbers of phone supporttechnicians, and assigned sales representatives. Still the buyercannot walk in and talk to a sales person, see the equipment, ordrop a machine off for service. This type of seller will help asomewhat knowledgeable buyer gain maximum performance for themoney. Most of these machines are upgradable, with componentsavailable through the company as well, but be sure to ask.
3) Companies specializing in componentsThis category of mail order suppliers include the large partshouses, many of whom are listed in publications like ComputerShopper. These suppliers generally specialize in reselling partsto upgrade and build computers. However, they will put togetheranything from a basic system to a very high performanceworkstation. One advantage to this is that the user can specifybrands and types of each individual component, and if possessingthe necessary skill, can assemble the computer as well. In thisway a very high performance machine can be put together for agood price, and a less powerful machine can be put together for arock bottom price. Most suppliers have several basicconfigurations they sell as well. These machines tend to be veryupgradable. These suppliers concentrate on sales and do not havelarge staffs to offer follow-up support. Repairs must often beshipped to either the supplier or the manufacturer, with agenerally slow turnaround time. Of course, the buyer cannotexamine the product before ordering, and many of these sellershave no specific return policy. In general, only a veryknowledge-able buyer will want to explore this option. Theexception may be if a particular supplier comes very highlyrecommended or if a system is being upgraded and not pur-chasednew. For buying components rather than systems, these suppliersare a very good choice.
As with any purchase, buying a computer can take some time. Itis important for the buyer to feel com-fortable and confidentwith both the supplier as well as the merchandise. Contactinformation as well as ratings and buyers guides can be found inmany magazines such as Consumer Reports, Computer Life, and PC-World, online through an online service or the Internet, or bycalling the Ohio Literacy Resource Center at 1-800-645-7823.
Dialup connections are much harder to pin down. Dialup refers tothe use of a modem with a computer, enabling the user to "dialup"a remote computer and trans-fer data over a standard phone line. The user is then effectively logged into the remote host, as theyare called, with access to the data, programs, and networkconnectivity on the host. There are many types of access provi-ders of this type, all with varying capabilities, ease of use,and prices. There are advantages and disadvantages to this typeof connection. The obvious advantage is the ability to go onlinewithout being physically attached to a network. This makesaccess possible from remote offices, small school districts, andusers' homes.
There are, however, definite losses in performance. A dial-upconnection provides for the transfer of data across a telephoneline. The result is a slower connection as well as the inabilityto use certain network tools, partic-ularly ones relying ongraphics or utilizing a mouse or other pointing devices. Theselimitations are being addressed in several ways, such as simple,easy-to-navigate text based menu systems that provide quickdirections to communication as well as information gatheringtools; the user friendly graphical interfaces provided by manyonline services such as America Online, CompuServe, and Prodigy;and SLIP and PPP connections that allow the simulation of anetwork connection.
Text-based menu systems are often encountered both in dialup andnetwork situations. Graphics, even simple ones, seem to strainmost any system. Sending or receiv-ing graphics increasesrequired resources either past the limits of the system or enoughto take away from perform-ance of other applications. A thoroughtext-based menu system can be user friendly as well as giveaccess to a variety of services. Often the menu systems seemcleaner and less cluttered than some extensive system of buttons,icons, and pictures. E-mail is, of course, a text-based sourceof information, but what about the World Wide Web and its video,sound, and graphics? There are browsers, or softwareapplications, designed to access WWW information that do notrequire graphics capabilities or anything other than a keyboardwith which to navigate. The information can be accessed andread, and any of the "extras" must be downloaded to a disk inorder to be viewed.
The proprietary online services offer many features designed tomake each system more user friendly. Several of them access theWWW and other sources of information using graphical interfaces. Though this can slow the transfer of information greatly, manyusers prefer the ease of use and all the "extras" it provides. The other disadvantage is the cost of the service. Though theyare becoming more inexpensive all the time, online services canstill cost a user upwards of $100 over a year, a noticeable costin many literacy programs.
Generally, as cost is lowered, sacrifices are made in speed,quality of the user interface, and number of applicationssupported.
Universities and Community Colleges--They are worth checking, butmost are so swamped with student and faculty requests that theyhave stopped granting access to others outside the institution.
Local School Districts --Here too many are barely able to keep upwith the demand from those directly involved. Many others do notyet have access. However, it never hurts to ask, especially ifthe school district is the fiscal agent for your program.
Libraries --Many libraries now offer public access to specificInternet services.
Local Businesses -- More and more businesses are getting online. You are providing a community service, and businesses will oftenlend this type of support where they might not be able tocontribute in other ways.
Akron Regional Free-Net -Akron
Cleveland Free-Net -Cleveland
Dayton Free-Net -Dayton
Greater Columbus Free-Net -Columbus
Learning Village Cleveland -Cleveland
Lima Free-Net -Lima
Lorain County Free-Net -Elyria
Medina County Free-Net -Medina
Richland Free-Net -Mansfield
Tristate Online -Cincinnati
Wood County Freenet
Youngstown Free-Net -Youngstown
Bulletin Boards (or BBS services):
Commercial On-Line Services:
AMERICA ONLINE (800) 827-6364
COMPUSERVE (800) 368-3343 ext 35
DELPHI INTERNET SERVICE (800) 695-4005
GENIE - THE GE NETWORK FOR INFORMATION EXCHANGE (800) 638-9636
NETCOM (800) 353-6600
PRODIGY INTERACTIVE PERSONAL SERVICES(800) 776-3552
These are only a few of the many online providers. Many willoffer, for a fee, a list of Internet services. These are veryuseful communications as well as research tools. However, simpleE-mail access is all one really needs to enhance communicationcapabilities as well as begin to navigate in cyberspace. Onedrawback to this type of service is the fact that most onlineservices require payment by credit card; they do not direct billor accept purchase orders. However, Turner Educational Serviceswill accept purchase orders for blocks of time on America Online. The price is the same as if it was purchased directly from AOLand must be bought in blocks of 10 hours. For informationcontact the Turner Educational Services at 800-344-6219, or callthe OLRC.
In addition to the above types of access, there are Internetaccess providers. These providers offer the user a connection tothe Internet for a price, often a $20 or $30 monthly fee forunlimited time. (Unlimited is defined differently by eachprovider.) This type of access is often quicker, offers thecapability of graphical interfaces, and is generally moreeconomical for extensive Internet use than an online service. Italso allows the users to select their own software for Internetapplications including the WWW and E-Mail. This type ofconnection is good for more advanced users or users planning tospend a lot of time online. For users not using more than 5 to 8hours of online time a month, it may not be the most economicalway to connect. Additionally, more expertise is required toinitially set up this type of connection. For a list ofproviders in your area, or any other questions regarding gettingonline, contact the Ohio Literacy Resource Center technicalsupport line at 1-800-645-7823.
To access US Dept. of Ed Programs or A Researcher's Guide to theUS Dept. of Education (both can be downloaded), gopher to:gopher.edu.gov; "US Dept. of Ed-General Information."* To access the table of contents from the Federal Register,gopher to: gopher.nara.gov