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When brand names matter, and when they don't

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

When brand names matter, and when they don't 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1991, The Syracuse Newspapers

Do brand names mean anything?

The manager of the computer department at one of the area's mid-sized companies asked me that a few weeks ago. He looked at the brand-name computer sitting on a co-worker's desk and held up a copy of a popular computer magazine.

"I can get a ‘386 PC by mail order for just a little more than half what I paid for this computer," he said. "What's the difference? Will it be just as good?"

The answer is basically yes, although there are a few factors that could tilt the decision in the other direction. But what you should keep in mind is that personal computers are no longer esoteric items; they have become appliances, and that means there's no mystery in making them both cheap and good.

And that, in turn, takes most of the wind out of the sales talk that comes from the high-priced PC manufactures—IBM, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and a few others. Except in one questionable area—IBM's odd-man-out decision to change its PCs so that they can't use regular drop-in circuit boards—the high-priced companies aren't leading the industry any more. They're just running along on the same track as everybody else.

The parts that make up a PC often come from the same suppliers, whether they are used in a fancy-dan computer or one that costs half as much. CPU (central processing unit) chips all come from Intel or from a few other firms with equal reputations, and the PC's BIOS chip—the circuit that makes it act like an IBM-compatible computer—is almost certain to be reliable.

Disc drives and monitors are getting better all the time, and the ones on the affordable clones are generally satisfactory. In fact, the monitors used on cheap PCs are often made by the same companies that supply monitors to the high-priced firms. The difference: The ones that roll out of the big guys' factories have a different name tacked on the front—and a much higher price tag.

Despite all this, there may be times when you or your company will want to pay extra for the name-brand PC. You may want the peace of mind that comes from owning a computer made by a company that's been around a long time. You may need a computer that comes with an ironclad, any-time-of-day-or-night service contract.

But if you are going to pay extra just because the name has a nice, familiar ring, you could be making an expensive mistake.

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