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Are You Spending Too Much On Your PC?

Find out why you should never pay more for a computer than you would a pair of shoes (well, a rather expensive pair of shoes.)

The fiancée wants me-and through me, you-to know that we are chumps who pay way too much for our high-tech gear. This lesson became clear when she spilled a tumbler of water into her laptop and it fizzled into an untimely death. She needed a new computer because like all of us, she works from home and the computer produces her cash flow. But she promptly promulgated what might be called the Manolo Rule: No computer should cost more than a pair of shoes.

As it happens, her fave is a shoemaker named Manolo Blahnik who cobbles clogs that retail for, oh, $600. Don't misunderstand. She's not rich, not even close. But when she has money she likes to wear it, in the form of Armani suits, TSE sweater sets, and absolutely, Manolo shoes.

My priorities are different. My cash goes into tech gear, has for years. But now the fiancée is insistent that I am the Village Idiot-or at least that I spend way too much on computers. Her claim: No more money than would pay for a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes will buy a computer that's perfectly adequate for any work a homebased entrepreneur is likely to do.

Flashback: 18 months ago my desktop computer died. The motherboard just croaked, which was strange because the computer was only a bit over two years old and had cost a packet. I went computer shopping and quickly decided I need a Pentium II 450MHZ machine with at least 128MB Ram. At that point, it was the fastest, beefiest machine around and I paid top dollar for it, more than $2,000. I have never paid less than $2,000 for a computer. Never.

Faced with the need to urgently acquire a replacement computer, the fiancée asked, "Which should I buy?" So I flipped through the catalogs and the ads from the big office supplies stores and quickly picked out a few possibilities. A Compaq Presario running the AMD Athlon K7 chip, a blazing fast machine with a 1GHz processor, for $2,499. A nifty-looking Sony Vaio running Intel's 866 MHz Pentium III processor for $2,499. Or, for a budget choice, HP's Pavilion 9695C running AMD's 850 Athlon processor for $1,999.

She snorted, a sound that neatly mixed shock and horror with derision. She envisioned three, maybe four pairs of Manolo Blahnik shoes that she could never buy if she put out that kind of cash for a computer.

Then she asked me two questions: 1. How long would my $2,000 computer be "state of the art"? and, 2. Did her work-marketing/public relations consulting-put the type of demands on a computer such that the latest and greatest box was necessarily best?

Ouch. The questions triggered pain because, really, the computer I bought was scarcely state of the art by the time I got the boxes home and opened them. The pace of innovation in the tech industry is so brisk that today's screaming pace-setter of a 1 GHz CPU will seem as though it needs a shot of Geritol to keep up with the CPUs that hit the street by Christmas. Bet on that because the industry rule-Moore's Law, as it's called-is that processing power doubles every 18 months. Which is pretty much proven by my 18-month-old computer with its 450 MHz CPU, no longer even half as fast as the 1 GHz chips coming out of manufacturer AMD.

But the question that really hurt was the second one: Do homebased entrepreneurs need these super-charged boxes to do our work? I grabbed a copy of Microsoft's latest operating system, Windows 2000 Professional. There in black and white on the back of the box are the system requirements: 133 MHz Pentium-level CPU and 64MB RAM. Then I flipped through the manual for Corel's WordPerfect Office 2000-a dynamite suite with a full-featured word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software, and more-and it plainly says it will run on any Windows-equipped computer with at least a 486 CPU running at 66 MHz and 16MB RAM, 32MB recommended. Even if we say these specs are ridiculously lax-software makers generally tend to understate what you need to comfortably run a program-it's still true that computers way more anemic than today's howling state-of-the-art boxes will run all the software we're likely to use.

The fiancée smiled brightly as I told her those facts, doubtless envisioning a new pair of Manolos on her feet.

"Wait," I said. "There are exceptions."

Robert McGarvey covers the Web-and plays with the latest cool gadgets-from his home office in Santa Rosa, California. Visit his Web page at

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