IBM Compatibles

IBM technologies

The most popular microcomputers are made by IBM and imitators.

How IBM arose

IBM bases its entire marketing strategy on one word: react. IBM never creates a new kind of computer; instead, IBM watches its competitors' products, notices which ones sell well, and then designs a product that meets the same needs better.

Even IBM's own name is a reaction. IBM was started by Tom Watson. He'd been a salesman for National Cash Register (NCR) but was fired, so he took over a competing company (CTR) and vowed to make it even bigger than National Cash Register. To be bigger than "National", he called his company "International"; to be bigger than a "Cash Register" company, he bragged that his company would sell all kinds of "Business Machines". That's how the name "International Business Machine Corp." - IBM - was hatched. IBM quickly outgrew NCR.

IBM sold lots of business machines, especially to the U.S. Census Bureau. But in 1951, Remington Rand Corp. (which later merged with Sperry) developed the Univac computer and convinced the Census to use it instead of IBM's non-computerized equipment. To react, IBM quickly invented its own computers, which were more practical than the Univac. IBM quickly became the #1 computer company - and Sperry's Univac dropped to #2.

All of IBM's early computers were large. IBM ignored the whole concept of microcomputers for many years. IBM's first microcomputers, the IBM 5100 and IBM System 23, weren't taken seriously - not even by IBM.


When lots of IBM's customers began buying Apple 2 microcomputers to do Visicalc spreadsheets, IBM reacted by developing an improved microcomputer, called the IBM Personal Computer (IBM PC), which did everything that Apple 2 computers could do, but better.

To invent the IBM PC, IBM created three secret research teams who competed against each other. The winner was the research team headed by Philip "Don" Estridge in Boca Raton, Florida. His team examined everything created by the other microcomputer companies (Apple, Radio Shack, Commodore, etc.) and combined their best ideas, to produce a relatively low-cost computer better than all competitors.

Don's team developed the IBM PC secretly. IBM didn't announce it to the public until August 12, 1981.

The IBM PC was a smashing success: IBM quickly became the #1 microcomputer company - and Apple dropped to #2.

The IBM PC became the best-selling microcomputer for business. More high-quality business programs became available for the IBM PC than for any other microcomputer. It became the standard against which all other microcomputers were compared. Even today, to use the best business programs you must buy an IBM PC or clone.

The IBM PC consists of three parts: a system unit (which contains most of the circuitry), a keyboard, and a monitor. Wires run from the keyboard and monitor to the system unit.

The IBM PC's keyboard contains 83 keys:
26 keys contain the letters of the alphabet.

10 keys (in the top row) contain the digits.

10 keys (on the keyboard's right side) form a numeric keypad. It contains the digits rearranged to imitate a calculator.

13 keys contain symbols for math and punctuation.

14 keys give you control. They let you edit your mistakes, create blank spaces and capitals, etc.

10 function keys (labeled F1, F2, F3, F4, F5, F6, F7, F8, F9, and F10) can be programmed to mean whatever you wish!

The keyboard was designed by Don Estridge personally. To fit all those keys on the small keyboard, he had to make the RETURN and SHIFT keys smaller than typists liked. Above the top row of keys, he put a shelf to hold pencils; to make room for that shelf, he had to put the 10 function keys at the left side of the keyboard, even though it would have been more natural to put the F1 key near the 1 key, the F2 key near the 2 key, etc.

System unit
The IBM PC's system unit contains a 631/2-watt power supply (which transforms AC current to DC) and a motherboard. On the motherboard, IBM puts the CPU, RAM chips, ROM chips, and support chips.

The motherboard also includes 5 slots that hold printed-circuit cards. The motherboard's 62 wires that run to and through the slots are called the bus. 8 of those wires carry data; the other 54 wires are "bureaucratic overhead" that helps control the flow. Since just eight wires carry data, the bus is called an 8-bit data bus, its slots are called 8-bit slots, and the printed-circuit cards that you put into the slots are called 8-bit cards.

The CPU, which is on the motherboard, is an Intel 8088 running at a speed of 4.77 million cycles per second (4.77 megahertz).

In the original IBM PC, the motherboard could hold 4 rows of 16K RAM chips. 1 row of chips was included in the base price; the other 3 rows of chips cost extra. If you paid the extra cost and got all 4 rows of chips, you had a total of 64K.

Later, IBM improved the motherboard, so that it uses 64K chips instead of 16K chips. The 4 rows of 64K chips produce a grand total of 256K.

To expand beyond 256K, you must buy a memory card, which contains sockets for holding extra RAM chips.

The motherboard contains five 8K ROM chips. One of them contains the BIOS; the other four contain BASIC.

The motherboard includes a hookup to your home's cassette tape recorder, to make the tape recorder imitate a slow disk drive. For faster speed, you must buy a disk drive (which costs extra), and a controller card to connect the disk drive to. The original IBM PC was limited to two 51/4-inch disk drives, and each disk held just 160K. Later, IBM improved the disk system, so that each disk could hold 360K. (To make the improvement, IBM switched to double-sided disks and divided each track into 9 sectors instead of 8.)

The IBM PC's base price doesn't include a monitor - or even a video card to attach the monitor to.

When IBM announced the IBM PC, it announced two kinds of video cards. One kind, the Monochrome Display Adapter (MDA), attaches to a TTL monochrome monitor. The other kind, the Color/Graphics Adapter (CGA), attaches to an RGB color monitor instead.

Each of those cards gives you a hidden bonus. Hiding on the MDA card is a printer port, so you can attach a printer. Hiding on the CGA card is an RCA jack, so you can attach a composite color monitor or a TV switch box.

Why the IBM PC became popular
To invent the IBM PC, IBM combined all the best ideas that other computer companies had invented previously. IBM did it all legally: IBM found the best hardware and software companies and paid them manufacturing fees and royalties. IBM listened well: IBM put into the IBM PC all the inexpensive features that business users were begging computer companies to provide.

IBM had originally planned to charge a high price for the IBM PC; but in August 1981, a week before IBM announced the IBM PC to the world, IBM's top management decided to slash the prices by 25%. So the IBM PC was not only nice but also priced 25% less than the rumor mill had expected. Customers were thrilled and bought IBM PC's quickly.

At first, very few programs were available for it, but IBM turned that liability into a virtue: IBM ran ads telling programmers that since IBM hadn't written enough programs for the PC, programmers could get rich by writing their own. Because of those ads, many programmers bought the PC and wrote thousands of programs for it. All those programs eventually increased the computer's popularity even further.

IBM PC XT & clones

In March 1983, IBM announced the IBM PC eXTended (IBM PC XT).

It resembles the IBM PC but includes a larger power supply (135 watts instead of 631/2) and more expansion slots (8 instead of 5). The larger power supply allows the XT to handle a hard disk.

When IBM began selling the XT, IBM included a floppy disk drive, a 10-megabyte 85-millisecond hard disk, and serial port in the base price, but IBM later made them optional.

Many companies sell XT clones. The typical XT clone is better than the original XT in several ways....

Most clones have extra-large RETURN and SHIFT keys, so your fingers can hit those keys more easily.

Power supply
In most clones, the power supply is extra-large (150 watts instead of 135).

Instead of using an 8088 CPU, most clones use an 8088-1 CPU, which thinks twice as fast (10 megahertz instead of 4.77). Clones using that double-speed CPU are called turbo XT clones.

DOS easily handles 640K of RAM and a 30-megabyte hard disk. (To go beyond those limits, you must use tricks.) The typical clone attains those limits: its motherboard contains 640K of RAM, and its hard disk holds 30 megabytes. IBM's XT disk holds only a third as much. Moreover, the typical clone's hard disk is quicker: its average seek time is 65 milliseconds instead of 85.

A company called Hercules invented a video card that improves on IBM's MDA card.

Like the MDA card, the Hercules card produces pretty characters on a TTL monochrome monitor and includes a parallel printer port. The Hercules card has this advantage: it can generate graphics.

Several companies make video cards imitating the Hercules card. Those imitations are called Hercules-compatible graphics cards.

The typical XT clone includes a TTL monochrome monitor attached to a Hercules-compatible graphics card.

IBM PC AT & clones

In August 1984, IBM announced the IBM PC with Advanced Technology (IBM PC AT). It runs several times as fast as the XT because it contains a faster CPU and disk drives. Other companies have developed AT clones that go even faster.

The CPU is an Intel 80286, which beats the 8088 by performing more cycles per second and also processing about 3 times as much information per cycle.

In IBM's original version of the AT, the 80286 CPU performed 6 million cycles per second (6 megahertz). In 1986, IBM switched to a faster 80286 that runs at 8 megahertz. Clones go even faster: 12 megahertz!

The bus is 16-bit. That bus is called the AT bus or the Industry Standard Architecture bus (ISA bus). Into its 16-bit slots, you can put 16-bit cards or old XT-style 8-bit cards.

Hard drives
The AT handles faster hard drives than the XT.

IBM's original hard drive for the AT had a 40-millisecond average seek time and held 20 megabytes. That drive, built for IBM by a company called CMI, was unreliable. IBM eventually switched to a different supplier, and CMI went bankrupt.

Today's clones contain reliable drives that go even faster (28 milliseconds) and hold even more (40 megabytes and beyond).

Floppy drives
The AT's floppy drive squeezes 1.2 megabytes onto high-density 51/4-inch floppy disks. That drive can also read the 360K disks created by XT computers, but it cannot reliably create a 360K disk to send to an XT computer.

The typical computerist puts two floppy drives into the AT. The first drive deals mainly with 1.2 megabyte disks. The other drive is an XT-style 360K drive, which sits in the AT just to communicate to XT computers.

The AT's original keyboard had 84 keys. Typists liked it better than the PC and XT keyboards, because it had larger RETURN and SHIFT keys.

In 1986, IBM switched to a larger keyboard having 101 keys. Its function keys (F1, F2, etc.) were in the top row (near the pencil ledge) instead of at the left.

Main power supply
The AT's main power supply is 192 watts. Clones use power supplies that are slightly larger (200 watts).

When you first buy an AT, you (or your dealer) must run the SETUP program, which comes on a disk or in a ROM chip. That program makes the AT ask you how much RAM you bought, which monitor and disk drives you bought, and whether you bought a math coprocessor. The AT copies your answers into a CMOS RAM chip, powered by a battery sitting in a holder just left of the main power supply.

Even when you turn off the computer's main power switch, the CMOS RAM chip keeps remembering your answers - until its battery runs out after 4 years (or 1 year in some clones). Then the computer displays the wrong date and time and won't let you use the hard disk - until you run the SETUP program again, preferably with a fresh battery.

Your Great New Jersey Web Sited graphics & PS/2

In September 1984, IBM announced an improved color video system. It consists of a video card called the Enhanced Graphics Adapter (EGA) and a compatible color monitor (called an EGA monitor). You can put an EGA card into the IBM PC, IBM PC XT, or IBM PC AT.

The EGA system is better than CGA, because EGA can display more colors and finer resolution (more dots per inch), and EGA obeys the computer's commands faster.

At the same time, IBM announced an even fancier video system, called the Professional Graphics Controller (PGC), but it was too expensive to be popular.

On April 2, 1987, IBM announced a whole new series of computers, called the Personal System 2 (PS/2), which ran the same programs as the PC but added better graphics. Shortly afterwards, IBM stopped manufacturing its old classic computers (the IBM PC, IBM PC XT, and IBM PC AT).

The classic computers used 51/4-inch floppy disks. The PS/2 computers use 31/2-inch floppy disks instead, which take up less space on your desk, are sturdier, hold more bytes per square inch, and consume less electricity.

Different models
The cheapest PS/2 computer is called the PS/2 model 25. The most expensive PS/2 computer is called the PS/2 model 95. Between those models - the 25 and the 95 - you can choose many others.

By June 1991, IBM had invented these models:

Models CPU Bus Style Video Floppy
25, 30 8086 XT desktop MCGA 720K
25/286, 30/286 286 AT desktop VGA 1440K
50, 50Z 286 MCA desktop VGA 1440K
60 286 MCA tower VGA 1440K
35, 40 386SX AT desktop VGA 1440K
L40 386SX AT notebook VGA 1440K
55 386SX MCA desktop VGA 1440K
57 386SX MCA desktop VGA 2880K
65 386SX MCA tower VGA 1440K
70 386DX MCA desktop VGA 1440K
P70 386DX MCA luggable VGA 1440K
80 386DX MCA tower VGA 1440K
P75 486 MCA luggable XGA 1440K
90 486 MCA desktop XGA 1440K
95 486 MCA tower XGA 1440K
Towers of power
The model 95 is a tower that gets erected on the floor underneath your desk. It's one of IBM's biggest erections. Its electrical juices surge through the cables that run from the tower up to the monitor and keyboard. Since it can service more add-on printed-circuit cards than the model 90 (which is a desktop), computerists call the model 95 an expandable version of the model 90. Ooh, how you'll love the expansion! That's why it's nicknamed the "stud".

The model 80 is a tower version of the model 70. The model 60 is a tower version of the model 50. The 65 is a tower version of the 55.

Model 50Z
The model 50Z contains faster RAM chips than the model 50, so that the model 50Z's CPU never has to wait for the RAM chips to catch up. The "Z" stands for "zero wait states".

drive In models containing an 8086 CPU, the 31/2-inch floppy drive is double-density (DD), so it puts 720K on a disk. In most other models, the 31/2-inch floppy drive is high-density (HD), so it puts 1440K on a disk. The model 57 contains an experimental 31/2-inch floppy drive that's extra-high density (ED), so it puts 2880K on a disk.

The models containing an 8086 CPU use the same 8-bit bus as the old IBM PC and IBM PC XT. All other under-50 models use the IBM PC AT 16-bit bus.

Models 50 and up contain a new style of bus, called the Micro Channel, using a technology called Micro Channel Architecture (MCA). The Micro Channel transmits data faster than the old bus. It includes 16-bit and 32-bit slots. Unfortunately, the Micro Channel's 16-bit slots are a different size than the 16-bit slots in the IBM PC AT; you cannot put an IBM PC, XT, or AT card into a Micro Channel slot.

IBM holds a patent on the Micro Channel bus. Clone companies that copy the Micro Channel bus pay IBM a licensing fee. Other clone companies use the AT bus (ISA bus) instead, or a new 32-bit version of it (the Extended ISA bus, which is called the EISA bus, pronounced "ees uh bus"), or an even faster 32-bit version (the Video Electronics Standards Association local bus, which is called the VESA local bus or VL bus), or the fastest version (the Peripheral Component Interconnect bus, which is called the PCI bus and used mainly in computers containing a Pentium CPU).

The models containing an 8086 CPU also contain a chip called the Multi-Color Graphics Array (MCGA), which produces nice graphics.

According to the laws of physics, all colors can be created by mixing red, green, and blue light in various proportions. The MCGA lets you create your own color by mixing an amount of red from 0 to 63, an amount of green from 0 to 63, and an amount of blue from 0 to 63; so altogether, the number of possible colors you can create is "64 times 64 times 64", which is 262,144.

After you create your favorite colors, the computer will let you display 256 of them on the screen simultaneously. To position those colors on the screen, you use a coordinate system permitting an X value from 0 to 319 and a Y value from 0 to 199.

If you're willing to use just 2 colors instead of 256, the computer will let you do higher-resolution drawing, in which the X value goes from 0 to 639 (so you have 640 choices) and the Y value goes from 0 to 479 (so you have 480 choices). That's called 640-by-480 resolution.

The models containing a 286 or 386 CPU contain a fancier graphics chip, called the Video Graphics Array (VGA). Its 256-color mode is the same as MCGA's, but its high-resolution mode permits 16 colors instead of 2.

IBM's competitors sell clones whose graphics are even better than VGA! Besides giving you VGA's high resolution of 640-by-480, they give you an even higher resolution of 800-by-600 (called 800 VGA or VGA Plus) and an even higher resolution of 1024-by-768 (called 1024 VGA or Super VGA or SVGA). The fanciest clones give you a resolution of 1280-by-1024 (called 1280 VGA or sometimes Super-Duper VGA).

Instead of giving you 262,144 colors, the fanciest clones give you 16,777,216 colors (by letting the red, green, and blue each range up to 255 instead of 63).

Since 16,777,216 colors are even more than the human eye can distinguish, clones that have 16,777,216 colors are said to have true color. They're also said to have 24-bit color (because to distinguish among 16,777,216 colors, the computer must store each color as a 24-bit number).

If you buy a clone containing one of those souped-up VGA systems, make sure the VGA card contains 512K or 1M or2M of video RAM instead of just 256K. You need that extra RAM to get lots of colors at the super-high resolutions:

Video RAM How many colors you can see simultaneously
256K 256 colors at 640x400; 16 colors at 800x600; 2 colors at 1280x1024
512K 256 colors at 640x480; 16 colors at 1024x768; 2 colors at 1280x1024
1M 16,777,216 colors at 640x480; 65,536 at 800x600; 256 at 1024x768; 16 at 1280x1024
2M 16,777,216 colors at 800x600; 65,536 at 1024x768; 256 at 1280x1024
Make sure the VGA card is 16-bit instead of 8-bit, so it can accept 16 bits of information at once. Then it can handle all those colors and dots quickly!

If the video is 1024x768 or 1280x1024, make sure it's non-interlaced (NI)interlaced (I), it will flicker annoyingly when used at high resolution.

When buying a color monitor for VGA (or VGA Plus or Super VGA), make sure the monitor's dot pitch (distance between adjacent dots) is small: no bigger than .31 millimeters. If the dot pitch is bigger than .31 millimeters, the image on the screen is too blurry. Most monitors have a dot pitch of .28 millimeters, which is good; bad monitors have a dot pitch of .39, .41, or .52 millimeters.

Since VGA is so wonderful, practically everybody who buys an IBM clone orders VGA. VGA's popularity led VGA monitors and cards to be mass-produced on gigantic assembly lines, which dropped VGA's price even lower than EGA's. Since VGA is now cheaper and better than EGA, nobody buys EGA monitors or cards anymore (except people repairing old EGA systems).

The PS/2 models having a 486 CPU contain a fancy graphics chip called the eXtended Graphics Array (XGA). It resembles 1024-by-768 Super VGA.

The price of each PS/2 depends on how much RAM you buy, what size hard disk you buy, and what kind of monitor you buy. (If you can't afford a color monitor, buy a gray-scale monitor that shows shades of gray instead. The shades of gray crudely imitate the color graphics you'd get from MCGA, VGA, or XGA.) If somebody offers you a "complete PS/2 system" cheaply, check whether that "complete" price includes the monitor. Usually it doesn't!

Cheaper than PS/2

The PS/2 computers were too expensive. In 1990, IBM invented a cheaper series of computers, called the PS/1. In 1992, IBM invented an even cheaper series, called the PS/Valuepoint (which you can buy in stores or by phoning IBM directly at 800-IBM-2YOU).

In 1993, IBM invented an even cheaper series called the Ambra, which IBM sold just by mail to compete against mail-order clone companies. The IBM division that produced and sold the Ambra was understaffed, confused, and mismanaged: shipments were delayed and unpredictable, many of the Ambras shipped were defective, and customers had difficulty getting IBM's Ambra division to send a repairman. Though the Ambra division advertised heavily, it was so badly managed and got such a bad reputation that it lost money. In 1994, IBM shut the division down.

In 1994, IBM began selling a nicer series, called the Aptiva.

IBM's flops

Some of your friends might still own IBM's other microcomputers, which were less successful.

IBM's PC Junior was intended for schoolkids. It had pretty graphics and a low price; but its add-ons were too expensive, its keyboard was awkward, and its circuitry differed enough from the original PC so the Junior refused to run some of the PC's programs.

IBM's PC Portable was a luggable inspired by Compaq but didn't include enough expansion slots.

After IBM invented the 8-megahertz AT, IBM had too many 6-megahertz and XT parts left in its warehouse. To use up those old parts, IBM created the XT/286, which contained a 6-megahertz AT CPU attached to an XT disk drive. The XT/286 was as unpopular as its parts.

IBM's RS/6000 is a high-priced microcomputer that runs super-fast but can't run standard IBM PC software.

Don's demise

Although Don Estridge became popular for inventing the IBM PC and XT, his next two projects disappointed IBM: the PC Junior didn't sell well, and the AT's CMI hard drive was unreliable.

His bosses kicked him out of the Boca Raton research office and hid him in an obscure part of the company. A few months later, when he flew on a Delta jet, the jet crashed and killed him.

How clones are priced

Instead of buying from IBM, save money! Buy a clone instead!

Here's how most clones are priced. (I'll show you the prices that were in effect when this book went to press in March 1997. Prices drop about 3% per month, 30% per year.)

$1500 gets you a "standard" clone. That's the cheapest kind of modern clone.

If you pay more than $1500, you get a clone that's fancier - a powerful "muscle machine" that will impress your friends. They'll be impressed by how much money you spent. (If you pay much more than $1500, they might also be impressed by how stupid you were to overspend.)

If you pay less than $1500, you get a clone that's old-fashioned. If you pay slightly less than $1500, the clone will still run most of the modern programs fine, though your friends will laugh at you for buying such a puny, quaint computer. If you pay much less than $1500, the clone will probably have some difficulty running modern programs. But hey, if you can't afford $1500, a substandard clone is better than no computer at all! If you buy a substandard clone, your next task is to figure out which software it can handle well; then buy just that kind of software.

Here are the details. (I've rounded all prices to the nearest $25.)


The standard clone's CPU is a Pentium-133. To get a faster CPU, you must pay a surcharge:
CPU Surcharge
Pentium-133 $0
Pentium-150 $50
Pentium-166 $175
Pentium-166 MMX $250
Pentium-200 $400
Pentium-200 MMX $450
If you're willing to buy a substandard computer, you pay less: deduct $25 for a Pentium-120, $50 for a Pentium-100, $75 for a Pentium-75 or an AMD 586-133 (which goes about as fast as a Pentium-75), $100 for a 486DX4-100, $125 for a 486DX2-66.

I recommend buying a Pentium-133. It's fast enough to perform most tasks instantly.

The Pentium-150, Pentium-166, Pentium-200, and MMX versions are all overpriced. Since they're just slightly faster than a Pentium-133, don't buy them until Intel lowers their prices. Prices have dropped substantially since this was written - editor's note


The standard clone's RAM is 16M. If you want 24M instead, add $50. For 32M instead, add $75.

Though 16M is usually enough, 24M helps some programs run faster.

If you're willing to accept just 8M (which is substandard), deduct $25. But the newest versions of popular Windows programs (such as Microsoft Word 97 and Word Perfect 7) are memory hogs that expect you to have at least 16M. If you have just 8M, those programs will still run, but very slowly.

A Pentium's RAM should be the high-speed kind, which is called EDO RAM. (Deduct $25 if the CPU is a Pentium but the RAM is not EDO.) The EDO RAM should be supplemented by a 256K pipelined burst cache. (Deduct $50 if the pipelined burst cache is missing. Add $25 if the pipelined burst cache is 512K instead of 256K.)

Hard drive

The standard clone's hard drive is 2 gigabytes (2G). If you want a bigger hard drive, you must pay a surcharge:
Hard drive Surcharge
2 gigabytes $0
2.5 gigabytes $25
3 gigabytes $75
4 gigabytes $150
Deduct $25 if the drive is just 1.6G, $50 if 1.2G, $75 if .85G (which is 850M), $100 if .63G (which is 650M).

Though some computers come with a 1.2-gigabyte drive, you should get at least 2 gigabytes instead, since programmers have recently been inventing bigger software. Software size is increasing dramatically! A 2-gigabyte drive costs just $50 more than a 1.2-gigabyte drive; that $50 is a worthwhile insurance policy against future increases in software size.

Video The standard clone includes a 15-inch color monitor. Add $225 for 17-inch. Deduct $75 for 14-inch.

A 14" monitor is adequate for most people and most software, but few companies still offer 14" monitors. 15" shows the same info as 14" but slightly magnified, so you can read "the fine print" on the screen more easily.

17" monitors are big enough to show an entire typewritten page on the screen readably, but they cost more than most folks can afford. Get a 17" monitor just if you're trying to create fine graphics and desktop publishing or you have poor eyesight (or you're sharing the computer with somebody who has poor eyesight).

If the color monitor is 14", make sure it has good specifications: its resolution should be at least 1024(768, and it should be non-interlaced at that resolution (or deduct $25). Its dot pitch should be no more than .28 millimeters (or deduct $25).

The standard video card has 2M of RAM on it. Deduct $25 if 1M, $50 if less than 1M. Add $25 if 4M of RAM, $75 if 4M of RAM that's extra-fast (VRAM or WRAM, instead of ordinary DRAM).

Other hardware

The standard clone's CD-ROM drive is 12X. Deduct $25 for 8X, $50 for 4X, $125 if the CD-ROM drive is missing. The standard clone includes a 16-bit sound card with a pair of stereo speakers. Add $50 for 32-bit. Add an extra $50 if the sound card can do wave-table synthesis (which means it can produce extra-realistic sounds by creating tables of sound waves). Add $50 if you also get a subwoofer (a third speaker, which gives you a richer bass). Deduct $50 if the sound card is missing.

The standard clone's modem transmits at a speed of 33.6 kilobaud and can also handle faxes. Deduct $25 if just 28.8 kilobaud, $50 if just 14.4 kilobaud, $100 if the modem is missing.

The standard clone includes a keyboard, mouse, and 3 1/2-inch floppy drive. Add $50 if it also includes a 51/4-inch floppy drive (used just to swap data with old computers and handle old software). Add $150 if it also includes a tape drive.

The standard clone comes in a desktop case. Add $25 if the case is a tower instead of a desktop. The tower case has just two advantages: it can hold extra cards (but you probably won't buy any!) and it can sit on the floor (so your desk is uncluttered and your monitor sits low enough to be seen without craning your neck up).


The standard clone includes Windows 95. Deduct $25 if it includes Windows 3.11 instead. Deduct $100 if you get no Windows or no Windows manual.

The standard clone comes with a checkbook-balancing program, such as Quicken or Microsoft Money (or deduct $25). It comes with a CD-ROM disk containing an encyclopedia, such as Compton's Encyclopedia or Grolier's Encyclopedia or Microsoft Encarta (or deduct $25).

The standard clone comes with an integrated program (Microsoft Works or Novell Perfect Works or Claris Works). Add $50 if you get Corel Word Perfect Suite or Lotus Smart Suite instead. Add $150 if you get Microsoft Office instead. Add $175 if you get Microsoft Office Professional instead. Deduct $50 if you get no integrated program and no office suite.

Those prices are what big clone makers add in for software that comes with the computer. If instead you buy the software separately later, you'll pay much more!


The standard clone comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee, a 1-year warranty, and lifetime toll-free tech support for hardware & software.

Add $50 if the warranty is 3-year instead of 1-year.

Add just $25 if the warranty is 3-year on most of the system but just 1-year on the monitor. That's called a 3/1-year warranty.

Deduct $75 if the company is run by jerks. Here are signs that the company is run by jerks: the money-back guarantee is missing or shorter than 30 days (or you get charged a "restocking fee" for returning the computer), or the warranty is less than 1-year, or the advertised price applies just if you pay cash instead of using a credit card, or the tech-support phone number is not toll-free or requires you to pay a fee for software questions or is usually busy (or unanswered or is answered by a person who says to leave your phone number but doesn't return your call).

Kinds of clones

You've seen that a standard clone costs just $1500. But an upscale clone includes extras that raise the total cost to $1675; a fancy clone raises the total cost to $2375; a luxury clone raises the total cost to $3100; and a downscale clone lowers the total cost to $1150. Here's how:
Feature Standard clone Upscale clone Fancy clone Luxury clone Downscale clone
CPU Pentium-133 Pentium-133 Pentium-166
($175 extra)
Pentium-200 MMX
($450 extra)
($25 less)
($50 extra)
($75 extra)
($75 extra)
pipelined cache 256K 512K ($25 extra) 512K
($25 extra)
($25 extra)
none ($50 less)
hard drive 2G 2.5G ($25 extra) 3G
($75 extra)
($150 extra)
($25 less)
video 15", 2M DRAM 15", 2M DRAM 17", 2M DRAM
($225 extra)
17", 4M VRAM
($300 extra)
14", 1M DRAM
($100 less)
CD-ROM drive 12X 12X 12X 12X 8X
($25 less)
sound card 16-bit 16-bit wave
($50 extra)
16-bit wave subwoof
($100 extra)
32-bit wave subwoof
($150 extra)
fax/modem 33.6 kilobaud 33.6 kilobaud 33.6 kilobaud 33.6 kilobaud 28.8 kilobaud
($25 less)
floppy drives 3 1/2-inch 3 1/2-inch 3 1/2-inch 3 1/2-inch & 51/4-inch
($50 extra)
3 1/2-inch
tape drives none none none one
($150 extra)
case desktop tower
($25 extra)
($25 extra)
($25 extra)
Windows Windows 95 Windows 95 Windows 95 Windows 95 Windows 95
applications chbk,ency,integ chbk,ency,integ chbk,ency,MS Office
($150 extra)
chbk,ency,MS OffPr
($175 extra)
($100 less)
warranty 1-year 1-year 3/1-year
($25 extra)
($50 extra)
1-year x
TOTAL $1500 $1500 + $175 extra = $1675 $1500 + $875 extra = $2375 $1500 + $1600 extra = $3100 $1500 - $350 = $1150
Those prices do not include a printer, which is priced separately.

Which kind to buy
Though a standard clone is adequate, a fancy clone is much nicer and will give you a happy thrill. It's the kind of clone I recommend.

If a fancy clone is beyond your budget but you'd like something better than just "standard", buy an upscale clone, which is a compromise. It will give you the pleasure of being uppity, better than standard.

A luxury clone is what computerists lust for, but spending so much money is foolish. To get a taste of luxury without being a fool, buy a fancy clone but soup it up by adding whichever luxurious element excites you the most. For example, if you're mainly lusting for a Pentium-166 CPU, go ahead: buy a fancy clone but with a Pentium-166 CPU instead of a Pentium-133.

If you're on a very tight budget and can't afford even a standard clone, buy a downscale clone. It will still run most programs okay. Just be aware that within 2 years, you'll have an urge to soup it up, and making the alterations will cost you more (in labor charges, etc.) than if you buy a standard clone all at once.

Notebooks are pricey

The first rule about buying a notebook (or laptop) computer is: don't buy one unless you must! Try buying a desktop computer instead!

Though notebook computers are portable and cute, you pay a lot for portable cuteness.

For example, suppose you want to buy this kind of modest computer: a Pentium-120 with 8M RAM, 1G hard drive, a floppy drive, color screen, Windows 95, mouse (or touchpad), CD-ROM drive, sound, no modem. To get a desktop computer fitting that description, you pay about $900; to get a notebook computer fitting that description, you must pay about $1800 instead.

If you can afford $1800, should you buy a notebook computer? No! Here's what $1800 gets you:

$1800 notebook $1800 desktop
Pentium-120 Pentium-120
1G hard drive 3G hard drive
10.4" 640(480 screen 17"/16" 1024(768 screen
10X CD-ROM drive 12X CD-ROM drive
stereo sound stereo sound 33.6-kilobaud fax/modem
Desktop computers give you much more equipment per dollar than notebook computers. So don't buy a notebook unless you must.

If you need to use a computer in two locations, don't buy a notebook: buy two desktop computers instead! Buying two desktop computers costs about the same as buying one notebook. Or buy a desktop computer that's light enough to carry to your car easily.

Buy a notebook computer just if you need to travel often to many locations or if you're a student or researcher needing to take notes in a lecture or library.

When buying a notebook computer, the price depends mainly on what kind of screen you get. Monochrome is cheaper than color. For color screens, the cheapest kind is called passive; the next step up is dual-scan passive, which is brighter and works faster; the most expensive is active-matrix, which is even brighter and works even faster. Passive is also called STN; dual-scan passive is called DSTN; active-matrix is called MTFT. Most folks buy dual-scan passive color, because it's almost as nice as active-matrix color and costs $400 less.

Famous clones

I'd like to tell you about a company that makes reliable, powerful IBM clones, charges you very little, and is a pleasure to call if you ever need technical help.

That's what I'd like to tell you, but I haven't found such a company yet! If you find one, let me know

Each day, I falsely think I've finally found my hero company. I tell the name of the hero-company-du-jour to folks like you who call me for advice. But like O.J. Simpson, my hoped-for hero gets quickly accused by my customers of doubly murdering them in some way. How depressing! Can't any company do things right? I've been writing this book for 24 years and have yet to find a company I still feel proud about. I'm disgusted.

Hero companies rise but then fall because they suffer through the following business cycle:
When the company begins, it's new and unknown, so it tries hard to get attention for itself by offering low prices. It also tries to help its customers by offering good service.

When news spreads about how the company offers low prices and good service, the company gets deluged with more customers than it can handle - and it's also stuck answering phone calls from old customers who still need help but aren't buying anything new.

To eliminate the overload, the company must either accept fewer customers (by raising prices - or by lowering them slower than the rest of the industry), or offer less service per customer (by refusing to hire enough staff to handle all the questions), or hire extra staff (who are usually less talented than the company's founders but nevertheless expect high pay). In any of those cases, the company becomes less pleasant and heroism is relegated to history. The company becomes just one more inconsequential player in the vast scheme of computer life.

This chapter portrays the players. Warning: these portraits are anatomically correct - they show which companies are pricks.

The computer industry's a soap opera in which consumers face new personal horrors daily. I wrote most of this in March 1997 (and inserted some April 1997 updates while this book was at the press); but you can get the newest breathtaking episode of the computer industry's drama, How the Screw-You Turns, by phoning me anytime. I'll tell you the newest dirt about wannabe and were-to-be hero companies.

So before buying a computer, phone me at 617-666-2666 to get my new advice free. Tell me your needs, and I'll try to recommend the best vendor for . Before phoning me, become a knowledgeable consumer by reading the following juicy details about famous clones....

Of all the major companies that make clones, Quantex offers the lowest prices on Pentium computers. In previous editions, I made negative comments about Quantex, but in 1996 Quantex improved dramatically. I've bought a new Quantex computer myself and am pleasantly surprised: it's my favorite computer!

Price list
Here's what Quantex charged when this book was at the press in April 1997:

CPU EDO RAM Hard drive CD-ROM Video Stereo speakers Price
Pentium-133 16M + 256K pipe 1.6 gigabytes 1 2X, 125ms 15", 2M 2 $1399
Pentium-133 24M + 512K pipe 2.1 gigabytes 12X, 125ms 15", 2M 2 $1549
Pentium-133 32M + 512K pipe 2.5 gigabytes 16X, 95ms 17", 2M 2 $1799
Pentium-133 32M + 512K pipe 4 gigabytes 16X, 95ms 17", 4M 2 + subwoofer $1949
Pentium-166 32M + 512K pipe 4 gigabytes 16X, 95ms 17", 4M 2 + subwoofer $2049
Pentium-166 MMX 32M + 512K pipe 4 gigabytes 16X, 95ms 17", 4M 2 + subwoofer $2249
Pentium-200 MMX 32M + 512K pipe 4 gigabytes 16X, 95ms 17", 4M 2 + subwoofer $2349

For example, the chart's bottom line says Quantex will sell you a computer system in which the CPU is fast (a Pentium running at a speed of 200 megahertz and including MMX), the RAM is big (32 megabytes, plus a 512-kilobyte pipelined burst cache), the hard drive is big (4 gigabytes), the CD-ROM drive is fast (up to 16X, with an average seek time of 95 milliseconds), the monitor's screen contains a 17-inch tube (measured diagonally), the video card contains 4 megabytes of RAM, and the stereo speakers are supplemented by a third speaker (subwoofer) to produce a booming bass. The total price is just $2349.

Each Quantex system comes in a tower case. The motherboard includes a PCI bus. You get a fax/modem card that's fast (33.6 kilobaud) and a sound card that produces high-quality sounds (because it uses 32 bits and a wave-table synthesizer). You also get a 1.44M floppy drive (31/2-inch high-density), Microsoft Mouse, 104-key keyboard, and microphone.

You get lots of software: Windows 95, Microsoft Plus (which adds extra features to Windows 95), Microsoft Internet Explorer (which helps you use the Internet), the Quicken checkbook-balancing program, an encyclopedia (Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia, which comes on a CD-ROM disk), the Corel Word Perfect Suite (a combination that includes the Word Perfect for Windows word processor, the Quattro Pro spreadsheet, and other goodies), and several other programs. You get a free one-month trial membership to each popular on-line computer service (America Online, Compuserve, and Prodigy) and a free month of Internet access using Epoch Dial Internet Service.

Quantex plans to sell notebook computers soon.

How to reach Quantex
Quantex is in New Jersey. Quantex charges sales tax just if you're in New Jersey. Quantex usually charges $99 for shipping, which is by Federal Express (FedEx).

If you're in the USA, you can phone Quantex at 800-632-5022.
If you're in Puerto Rico, phone 800-793-4185.
If you're in Canada, phone 800-793-4167.
You can also reach Quantex at 908-563-4166.
You can write to Quantex at 400-B Pierce Street, Somerset NJ 08873.

Quantex's sales staff is available weekdays from 9AM to midnight, Saturday from 9AM to 6PM. It's closed on Sunday.

If you phone Dave Johnson (a salesman) at 800-419-4017 and mention "The Secret Guide to Computers", he'll give you extra attention and better answers to your questions.

After you've ordered from Quantex, if you have any questions about your order (such as "When will I receive it?") phone the Customer Service department at 800-864-9022.

After receiving your Quantex computer, phone the Technical Support department at 800-813-2062 if you have any technical questions about how to use the hardware or Windows 95. The department is open day and night, 24 hours!

For questions about the other software that came with your Quantex computer, phone the companies that invented the software; your Quantex computer comes with brochures that give you the inventors' phone numbers.

For many years, Quantex didn't have enough employees to answer all the phone calls. The Sales staff, Customer Service staff, and Technical Support staff were usually overloaded. If you phoned, you might get no answer, or a busy signal, or a secretary who took your number and promised to call you back but did not call you back. If you tried to buy a computer, the salesperson would promise computer delivery in 2 weeks, but deliveries would actually take 4 weeks. When technical questions arose, customers were hopping mad at not being able to reach the Technical Support department; the typical customer tried phoning repeatedly, for several weeks, unsuccessfully.

In the summer of 1995, Quantex finally expanded and improved its Technical Support staff, and folks began telling me that the staff was easy to get through to and helpful. But in the fall of 1995, Quantex began getting overloaded again, and complaints came back.

In January 1996, Quantex moved to larger quarters and doubled its staffs.

In March 1996, Quantex finally became pleasant to deal with. Getting through to Quantex's Sales staff was immediate. If you ordered a Quantex computer, the salesperson said you'd get it in 2 1/2 weeks, but you'd receive it in 1 1/2 weeks or even faster. Getting through to the Technical Support staff usually took just 6 minutes.

In May 1996, Quantex began extending its hours for sales & technical support, so that on weekdays Quantex stays open until midnight (instead of shutting down at 9PM).

By late summer of 1996, Quantex had improved further. Getting through to the Technical Support staff usually took less than 1 minute.

In February 1997, Quantex made the Technical Support department even more helpful by keeping it staffed even late at night, around-the-clock, 24 hours!

December and January are the computer industry's busiest months. That's when huge hoards of people suddenly buy computers for Christmas, end-of-year tax write-offs, and beginning-of-year budgets, then try to get the computers running and fixed immediately. During those months, Quantex and the rest of the computer industry are often overloaded.

The worst time to reach Technical Support is 6PM-10PM, Eastern Time. That's when the staff is most likely to be overloaded. Try earlier in the day or later at night!

Quantex has improved its computer systems. Now each Quantex computer comes with the best kind of mouse (by Microsoft), a better-than-average monitor (by Mag), a better-than-average keyboard, and better-than-average instruction manuals. Quantex computers run faster than most competitors because Quantex includes speeded-up components (such as the pipelined burst cache).

The salespeople at Quantex have often been rude and abrupt. That's because Quantex is in a New Jersey suburb of New York City, the city whose cab drivers raised rudeness to an art form.

My favorite example of Quantex rudeness is the guy from Virginia who complained that when he phoned Quantex to ask for a price list, the Quantex salesman said, "Customers are not entitled to price lists!"

In 1996, Quantex's attitude improved. Now most customers find Quantex employees pleasant.

drops Quantex advertises in Computer Shopper magazine, which reaches subscribers on the 15th of the month. (For example, the February issue reaches subscribers on January 15th.) A week or two afterwards, the magazine finally starts appearing on magazine stands and in bookstores. The ads in each issue show new, lower prices. Quantex usually drops its prices about the 20th of the month. So to get the prices that Quantex advertises in the February issue of Computer Shopper, you must wait until about the 20th of January.

Suppose you order a computer from Quantex but then, while you're waiting to receive the computer, a new issue of Computer Shopper comes out and shows a new, lower price from Quantex. Your salesperson will give you the new, lower price just if you ask immediately, before Quantex ships the computer to you.

Who owns Quantex?
Quantex is owned secretly by Fountain, which is based in Taiwan. Quantex buys its cases and motherboards from Fountain.

Quantex has two sister companies: Micro Professionals and Pionex. Like Quantex, they're secretly owned by Fountain and use Fountain's motherboards & cases. Micro Professionals is in Illinois; Pionex is in Florida. Like Quantex, Micro Professionals advertises in Computer Shopper; Pionex sells through liquidators instead (such as Damark and Home Shopping Network). Quantex offers lower prices than its sisters.

Quantex used to have another sister, called Computer Sales Professional (or PC Professional), but that sister faltered and got merged into Quantex, though computers branded "PC Professional" are still sold through Home Shopping Network.


ABS is a computer manufacturer that charges even less than Quantex! Of all the major reputable computer companies, ABS Computer Technologies charges the least!

Here's what ABS charged when this book was at the press in April 1997:

CPU EDO RAM Hard drive Video Multimedia Price
Pentium-120 8M+256K 1.2 gigabytes 14",1M na $745
Pentium-120 16M+256K 1.6 gigabyte 14",1M 8X,stereo,33.6 $1005
Pentium-120 16M+256K 2 gigabytes 15",2M 8X,stereo,wave,33.6 $1075
Pentium-120 32M+512K 2.5 gigabytes 15",2M 12X,stereo,wave,33.6 $1155
Pentium-133 32M+512K 2.5 gigabytes 15",2M 12X,stereo,wave,33.6 $1185
Pentium-133 32M+512K 2.5 gigabytes 17",2M 16X,stereo,wave,33.6 $1445
Pentium-166 32M+512K 2.5 gigabytes 17",2M 16X,stereo,wave,33.6 $1605
P.-166MMX 32M+512K 2.5 gigabytes 17",2M 16X,stereo,wave,33.6 $1715
P.-200MMX 32M+512K 2.5 gigabytes 17",2M 16X,stereo,wave,33.6 $1925
P.-200MMX 64M+512K 3.1 gigabytes 17",2M 16X,stereo,wave,33.6 $2325

For example, the chart's bottom line says ABS will sell you a computer system in which the CPU is fast (a Pentium running at a speed of 200 megahertz, with MMX), the EDO RAM is huge (64 megabytes, plus 512 kilobytes of pipelined burst cache), the hard drive is big (3.1 gigabytes), the monitor's screen contains a 17-inch tube (measured diagonally), the video card contains 2 megabytes of RAM, and you get multimedia (a 16X CD-ROM drive, stereo speakers, wave-table sound card, and a 33.6 fax/modem). The total price is just $2325.

Each ABS system comes in a tower case. The motherboard includes a PCI bus. You also get a 1.44M floppy drive, mouse, 104-key keyboard, and Windows 95.

For shipping, ABS usually charges $80 and waits 2 weeks before bringing your computer to the UPS truck, but a $25 bribe sometimes gets ABS to build the computer fast and bring it to the UPS truck within 3 days. Then you wait 1 week for UPS ground to get to you.

Since ABS doesn't use enough packing material, the cable to the floppy drive often falls out during transportation. Just open the computer and push the cable into the back of the drive again. If you ask ABS about the problem, the technician seems to say "It's a Peking problem", but he's trying to say "It's a packing problem" with a Chinese accent. Yes, customers complain they can't understand the accents of ABS's technicians.

ABS has been a member of the Better Business Bureau. The Bureau reports many unresolved complaints about ABS, such as delays in getting refunds, but some ABS customers have good luck and tell me they're happy.

ABS usually answers its phone immediately, without putting you on hold. But the only phone it answers immediately is the one for sales: the phone for tech support usually goes unanswered. If you can't reach the tech-support staff directly, phone the sales department and complain that you want to talk to a supervisor: that gets you through to tech support!

Like Quantex, ABS gives you a 30-day money-back guarantee, a 3-year warranty, and free phone help forever (lifetime). But ABS is not service-oriented: its employees are too busy to give you much help.

If you're a woman, ABS assumes your role in life is to be stupid, and ABS won't help you. For example, when a woman asked a question about Windows 95, the ABS staff brushed her off by saying, "It's not our job to explain Windows 95." When an Alaska woman who runs a computer company bought 5 ABS computers and then tried asking a question, the ABS staff tried to brush her off by saying, "Why don't you ask your husband?" She replied, "Because I know more about computers than he does. He's a fisherman."

ABS versus Quantex
ABS charges much less than Quantex. That's because ABS uses average components, whereas Quantex uses above-average components. To save money, ABS's mouse is not by Microsoft (unless you pay a $20 surcharge), ABS's monitor is by GVC instead of by Mag, ABS includes less software and fewer manuals than Quantex, ABS's packaging is less sturdy, and ABS's technical-support staff is harder to reach, understand, and deal with. But at ABS's amazingly low prices, why complain?

ABS is near Los Angeles. ABS's official name and address are:
ABS Computer Technologies
1295 Johnson Drive
City of Industry CA 91745
phone 800-876-8088 or 818-937-2300


Gateway sells more computers by mail than any other company. Here's how Gateway became the mail-order king.

How Gateway arose
Gateway began because of cows:
In the 1800's, George Waitt began a cattle company. According to legend, he got his first herd by grabbing cattle that jumped off barges into the Missouri River on the way to the stockyards.

His cattle business passed to his descendants and eventually into the hands of his great-grandson, Norm, who built the Waitt Cattle Company into one of the biggest cattle firms in the Midwest. The company is on the Missouri River, in Iowa's Sioux City, which is where Iowa meets South Dakota and Nebraska.

Norm's sons - Norm Junior and Ted - preferred computers to cows, so on September 5th, 1985, they started the "Gateway 2000" company in their dad's office. They told him computers are easier to ship than cows, since computers can take a long journey without needing to be fed and without making a mess in their boxes.

22-year-old Ted was the engineer and called himself "president"; Norm Junior was the businessman and called himself "vice president". Their main investor was their grandma, who secured a $10,000 loan. They hired just one employee: Mike Hammond.

At first, they sold just parts for the Texas Instruments Professional Computer. Soon they began building their own computers. By the end of 1985, they'd sold 50 systems, for which customers paid a total of $100,000.

Gateway grew rapidly:

Year Computers sold Revenue Employees
1985 50 computers $100,000 2
1986 300 computers $1,000,000 4
1987 500 computers $1,500,000 8
1988 4,000 computers $11,700,000 33
1989 25,000 computers $70,500,000 176
1990 100,000 computers $275,500,000 600
1991 225,000 computers $626,700,000 1300
1992 lots of computers! $1,100,000,000 1876
1993 even more computers! $1,700,000,000 3500
1994 even more computers! $2,700,000,000 4500

For each year, that chart shows how many computers were sold during the year, the total numbers of dollars that customers paid for them and for add-ons, and how many employees Gateway had at the year's end.

Here are highlights from the history of Ted Waitt and his employees:
In 1986, they moved to a bigger office in the Sioux City Livestock Exchange Building.

In 1988, Ted began a national marketing campaign by designing his own ads and running them in Computer Shopper magazine. His most famous ad showed a gigantic two-page photo of his family's cattle farm and the headline, "Computers from Iowa?" The computer industry was stunned - cowed - by the ad's huge size and the low prices it offered for IBM clones. In the ad, Ted emphasized that Gateway was run by hard-working, honest midwesterners who gave honest value. (At that time, most clones came from California or Texas; but Californians had a reputation for being "flaky", and Texans had a reputation for being "lawless"). Though cynics called Gateway "the cow computer", it was a success. In September, the company moved a few miles south to a larger plant in Sergeant Bluff, Iowa. Gateway's operations there began with 28 employees.

In the summer of 1989, Gateway grew to 150 employees, so Gateway began building a bigger plant. To get tax breaks and business grants, Gateway built it upriver at North Sioux City, South Dakota, and moved there in January 1990.

In 1990, Gateway became more professional. In 1989, the "instruction manual" was 2 pages; in 1990, it was 2 books. In 1989, the "tech support staff" (which answers technical questions from customers) consisted of just 1 person, and you had to wait 2 days for him to return your call; in 1990, the tech support staff included 35 people, and you could get through in 2 minutes. Gateway also switched to superior hard drives and monitors. In 1990, customers paid Gateway 2751/2 million dollars, generating a net profit of $25 million.

By early 1992, Gateway was selling nearly 2,000 computers per day and had 1,300 employees, including over 100 salespeople and 200 tech-support specialists to answer technical questions. Not bad, for a company whose president was just 30! Since Gateway was owned by just Norm Junior and Ted, those two boys became quite rich!

In March 1993, Gateway hired its 2000th employee. In April 1993, Gateway sold its one millionth computer. In December 1993, Gateway went public, so now you can buy Gateway stock and own part of that dreamy company, which by May 1995 had become so big that it answered over 12,000 tech-support calls in one day.

On September 5th, 1995, Gateway's 6000 employees celebrated the company's 10th anniversary.

Though Gateway's become huge and has offices worldwide (in France, Germany, Ireland, Australia, and soon Japan), it's still headquartered in North Sioux City, a small behind-the-times town that got its first 4-way stop sign in 1992, first McDonald's hamburger joint in 1994, and doesn't have any traffic lights yet.

Gateway gets along well with its neighbors: in fact, two former mayors of Sioux City have become Gateway employees!

Gateway's become a rapidly growing cash cow: moo-lah, moo-lah! But Gateway hasn't lost its sense of humor. When you buy a Gateway computer, it comes in a box painted to look like a dairy cow: white with black spots.

Unfortunately, Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream has sued Gateway for copying the idea of putting cow spots on packages. Meanwhile, Gateway has sued a shareware distributor called Tucows for using spotted cows to sell computer products.

Gateway's ads
Each Gateway ad begins with gigantic photographs. In early ads, the photos showed individuals in beautiful landscapes. Later ads showed hoards of Gateway employees dressed as Robin Hood's men in Sherwood Forest, top-hatted performers in Vegas cabarets, teenagers in a nostalgic 1950's diner bathed in neon glow, or movie directors applauding a ship full of pirates.

The eye-popping photos, which seem to have nothing to do with computers, grab your attention. (Gateway's diner ad includes the only photo I've ever seen that makes meat loaf look romantic!) Then you get headlines and florid prose that try to relate the scene to Gateway's computers. Finally, after all that multi-page image-building nonsense, you get to the ad's finale, which reveals Gateway's great technical specifications (specs), great service policies, and low prices.

That way of building an ad - fluff followed by stuff - has worked wonders for Gateway! Idiots admire the photos, techies admire the specs, and everybody buys!

Gateway was the first big mail-order manufacturer to give honest pricing: the advertised price includes everything except shipping. The price even includes a color monitor. And since all components are high-quality, a Gateway system's a dream system. With dreamy ads and a low price, how can you not buy?

How to reach Gateway
The company's official name is "Gateway 2000". Gateway ships worldwide.
If you're in the USA, phone Gateway at 800-LAD-2000.
If you're in Canada, phone Gateway at 800-846-3609.
If you're in Puerto Rico, phone Gateway at 800-846-3613.
From anywhere in the world, phone Gateway at 605-232-2000.

Gateway's sales department is open weekdays 7AM-10PM, Saturday 9AM-4PM, Central Time. Gateway is closed on Sunday.

If you wish to write, address your mail to Gateway 2000, 610 Gateway Drive, PO Box 2000, North Sioux City SD 57049-2000.

Price list Gateway
has advertised these prices:

CPU EDO RAM Hard drive Video Software Modem Sound Price
Pentium-133 16M+256K 1.2 gigabytes 15" office br br $1499
Pentium-133 16M+256K 1.2 gigabytes 15" family 33.6 16-bit $1599
Pentium-166 MMX 32M+256K 2.5 gigabytes 17" office 33.6 16-bit $2199
Pentium-200 MMX 32M+512K 2.5 gigabytes 17" office 33.6 16-bit, wave $2449

For example, the chart's bottom line says Gateway will sell you a computer system in which the CPU is fast (a Pentium running at a speed of 200 megahertz and including MMX), the RAM is big (32 megabytes, plus a 512-kilobyte pipelined burst cache), the hard drive is big (2.5 gigabytes), the monitor's screen contains a 17-inch tube (measured diagonally), and you get office software, a 33.6-kilobaud fax/modem card, and a 16-bit sound card that includes a wave-table synthesizer. The total price is $2449.

Each Gateway system comes in a tower case. The motherboard includes a PCI bus. The video card includes 2M of RAM. You get a 12X CD-ROM drive and 1.44M floppy drive.

Each Gateway system comes with CD-ROM disks containing Windows 95, an encyclopedia (Encarta), and a desktop-publishing program (Microsoft Publisher).

In the chart above, "family software" means you get:
Microsoft Works (which handles elementary word processing, spreadsheets, databases, and more)

a program that balances your checkbook and tracks your income & expenses (Microsoft Money)

a program that makes greeting cards (Greetings Workshop)

a medical reference for your home (Mayo Clinic Family Health)

a CD-ROM version of Dr. Seuss's favorite book for kids (Green Eggs and Ham)

two games (Monopoly and Myst)

a good mouse (Microsoft Mouse 2)

"Office software" means you get Microsoft Office 97 Small Business Edition instead, which includes:
a fancy word processor (Microsoft Word)

a fancy spreadsheet program (Excel)

a personal-information manager (Outlook)

a program that draws maps (Automap Streets)

the world's fanciest mouse (Microsoft Intellimouse)

Prices drop
Gateway advertised those prices in April 1997. By the time you read this book, Gateway's advertised prices might be even lower.

When you phone Gateway to check a price, Gateway's salespeople often quote you a lower price than advertised. That's because Gateway's prices drop often, and the ads aren't as up-to-date as what the salespeople say. Moreover, Gateway likes to fool competitors by pretending to have high prices while actually offering prices so low you can't say no, so competitors can't figure out why everybody's buying from Gateway.

Gateway usually drops its prices during the last week of each month.

If you order a computer, you must typically wait 3 weeks to receive it because Gateway is swamped with orders and won't ship until about 3 weeks after you order. Then Gateway will ship the computer by 2-day air and charge you $95 for shipping.

Customers complain that $95 is too much for shipping, so Gateway's begun offering another choice: for just $50, Gateway will ship by UPS ground instead, which takes about a week.

Like most mail-order companies, Gateway used to charge sales tax just to customers who were in Gateway's state (South Dakota). Recently, Gateway's been forced to charge tax to customers in California, New York, Florida, Massachusetts, Kentucky, and many other states - about 30 states altogether! When you phone Gateway, ask the salesperson whether you must pay tax.

Gateway's warranty used to be just 1 year, but now Gateway gives a 3-year warranty on the entire system, including even the monitor. Gateway also gives you a 30-day money-back guarantee, lifetime toll-free tech support, 3-year on-site service (from Dow Jones, if you're within 100 miles of a Dow Jones service center), and free shipping of replacement parts by overnight air.

If you have a problem and want to speak to a technician, phone Gateway's technical-support department at 800-846-2301. Gateway advertises "24-hour technical support", but that's just for helpful recorded messages: live humans are usually available just weekdays 6AM-midnight, Saturday 9AM-2PM, Central Time.

Up through 1992, Gateway's popularity grew rapidly, and Gateway got more customers than its staff could handle.

Customers complained about getting busy signals, shipping delays, and incompetent tech-support staff. The delays got worse and worse, until they reached a crisis point in January 1993. By then, many of Gateway's former customers got disgusted, switched to other vendors instead, and complained to me and other journalists. Infoworld, The Wall Street Journal, and I wrote articles saying how bad Gateway had become.

That was enough of a "kick in the pants" to make Gateway clean up its act. After January 1993, Gateway gradually improved the quantity and quality of its staff. By August 1993 Gateway's service and support had become no worse than the industry average.

But in September 1993, Gateway started to get overloaded again; and by Christmas 1993, Gateway was so overloaded that customers began to complain. By January 1994, Gateway was back in a full-blown crisis again - just like the year before! Throughout the first half of 1994, Gateway's delays were intolerable: 5 weeks to get a computer, and next-to-impossible to get through to the technical-service department.

Then Gateway improved again. Shipping delays dropped from 5 weeks back down to 2 weeks. Gateway added more technicians to its staff and in November 1994 built a new, expanded service department in Kansas City, Missouri. By the summer of 1995, Gateway's technical support had improved so much that the computer magazines were saying Gateway's technical support was actually good!

When Windows 95 came out on August 24, 1995, Gateway suddenly got swamped with questions about it, and Gateway became overloaded. Callers to Gateway's technical-support number were greeted with a recorded message that began, "Due to the large number of Windows 95 calls...."

Now Gateway's catching up, and delays in getting through to technical support are decreasing. But I expect the tech-support staff at Gateway, like the rest of the computer industry, will continue to be overloaded each December & January (when Americans try to understand & fix the computers received for Christmas) and underloaded each July & August (when Americans think about the beach instead of computers).

Every January, newspapers print articles about how awful Gateway is; then Gateway apologizes; then by August everybody praises Gateway for being wonderful; and then the following January everybody wants to sue Gateway again.

Aren't business cycles fun?

Premium Service
Gateway's started a new policy: if you pay a $99 bribe, Gateway gives you priority over other customers: you get a special 800 number to phone for faster technical support, and you get 3 years of on-site service instead of just 1 year. Gateway calls this Premium Service.

Some Gateway computers come with a keyboard that's manufactured by Maxiswitch and completely programmable: you can program any key to do any function. For example, if you don't like the SHIFT key's location, you can program a different key to act as the SHIFT key.

Unfortunately, that feature is too fancy: many beginners accidentally hit the "Program macro" button, which then reprograms the keys so no key works as expected! Beginners have trouble finding the instructions that explain how to reset the keyboard to act normally again.

Notebooks and subnotebooks
Gateway sells notebook and subnotebook computers, but the prices are too high (starting at $2299) and the warranty is short (just 1 year).

Gateway versus Quantex
Gateway charges more than Quantex but gives more & better software (by Microsoft), and better instruction manuals. Quantex gives you more hardware per dollar and charges you no tax (unless you're in New Jersey).

Bargain notebooks

To buy a good notebook computer at a ridiculously low price, try these companies:
Sager (18005 Cortney Ct., Industry CA 91748, 800-669-1624, 818-964-8682)
BSI (9440 Telstar Ave. #4, El Monte CA 91731, 800-872-4547, 818-442-0020)
Hyperdata (809 S. Lemon Ave., Walnut CA 91789, 800-786-3343, 909-368-2960)
Exel (401 Park Ave. South, New York NY 10016, 800-486-EXEL, 212-684-6930)
EPS (PO Box 278, Jefferson SD 57038, 800-447-0921, 605-966-5586)

They all advertise in Computer Shopper magazine.

The biggest and most informative ads about notebook computers come from Sager, which is a division of Midern. Here's what Sager charged when this book went to press in March 1997:

CPU EDO RAM CD Color video Price
Pentium-120 8M
10.4" dual-scan, 640(480, 1M $1625
Pentium-133 8M
10.4" dual-scan, 640(480, 1M $1645
Pentium-133 8M 6X 10.4" dual-scan, 640(480, 1M $1745
Pentium-133 16M+256K 10X 12.1" dual-scan, 640(480, 2M $1975
Pentium-133 16M+256K 10X 11.3" active, 800(600, 2M $2275
Pentium-133 16M+256K 10X 12.1" active, 800(600, 2M $2545
Pentium-150 16M+256K 10X 12.1" active, 800(600, 2M $2575
Pentium-166 16M+256K 10X 12.1" active, 800(600, 2M $2695
Pentium-166 MMX 16M+256K 10X 12.1" active, 800(600, 2M $2795

In the "Color" column, notice that the color screen is either dual-scan or active. Active is better because it produces brighter colors, reacts faster, and lets the screen be visible even by friends peering over your shoulder from odd angles. Most folks buy dual-scan because it's cheaper but still adequate.

Each Sager computer includes a 1-gigabyte hard drive, high-density 31/2-inch floppy drive, Windows 95, a carrying bag, a sound system (pair of stereo speakers with a microphone, all tiny and built into the keyboard), a better-than-average battery (made of nickel metal hydride, NiMH), and an AC adapter (which plugs into the wall of your room and converts your building's alternating current into the direct current needed by the computer).

Each Sager computer also includes a Touchpad (instead of a mouse). The Touchpad is a square, gray mat that looks like a high-tech carpet. It lies in front of the SPACE bar, near where your wrists rest. To move the screen's arrow, you rub your finger across the Touchpad, gliding as if you were finger painting on the carpet.

Suppose you're using the computer at your desk and wish you'd bought a desktop computer instead because it would have a bigger screen and keyboard. No problem! Like most notebook computers, Sager's has an external video port (so you can attach a big monitor) and an external keyboard port (so you can attach a big keyboard).

Though Sager doesn't include a fax/modem, you can buy one that comes on a PCMCIA card and insert that card into the notebook's PCMCIA slot. The slot is big (Type 3), so you can insert a Type 3 PCMCIA card or a pair of Type 2 PCMCIA cards (one card for the modem and cone card for anything else). Sager charges $65 for a PCMCIA fax/modem card that's 14.4 kilobaud, $149 for 33.6 kilobaud.

Sager sells its notebook computers to the general public but also secretly sells those computers to other manufacturers, who put their own labels on them and resell them. One of the resellers is Broadax Systems Incorporated (BSI)., which typically charges you $15 less than if you buy directly from Sager. But dealing with BSI has two disadvantages:
BSI doesn't accept credit cards. Instead, you must pay by cashier's check or company check. You must fax a copy of the check and driver's license to BSI, then hand the check to your UPS driver.

BSI charges you a restocking fee if you try to return the computer.

Those are the only two disadvantages of dealing with BSI. (BSI used to be even weirder but cleaned up its act.) I bought my favorite notebook computer from BSI, and it works fine.

Ads from Hyperdata offer notebook computers at prices much lower than Sager & BSI. But those ads are misleading (for example, the photographs do not match the description of what you'll get), so be cautious. If you have any experiences with this company, please tell me!

Of all the companies making notebook computers, Toshiba sells the most. A discount dealer called Exel sells them at low prices:

Toshiba model CPU RAM Hard CD Screen Modem Price
Satellite 110Cs Pentium-100 8M 810M
11.3" dual
Satellite Pro 420CDs Pentium-100 8M 810M 6X 11.3" dual
Satellite Pro 430CDs Pentium-120 16M 1.3G 10X 11.3" dual
Satellite Pro 430CDt Pentium-120 16M 1.3G 10X 11.3" active
Tecra 510CDt Pentium-133 16M 2 G 6X 12.1" active 28.8 $4095

At the end of the model number, "C" means "Color", "CD" means "Color and CD-ROM drive", "t" means "TFT" (which means "active-matrix"), and "s" means "DSTN" (which means "dual-scan passive").

Unfortunately, Toshiba notebooks use a stick instead of a pad. The stick looks like the tip of a pencil eraser and stays sprouted up like a weed in the keyboard's middle (between the G,H, and B keys). It's sometimes called a Trackpoint. It acts as a tiny joystick: to move the screen's arrow, you nudge the stick from side to side. Nudging the stick is more awkward than gliding across a pad.

To pay less, get a computer that was returned to Toshiba's factory, fixed up, and resold by Toshiba. Those computers, given a second life by Toshiba, are called Encore computers. You can get them from Exel and most other Toshiba dealers.

For a better deal, Exel sells these notebook computers made by Texas Instruments:

Texas Instruments model CPU RAM Hard CD Price
Extensa 600CD Pentium-120 8M 810M 6X $1295
Extensa 650CD Pentium-133 16M 1.35G 10X $1695

Each includes a color screen (12.1" dual-scan passive) and a Touchpad. Prices are low because the computers are remanufactured (like Toshiba's Encore).

For fancier notebook computers, consider the ones sold by EPS, a South Dakota company founded by ex-employees from Gateway:

CPU RAM Hard drive CD Color video Modem Price
Pentium-166 16M 1.3 gigabyte 8X 12.1" dual-scan
Pentium-166 24M 1.3 gigabytes 10X 12.1" dual-scan 33.6 $2245
Pentium-166 24M 1.3 gigabytes 10X 12.1" active 33.6 $2895
P.-166 MMX 32M 1.6 gigabytes 10X 12.1" active 33.6 $3195
P.-166 MMX 32M 1.6 gigabytes 10X 13.3" active 33.6 $3695
P.-200 MMX 48M 2.1 gigabytes 10X 13.3" active 33.6 $4795

Each includes a 256K pipelined burst cache, pad, Windows 95, Quicken, high-density 31/2-inch floppy drive, pair of stereo speakers, lithium battery (which is better than nickel metal hydride), AC adapter, and carrying bag. The most expensive model includes a second lithium battery. Most models come with either Corel Word Perfect Suite or Lotus Smart Suite (your choice), but the most expensive model comes with Microsoft Office Small Business Edition instead (which is fancier).

Each EPS notebook comes with a 2-year warranty, but EPS customers often complain about delays in getting serviced.

Packard Bell

Packard Bell is one of the four big computer companies. (The other three are IBM, Apple, and Compaq.) It sells more computers than Gateway and Dell. It even sells more computers in the USA than IBM!

Packard Bell markets mainly to the average American, who's curious about computers but doesn't understand them and doesn't want to spend much. Since the average American avoids computer stores and fears buying a computer by mail-order, Packard Bell sells cheap clones through chains of discount department stores (such as Sears, Walmart, Sam's Club, Lechmere, Price/Costco, Staples, and Office Max).

In the early 1990's, Packard Bell sold computers cheaply, for about $1000. Packard Bell computers became popular because they included 15 easy-to-use programs, loaded already on the hard disk so you could start using them immediately. The programs included games, tutorials, educational experiences, and simple productivity tools (such as Microsoft Works, which includes a word processor, database, spreadsheet, etc.). To keep the advertised price low, Packard Bell typically included a poor monitor (.39mm dot pitch, interlaced) or didn't include any monitor at all. Also Packard Bell provided programs on the hard disk but not on floppy disks: if you accidentally erased the hard disk, you lost the programs!

Now Packard Bell's marketing has become more traditional. Packard Bell has switched to a better monitor (.28mm dot pitch, non-interlaced), though it's often not included in the advertised price. Fewer programs are included. Packard Bell provides 2 disks (1 floppy disk plus 1 CD-ROM disk) that contain copies of what's on the hard disk.

What if it breaks?
Most stores have a 30-day money-back guarantee. If your computer breaks during that 30-day period, your best bet is to return it to the store and ask for your money back.

If the computer breaks after the 30-day period, don't bother returning it to the store: the store won't refund your money and won't be able to fix the computer (unless you bought from a computer store). Instead, you must phone Packard Bell.

During the early 1990's, getting a Packard Bell computer repaired was tough. For example, I wrote this comment in the 1990 edition of The Secret Guide to Computers:
Warning: getting a Packard Bell computer repaired is tough. Dealers complain that Packard Bell doesn't provide replacement parts; customers complain that dealers say to phone Packard Bell, which rarely answers the phone. When it does answer, it says to leave your phone number for a call back. Then it either neglects to call you or tells you to phone a service company that tells you to get lost.

By 1993, Packard Bell improved slightly, but then Packard Bell's phone-support center got wrecked by the earthquake in Northridge & Los Angeles in January 1994. Customers who called after that got just circuit-busy messages.

In July 1994, Packard Bell moved its support center to Utah, which has fewer earthquakes. The support center's in the town of Magna, a suburb of Salt Lake City. But if you try phoning Packard Bell's support center (at 800-733-4411), you still usually get a recorded message saying that all lines are busy and you should try writing a letter or sending electronic mail instead. Of course, sending "electronic mail" is difficult if your computer is broken!

Some Packard Bell customers have reached Packard Bell's support center faster by calling this secret alternative number: 800-733-9292.

In 1996, Packard Bell began requiring most callers to call a 900 number instead for software help.

In spite of its questionable repair record, Packard Bell has grown rapidly and become one of the biggest computer companies in the USA. That's because Packard Bell has the right formula: good distribution (you can find Packard Bell computers at most department stores across the USA), good price (cheaper than IBM, Compaq, and other famous brands), good easy-to-use programs (though they're the cheap kind that don't cost Packard Bell much), repairs handled directly by Packard Bell (so the department stores don't need any computer technicians on their staff), and a good-sounding name ("Packard Bell").

The name "Packard Bell" sounds good because it reminds consumers of the Bell Telephone companies, and consumers think "Packard Bell" might be related to "Pacific Bell" or some other well-respected phone company - perhaps a merger between Hewlett-Packard and Ma Bell? To encourage that misconception, Packard Bell's slogan is "America grew up listening to us." But actually, Packard Bell is an independent company that never had anything to do with phone companies. Back in the 1950's, some radios were built by a company called "Packard Bell". In 1986, an Israeli tank driver (Mr. Beny Alagem) came to the United States, started a computer company, and bought the name "Packard Bell" from the radio company for $100,000 to make his new computer company sound related to a phone company. Some states require him to sell his "Packard Bell computers" with a disclaimer warning the consumer that Packard Bell computers are "not affiliated with any Bell System entity".

In surveys of customer satisfaction done by PC Magazine and PC World, customers who've bought computers from Packard Bell computers are much less happy than customers who've bought other brands. Though the typical Packard Bell computer works okay, if you do need a repair you'll get very frustrated trying to reach Packard Bell's tech-support center.

But a few Packard Bell customers have been thrilled with tech support! That's because they bought their Packard Bell computers from computer stores instead of department stores, and the computer stores were willing to fix computers immediately without waiting for the customers to phone Packard Bell.

Many stores are having closeout sales on old Packard Bell models. While supplies last, get a Packard Bell multimedia computer for just $695 from Exel (a discount store & liquidator at 401 Park Avenue South, New York NY 10016, 800-486-EXEL or 212-684-6930). The price is low because the CPU is slow (Pentium-120), the hard drive is small (1.2 gigabytes), the CD-ROM is slow (4X), the fax/modem is slow (14.4 kilobaud), the RAM is modest (16 megabytes), the computer is refurbished, and the price does not include a monitor (which costs about $200 extra). Exel sells fancier models at higher prices.


The first company that made high-quality IBM clones was Compaq. (Before Compaq, the only IBM clones available were crummy.)

How Compaq began
It all began on a napkin. Sitting in a restaurant, two engineers drew on a napkin their picture of what the ideal IBM clone would look like. Instead of being a desktop computer, it would be a luggable having a 9-inch built-in screen and a handle, the whole computer system being small enough so you could pick it up with one hand. Then they built it! Since it was compact, they called it the Compaq Portable Computer and called the company Compaq Computer Corporation.

They began selling it in 1983. They charged about the same for it as IBM charged for the IBM PC.

They sold it just to dealers who'd been approved by IBM to sell the IBM PC. That way, they knew all their dealers were reliable - and they competed directly against IBM, in the same stores.

They succeeded fantastically. That first year, sales totaled 100 million dollars.

In 1984, they inserted a hard drive into the computer and called that souped-up luggable the Compaq Plus. They also built a desktop computer called the Deskpro. Like Compaq's portable computers, the Deskpro was priced about the same as IBM's computers, was sold just through IBM dealers, and was built well - a marvel of engineering, better than IBM's.

Later, Compaq expanded: it built IBM clones in many sizes, from towers down to subnotebooks. Compaq computers have gotten the highest praise - and ridiculously high prices.

New leadership
Compaq was founded by Rod Canion. He was Compaq's chief executive until 1991, when his board of directors fired him and replaced him by Eckhard Pfeiffer, who lowered Compaq's prices (to make them affordable) and began selling through a greater variety of dealers and through mail-order. The low-price wide-distribution strategy worked well: sales zoomed up, and in 1994 Compaq became popular enough to sell as much as IBM or Apple. Which company sells the most computers in the whole world? The answer is a three-way tie among Compaq, IBM, and Apple.

Compaq's new, cheaper computers are called Pro Linea computers, and Compaq makes even cheaper ones called Presario computers. Though cheaper than Compaq's older computers, they still cost much more than IBM clones from competitors such as Quantex, ABS, Gateway, and Packard Bell.

Compaq has dropped prices several times, but each drop started a price war where Compaq's competitors replied by dropping their prices too, so Compaq computers are still overpriced in relation to competitors.

Though Compaq's prices remain high enough to prevent me from buying a Compaq, I'm grateful to Compaq for starting the price wars that let me pay less to Compaq's competitors!

Compaq's high prices buy you excellence.
When PC World surveyed its readers and examined the two measures of reliability (percentage of computers that are dead-on-arrival and percentage of computers needing repairs eventually), Compaq was one of the five companies that turned out excellent. (The other four were Dell, Micron, Digital, and Hewlett-Packard.) Compaq's also excellent at resolving any problems: for example, Compaq usually answers tech-support calls within 4 minutes (instead of making you wait many hours to get through).

Compaq's also more honest than most competitors about returned parts: if a customer returns computer equipment and Compaq determines that the equipment works okay, Compaq resells that equipment to other customers, but just in computers marked "refurbished".

The $35 question
In February 1995, Compaq started a nasty new policy: if you phone Compaq for help, Compaq asks for your credit-card number first, then listens to your questions. Unless your difficulties are caused by a mistake made by Compaq Corporation, you'll be charged $35 per question. That nastiness annoys beginners trying to get elementary help starting DOS & Windows.

Another sore point is that Compaq's warranty is 3-year on most of the system but just 1-year on the monitor.

For a free catalog, phone Compaq in Houston at 800-888-0344.


Though Compaq was the first company to make good IBM clones, its clones were expensive. The first company that sold fast IBM clones cheaply was PC's Limited, founded in 1984 by a 19-year-old kid, Michael Dell. He operated out of the bedroom of his condo apartment, near the University of Texas in Austin.

At first, his prices were low - and so were his quality and service.
Many of the computers he shipped didn't work: they were dead on arrival (DOA). When his customers tried to return the defective computer equipment to him for repair or a refund, his company ignored the customer altogether. By 1986, many upset customers considered him a con artist and wrote bitter letters about him to computer magazines. He responded by saying that his multi-million-dollar company was growing faster than expected and couldn't keep up with the demand for after-sale service. (Hmm... sounds like Gateway!)

In 1987, Dell raised his quality and service - and his prices. In 1988, he changed the company's name to Dell Computer Corporation.

Now he charges almost as much as IBM and Compaq. His quality and service have become top-notch and set the standard for the rest of the mail-order industry. In speed and quality contests, his computers often beat IBM and Compaq. His ads bash Compaq for having higher prices than Dell and worse policies about getting repairs - since Dell offers on-site service and Compaq doesn't.

For example, in 1991 Dell ran an ad calling Dell's notebook computer a "road warrior" and Compaq's a "road worrier". It showed the Dell screen saying, "With next day on-site service in 50 states, nothing's going to stop you." It showed the Compaq screen saying, "Just pray you don't need any service while you're on the road, or you're dead meat."

His ads are misleading. His prices are much lower than Compaq's list price but just slightly less than the discount price at which Compaq computers are normally sold. Though Compaq doesn't provide free on-site service, you can sometimes get your Compaq repaired fast by driving to a nearby Compaq dealer.

Like IBM and Compaq, Dell has dropped its prices, though they're still higher than Gateway's. Dell tried selling through discount-store chains but gave up and decided to return to selling just by mail.

Dell computers used to come with this guarantee: if Dell doesn't answer your tech-support call within 5 minutes, Dell will give you $25! Dell doesn't make that guarantee anymore.

Dell gives lifetime toll-free technical support for hardware questions and usually answers its phones promptly, though not quite as promptly as Compaq. Unfortunately, Dell has reduced DOS & Windows technical support from "lifetime" to "30 days".

To get a free Dell catalog or chat with a Dell sales rep, phone 800-BUY-DELL.


In 1995, Doug Johns quit his job as senior vice-president of Compaq and started a new computer company, called Monorail, which manufactures computers that are more interesting!

Each Monorail computer is small (almost as small as a laptop computer) but costs much less than any laptop or notebook. It's the ideal computer for somebody who lives in a cramped apartment and also has a cramped budget. Though small and cheap, each Monorail computer is full-featured, so you can get your work done and use the Internet, too! Semi-portable, it's the ideal compromise between buying a desktop computer and a notebook computer.

Most other computers are white or beige, but each Monorail computer is black instead. The Monorail computer consists of three parts:
a mouse (which is black)
a keyboard (which is also black)
a black box (which is 15 inches wide, 11 inches high, and just 3 inches thick)

Black box
The black box's front is a notebook-style computer screen: the screen is color, dual-scan passive, 10.4-inch, manufactured by Sharp. But the black box also contains the rest of the computer: CPU, RAM, hard drive, floppy drive, CD-ROM drive, stereo speakers, microphone, and 33.6-kilobaud fax/modem! Even though the black box contains all those goodies, notebook-computer technology lets the box be just 3 inches thick.

Two models
Monorail began selling its first model, the Monorail 7245, in October 1996 for just $999, then in January 1997 dropped the price to $899, then in March 1997 dropped it to $799. The price is low because the CPU is slow (AMD's imitation of a Pentium-75), the CD-ROM is slow (4X), the video RAM is small (1/2M), the speakers are small, the hard drive is small (1 gigabyte) and the EDO main RAM is just 16 megabytes and slow (no pipelined-burst cache). But those specifications are good enough for normal humans who aren't power-tripping techies!

By March 1997, Monorail was selling souped-up versions also, which look the same size but are better:

Model CPU Hard disk Video RAM CD-ROM Price
Monorail 7245 AMD-75 1 gigabyte 1/2 megabyte 4X $799
Monorail 7333 AMD-133 1 gigabyte 1 megabyte 4X $999
Monorail 133 Pentium-133 2.1 gigabytes 1 megabyte 4X $1299
Monorail 166 AMD-166 2.1 gigabytes 1 megabyte 8X $1499

If you want portability, should you get a Monorail computer? Slightly bigger than a laptop computer, it's cheaper than a notebook computer because it has the same disadvantages as a desktop computer:
It's too big to carry in one hand (you need two).
You must plug it into the wall (it does not run on batteries).
You must put it on a desk (since it uses a mouse instead of a stick, trackball or pad).

If you're a student, you'll be happy that a Monorail computer is small enough to fit in a cramped dorm room. But since the Monorail must be plugged into a wall, you can't use a Monorail to take notes in classrooms and libraries.

Repairs & upgrades
Monorail's warranty is 1 year for parts but just 90 days for labor. The unit is not very upgradeable, since the black box is sealed, can be opened by just Monorail employees, and contains just one expansion slot. To repair the computer or increase its RAM or perform other upgrades, you hand the computer to Monorail's logistics partner, Federal Express (FedEx), which sends the computer to Monorail and then returns it to you.

Monorail is in Atlanta at this toll-free number: 1-888-880-RAIL.

Monorail computers are sold just at a chain of stores called Comp USA. Visit your local Comp USA store or phone Comp USA's Dallas headquarters at 800-Comp-USA.

Industrial nuts

To get the lowest computer prices, phone a secret group of amazing companies advertising in Computer Shopper. The group is called the industrial nuts because the employees are industrious, the prices are nutty, and the location is these two Los Angeles suburbs: "City of Industry" and "Walnut". The owners and employees seem mostly Chinese. Here are the companies, listed in order of ZIP code:
Company Phone Address City, State ZIP
Comtrade Computer 800-969-2123, 818-961-6688 1215 Bixby Dr. City of Industry CA 91745
ABS Computer Tech's 800-876-8088, 818-937-2300 1295 Johnson Dr. City of Industry CA 91745
Royal Computer 800-486-0008, 818-855-5077 1208 John Reed Ct. City of Industry CA 91745
Multiwave Technology 800-595-6908, 818-330-7030 15318 E. Valley Blvd. City of Industry CA 91746
Sager Computer 800-669-1624, 818-964-8682 18005 Cortney Ct. City of Industry CA 91748
Zenon Computers 800-899-6119, 818-935-1860 18343 Gale Ave. City of Industry CA 91748
Pro Star Computer 800-576-1134, 818-854-3428 1128 Coiner Ct. City of Industry CA 91748
Tempest Micro 800-818-5163, 909-595-0550 18760 E. Amar Rd. #188 Walnut CA 91789
Profess'l Technologies 800-949-5018, 909-468-1368 21038 Commerce Pointe Dr. Walnut CA 91789
A-Plus Computer 800-745-0880, 909-468-3723 21038 Commerce Pointe Dr. Walnut CA 91789
Bit Computer 800-935-0209, 909-598-0086 21068 Commerce Pointe Dr. Walnut CA 91789
Hyperdata 800-786-3343, 909-468-2960 809 S. Lemon Ave. Walnut CA 91789
Wonderex Corporation 800-838-7988, 909-595-1811 20515 Walnut Dr. Walnut CA 91789

Here are comments about them:
Comtrade is the biggest of those companies. According to surveys by PC World, folks who've bought from Comtrade are less happy than folks who've bought from any other big company: Comtrade computers are the most likely to need repairs, and Comtrade is the hardest company to get satisfaction from when you try phoning for help.

Zenon and Royal run big ads and use award-winning parts. They charge slightly more than the other industrial nuts. Service is nice. Zenon's computers are so nicely built and run so fast that they've received high praise from PC Magazine and PC World.

I discussed ABS already.

Tempest Micro runs misleading ads (whose large print says "30-day money-back guarantee" but whose small print says you must pay a restocking fee plus a 5% processing fee on any order cancelled after 2 days, and also says you must pay a surcharge for using a credit card. Multiwave Technology's fine print says the money-back guarantee is just 15 days (not 30), and you must pay a 15% restocking fee, and - worst of all - the computer must be unopened.

Professional Technologies was begun when a group of Asian companies who manufacture computer parts decided to combine their parts and sell complete computer systems. Professional Technologies is the company that markets their systems. I've received many complaints about poor service. A-Plus is under the same ownership and should therefore be avoided. Bit Computer is on the same street and sells just notebook computers. Other companies selling just notebook computers are Sager (which runs huge ads and has a decent reputation), Pro Star (which is new), and Hyperdata (whose misleading ads contain fine print says any returns are subject to a 3% restocking fee).

Wonderex, sells tower computers. Its ad's large print says "30-day money guarantee" but the small print says you must pay a restocking fee (3% if you paid by credit card, $50 if you paid by COD or money wire).

Five other industrial nuts (called "Cornell Computer Systems", "Altus", "C.S. Source", "PC Channel", and "Premio") have gone out of business.


Here are other choices to consider.

Micron is one of America's biggest manufacturers of RAM chips. Recently, Micron began selling complete computer systems also. Its computers come with lots of RAM (since the RAM chips cost Micron nearly nothing) and run fast. According to surveys of computer users by PC World, Micron's computers are extremely reliable. Micron used to be excellent at answering tech-support calls and resolving problems immediately, but at the end of 1995 Micron's tech-support staff started becoming overloaded. To reduce the overload, in February 1996 Micron started a new nasty policy: tech-support about software is now restricted to just 30 days. Micron's prices are high, like prices from Compaq, IBM, and Dell. Micron's bought a competitor called Zeos and phased out the Zeos name. Micron's in Idaho at 800-700-0591 or 208-893-8970.

Hewlett-Packard (HP) has sold minicomputers, printers, scanners, calculators, and other electronic devices for many years. HP equipment is always excellent but pricey. In 1995, HP began manufacturing an IBM clone called the Pavilion. Buy it at your local computer store. It's popular because it costs less than Compaq's computers and HP's service is better than Compaq's.

Acer is a consortium of Taiwanese computer companies. It has 20 factories, sells computers in 90 countries, and has annual sales of about 3 billion dollars. Acer computers are particularly popular in Southeast Asia and Latin America. Acer makes "Acer computers" and "Acros computers". They're sold mainly through computer stores and department stores. Acer also supplies parts for other brands of computers. Recently, Acer's begun selling by mail-order at 800-230-ACER, but Acer's prices aren't low enough to compete against mail-order companies.

AST is a big computer manufacturer in Irvine, California. "AST" stands for the names of its founders, "Albert, Safi, and Tom". Albert and Tom have left AST, which is now headed by Safi. (Computer-trivia question: what's Safi's last name, and how do you spell it? Answer: Qureshey.) AST builds fine computers, sold through computer stores and priced below computers from IBM & Compaq, though above mail-order. In 1993, Tandy (which owns Radio Shack) stopped building computers and sold its factories to AST. For a while, AST manufactured all Tandy and Radio Shack computers and also Dell's notebook computers. But recently, Radio Shack and Dell have switched from AST to other suppliers. AST's finances are shaky.

Midwest Micro still makes desktop & tower computers but has stopped making notebook computers. Its ads imitate Gateway's, but its service and support aren't quite as good. Midwest Micro is owned by a modem manufacturer called Infotel.

VTech is a Hong Kong company that made wonderful low-cost computers under its own label and the Expotech label. VTech sold the Expotech label to a company called Telecom , which sold "Expotech" computers built by VTech, then sold "Expotech" computers built by competitors. Telecom is phasing itself out of the computer biz but still offers help to VTech and Expotech customers. Phone Telecom's sales office at 800-705-6342.

Bargain-brand computers are sold by discount department stores at low prices. Those computers cost so little because they're crummy. Check the specs! Here's another reason why those computers cost so little: when you ask the dealer for help, the dealer will typically say "I don't know. Phone the manufacturer." But you'll find that the manufacturer's phone number is usually busy. Before buying a computer, try this experiment: ask the dealer what phone number to call for repairs or technical assistance, then try phoning that number and see whether anybody answers!

Local heroes? In many towns, entrepreneurs sell computers for ridiculously low prices in computer shows and tiny stores. Before buying, check the computer's technical specifications and the dealer's reputation. If the dealer offers you software, make sure the dealer also gives you an official manual from the software's publisher, with a warranty/registration card; otherwise, the software might be an illegal hot copy.

A used computer whose CPU is slow (an 8088) typically costs about $150. That price includes even the hard disk and monitor. Buy it from a friend, relative, or neighbor moving up to a fancier computer.

For further advice , phone me anytime at 617-666-2666.

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