By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers
If you're looking for your first PC this holiday season, you've got company. Although personal computers are more popular than ever before, millions of American families—perhaps 50 percent of all the households in the country—have been putting off that first step toward PC ownership.
You don't need a degree in astrophysics to understand why. PCs are much harder to use than they need to be, and they're almost always in need of some sort of "fix"—a revised program here or a better whatchamcallit there. If cars were designed the way computers are, you'd spend half your time on the phone to General Motors and most of the rest of the time studying advanced fuel flow just to drive to work each day.
Yet life in the late 1990s would be much poorer without personal computers. Despite their many flaws, PCs connect us to sources of information and news, allow us to communicate across continents at almost no cost, provide thrilling entertainment and give us tools for such vital tasks as writing and accounting.
Some day, the PC will grow up, and it will be as easy to use as your microwave oven or your car. But waiting for that day to arrive before buying your first PC would lock you and your family out of the most exciting era of this century. Don't put it off if you can afford the price of entry.
And what's that cost? You'll see new PCs advertised at less than $1,000. Take a seat in PC Economics 101 for your first lesson in how computers are sold. The prices you see at the low end of the scale are nearly always fake prices, because they don't include the cost of the display screen, called a monitor. Add $200 to $300 to such prices for the real cost. (And don't think that prices further up the scale are immune to this chicanery. Most stores and direct-sales manufacturers advertise one price in big letters and another one in small letters, and you can guess which one is the price that includes a monitor.)
Another thing you need to know: The cost of a computer has a few hidden dollar signs. That $999 PC—the one that already costs $200 or $300 more if you actually want to see something on a screen—won't come with a printer, for example. So you'll probably need to add $120 to $300 for a basic printer.
And it probably won't come with a few other items most PC users find necessary. Add $60 to $220 for a modem (the thing that connects your computer to the Internet over your phone line) and about $300 for basic software of various kinds. Software is what computers "run" when they do things like word processing and game playing. New PCs always have enough software to keep you going for a few weeks, but you'll surely need to add more before long.
So you need to be realistic. Add $400 or $500 to the advertised cost of any PC to arrive at the amount you'll end up paying in the first few months of ownership.
Factor in another cost, too. You can be connected to the global Internet—a linkup of millions of computers, big and small—for about $20 a month. This monthly cost provides electronic mail, "travels" on the World Wide Web (a unique invention that takes you into new realms) and much more. You'll find easy ways to join America Online and the Microsoft Network, the two main commercial online services, and they're ideal for newcomers. But they're no match for genuine Internet Service Providers. (See the companion article for reasons why.)
Finally, a quick note of caution: You may come across two kinds of computers that are not PCs.
Some stores still sell Apple Macintosh computers, which use a different kind of software. For reasons we won't get into here, Macintosh computers are best suited for knowledgeable buyers—those who already have a Mac or use one at school, for example. I don't recommend a Macintosh otherwise.
You may also see "personal word processors" that seem to work like PCs. They're inadequate in every way. They can't do what PCs do, and they're a waste of money.
Next week I'll offer specific recommendations for first-time PC buyers, followed the week after by a look at good choices in software. I'll also have tips for PC veterans looking for the best buys.