From the September 2000 issue of Startups

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 www.mcgarvey.net.

Exceptions To The Rule

If you manipulate large image files-more than 100MB, say-you're really stressing the computer. So the faster the CPU and the more RAM and video RAM you have, the better. And of course, if you're doing computer-aided design or running large databases, you can't buy a computer that's too fast or too powerful.

"But all I use a computer for is word processing, keeping schedules, maybe doing a slide show, faxing, printing invoices, and keeping an electronic checkbook with Quicken. Does any of that strain a computer?" she wanted to know.

Look over that list: Word, SideKick, Excel, PowerPoint, WinFax, and Quicken. Add in Act for contact management, another favorite of entrepreneurs, and you have pretty much all the software most of us rely on every day. And you know: it all will run very comfortably on a 166 MHz MMX chip-a CPU that was state of the art maybe four years ago. I say that with certainty because that's the chip that was in her laptop, it ran all that software wonderfully well, and her computing needs hadn't changed just because the box took a fatal bath.

She picked up a catalog and instantly pointed to a computer I hadn't even noticed: A HP Pavilion 6635 with a 533 Intel Celeron CPU and 64MB RAM for $599. "Will it run all my programs?" she asked.

The Celeron chip certainly took some press abuse when it hit the market a couple years ago, but today's evidence is plain: The chip is ultra-low cost but also does a very credible job of running the basic applications we depend upon. Intel's Web site is loaded with performance data, and skeptics need only poke through the results from many, many tests to know that the conclusion is: "Yes, dear, it will run all your software. Probably three times faster than your laptop."

"So why should I pay four times more for a computer that you yourself say will be outdated within a couple months?"

Aarrrgghh! There just is no answer to that because there are no good reasons and, you know, as I set up her computer with all the latest softwarea-nd it ran it all better and faster than my desktop box did-I had to wonder if there isn't something to be said for the Manolo rule: Never spend more a computer than a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes would cost.


Beefing Up Your Machine

Are you a chump? Do you over-spend on computer gear? The whole truth is that, for most of us, the budget $600 boxes-mainly seen from HP and Compaq and widely available at all the office supply chains-really will do the job. One key upgrade: Buy more RAM. That's the low-budget way to goose more performance from any computer, and today a 128 MB upgrade (raising the box's total to 196 MB) costs about $150. Do the math and the out the door price is around $750 plus tax. Spend more and the Manolo Rule says you are simply dumb. Do you disagree? Tell us why (and also tell us what brand shoes you wear).