From the June 1997 issue of Startups

If you do not yet have a computer for your business, you should seriously consider buying one. You should not buy one simply because "everybody else has one," nor should you think that a computer will suddenly save you enough time to drum up twice the amount of business you already have. Instead, you should consider buying a computer so you can take advantage of what it can offer your business, in terms of organization, automation, and information processing.

A computer allows you to operate dozens of easy-to-use organizational and bookkeeping computer programs on the market today. Database programs, for instance, allow you to electronically record your client addresses, inventory, quotes and invoices. The programs can even tie all of these items together so that you only need to look in one place for any of them. Should you need to, you could access all the sales generated by a particular customer for any given year with just a "point-and-click." You can even use these same programs to generate a "personalized" mass mailing to each of your clients or potential clients, complete with usage of nicknames, or references to the name of the city in which they are located.

Organizational programs can help you save time and money by keeping track of the jobs you have to do, meetings you have to attend, and people you have to call. You may have heard of the popular datebook called the Franklin Planner. Backed by training seminars conducted by its makers, the Franklin Planner is successful because of its method of keeping track of both short- and long-term goals. Companion software is now available which further enhances the usefulness of the datebook. Another useful organizational program is Now Up-to-Date, which lets you post a calendar on one computer and have people from other computers (even remote ones) see your calendar, in order to check or update the current status of projects. The program can even be set up to remind you at specific intervals what you should be working on, or which appointments you are running late for. As a rule, these programs do not require a degree in computer science to master, either. The software manufacturers know that people won't want to use their products if they aren't easy to use.

If you aren't yet convinced that buying a computer will benefit your business, you should know that income tax programs are also available--programs that could save you the cost of hiring a professional to do your taxes. (This self-employed writer uses them exclusively.) The software costs about $60, which is a lot cheaper than hiring an accountant. The programs are really easy to use; some even ask you questions about all of your income and expenditures, then tell you what the law says you can and cannot do. I spoke with a self-employed statistician who has used the tax programs for years; she once consulted with an accountant to make sure she wasn't overlooking any juicy deductions, and she ended up telling him a few things about the tax code!

Computer Education

Before shopping for a personal computer (PC), you should become familiar with its basic operations. This will help you understand why you want certain features, what you don't really need, and what the store clerk--who is determined to make it obvious that they know more about computers than you do--is talking about. If you are reading this article, that's good--you have already started your education.


  • Central Processing Unit (CPU): The processor, or CPU, is the first item you need to research, as it is the most important part of a computer. The CPU is where all the "thinking" (or "processing") is done. The faster the processor, the faster your computer can "think." The speed of a processor is measured in megahertz, or MHz, which measure cycles per second. A 200 MHz processor, which is considered pretty fast these days, cycles 200,000,000 times every second. Each time the processor cycles, it crunches on data sent to it from the keyboard, mouse, hard drive, CD-ROM, RAM, and/or modem, and sends the results to you through the monitor and/or speakers. The processor speed is usually the first thing you'll hear about a computer--after its name--and sometimes the speed is even incorporated into the name.

Processor speed is a yardstick that many use to determine how good a computer is, but it doesn't tell the whole story. What type of processor is used is equally important. For instance, a PC with a 200 MHz Pentium processor may not be faster than one with a 180 MHz Pentium Pro processor, because of the superior design of the Pentium Pro processor. On the Macintosh side, the two chips to look for are the 603e and 604e. A Mac with a 240 MHz 603e processor won't hold a candle to one with a 200 MHz 604e. When choosing processors, keep in mind the old racer's adage: "Speed costs money. How fast do you want to go?" The point being, How fast can you afford to go? Computers with Pentium Pro or 604e processors are roughly twice as expensive as their less speedy siblings.


  • Hard Drive: The next thing to learn when looking at a particular computer is how big its hard disk (or hard drive) is. Like a floppy disk, a hard disk is a device that stores digital data as magnetic signals on a rotating medium. One analogy likens a computer's hard disk to its "long-term memory"; it is the place where information is stored for extended periods of time, waiting to be called upon for processing when needed. Digital data capacity is measured in terms of bytes. A byte is roughly the equivalent of one character's worth of information. Because a byte is such a small unit of measure (think of it as measuring the distance to your in-laws' in millimeters), larger units are used instead. Kilobytes, or KB, or K, are 1,000 bytes; megabytes, or megs, or MB, are 1,000K; and gigabytes, or gigs, or GB, are 1,000MB, or 1,000,000,000 bytes. A typical modern hard disk can store about 2GB, or as much as about 1,500 floppy disks. As a scale to gauge how much information you can squeeze into 2GB, this article occupies 63K on my hard disk. Just a year ago, hard drives were typically measured in megabytes--an indication of how fast things grow in the computer industry.


  • RAM:Random Access Memory, or RAM, is another important factor in a computer's performance equation. RAM can be considered a computer's "short-term memory," or where information is kept that is used to complete immediate tasks. RAM is comprised of chips that temporarily store data coming off of the hard drive. When the computer is shut down, the RAM is erased, ready to be filled up again as soon as the computer is restarted. Since RAM is a storage space for digital data, it is measured using the same units of measurement as hard disks. Today's computers typically come with at least 16MB, and many come with 32MB.

Let's take a look at what goes on in the RAM. One thing that always occupies a running computer's RAM is the operating system, or the program that controls how you interface with the computer. Any program you launch on your computer will be temporarily stored in RAM, until you are finished and quit the program. Programs send instructions to the computer's processor to produce the image you see on your monitor, digest the input you give it through the mouse and keyboard, and create the files you save on your hard disk.

How important is having enough RAM? When Windows 95 was introduced, many users of older computers, which typically had 8MB RAM, were turned off by the fact that the new operating system occupied so much more of their RAM than previous versions of Windows. There was little room for the rest of their programs to run! Obviously, this is a serious detriment to a computer's performance. As today's programs have more and more features built into them, they will also require more RAM to run properly--or at all. Typical office suites, often called "business-software bundles," consist of several programs that work with each other, such as a word processor that can pull in information created by a spreadsheet program. Because of this interaction, you may work more efficiently if those programs can run simultaneously in the RAM--as opposed to running one program at a time.


  • Cache: Another term you will come across when shopping for a computer is the amount of cache (pronounced "cash") a particular computer has. Returning to our short- and long-term memory analogies, the cache is like having a "cheat sheet" of instructions you repeatedly need to use written in the palm of your hand. Having them there eliminates your need to think about them; you can just refer to them quickly when you need them, focusing your brain power (or "processing power") on the more difficult work at hand. Computers don't have palms, however; they use the cache--similar to a RAM chip--as their cheat sheet. Cache is measured in terms of kilobytes, 256K being the most common. Certain high-end machines have as much as 1MB of cache. Having little or no cache can significantly hamper a computer's performance. In certain instances, a 150 MHz computer with a 512K cache could outperform a 166 MHz computer with no cache.


  • CD-ROM (Compact Disc, Read-Only Memory):CD-ROMs are now standard issue on just about every PC sold today. In addition to offering a way of playing fancy computer games or accessing a digital encyclopedia, CD-ROMs offer an easier method of installing the ever-expanding (in physical size, as mentioned earlier) computer software. Rather than installing from 20 or so floppy disks, you can pop in one CD--which can hold 650MB, or more than 460 floppies--and install an entire program. The yardstick for comparing CD-ROMs is their sampling rate, which is based on the rate needed to read and play music data (once the only thing available on CDs) off of the disk in real time (with no delays). "Double-speed" CD-ROMs read the data at twice the necessary sampling rate. Typical modern CD-ROMs read data at eight times--or 8X--the necessary rate. 12X and 16X models are also now available--for a price, mind you. (Remember the old racer's adage!)

Computer Facts Of Life

Computers have a short life expectancy; the current rule of thumb is that computer developers double the overall performance of their new models every 18 months. To help minimize the effects of this cycle, you should look for a computer that offers upgrade paths, so it will age gracefully as opposed to becoming obsolete overnight. Try to find one with an "upgradable CPU," as this will greatly extend the usable life of the machine. An upgradable CPU lets you either replace your current processor with a faster one, add an additional processor, or add a specialized chip that can speed up certain operations (like complex mathematical calculations).

Another area with upgrade potential is RAM. As mentioned earlier, having more RAM lets you open more applications at the same time, which lets you jump between these programs more quickly. Having more RAM can also help programs run faster. When looking into upgrading your RAM, look to see how many slots are available inside the computer to add RAM chips. A computer may tout that it has 32MB of RAM, "upgradable to 256MB." What they may not tell you is that in order to get that 256MB, you first have to remove the 32MB already installed, replacing them with two very expensive 128MB chips. You would be better off looking for a computer that has more slots available to add RAM chips, allowing you to supplement your existing memory over time with lower-priced 16MB or 32MB chips.

Hard disks can also be upgraded. You can add additional ones in some computers, which saves you the trouble of recopying all of your files (which is time-consuming), and possibly having to reconfigure your operating system (which is very time-consuming, with potentially expensive results if you have to hire a professional to sort things out). 2GB drives are now common, with 3GB, 4GB and 9GB drives also available. As a rule, you can never have too much storage space.

If you are concerned with upgrading your computer and wish to perform the work yourself, you owe it to yourself to consider a Macintosh or Mac-compatible computer. They are significantly easier to upgrade, avoiding most of the compatibility problems that too often arise with PC-compatible systems. This stems from the fact that the operating system is more closely tied in with the hardware that comprises the computer. Macintosh models all come with built-in networking capabilities--some with two kinds, one of which is a network standard used in corporations around the world. If you wish to add another computer to your home office, the only additional thing you'll need is a cable. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Macs (and Mac-compatibles) have an operating system that is harder to damage because of the simpler organization of the files that comprise the operating system. This same organization also makes it easier to undo any damage you've inflicted in the first place.

How To Buy

You can buy a computer:

1) directly from the manufacturer,

2) through a mail order catalog,

3) from a computer or electronics "superstore," or

4) from a local manufacturer.

Each one of these options has its advantages and disadvantages. When you order directly from the manufacturer (calling them through their toll-free number), you can configure the computer exactly the way you want it, in terms of RAM, hard disk, video options, software, etc. However, you may pay somewhat of a premium for this convenience. You may get a better price through mail order catalogs, such as MacWarehouse (800-622-6222) or MicroWarehouse (800-367-7080). However, mail order resellers may not offer models configured exactly as you would like them. Mail order catalogs also may not be very responsive after your purchase is completed. A superstore (such as Comp USA or Nobody Beats the Wiz) will offer you competitive pricing and a place with real people you can talk to for assistance (or to complain to), but, again, may not have models with the exact features you're looking for. There are also local manufacturers--located in the Yellow Pages under "Computer Dealers"--that assemble their own brand of computers, using generic components produced by computer manufacturers (often the same components used by the large computer companies). These local manufacturers can offer you competitive pricing, configuration to your specifications, and real people to talk to if you have problems, but they also lack the stability of a major manufacturer.

The quality of support you receive from the resellers or manufacturers of your computer can be worth far more than megahertz or megabytes. To investigate a company's customer-service track record, try to find someone who already uses the computers you're considering. Ask them if they have had any problems, who they had to deal with, and how everything turned out. Education: That's the name of the game!

Home-Office Computers

Note: The prices listed are manufacturers' suggested retail; actual purchase price will be lower, and software titles may vary.

Manufacturer:

Power Computing

Phone:

(800) 404-7693

Model name:

PowerBase 200

(Macintosh-compatible)

CPU:

200 MHz PowerPC 603e (upgradable)

RAM: 16MB

(upgradable to 160MB)

Hard disk: 1.2GB

Cache: 256K

Monitor: Power 15-inch Multimedia Display

CD-ROM: 8X

Modem: 33.6 Kbps modem, 14.4 Kbps fax

Software included: Apple Mac OS version 7.6, Claris Works, Grolier's Encyclopedia, Now Contact, Now Up-to-Date, Quicken, U.S. and World CD Atlas, Internet Software Kit, and more.

Warranty: One year

Suggested retail price: $1,995

Manufacturer: UMAX

Phone: (888) 622-UMAX

Model name: SuperMac C500/180 (Macintosh-compatible)

CPU: 180 MHz PowerPC 603e (upgradable)

RAM: 16MB (upgradable to 144MB)

Hard disk: 1.2GB

Cache: 256K (upgradable to 1GB)

Monitor: not included

CD-ROM: 8X

Modem: not included

Software included:

Apple Mac OS version 7.5.5, Adobe PageMill, 3-D Talking Globe by Now What Software, Cities Below by Now What Software, C&G Conflict Catcher 3.0, Claris Works, FWB CD-ROM Tool Kit, FWB H/D Tool Kit, Grolier's Multimedia Encyclopedia, MicroMat TechTool Diagnostic, Now Up-to-Date & Contact, Now Utilities, and more.

Warranty: One year

Suggested retail price: $1,349

Manufacturer: IBM

Phone: (800) IBM-2968

Model name:

Aptiva 2176 C77

(IBM-compatible)

CPU:

200 MHz Pentium

RAM: 32MB

(upgradable to 128MB)

Hard disk: 3.2GB

Cache: 256K

Monitor: not included

CD-ROM: 8X

Modem:

28.8 Kbps data/14.4 Kbps fax

Software included: Microsoft Windows 95, Quicken Special Edition for Windows, Lotus SmartSuite 96, Wall$treet Money, Encarta 96, BodyWorks, The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain, Creative Writer, Battle Beast, Netscape Navigator 2.0, Microsoft Internet Explorer 2.0, IBM Internet Connection Phone, IBM AntiVirus, Recovery CD, and more.

Warranty: Three year, limited

Suggested retail price: $1,749

Manufacturer: Motorola

Phone: (800) 759-1107

Model name: StarMax 3000/200

CPU: 200 MHz PowerPC 603e (Macintosh-compatible)

RAM: 16MB (upgradable to 160MB)

Hard disk: 1.2GB

Cache: 256K

Monitor: not included

CD-ROM: 8X

Modem: 28.8 Kbps data/fax modem

Software included: Apple Mac OS version 7.5.3, Claris Works, Now Contact & Up-to-Date, Quicken, Internet Connectivity Kit, Conflict Catcher, SAM Anti-Virus, Norton Utilities, FWB CD-ROM Tool Kit, FWB H/D Tool Kit, DiskFit Direct, ClickArt, Mayo Family Health Encyclopedia, Print Master, Grolier's Encyclopedia, and more.

Warranty: Five year, limited

Suggested retail price: $1,495

Manufacturer: NEC

Phone: (888) 306-INFO

Model name: PowerMate Office 2618 (IBM-compatible)

CPU: 180 MHz Pentium Pro

RAM: 32MB

(upgradable to 128MB)

Hard disk: 2.5GB

Cache: 256K

Monitor: not included

CD-ROM: 8X

Modem: 33.6 Kbps fax/data/voice modem

Software included:

Microsoft Word, Micro-soft Excel, Microsoft Publisher, Microsoft Schedule+, Microsoft Money, Microsoft BookShelf, Microsoft Small Business Pack, Microsoft Automap Streets, Peachtree FirstAccounting, Kurzweil VoicePad, 3M Post-it Notes, Softkey Small Business Advisor, Nolo Press Small Business Legal Pro, Softkey Labels Unlimited, Traveling Software Laplink, McAfee VirusScan & WebScan, CyberMedia FirstAid 95 Deluxe, Touchstone WINCheck-it, Ring Zero Ring Central, VocalTec Internet Phone, WebWay-NEC's instant Internet access.

Warranty: Three year (one year on-site)

Suggested retail price: $2,587

Manufacturer: Apple Computer

Phone: (800) 538-9696

Model name: Performa 6400/200 (Macintosh-compatible)

CPU: 200 MHz PowerPC 603e

RAM:16MB

(upgradable to 136MB)

Hard disk: 2.4GB

Cache: 256K

Monitor: not included

CD-ROM: 8X

Modem: 28.8 Kbps data/

14.4 Kbps fax

Software included:

Macintosh System 7.5, ClarisWorks, Our Times, America Online, Apple Internet Connection Kit (Netscape Navigator), Adobe Photo Deluxe, Web Workshop, At Ease, MacLinkPlus and Easy Open Translators, Quicken Special Edition, MegaPhone for Performa, NOW TouchBase and DateBook Pro, American Heritage Dictionary, Click Art Performa Collection, MacGallery Clip Art, SurfWatch, DOGZ Adoption Kit, Descent, Multimedia Encyclopedia, 3D Atlas, Mayo Clinic Family Health, Amazing Writing Machine, Children's Dictionary, Club KidSoft CD, and more.

Warranty: One year

Suggested retail price: $1,799

Freelancer Byron Veale connected our readers with the world of modems in the February issue of Business Start-Ups.