Buyer's Guide


Up until 1940, computers were people. Dictionaries said a "computer" was "a person who computes". For example, astronomers hired many computers, who computed the positions of the stars. People who computed were called "computers"; machines that computed were called "calculators".

After 1940, human computers were gradually replaced by gigantic machines, called "electronic computers". Today the word "computer" means "a machine that computes". This book explains how to buy and use such machines.

During the 1950's, people began to realize that electronic computers can do more than compute. Today's computers spend hardly any time doing numerical computations; they spend most of their time thinking about words and ideas instead. Calling such wonderful machines "computers" is misleading; they ought to be called "thinkers" instead! The French call them "ordinateurs", which means "organizers" and more accurately describes what the machines do than our old-fashioned word "computers".

If an alien would visit our planet and see how our computers act, the alien might deduce:
A "computer" is "a machine that thinks".

But if the alien comes from a strange colony of uptight chatterboxes called "lawyers", the alien would analyze further and say more precisely:
A "computer" is "any machine that can seem to do useful thinking".

That's the definition I'll use in this book!

Since today's computers spend most of their time dealing with words & ideas - and very little time dealing with numbers - you need to know just a little math to understand computers. If you know 5.2 is more than 5 and less than 6, you know more than enough math to master this book and get hired as a computer expert! Becoming a computer expert is easier than becoming an auto mechanic, and you don't get greasy!

Three computer sizes

Computers come in three sizes: big, small, and teeny-weeny. The big ones are called maxicomputers (or mainframes); the small ones are called minicomputers; and the teeny-weeny ones are called microcomputers.

How big must a computer be for folks to call it a maxicomputer? Opinions differ, but here some guidelines. Usually a maxicomputer fills a room, a minicomputer fits in a corner, and a microcomputer flops out on a desktop. Usually a microcomputer costs between $1 and $10,000, a minicomputer costs between $10,000 and $300,000, and a maxicomputer costs between $300,000 and $20,000,000.

If a new computer understands the same commands as an old computer, the new computer is labeled the same as the old computer, regardless of its price.

For example, if somebody invents a new computer that understands the same commands as an old minicomputer, the new computer is called a "minicomputer" too, even if it costs less than $10,000 or more than $300,000. If it costs less than $10,000, it's called a low-end minicomputer (and probably runs slowly); if it costs more than $300,000, it's called a high-end minicomputer or supermini (and probably runs fast).

Companies began selling maxicomputers in the 1950's, minicomputers in the 1960's, and microcomputers in the 1970's. Now you can buy all three sizes.

Most folks buy microcomputers instead of bigger computers, because microcomputers are more affordable, more modern, and easier to use. Even if your business can afford a bigger computer, you'll typically get better service and save money by wiring lots of microcomputers together instead. Over 99.9% of all computers sold are microcomputers.

This book emphasizes microcomputers. But before we concentrate on microcomputers, let's take a quick peek at bigger computers.


The dominant manufacturer of maxicomputers is IBM, which stands for International Business Machines Corporation. Too often, it's often stood for "Incredibly Boring Machines", "Inertia Breeds Mediocrity", "International Big Mother", "Imperialism By Marketing", "Idolized By Management", "Incompetents Become Managers", "Intolerant of Beards & Mustaches", "It Baffles Me", "It's a Big Mess", and "It's Better Manually".

Since IBM's first popular computers were colored blue, IBM's been nicknamed "Big Blue".

The first maxicomputers were invented in the 1940's and sold in the 1950's. Most of today's maxicomputers are souped-up versions of the IBM 360, which IBM announced in 1964. IBM called it the "360" because it was the first IBM computer that could accomplish the "full circle" of computer applications, instead of just science applications or just business applications. In 1970, IBM invented a souped-up version (called the IBM 370) and then further improvements. IBM's newest maxicomputers (such as the IBM 3090 and the IBM 4381) understand the same commands as the IBM 360 and 370 but obey the commands faster and understand extra commands.

IBM's competitors
In the maxicomputer marketplace, IBM outsells all its competitors combined.

During the 1960's, maxicomputers were made by eight companies, called "IBM and the Seven Dwarfs". The dwarfs were Burroughs, Univac, NCR (which stood for National Cash Register), Control Data, Honeywell (whose original factory was next to a well), RCA (which stood for "Radio Corporation of America"), and General Electric.

In 1970, General Electric sold its computer division to Honeywell. In 1971, RCA's computer division shut down. That left just five dwarfs, whose initials spelled the word BUNCH. Cynics said that maxicomputers were made by "IBM and the BUNCH".

IBM's top engineer (Gene Amdahl) and Control Data's top engineer (Seymour Cray) both quit and started their own computer companies, called Amdahl and Cray.

During the 1980's and 1990's, each company in the BUNCH disintegrated: Burroughs merged with Univac to form Unisys; NCR was bought by AT&T (but then split away from AT&T and became independent again); Control Data stopped building computers; and Honeywell sold its computer division to a French company, Bull.


All companies making maxicomputers also make minicomputers. For example, IBM's newest minicomputer is the Advanced System 400 (AS/400). But the most popular minicomputers are made by other companies, who are minicomputer specialists.

The most popular minicomputers are made by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). Its first popular minicomputers were the PDP-8 and PDP-11. DEC replaced them by the Vax (a souped-up PDP-11), then by a further improvement, called the Alpha.

DEC is in Massachusetts. Other popular minicomputer specialists - also in Massachusetts - have been Data General (DG), Prime, and Wang, but Wang and Prime have stopped building computers.

The newest minicomputer specialists are Californian: Sun (whose fortunes rose quickly but then set), HP (which stands for Hewlett-Packard and "high-priced"), and Silicon Graphics Incorporated (SGI). Since computers from all three of those California companies are used mainly for producing graphics (beautiful artwork, Hollywood special effects, ads, magazines, and "artist renderings" of creations by architects & engineers), they're called graphics/engineering workstations.


The most influential microcomputers are made by IBM and Apple.

Apple's first computer was called the Apple 1. Then came improved versions, called the Apple 2, the 2+, the 2e, the 2c, the 2c+, and the 2GS. Those improved versions are all called the Apple 2 family.

They've become obsolete, and Apple has stopped making them. Now Apple sells a much fancier, totally different kind of microcomputer, called the Macintosh (or Mac). Of all computers built today, the Mac's the easiest to learn how to use.

IBM's early microcomputers (the IBM 5100 and the Datamaster 23) were slow and overpriced.

In 1981, IBM began selling a faster microcomputer, called the IBM Personal Computer (IBM PC). It became instantly popular because of its speed and amazingly low price.

Later, IBM developed a slightly improved version, called the IBM PC eXTended (IBM PC XT), and then a much faster version, called the IBM PC with Advanced Technology (IBM PC AT).

In 1987, IBM stopped making all those microcomputers and instead began making a new series of microcomputers, called the Personal System 2 (PS/2). The PS/2 computers run the same programs as the IBM PC but display prettier graphics and include "slicker" technology.

But PS/2 computers were overpriced. In 1990, IBM began selling PS/1 computers, which resemble PS/2 computers but cost less; in 1992, IBM began selling Valuepoint computers, which cost even less; in 1993, IBM began selling Ambra computers, which cost even less.

IBM has stopped selling all those microcomputers. Now IBM sells the IBM Aptiva (which is faster and has better graphics and sound), the IBM Thinkpad (which is smaller), and some humorless business models (the IBM PC 330, the IBM PC 330, the IBM PC 340, the IBM PC 350, and the IBM PC 700).

Instead of buying microcomputers from IBM, you can buy imitations, called compatibles or clones. Cynics call them clowns. They run the same programs as IBM's microcomputers but cost even less.

The most popular IBM clones are manufactured by Compaq, Packard Bell, Hewlett-Packard, Gateway, and Dell. Of those five clone makers, Compaq charges the most, Gateway charges the least, and the others charge in-between.

IBM, Compaq, Packard Bell, and Hewlett-Packard sell mainly through stores. Gateway's computers are sold just by mail-order. Dell began as a mail-order company, then experimented by selling through stores also, but now sells just by mail again.

You can buy IBM, Compaq, Packard Bell, and Hewlett-Packard computers at discount stores such as Staples, Office Depot, Office Max, Price/Costco, Sam's Club, Circuit City, Comp USA, Micro Center, Fry's Electronics,J&R Computer World>, and Computer City.

Computer City is owned by Tandy, which also owns a chain of stores calledRadio Shack. Tandy used to manufacture computers but in 1993 sold its computer factories to AST, so the newest "Tandy" computers are really manufactured by AST. Radio Shack stores also sells computers made by IBM. Radio Shack's prices are usually higher than discount stores.

Apple, IBM, Compaq, Packard Bell, Hewlett-Packard, Gateway, and Dell are big manufacturers. To pay less, buy from smaller manufacturers instead, who advertise in computer magazines such as PC World and Computer Shopper. Of all the clone makers that are nationally known, the one giving the lowest prices while maintaining high quality is Quantex (at 800-836-0566).

Wild ducks
Instead of buying from the leaders (Apple and IBM) and their followers (who build clones), some folks have bought cheaper computers made by wild-duck companies who dared to be different. The most popular wild-duck companies were Commodore, Atari, and Tandy.

Commodore made wild-duck computers such as the Commodore 64, the Commodore 128, the Pet, the Vic, and the Amiga. (The Amiga was particularly good at handling animated color graphics and videotapes.) Atari made the Atari 800, the Atari XE, and the Atari ST. (The Atari ST was particularly good at handling music.) Tandy's Radio Shack (TRS) made the TRS-80 and the Radio Shack Color Computer.

Wild-duck computers are no longer actively marketed. Commodore has gone bankrupt, Atari is barely alive, and Tandy has switched to selling computers made by IBM. But many Americans still own the millions of wild-duck computers sold during the early 1980's, before IBM PC clones became so popular and cheap. Those old wild-duck computers - abandoned by their owners, imprisoned forever in the darkness of American closets, and unable to re-emerge into the mainstream of American life - are the forgotten hostages of IBM clone wars.

Now you can buy wild-duck computers for under $100 in the used-computer marketplace: try garage sales and flea markets.

Who uses what?
The typical business uses an IBM PC (or an XT, AT, PS/2, PS/1, Valuepoint, Ambra, Aptiva, or clone). So does the typical college and high school. Some businesses and colleges use Macs. The Macs are particularly popular among artists and musicians. Some video artists (who create cartoons and other graphics for TV) still use the Amiga, though most video artists have switched to Macs. Wild-duck computers appeal to hobbyists seeking cheap thrills.

Of all the general-purpose computers sold today in the world,

10% are personal computers built by IBM,
10% are clones by Compaq,
6% are clones by Packard Bell (with its partner, NEC),
6% are clones by Hewlett-Packard,
6% are clones by Dell,
6% are clones by Gateway,
48% are clones built by a wide variety of other manufacturers,

4% are Macs (built by Apple),
2% are imitations of the Mac,

and the remaining 2% are weirder (Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Radio Shack Color Computer, other wild duck computers, minicomputers, and maxicomputers).

Since percentages bob up and down by 2% each month, I've rounded all those percentages to the nearest 2%.

Here's a summary:
Of all the general-purpose computers sold today in the world,
92% are IBM-compatible personal computers (built by IBM and cloners),
6% are Mac-compatible (built by Apple and its imitators),
2% are weird (wild ducks, minicomputers, and maxicomputers).

Though few people buy maxicomputers, IBM makes more profit from selling maxicomputers than microcomputers, since the typical maxicomputer sells for about a million dollars. And since the typical maxicomputer is shared by hundreds of people, maxicomputers affect many lives!

Prices drop

On the average, computer prices drop 3% per month. That price decline's been in effect ever since the 1940's, and there's no sign of it stopping.

Suppose for a particular computer item the average price charged by dealers is $100. Next month, that item's average price will probably drop 3%, to $97. After two months, its average price will have dropped about 3% again, so its price will be 97% of $97, which is $94.09.

Here's how the math works out:
On the average, computer prices drop about 3% per month,
30% per year,
50% every two years,
90% every six years,
99% every twelve years.

If a computer item's average price is $100 today,
it will probably be $97 next month,
$70 a year from now,
$50 two years from now,
$10 six years from now,
$1 twelve years from now.

The typical computer system costs about $2000 now. Here's what the math looks like for a $2000 system:
If a computer system costs you $2000 today,
it will probably cost you $1940 if you buy a month from now,
$1400 if you buy a year from now,
$1000 if you buy 2 years from now,
$200 if you buy 6 years from now,
$20 if you buy 12 years from now.

Does that mean computer stores will be selling lots of computers for $20 twelve years from now? No! Instead, computer stores will still be selling computers for about $2000, but those $2000 systems-of-the-future will be much fancier than the systems sold today. By comparison, today's systems will look primitive - much too primitive to run the programs-of-the-future - so they'll be sold off as old, quaint, primitive junk in flea markets and garage sales.

Find that hard to believe? To become a believer in rapidly dropping prices, just try this experiment: walk into a flea market or garage sale today, and you'll see computer systems selling for $20 that sold for $2000 twelve years ago!

So the longer you wait to buy a computer, the less you'll pay. But the longer you wait, the longer you'll be deprived of having a computer, and the further behind you'll be in computerizing your life and turning yourself into a computer expert.

Don't wait. Begin your new computerized life now!

Standard computers

Computers come in all shapes and sizes, but during the 1990's a new standard arose. Now most computers being sold meet this standard - and cost about $2,000. A standard computer includes the following parts....

The main part is a box called the system unit. If the system unit is tall, it's called a tower; if the system unit is wide instead, it's called a desktop unit.

The typical tower is about 18 inches tall (and just 9 inches wide).
The typical desktop unit is about 17 inches wide (and just 6 inches tall).

Since a tower is 18"(9", it's bigger than a desktop unit (17"(6") and costs slightly more (and can contain more goodies).

Regardless of whether you buy a tower or a desktop unit, the distance from the front to back is about 16 inches.

If you buy a desktop unit, put it on your desk. If you buy a tower instead, erect it on the floor under your desk, next to one of the desk's legs. Men are particularly proud of their towering erections next to the legs.

Eight cables come out the system unit's rear:
One of those cables is called the power cord. It goes to the electrical outlet socket in the room's wall (or to a power strip connected to that outlet). That cable feeds power to the computer.

One cable goes to the keyboard, which is a device that looks like a typewriter's keyboard. To send a message to the computer, you type the message on the keyboard.

One cable goes to the monitor, which is a device that looks like a TV. When the computer wants to send a message to you, it displays the message on the monitor's screen.

One cable goes to the mouse, which is a device about the size of a pack of cigarettes. As you slide the mouse across your desk, an arrow on the monitor's screen moves. To make the computer manipulate an object on the monitor's screen, slide the mouse until the screen's arrow moves to that object; then press the mouse's left button.

One cable goes to the printer, which prints on paper. Three kinds of printers are pouplar. The cheapest kind, called a dot-matrix printer, looks and acts like a typewriter without a keyboard: it bangs an inked ribbon against the paper. The next step up in quality and price, is an ink-jet printer, which squirts ink at the paper instead of using a ribbon. The fanciest kind of printer, called a laser printer, resembles a Xerox photocopy machine: it deposits inked toner onto a rotating drum that rubs against the paper.

One cable goes to a pair of stereo speakers, so the computer can produce sounds and music and even sing!

The final two cables are called phone cords. One of them goes to your telephone; the other goes to the telephone jack in your room's wall. By using those cables, the computer can make phone calls: it can phone other computers, chat with them, make love to them, and control your phone calls too!

Altogether, the standard computer includes:
the system unit

a keyboard, monitor, mouse, printer, pair of stereo speakers,
and cables from all those components to the system unit

power cords from wall (or power strip) to the system unit, monitor, and printer

phone cords from the system unit to the phone and to the wall's phone jack

In a typical ad for a "complete computer system", the price includes everything except three items (the printer, the printer's cable, and the phone cord going to the phone), which are priced separately.

Some ads are misleading: the advertised price doesn't include the monitor either! To find out whether the price includes the monitor, read the ad carefully or ask the vendor.

Setting up the computer is easy! Just plug the cables into the components, and you're done!

Choose a safe environment

During the summer, protect the computer's parts from overheating. Keep the computer cool! Turn it off when the room temperature rises over 93 degrees F - unless you buy a fan that creates a strong breeze, or you turn the computer off within 90 minutes to let it cool down. Pull down the window shade closest to the computer, to prevent sunlight from beating directly onto the computer.

During the winter, turn the computer off when the room temperature is below 50 degrees F. If the computer sat overnight in a cold, unheated car or office, don't use the computer until it warms up and any dewdrops in it evaporate.

Make sure your computer gets enough electricity. Check which outlets in your house or office attach to which fuses, to make sure the computer's not on the same circuit as an electric heater, refrigerator, air conditioner, or other major appliance that consumes enough electricity to dim the lights.

Three main parts

A computer includes three main parts:
The part that thinks is called the processor (because it processes info).

The part that remembers the computer's thoughts is called the memory.

The part that communicates those thoughts is called the in/out system, because it passes info into and out of the computer.

When you buy a computer, make sure the price includes all three parts!

Each part is important. A computer without memory is as useless as a person who says "I had a great idea, but I can't remember it." A computer without an in/out system is as useless as a person who says, "I had a great idea, but I won't tell you."

The computer part that communicates - the in/out system - is also called the input/output system (or I/O system). It consists of many I/O devices. The most popular I/O devices to buy are a keyboard, monitor, mouse, printer, and pair of stereo speakers. When you buy a computer, check whether the price includes all those I/O devices. If you get them all and they work well, you can join the many excited computerists who sing every day, "I/O, I/O, now off to work I go!"

Two of those devices - the keyboard and mouse - let you put info into the computer. They're called the input devices. The other devices - the monitor, printer, and stereo speakers - let the computer spit out the answers and are called the output devices.

System unit
If your computer is standard, cables run from all those I/O devices to the system unit's rear. Inside the system unit lurks circuitry that helps those I/O devices work. The system unit also includes the processor (which thinks) and the memory (which remembers).

Portable computers
Instead of buying a standard computer (tower or desktop), you can buy a portable computer, which is easier to carry. To be called portable, the computer must weigh less than 32 pounds. That weight must include all parts except the printer. The computer must be small enough to be carried with one hand. (To make it easy to carry with one hand, the computer typically has a handle.)

To describe portable computers more precisely, 5 terms have been invented: luggable, laptop, notebook, subnotebook, and pocket. Careless beginners use those 5 terms interchangeably and call all portable computers "laptops" or "notebooks"; but careful experts define the terms as follows:
A luggable computer is about the size of a portable sewing machine or bulging briefcase. Carrying it is not pleasant, but you can lug it if you have a strong arm. The typical luggable computer weighs about 20 pounds, but any weight between 16 and 32 pounds is considered "luggable".

A laptop computer is smaller. It's small enough to fit in your lap. The typical laptop computer weighs about 14 pounds, but any weight between 8 and 16 pounds is considered "laptop".

A notebook computer is even smaller. It's about the size of a student's 3-ring-binder notebook holding a ream of paper. It's about 11 inches wide, 9 inches from front to back, and 2 inches thick. The typical notebook computer weighs about 7 pounds, but any weight between 4 and 8 pounds is considered "notebook".

A subnotebook computer is even smaller. The typical subnotebook computer weighs about 31/2 pounds, but any weight between 2 and 4 pounds is considered "subnotebook".

A pocket computer is the smallest kind of portable computer. It's small enough to fit in your pocket. It looks like a pocket calculator but includes keys you can press for typing all the letters of the alphabet. It weighs less than 2 pounds.

Of those 5 kinds of portable computers, the most popular is "notebook". Now over 90% of all portable computers being sold are notebook computers.

Tower, luggable, and laptop computers are too big and heavy to carry pleasantly. Subnotebook and pocket computers are too tiny and cramped: their screens are too tiny to read pleasantly and their keyboards are too tiny to type on easily. Notebook computers are just the right size!

More about notebook computers
The most popular notebook computers are made by Compaq and Toshiba. Other famous notebook computers are made by IBM and Apple. Companies such as Sager and EPS sell notebook computers that are better deals: they include more equipment per dollar. Most notebook computers cost between $1000 and $4000.

The typical notebook computer opens to reveal two parts. The bottom part (1 inch high) contains the main system-unit circuitry with a built-in keyboard, built-in pair of stereo speakers, built-in touchpad (a square pad you rub with your finger instead of using a mouse), and built-in battery. The top part unfolds to become a screen (made of the same materials used in screens of pocket calculators and digital wristwatches).

The notebook computer can get power from its built-in battery; but if you plug the computer into a wall's electrical outlet, the computer will use the wall's power instead while the battery recharges.

More about pocket computers
A pocket computer is also called a hand-held computer or palmtop computer.

The typical pocket computer comes with programs that help you jot notes, store phone numbers, and keep track of date & times & to-do lists. That kind of pocket computer is called a personal digital assistant (PDA).

The fanciest pocket computer is the Newton, developed by a research team from Apple and Sharp. It comes with many nifty programs that make it a PDA. Instead of including a keyboard, it includes a tablet you write on with a pen; the computer tries to read your scribbled handwriting - but often makes mistakes!

A similar pocket computer is the Pilot, made by U.S. Robotics.

Pocket computers that are more traditional and use a keyboard are made by Sharp, Casio, Hewlett-Packard, Poquet, Atari, and Radio Shack. Most cost between $70 and $600. You can buy most of them from discount dealers such as S&W Computers & Electronics in New York (phone 800-874-1235 or 212-463-8330).

Unfortunately, portable computers (such as notebook computers) are all ridiculously expensive. Portable cuteness costs a lot! A portable computer costs about twice as much as a desktop computer having similar computational abilities. Buy a portable computer just if you insist on taking a computer with you when traveling - and you're rich enough to pay for it.

Hidden computers

A hidden computer hides inside another device. For example, a computer hides inside your digital watch. Other computers hide inside your pocket calculator, your Nintendo video-game machine, your microwave oven, and your car's dashboard.

Since such a computer dedicates its entire life to performing just one task (such as "telling the time"), it's also called a dedicated computer. Most such computers cost under $10.

Inside the system unit

The system unit is a magical box that you'll probably never need to open. But someday, you'll get curious about what's inside. Here's how to peek inside the system unit of a standard computer (tower or desktop)....

Make sure the computer's turned off.

Remove the screws from the 4 corners of the system unit's back wall. Notice how big those screws are. Remove any other screws of that size from the back wall's edges.

Then remove the system unit's cover:
If the unit's a tower, pull the cover back slightly, then lift it.

If the unit's a desktop, slide the cover forward (or if it refuses, try sliding the cover back), then lift it slightly.

If the cover doesn't quite come off, jiggle it slightly, and also double-check whether you've removed all the screws holding it in place.

After removing the cover, peek into the system unit and admire the goodies within! To be safe, avoid touching them.

Inside the system unit, you see several green plastic boards, called circuit boards (because they have electric circuits on them).

On each circuit board, you see many black rectangular objects, called chips. Each chip contains a miniature electronic circuit inside!

The biggest circuit board is called the motherboard. It's about the size of sheet of paper (81/2" ( 11"). In a desktop unit, the motherboard lies flat on the bottom; in a tower, the motherboard is vertical, attached to the tower's right edge.

On the motherboard, the biggest chip is the one that does most of the thinking. That chip is called the central processing unit (CPU). It's also called the microprocessor. A standard computer uses a brand of microprocessor called a Pentium, manufactured by an intelligent California company called Intel.

Yes, in a microcomputer, most of the thinking is done by a single chip, called the microprocessor.

(In older, bigger computers, the thinking is done by a gigantic collection of chips: instead of a single microprocessor chip, the thinking is done by a collection of processor chips working together. That collection is called the processor. The term microprocessor was invented by folks amazed that a processor could be made small enough to fit on a single chip.)

Expansion cards
Besides the motherboard, the system unit contains smaller circuit boards (called expansion cards) that snap into slots in the motherboard.

One of those expansion cards is the video card. It manages the monitor and attaches to the cable that comes from the monitor.

Another expansion card is the sound card. It manages the pair of stereo speakers and attaches to the cable that comes from them.

Another expansion card is the multi-I/O card. It manages the printer and mouse and attaches to the cables that come from them.

Another expansion card is the modem (pronounced "mode em"). It manages telephone signals and attaches to the cables that come from the telephone and the phone jack.

The keyboard does not have its own expansion card. Instead, the keyboard's cable plugs directly into the motherboard.

The three most popular kinds of memory are ROM chips, RAM chips, and disks.

ROM chips remember info permanently. Even if you turn off the computer's power, ROM chips continue to remember what they've been told. The most important ROM chips are on the motherboard.

RAM chips remember info temporarily. They're electronic scratchpads that the CPU uses to store temporary reminders. For example, they remember what problem the computer's working on at the moment. They get erased when you switch to a different computer problem or turn the computer off.

In an old computer, most RAM chips are on the motherboard, where the RAM chips are arranged in rows, 8 or 9 RAM chips per row.

In a new computer, the RAM chips are instead on tiny expansion cards, which snap into tiny slots on the motherboard: each tiny RAM cards is called a single in-line memory module (SIMM) and holds 3, 8, or 9 RAM chips.

Disks work slower than ROM chips and RAM chips but can store more info. Like ROM chips, disks can remember info permanently: unplugging the computer does not erase the disks. To use a disk, you must put it into a disk drive, which reads what's on the disk. In a standard computer, the system unit includes 3 disk drives, to handle all 3 kinds of disks:
A CD-ROM disk looks like a Compact Disk (CD) that music comes on, but a CD-ROM disk contain computer data instead of music. The info on a CD-ROM disk is permanent and cannot be changed or edited.

The typical hard disk hides in the computer's hard-disk drive and never comes out. Though info can stay on a hard disk permanently, you can edit that info if you wish.

A floppy disk comes encased is a sturdy square jacket, which is typically 31/2 inches on each side (though older disks come in 51/4-inch jackets instead). You can insert the floppy disk, including its jacket, into the floppy-disk drive. You can also remove the floppy disk (including its jacket) from the drive. Though info can stay on a floppy disk permanently, you can edit the info if you wish.

So here's how the three types compare:
CD-ROM and floppy disks can be removed from their drives. The typical hard disk cannot.

You can edit info if it's on a hard disk or floppy disk, but not if it's on a CD-ROM disk.

The typical hard disk can hold lots of info. The typical CD-ROM disk holds less. A floppy disk holds even less.

As you can see from that comparison, each kind of disk has its own advantages. That's why a standard computer includes all 3 kinds of disk drives.

Power supply
The power cord comes from your office's wall and goes into the back of the system unit. Look inside the system unit, at the back wall, where the power cord goes in. There you see, inside the system unit, a big metal box, called the power supply.

If you look in a tower, the power supply is usually at the top of the back wall.

If you stand in front of a desktop computer and look down into it, so you see an aerial view, the power supply is usually in the back right corner.

The power supply is an AC/DC transformer: it converts the alternating current (coming from your office's wall) to the direct current that your computer requires.

The three wares

Computer equipment is called hardware because it's built from wires, screws, and other parts you can buy in hardware & electronics stores. Hardware includes the CPU, memory, I/O, cables, and power supply.

The info that the computer deals with is called software, because you can't feel it: it flows through the computer's circuits as coded pulses of electricity.

The computer can handle two kinds of software: data (lists of names, addresses, numbers, words, and facts) and programs (lists of instructions that tell the computer what to do).

To feed the computer some software (data and programs), you can type the software on the keyboard, or insert ROM chips or disks containing the software, or let the computer receive the software from another computer (by running wires between the computers or letting the computers chat with each other by phone).

If you feed the computer wrong software - wrong facts or wrong instructions - the computer will print wrong answers. Wrong stuff is called garbage. If you feed the computer some garbage, the computer spits out garbage answers.

So if a computer prints wrong answers, the computer might not be broken; it might just have been fed wrong data or programs. If you think the computer's broken and tell a technician to fix it, the technician might reply, "Hey, the computer's fine! Don't blame the computer! It's your fault for feeding it garbage! If you put garbage in, you get garbage out!" That's called the principle of garbage in, garbage out (which is abbreviated GIGO, pronounced "guy go"). The technician will say, "it's just a case of GIGO".

The person sitting at the computer is called the liveware, operator, user, or meathead - because the person's head is made of meat instead of wires. The term meathead was first shouted publicly by that TV character from New York: Archie Bunker. The term liveware was invented in 1982 by Garry Trudeau, creator of the Doonesbury cartoons.

For a complete computer system, you need all three wares: the hardware (equipment), software (info), and liveware (people). Beware of those three wares! You can spend a lot buying hardware (and repairing it), buying software (and improving it), and hiring people to help you (and training them). Make sure you've budgeted for all three wares!

Congratulations! Now you know the three ways that buying a computer can suck up your money. Yes, buying a computer can really suck.


Computers are like drugs: you begin by spending just a little money on them, but then you get so excited by the experience - and so hooked - that you wind up spending more and more money to feed your habit.

Your first computer experinece seems innocent enough: you spend just a little money for a cute little computer that has a color screen. You turn the computer on, tell it to play a game, and suddenly the screen shows dazzling superhuman colors that swirl hypnotically before you. You say, "Wow, look at all those colors!" and feel a supernatural high.

But after two months of freaking out with your new computer, the high wears off and you wonder, "What can I buy that's new, exciting, and gives me an even bigger high?" So you buy more stuff to attach to your computer. Now you're in really deep, financially and spiritually. You're hooked. You've become addicted to computers. Each month you return to your favorite computer store, to search for an even bigger high - and spend more money.

Look at me. I'm a typical computer junkie. I've already bought 40 computers, and I'm still going. Somebody help me! My computers have taken over my home. Whenever I try to go to sleep, I see those computers staring at me, their lights winking, tempting me to spend a few more hours in naughty fun, even if the sun's already beginning to rise.

Drug addicts quickly catch on to computer jargon, because the lingo of today's computerized techno-streets is the same as that of the druggie's needle. For example, to buy a computer, you go to a dealer; and when you finally start using your computer, you're called a user.

As you get in deeper, searching for ever greater highs, you squander even more money on computer equipment, called hardware. You stay up late (playing computer games or removing errors from your programs) so that the next morning you come into work all bleary-eyed. Your boss soon suspects your computer habit, realizes you're not giving full attention to your job, and fires you.

Since you're jobless and your computer bills are mounting higher and higher, you soon run out of money to spend on computers - but you still have that urge to spend more! To support your habit, you write programs and try to sell them to your friends. That makes you a pusher. You turn your friends into addicts too, and you all join the ever-increasing subculture of computer junkies.

The only difference between computers and drugs is that if you're into drugs people call you a "washout", whereas if you're into computers people say you have a "wonderful career". And they're right!

As a computer pusher, you can make lots of dough. But to be a successful pusher, you must do it in style: instead of calling yourself a "pusher", call yourself a computer consultant. Yes, a computer consultant is a person who gives computer advice to other people - and pushes them into buying more computers!

A computer consultant who gives free computer help to kids is kind-hearted but also a wolf in sheep's clothing. The truth is revealed in these lines of Tom Lehrer's song, "The Old Dope Peddler":
He gives the kids free samples
Because he knows full well
That today's young innocent faces
Will be tomorrow's clientele.

My marriage
I'm married to a computer. Marrying a computer is much groovier than marrying a person. For one thing, computers are good at "getting it on": they make you feel all electric and tingly. And computers never argue: they're always ready to "do it" (except when they "have a headache").

I wanted to call this book "The Sexual Guide to Computers" and put a photo of my wife and me on the cover; but some parts of the country still prohibit mixed marriages. That cover would be banned in Boston, which (alas!) is where I live. So I had to play cool and say "Secret" Guide to Computers. But here's the real secret: this book's about sex.

Your marriage
The computer will fascinate you. It'll seduce you to spend more and more time with it. You'll fall in love with it.

You'll even start buying it presents. You'll buy it exotic foods - expensive programs to munch on. You'll buy it new clothes - dress it in a pretty little cloth cover, to keep the dust off. You'll adorn it with expensive jewels - a printer and an extra disk drive.

Then the computer will demand you give it more. While you're enjoying an exciting orgy with your computer and think it's the best thing that ever happened to you, suddenly the computer will demand you buy it more memory. It'll refuse to continue the orgy until you agree to its demand. And you'll agree - eagerly!

The computer's a demanding lover. You'll feel married to it. If you're already married to a human, your human spouse will feel jealous of the computer. Your marriage to that human can deteriorate and end in divorce.

Several women got divorced because they took my computer course. Their husbands had two complaints:
"You spend most of your time with the computer instead of with me.
When you do spend time with me, all you want to talk about is the computer."

To prevent such a marital problem, coax your spouse to play a video game on the computer. Your spouse will get hooked on the game, become as addicted to the computer as you, enjoy blabbing about the computer with you, and even help you spend money on your habit. Sociologists call that technological progress.

Why buy a computer?
The average American has three goals: to make money, have fun, and "become a better person". Making money is called business; having fun is called pleasure; and becoming a better person is called personal development. The computer will help you meet all three goals: it'll improve your business, increase your pleasure, and help you grow into a better person.

The average computer buyer's a male who comes out at noon. During lunch hour, he walks into a computer store and says he wants to computerize his business. He wants a computer to do his accounting and also handle his mailing list. The computer store's salesperson talks him into also wanting a word-processing program, to help handle business correspondence.

After visiting one or two other computer stores, he buys a computer. Though the computer costs a lot, the salesperson reminds him that Uncle Sam gives a tax break for buying it since it's a "business expense".

He brings it home but starts feeling guilty about having spent so much. How will he convince his wife that the purchase was wise?

Suppose his wife's an old-fashioned mom who cooks. He tries to convince her that the computer will help her cook....
"It will help you store your recipes, darling," he coos.

"No thanks," she replies. "When I find a recipe in the newspaper, I don't want to spend 15 minutes typing the entire recipe into the computer. I'd rather just clip the recipe out of the newspaper and - presto! - tape it to a file card. My manual system is faster than a computerized one!"

He tries again. "You could use the computer to store your phone numbers. When you want to find a phone number, the computer will tell you instantly." She retorts, "No thanks. To make a phone call, I don't want to have to turn the computer on, request the phone program, wait for the computer to ask whose number I'm interested in, type in the jerk's entire name, then wait for the computer to respond. Instead of doing all that, it's quicker to just open my little black phone book, flip to the page where the number is, and dial my friend. Try again, lover-boy!"

"Well, darling, you could use the computer to remind you of birthdays and appointments." "You must be crazy! I remember them quite well without a computer. I scribble a note on my calendar, which serves fine and costs just $5 instead of $2000. I understand how a disorganized bird-brain, like you, might need a computer to survive; but since I'm better organized, I don't need to rely on mechanical help."

Though admitting the computer does not fulfill any real need in the home, he lusts to buy a computer anyway - for the thrill of it - and looks for an excuse to justify the cost. The computer's a solution looking for a problem.

Women buy computers too. Apple ran a TV ad showing Dick Cavett in a kitchen, as he interviews a woman who bought a computer. "You're using it to store your recipes?" he asks. "No!" she retorts, "I'm using it to chart stocks!"

If you buy a computer, the idea of "using the computer to run your business" and "using the computer to store recipes" are just excuses. Here are the REAL reasons why people buy computers....
Teenager: "Computers are a blast: sci-fi come true! Programming computers is the next best thing to becoming an astronaut!"

Parent: "Computers are taking over! My kids will have to master them to survive. If I buy my kids a computer, they'll explore it (instead of sex & drugs), get curious about how it's programmed, become programmers, get straight A's in school, become computer consultants, make lots of dough, and share their wealth with me, so I can brag about them to my neighbors."

Grandparent: "I want to be part of the 20th century. The whole world's becoming computerized, and I don't want my grandkids to think I'm 'out of it.' I want to share in this new excitement."

Kindergartner: "Grandma, please buy me a computer for my birthday! I really want one! And if you don't buy it, they say I'll never go to Harvard."

Social climber: "Damn! Now that big cars and cell phones are pass‚, the computer's the only status symbol left. I'm sick of being intimidated by neighbors and bosses spouting computer jargon. I'm gonna learn that mumbo-jumbo myself so I can get back at those pompous asses and intimidate them!"

Worried worker: "My company is computerizing. If I don't master computers, they might master me and take away my job! If I learn enough about them, I can keep my job, get a promotion, then quit and become a rich computer consultant!"

Adventurer: "The computer's a challenge. If I can master it, I know I'm not as stupid as people say!"

Middle-aged: "My life's become boring. I need an exciting new hobby - a computer! It's fun, could help my business, and even help me start a new business on the side. And I can keep fiddling with that cute toy even after my company retires me."

Doctor: "Playing with the computer's anatomy is like playing God. Besides, with a computer I could get my patients to pay their bills!"

English teacher: "My students get so hooked on computer games! I'm gonna find out why, then use computers to channel the kids' excitement toward a higher good: poetry!"

Wanting what's due: "I've worked hard all my life; I deserve a computer! I'm gonna get my hands on that mean machine, force it to obey all my commands, and make it my personal slave."

Subversive: "If Big Brother has Big Blue watching me, then by gosh I'll turn my computer into Big Mama and scramble their waves!"

Will your computer fulfill all those dreams? This Guide will help you find out!


When you buy a new computer for your business, you'll have lots of hassles.

Since a complete computer system includes so many parts (CPU, RAM, keyboard, disk drives, printer, software, etc.), at least one of them won't work properly, and you'll need to fix it. Since the manufacturer or store will provide free repairs during the first year, you'll lose nothing but your temper.

You won't completely understand the manuals for your hardware and software, so you'll ask your friends and me for help. You can also try getting help from the manufacturers and dealers; but if your question's long-winded, their answers will be curt.

If the dealer who sold you the computer is honest, he'll say, "I don't know how to run all the hardware and software I sold you. To learn how, read the manuals. No, I haven't read them myself, because they're too long-winded, complicated, and vague. If you don't like the manuals, take our courses, which are expensive and won't teach you as much as you need but at least will make you feel you're making some progress."

Most dealers are not that candid.

If you try writing your own programs, you'll discover Murphy's law: no matter how long you think a program will take to write, it will take you longer. If you're wiser and try to buy a finished program from somebody else, you'll find the program works worse than advertised, its manual is missing or unintelligible, and you'll need to modify the program to meet your personal needs.

Data entry
If you figure out how to use the program, your next torture is to type the data you want the program to process. The typing is sheer drudgery, but you must do it.

Those headaches are just the beginning of what can become an extended nightmare. Buying a computer starts by being exciting but quickly becomes nerve-racking.

Eventually, you'll get past that nerve-racking transition stage and become thrilled.

That painful transition is worth the effort if you plan to use the computer a lot. But if you plan to use a computer just occasionally, you might be better off not buying a computer at all: continue doing your work manually.

Salespeople wanting you to buy fancy hardware or software say "it will be great", but computer stuff never turns out as good as promised.

For example, there's the tale of the woman who was married three times but remained a virgin. Her first husband, on his wedding night, discovered he was impotent; her second husband, on his wedding night, decided he was gay; and her third husband was a computer salesman who spent the whole night saying how great it was going to be.

Moral: computer salesmen make great promises but don't deliver

. There's also the story of how a programmer died and came to the gates of Heaven, guarded by St. Peter, who let the programmer choose between Heaven and Hell. The programmer peeked at Heaven and saw angels singing boring songs. He peeked at Hell and saw wild orgies, so he chose Hell. Suddenly the wild orgies vanished, and he was dragged to a chamber of eternal torture. When he asked "What happened to the wild orgies?", the devil replied "Oh, that was just the demo."

Moral: many wild technologies are enticing; but when you try actually experiencing them, you have a devil of a time!


To keep up-to-date about computers, read newspapers and magazines. They contain the latest computer news, criticize hardware and software, advise you on what to buy, and include ads for the newest products, services, and discount dealers.

Some ads and articles use technical computer jargon, which you'll understand by reading this book.

How to get periodicals
Visit your local computer stores, bookstores, and newspaper stands, and buy a copy of each newspaper and magazine that interests you.

If you live near Boston, you'll find many computer magazines in the kiosks in the middle of Harvard Square (at Out of Town News and Nini's Corner) and at a chain of convenience stores called White Hen Pantry. Two chains of computer stores (Comp USA and Micro Center) sell computer magazines at discounted prices.

After reading the periodicals you bought - or borrowed from your local library - subscribe to the ones you like best.

Most periodicals come with a coupon that gives you a "special" discount off the subscription price "for new subscribers, if you hurry". Don't bother hurrying: the same discount is offered to practically everybody every year. And next year, when you renew, you'll be offered the same "special" discount, "for our loyal readers, if you hurry".

Shortly after you buy a one-year subscription, you'll receive a dishonest letter from the publisher warning that your subscription will "run out soon" and that "if you renew now, you'll get a special discount". Don't believe the letter; "run out soon" usually means "run out eight months from now", and "if you renew now" means "if you renew sometime within the eight months, or even later". Feel free to wait.

How to read reviews
Many computer periodicals review the newest hardware and software. Don't take the reviews too seriously: the typical review is written by just one person and reflects just that individual's opinion.

Some reviewers are too easy: they heap praise and say everything is "excellent". Other reviewers are too demanding: they say everything is "terrible". If one product gets a rave review, and a competing product gets a scathing review, the reason might be the difference between the reviewers rather than the difference between the products.

Giant conglomerates
Most computer magazines and newspapers are published by two giant conglomerates: Ziff-Davis and IDG.

Ziff-Davis is a gigantic publisher in Manhattan. By the 1970's Ziff-Davis was publishing magazines about many hobbies. In 1982, when computers became a popular hobby, Ziff-Davis bought several computer-magazine publishers, so it's become a conglomerate of hobby-magazine and computer-magazine publishers. Ziff-Davis is usually called ZD or just Ziff. It's based in Manhattan. Recently, it's been bought by a Japanese company called Softbank.

IDG (based in Framingham, Massachusetts) began publishing Computerworld in 1967. Later it bought up and published many other computer periodicals around the world. Now IDG publishes 270 computer periodicals in 75 countries.

Ziff and IDG have declared war on each other. For example, IDG refuses to publish articles by columnists who submit articles to Ziff. Each computer columnist must choose between either being a Ziffer or an IDG'er. Mostly monthly
Most computer magazines are published monthly and let you buy individual issues (for under $5) or an annual subscription (for about $25).

General computer magazines

Here are the 9 best computer magazines for the general public
Magazine Publisher PricePagesYear Editorial office Toll free
Computer Shopper Ziff-Davis $4.99 900 12 issues: $40/$30 NY 212-503-3900 800-274-6384
PC World IDG $5.95 350 12 issues: $30/$25 CA 415-243-0500 800-825-7595
PC Magazine Ziff-Davis $3.99 350 22 issues: $50/$35 NY 212-503-5255 800-289-0429
Family PC Ziff-Davis $2.99 250 12 issues: $15/$13 MA 413-582-9200 800-413-9749
Smart Computing Sandhills $3.95 100 12 issues: $29 NE 402-477-8900 800-733-3809
Computer Currents IDG $5 100 12 issues: $20/$0 CA 510-547-6800 800-365-7773
Home PC CMP $2.95 300 12 issues: $22/$13 NY 516-562-7673 800-829-0119
PC Computing Ziff-Davis $3.99 400 12 issues: $25/$17 CA 415-578-7000 800-365-2770
Windows Magazine CMP $3.96 350 12 issues:$25/$22 NY 516-733-8300 800-829-9150

I've put the most important (Computer Shopper) at the top of the list, and listed the others in order of importance. The list shows each periodicals name, publisher, price (for a single issue), number of pages (rounded to the nearest 50), how many issues are printed per year, price of a one year subscription (with any discounted price shown after a slash), editorial office's state and phone number, and any toll-free number for ordering a subsription.

To be fully aware of what's happening with computers, get all 8 of those magazines. If you can't afford all 8, start at the top of the list and work your way down.

At the top of the list is Computer Shopper. It's more than twice as big as any other computer magazine.

It's huge! Each issue contains about 900 pages, and each page is oversized (91/2"(13"). Since it's too big to fit on a magazine rack, most stores stack it on a pile on the floor.

It's the only magazine where the most aggressive discount dealers advertise. It's where you'll find the lowest prices. That's why people buy it: to look at the ads. It's also the only magazine that includes an ad-product index, where you can look up any product (such as "laser printers by Hewlett-Packard") and find the page numbers of all ads offering that product.

When examining Computer Shopper, be cautious. Since its editors don't check the ads and reviews for accuracy, treat their wild claims as "questions to pursue" but not as "facts to trust". Too many of the reviews are upbeat: instead of saying a product is bad, the reviewer will dishonestly praise the product for being so much better than something even worse. For example, the reviewer will praise a bad computer for being so much better than a typewriter; the reviewer will praise a bad computer invented this year for being so much better than a computer invented in the 1980's.

Browsing through Computer Shopper, you might see an ad bragging that a product was declared "Computer Shopper Best Buy of the Year". That praise sounds impressive - until you realize that the judges were "all the magazine subscribers who sent in postcards", and the award just means the subscribers admired the ad's low price and didn't necessarily try or even see the product!

But if you want to get computers at rock-bottom prices, you must read the ads in Computer Shopper! Subscribers receive Computer Shopper about the 15th day of the preceding month: for example, they receive the February issue on about January 15th. You won't find it in stores until about 2 weeks after that: for example, you won't find the February issue in stores until the last few days of January.

Computer Shopper used to be independent but was bought by Ziff-Davis (which in turn was bought by Softbank).

PC World is the best-balanced magazine. It's smaller than Computer Shopper and more carefully edited.

Of all the computer magazines, PC World does the best job of surveying readers to find out which computer brands are the most reliable and which computer companies are most helpful when answering phone calls. PC World publishes the survey results twice a year.

PC World is the only computer magazine that has an active consumer-complaint department. It publishes complaints about rip-offs and bad service. It also plays consumer advocate and gets the baddies to change their ways and give refunds to customers.

Even if you buy just one issue of PC World, you can learn a lot from it, since each issue includes an updated list of the best brands of desktop computers, notebook computers, printers, video cards, and modems, with detailed ratings.

PC Magazine covers just a few topics in each issue; but when PC Magazine covers a topic, it usually covers the topic more thoroughly than any other magazine. For example, a PC Magazine article about printers will compare more printers than any other magazine.

Since the typical PC Magazine article is thorough and long, just a few articles appear in each issue. But a 1-year subscription gets you lots of issues: 22 of them (1 issue in July, 1 issue in August, and 2 issues in each of the other months).

The computer equipment that PC Magazine recommends tends to be expensive, since PC Magazine assumes its typical reader is willing to spend $4,000 on a computer system. I wish the magazine would try to help readers whose income is lower.

I can't imagine anybody reading a complete issue of PC Magazine from cover to cover. Do you really want to read so many details about every printer? PC Magazine is like an encyclopedia: you're not supposed to read it all, but you're glad to know it's all there

. PC Magazine is historic: it was the first magazine about the IBM PC and clones. At first, it was independent. When Ziff-Davis bought it, most of the staff quit and started PC World for Ziff-Davis's competitor, IDG. Then Ziff-Davis hired a new staff, which was excellent. But recently, PC Magazine's top editors have left to start newer magazines.

For example, Robin Raskin left PC Magazine and is now editor-in-chief of the best new magazine, Family Computing.

It's published by Ziff-Davis working with Disney. Like other Disney productions, it's easy to understand, charming, and family-oriented.

It contains the most accurate appraisals of which computer equipment and programs are the easiest and most pleasant for ordinary folks to use.

Of all the magazines, the easiest to read is Smart Computing.

Because it's easy, it was originally called "PC Novice"; but in 1997 it changed its name to "Smart Computing" to emphasize that it's good for everybody who wants to become smarter, not just beginners.

Each article is superbly crafted to explain even the most difficult topics simply. If you want to understand how computers work, this is the magazine to get. Unlike other computer magazines, this magazine emphasizes "how computers work" rather than "which brands to buy". The only complaint I have about this magazine is it's too short: give me more! This magazine is the shortest - but sweetest!

Though all other computer magazines are published in California or on the East Coast, Smart Computing is published in Nebraska instead. Maybe that's why its writing is straightforward instead of strung out.

Like a newspaper, Computer Currents is printed on extra-wide pages of newsprint paper. At first glance, it looks like a thin version of Computer Shopper. Like Computer Shopper, its main importance is its ads.

It's printed in 9 local editions: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Austin, Houston, Atlanta, New York, and Boston. Each edition has its own ads from local dealers and its own local news. If you live in or near one of those cities, Computer Currents is the best way to find out about local computer dealers and events.

Each issue also includes some articles of national importance. The articles have a delightfully relaxed, chatty style and stay short enough to be to-the-point. Of all computer magazines, Computer Currents has the most devilish back page: it contains satire by the world's best computer satirist (Lincoln Spector) and a cartoon by the world's best computer cartoonist (Rich Tennant). Usually they'll have you laughing, especially after you've immersed yourself in computer culture long enough to understand what they're satirizing.

In the San Francisco area, Computer Currents is distributed free at newsstands. In most other parts of the country, you must buy a subscription.

Like Family Computing, Home PC explains what hardware and software to buy for your home and is easy to read.

Back in the old days, when the only major computer magazines were PC Magazine and PC World, Ziff-Davis started PC Computing, which is easier to read. Afterwards, PC Novice was invented, which is even easier but too short. PC Computing contains more advice about what to buy. Even if you read just one issue of PC Computing, you'll get good advice about what to buy, since each issue includes an updated list of all the best hardware and software. (PC World has a smaller list covering just some kinds of hardware and no software.)

Though Windows Magazineis sometimes ho-hum, it often includes a surprising article or special issue that's absolutely superb, in-depth, and blows all the other magazines away! If a Pulitzer prize were awarded for each top-notch computer article, Windows Magazine would win often. If you subscribe for a year, you'll find enough joys in Windows Magazine to be thankful.

Internet magazines

Your computer can phone an international computer network, called the Internet
Here are the 3 best magazines about the Internet
Magazine Publisher Price Pages Year Editorial office Toll free
Yahoo Internet Life Ziff-Davis $2.99 100 12 issues: $25/$20 NY 212-503-4790
Net Guide CMP $3.95 200 12 issues: $23/$15 NY 516-562-5000 800-829-0421
The Net Imagine $4.99 100+CD 12 issues: $25 CA 415-468-4869 800-706-9500

Yahoo Internet Life is the most fun. Net Guide covers topics that are more serious. The Net costs the most because each issue includes a CD full of programs.

Mac magazines

Here are the 3 best magazines about Apple's Mac computers
Magazine Publisher Price Pages Year Editorial office Toll free
Mac User Ziff-Davis $3.99 250 12 issues: $27/$20 CA 415-378-5600 800-627-2247
Macworld IDG $4.95 250 12 issues: $30/$24 CA 415-243-0505 800-288-6848
Mac Addict Imagine $7.99 150+CD 12 issues: $40/$30 CA 415-468-4869

Mac User and Macworld are both serious magazines. Mac Addict is more wacky; it costs more because it comes with a CD.

Computer newspapers

Here are the 4 best newspapers about computers
Newspaper Publisher Price Pages Year Editorial office Toll free
PC Week Ziff-Davis $3.95 150 51 issues: $195/$0 MA 617-393-3700 800-451-1032
Infoworld IDG $3.95 100 51 issues: $145/$0 CA 415-572-7341
Computerworld IDG $3 100 51 issues: $48/$40 MA 508-879-0700 800-669-1002
Mac Week Ziff-Davis $6.00 50 48 issues: $125/$0 CA 415-243-3500

Each is published weekly (except the week after Christmas and Mac Week's extra holidays). PC Week, the most pleasant, covers the IBM PC and clones. Infoworld covers the IBM PC, clones, and Macs. Computerworld covers all computers (maxicomputers, minicomputers, and microcomputers). Mac Week covers just Macs.

PC Week, Infoworld, and Mac Week are intended for computerists who buy lots of computers. To subscribe, you complete application forms asking how many computer purchases you make or influence yearly. If you answer acceptably, you get the newspapers free; otherwise, you must pay $195 per year for PC Week, $145 per year for Infoworld, $125 per year for Mac Week.

That method of distribution - "specialists get it free, idiots pay through the nose" - is called controlled circulation. It assures advertisers that the readers are either influential or rich. Alas, it widens the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots": if you're a low-income novice, this policy is guaranteed to "keep you in your place", unless you're lucky enough to find those magazines in your local library.

Examine the back page
In many computer magazines and newspapers, the most fascinating writing occurs on the back page.

For example, the best humorists are Lincoln Spector (on the back page of Computer Currents) and Rich Tennant (whose cartoons grace the back page of Computer Currents and PC Magazine). The best rumor-mongerers are Spencer the Cat (on the back page of PC Week) and Bob Cringely (on the back page of Infoworld).

Daily newspapers
For today's news about computers, read the business section of your town's daily newspaper, or read national newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and The New York Times. The computer articles in The Wall Street Journal are excellent - especially Walter Mossberg's editorial (on the first page of the Marketplace section on Thursdays).

Every Tuesday, the Science section of The New York Times contains ads from New York's most aggressive discount dealers. They make bargain hunters drool, but beware of dealers who are shady!

Discount dealers

In computer magazines and newspapers, many ads offering big discounts. And if you buy from a dealer who isn't in your state, the dealer won't charge you sales tax.

Discount dealers change prices every month. Instead of asking them for catalogs (which might be out of date), examine their most recent ads. Then phone to confirm the prices. Usually, prices go down every month, but sometimes they rise.

Before buying, ask whether the product's in stock, how long the dealer will take to fill your order, and how it will be shipped. Ask what the dealer charges for shipping: many dealers overcharge! Ask whether there's a surcharge for using a credit card. Since products are improved often, make sure the dealer is selling you the newest version.

If the product you get is defective, the dealer or manufacturer will fix or replace it. But if the product is merely "disappointing" or doesn't do what you expected or isn't compatible with the rest of your computer system, tough luck! Many discount dealers say "all sales are final." Other dealers let you return computers but not printers, monitors, or software. Some dealers let you return products but charge you a "restocking fee", which can be up to 25% of the purchase price!

So before you buy, ask questions about the product's abilities to make sure it will do what you expect. Tell the dealer what hardware and software you own, and ask the dealer whether the product's compatible with your system.

The typical product comes in a cardboard box. On the back of the box (or on some other side), you'll usually see a list of the system requirements. That's a list of what hardware and software you must already own to make that product work with your computer.

Use your credit card
Pay by credit card rather than a check. If you pay by credit card and have an unresolved complaint about what you bought, Federal laws say that the credit-card company can't bill you! Moreover, if the mail-order company takes your money, spends it, and then goes bankrupt before shipping your goods, the credit-card company gets stuck, not you!

The nicest credit cards (such as Citibank's) double the manufacturer's warranty, so a "one-year warranty" becomes a two-year warranty! Does your credit card give you that warranty extension? Ask your bank!

What's missing?
When buying computer equipment, find out what the advertised price does not include.

For example, the advertised price for a "complete computer system" might not include the screen. Ask! In a typical printer ad, the price does not include the cable that goes from the printer to your computer.

Read the fine print
When reading an ad, make sure you read the fine print at the bottom of the ad. It contains many disclaimers, which admit that the deal you'll be getting isn't quite as good as the rest of the ad implies.

In the middle of an ad, next to an exciting price or feature or warranty, you'll often see an asterisk (*). The asterisk means: "for details, read the fine print at the bottom of the ad". That fine print contains disclaimers that will disappoint you. In long multi-page ads, the fine print is often buried at the bottom of just one of the ad's pages, far away from the page where the asterisk appeared, in the hope that you won't notice the fine print.

So if you see what looks like a great deal, but the deal has an asterisk next to it, the asterisk means "the deal is not really as great as we imply".

Many computer ads contain this fine print:
"Monitor optional" means this price does not include a monitor. The monitor costs extra, even though the ad shows a photo of a computer with a monitor.

"Monitor/keyboard optional" means this price doesn't include a monitor and doesn't even include a keyboard. The monitor and keyboard cost extra.

"Upgrade price" means you get this price just if you already own an older version of this stuff.

"With system purchase" means you get this price just if you're stupid enough to also buy our overpriced full computer system at the same time.

"Reflects cash discount" means you get this price just if you're stupid enough to pay cash instead of using a credit card. (By paying cash, you can't complain to a credit-card company if we rip you off.) If you use a credit card, we'll charge you about 3% above the advertised price.

"Includes rebate" means you must pay us more, then request a rebate from the manufacturer. (You'll probably never get that rebate, since you'll forget to ask us for the rebate form, or you'll forget to mail the rebate form to the manufacturer, or the rebate form will have already expired, or you'll lose the receipt or code number you must mail with the rebate form to get the rebate.)

"Manufacturer's warranty" means that if the stuff breaks, don't ask us for help. Phone the original manufacturer instead (who will probably ignore you).

"Factory serviced" means another customer bought this stuff, didn't like it, and returned it to the factory, which examined it and thinks it's good enough to resell (after jiggling it a bit), so now we're sticking you with this lemon.

"For in-stock items" means that although we said we'd ship immediately, we won't if you order stuff that's not yet in our warehouse.

"25% restocking fee" means that if you return this stuff, we won't give you your money back. Instead, we'll keep 25% of your money (as a restocking fee) and return just 75% to you.

CDW versus PC Connection
Back in the 1980's, two big mail-order dealers set the tone for the rest of the discount industry. Those dealers were Telemart and PC Connection.

When Telemart went bankrupt in 1993, its assets were sold to Computer Discount Warehouse (CDW), which has continued Telemart's tradition of low prices and wide selection. Phone CDW in Illinois at 800-500-4CDW (for Mac goodies) or 800-454-4CDW (for IBM-compatible goodies).

PC Connection has the best reputation for service because it processes orders fast, charges little for shipping, handles hassle orders promptly and generously, and gives technical help on a toll-free 800 number. It's in the tiny town of Marlow, New Hampshire (population 566, with a main street consisting mainly of a gas station). It began in a barn, then expanded to fill the inn across the street. Drop in anytime, enjoy the small town friendliness, and wave to the 150 employees. Adventureres who've trekked to Marlow rave that it's quaint, friendly, and beautiful.

PC Connection has two divisions: IBM and Mac.

The IBM division advertises in PC World (phone 800-800-0003 or 603-446-0003) and PC Magazine (phone 800-800-0004 or 603-446-0004). The Mac division calls itself Mac Connection in Mac World (phone 800-800-3333 or 603-446-4444) and Mac User (phone -800-4444 or 603-446-4444). You can use the 800 numbers even if you're in Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, and Canada.

Each division sells mostly software but also some hardware (printers, disk drives, monitors, and chips to add to your computer). If you don't have a computer yet, the IBM division will sell you a Compaq; the Mac division will tell you to buy a Mac from your local Apple dealer (since Apple prohibits mail-order dealers from selling Macs).

Each division works round-the-clock, 24 hours daily (except Sunday evening and early Monday morning). Your order's shipped immediately, even if you've paid by check. (Checks are cleared in less than a day.) Your order's shipped by Airborne overnight express so it reaches you the next day; if you order between 12:01AM and 3:15AM Eastern Time, you'll usually receive your order the same day (because the company built a warehouse next to Airborne's airport in Ohio).

The IBM division is nice, the Mac division is even nicer! For USA shipping, the IBM division charges just $5, even if your order is big; the Mac division charges just $3. The IBM division's toll-free number is usually busy; the Mac division's toll-free number usually gets you a sales rep immediately. The IBM division offers fairly low prices (but not as low as other discount dealers); the Mac division offers rock-bottom prices, lower than almost any other Mac dealer.

Big competitors
The competitor that PC Connection fears the most is New Jersey's Micro Warehouse, which offers a greater variety of hardware and software. But Micro Warehouse gives less technical help and sometimes has delays in shipping.

Like PC Connection, Micro Warehouse has two divisions. For the IBM division, phone 800-367-7080 or 908-905-5245. For the Mac division (which is called Mac Warehouse), phone 800-255-6227 or 908-367-0440.

Another competitor is Washington State's Multiple Zones. Like Micro Warehouse, it offers low prices on IBM and Mac goodies. Its IBM division, PC Zone, is at 800-258-2088. The Mac division, Mac Zone, is at 800-248-0800. For international calls to either division, phone 206-883-3088.

Cheap giants
The biggest discounters offering IBM-compatible hardware cheap are Insight and USA Flex. They usually charge less than PC Connection, Micro Warehouse, and PC Zone. Insight also advertises software; USA Flex does not. Insight offers the greatest variety of disk drives; USA Flex offers a greater variety of printers and monitors.

They advertise in Computer Shopper. USA Flex is on the back cover and all the back pages; Insight is in the middle. Insight's ads often contain wrong prices, and Insight's order-takers often make mistakes; but Insight is willing to handle any complaints.

USA Flex is in Illinois at 800-944-5599. Insight is in Arizona at 800-INSIGHT or 602-902-1176.

Discountsfrom retail stores
If you need hardware or software fast and can't wait for mail-order dealers to ship, go to the local computer stores that advertise in the business section of your local newspaper.

To encourage a store to give you a discount, mention low prices from competitors and agree to buy many items at once. Say that if you don't get a discount, you'll shop elsewhere. Many stores do price-matching: they'll match the price of any other local store, though not the prices of mail-order dealers. Some stores let salespeople give 10% discounts, which are subtracted from the salesperson's commission.

IBM and Apple give educational discounts to schools, teachers, and some college students. To find out whether you can get educational discounts, ask your school's administrators and your town's computer stores.

For low prices, visit a chain of huge superstores called Comp USA. It's based in Dallas but has spread to 75 other cities in 26 states. (For example, its New York City store is at 420 5th Ave., 212-764-6224.) To find the Comp USA store nearest you, phone 800-Comp-USA. Phone day or night, 24 hours, and use that number to order computer goodies or a free catalog.

For software and Hewlett-Packard printers, Comp USA charges less than most other stores and mail-order dealers. For other printers and accessories, Comp USA's prices aren't as aggressive: you'll pay less at a competing superstore chain called Staples (which sells computers and also general office supplies). But Comp USA offers a greater variety of computer products than Staples, and Comp USA's salespeople are more knowledgeable and helpful.

Unfortunately, Comp USA handles repairs slowly (you must wait about a week), and Comp USA's prices for most hardware are slightly above other discounters. To get an IBM clone cheaply, buy elsewhere. To buy a Mac, try Staples, which has a very limited selection of Macs but great prices!

The other big chain of computer superstores is Computer City, secretly owned by Tandy. Like Comp USA, Computer City sells IBM clones and Macs, at prices far below Tandy's Radio Shack stores.

Another computer-superstore chain is Micro Center, with just 8 superstores so far (in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Georgia, and Southern California).

Salespeople at Computer City and Micro Center are usually more knowledgeable than at Comp USA and make customers happier. But in cities where those chains compete against each other, Comp USA lowers its prices to undercut those competitors. Comp USA puts up signs comparing prices and showing how much you save by shopping at Comp USA instead of Computer City or Micro Center.

In California's Silicon Valley, visit a chain of superstores called Fry's Electronics, which has been a local favorite for many years. In New York City, visit a superstore called J&R Computer World, which is near Wall Street (15 Park Row, New York City NY 10038, 800-221-8180 or 212-238-9000).

Bagel boys
Three discount dealers in New York City are called the bagel boys because most of their employees resemble me: Jewish men who enjoy eating bagels. (Yum!) Many of their employees are Hassidic Jews, an ultra-traditional sect who wear black suits, black coats, black hats, and beards. For the Jewish Sabbath, they close on Friday afternoon, stay shut on Saturday, and reopen on Sunday.

Those dealers sold cameras and other photography equipment, then started selling computer hardware also, plus a little software. They offer especially low prices on printers, monitors, modems, and notebook computers.

Here's how to reach them:
S&W Computers & Electronics, 31 W. 21st St. 800-874-1235 212-463-8330
Tri State Computer, 650 6th Ave. (at 20th St.) 800-433-5199 212-633-2530
Harmony Computers, 1801 Flatbush Ave. Br'klyn 800-441-1144 718-692-3232
If you phone Tri State computer, ask for David Rohinsky at extension 223. He'll treat you extra-nice.

Those three stores accept both walk-ins and mail-order. They all advertise in Computer Shopper.

Since they offer rock-bottom prices and deliver fast, I often buy there. But they have these drawbacks:
Their tech-support staffs are too small. You'll get faster repairs elsewhere.

They often buy overstocked items from other dealers and resell them; but since those items have changed hands, the manufacturer's "limited warranty" on those items is no longer valid.

Though reputable now, their past has been murky. In 1994, the biggest software company (Microsoft) sued Harmony for distributing software improperly. During the 1980's, Tri State advertised printers at low prices but honored those prices just if you overpaid for the printer's cable. Most of those companies removed supplies & programs from the boxes of printers & computers they sold and charged extra to put the goodies back in.

Egghead Discount Software
is a chain of stores giving discounts on software for the IBM PC and Mac. Egghead's prices are nearly as low as Comp USA's, and Egghead often runs special sales that drive prices even lower. To find the Egghead store nearest you, dial Egghead's headquarters in Washington State at 800-EGGHEAD.

Egghead is nutty, funny, and friendly. The chain's mascot is Professor Egghead, who's a cross between a balding Albert Einstein and a hairy egg. He brags the software is eggciting, eggzotic, eggstraordinary, and intelleggtual with many eggcoutrements and eggcessories, sold by eggsperts who eggsplain it all and give eggzibitions that are eggstravaganzas.

Egghead sells business, educational, artistic, and fun software for the IBM PC and Mac. Egghead's customers like the low prices, wide selection, humorous friendliness, and permission to try software in the store before buying it. If you find a local competing store offering a lower price, Egghead will match that price and even charge you $1 less.

Surplus Software
A discount dealer called Surplus Software sells old versions of excellent IBM-compatible software at very low prices: often $19.95! It also sells new versions cheaper than most other mail-order dealers. Phone Surplus Software in Oregon at 800-753-7877 or 503-386-1375.

Even if you want the newest software, your best bet's often to buy an old version from Surplus Software and then use that purchase as an excuse to get the special "upgrade price" on the new version. The old version's price plus the upgrade price is usually less than the price of buying the new version directly.

Computer shows
Another way to find low prices is at a computer show. The lowest prices are at small shows called flea markets or swap meets. Many vendors at shows offer discounts, especially during the show's last three hours. When you buy at a show, jot down the vendor's name, address, and phone number, in case the goods don't work.

Beware: many vendors at those shows are like gypsies, traveling from show to show and hard to reach if you have a complaint. Many sell computers containing illegal copies of software that was never paid for and whose instruction manuals are missing. Make sure any software you buy comes with an official instruction manual (published by the company that invented the software), not just a book from a bookstore.

Used computers
Instead of buying a new computer, you can sometimes save money by getting a used one.

The oldest source of used microcomputers is The Boston Computer Exchange (phone 800-262-6399 or 617-542-4414).

It gives free info, by phone, about 1000 used computers you can buy. For more details, get a copy of the complete 1000-computer Master List by sending the exchange $10.

The Exchange has no computers in stock. It's just a broker that passes info between buyers and sellers. The Exchange charges a seller $25 to be listed and get advice about what to charge. If a sale occurs, the seller must also pay the Exchange a 15% commission. The buyer pays the exchange nothing - unless the buyer wants a copy of the Master List. Problem: should the buyer begin by mailing a check to the seller and hope the seller ships the computer? Or should the seller ship the computer first and hope the buyer pays for it?

Solution: to protect both the buyer and the seller against getting stiffed, the Exchange has the buyer first mail a check to the Exchange. When the Exchange receives the check, it tells the seller to mail the computer to the buyer. When the buyer receives the computer, the Exchange mails a check (minus the 15% fee) to the seller.

If the seller neglects to mail the computer, the Exchange refunds the check to the buyer. If the seller mails the computer but the buyer dislikes it, the Exchange talks with both parties to reach a compromise.

Another used-computer broker is Atlanta's American Computer Exchange (800-786-0717 or 404-250-0050).

New computers cheap
On page 72, I'll explain the best way to buy a complete new IBM clone cheaply.

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