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The saga of the
brand name computer

By John Silveira

Issue #47 • September/October, 1997

Since our first issue we've told readers: if you want to go back into the woods, bring the best tools you can. If you want to take only a black powder rifle and an axe, go ahead. But our advice has always been to bring a truck/car, laundry machines, chain saws, modern carpentry tools, modern firearms (modern firearms are some of the best-made products in the world), etc. And, if you can, bring a computer.

A computer?

Yes, though, if you're sure that all you're going to do is play games, track recipes, and write your lonely Aunt Ethel, you may be one of the millions who don't really need one. But for those of you who have learned to make use of computers, you already know the benefits to having access to the internet: for gardening, problem solving, homeschooling, income possibilities, and communications. The list grows larger every day. On top of that there are educational, landscaping, religious, architectural design, law programs (wills, divorce, suits), etc, and even programs targeted at the reloader.

What is a clone?

Right from the early days there have been major manufacturers hoping to cash in on the personal computer phenomenon. IBM, Compaq, Osborne, Sony, and other large corporations hoped to steal the market. But there were also the small manufacturers, people working out of cellars, garages, and small store fronts. They manufactured personal computers, one at a time, and usually using the best quality parts. Their computers often had no name on them, or perhaps they carried some whimsical name thought up by a mother, daughter, or wife. These independently made machines became known as the clones.

So, if you can afford one, what's the best one for you to get? You can go to a thrift store and find an old XT for under $50—but I wouldn't. The XTs are among the earliest of the personal computers and will run almost none of the new software and virtually none of the software that's useful nowadays. Following the XTs were the ATs. Once king of the hill, the same objections to picking one up (and they'd be cheap) holds here as it did for the XT.

Following the ATs were the 386s. They were the first of the machines that ran MicroSoft's Windows software and, though once revolutionary, I wouldn't take one now even to use as a doorstop. Following these were the 486s; once the Supermen of the computer world, they now stagger and limp under the latest software as if the programs were written with kryptonite.

Then came the Pentiums. These are the computers on the store shelves today at computer stores, electronics stores, and even the big discount stores.

The first Pentiums ran at 75 megahertz (MHz) but today the computer magazines are evaluating the 233 and 266 MHz machines. This is good news for the buyer on a strained budget because these new, faster chips are driving the slower machines to lower and lower prices and, by this fall, when you're reading this, the prices on the 166 and 200 MHz Central Processing Units (CPUs) may make them too difficult to resist.

My quest for a computer

In January of 1997, when I was about to buy a computer, the 200 MHz machines were the de facto standard (see the sidebar on why megahertz is important in a computer). By passing on a 200 MHz and getting a 166 MHz or 133 MHz, I could have saved $300-$500. But I wouldn't then, nor would I now, get a Pentium slower than a 133 MHz unless I got a fantastic deal on it. The reason is, I make my living using computers and the software that runs on them. Friends who bought Pentium 90s (runs at 90 megahertz), once the fastest machine on the block, find their machines drag their butts trying to run the latest software, e.g., Office 97 from Microsoft. Those who try to run it on their 486s must be going out of their minds.

What is the CPU?

The Central Processing Unit (CPU) is one third of the "brain" in a PC. It's the computer chip where the software applications, such as word processing programs, manipulate the data. Even though the CPU would be useless without the other components in a computer, the CPU is what we think of as "the computer" and, when someone says, "I got a 486" or "I got a Pentium," it is the CPU they are referring to.

Ever since the first PC, manufacturers have been trying to make the CPUs run faster and faster. A faster CPU does two things:

(1) It allows your computer to run your software more quickly—this includes the new software and software upgrades that seem to appear regularly.

(2) It makes any computer you have right now obsolete. It used to be that the automobile industry was accused of planned obsolescence. But unlike the automobile industry, where the changes were often just style changes, the changes in computers are real performance changes and this, in part, is what sells a lot of new computers.

You probably don't need a 200 MHz machine, and unless you're heavy into production graphics or you play some serious computer games—neither of which describe me—you're not going to miss the 16% loss of speed with the 166 MHz machine or the 33% loss with the 133 MHz. Even at 133 MHz, things seem to happen with lightning speed.

So, in January, when I suddenly had the money available, the problem confronting me was, what kind of machine did I want to replace my lumbering 486 with? I needed a good reliable machine at an affordable price. So I went looking for it, and it is that search and the aftermath of my purchase which have become the fodder for this column and the basis for my advice. What you're about to read is part product review and part advice about what kind of computer to buy.

The right machine

When I set out, the chief problem I had was time. I live in southern California and my job with this magazine is 700 miles away on the Oregon border. If I was going to bring a computer north with me for deadline, I had to buy one within two weeks.

I spent the next 10 days reading computer magazines that went back 18 months. I had to find out what was available and what of that was considered good. I wavered between three different Intel Pentiums, the 133, 166, and 200 MHz, as well as the Cyrix 166 MHz. I window shopped with my computer-savvy friend, Cathy, and I read up on, and made a list of, the quality components I wanted installed in my machine. (See the sidebar on what components I settled on.) But I also considered buying a brand name computer right off the shelf and I looked at the Compaqs, Toshibas, IBMs, Hewlett Packards, and Packard Bells among others. Then I read all the reviews I could find on each of these machines.

With one day to go, I had settled on a clone (see sidebar for what a clone is) assembled locally. But there was one machine I couldn't find reviewed, and that machine intrigued me because it seemed to be all that I wanted and came from a major manufacturer. It was "refurbished" by the manufacturer but it carried a full warranty. It was the Hewlett Packard 7285 with a 200 MHz Pentium chip inside.

On the last day, as I headed for a local computer store, I stopped off at the main library in Oxnard, California, and there I finally found two reviews of the HP 7285. Business Week rated it the best computer buy of 1996. Though not a computer magazine, here was a business magazine rating it as the best buy for both home and office. (Remember this because it becomes important later.) Also, PC World rated the machine, saying it was the second best buy of 1996—and they know computers.

After a quick review of HP's service rating in PC Magazine in which Hewlett Packard's service was rated the very best, the deal was all but sealed. All that remained was to find out what a refurbished computer was. A salesman at Fry's Electronics, a discount store in the L.A. area, explained it may have been a floor demo, a cancelled order which was returned, or even a computer that had had a bad board and was returned and repaired. In any case, the machine would have been brought back up to snuff and should be in perfect working order—with a full warranty and at a great price to boot. How could I go wrong?

Computers tend to use some instructions more than others. Wouldn't it be great to be able to hold the last few instructions in some kind of short-term memory on the chance they'll be used again real soon, thus speeding up your work? This is exactly what cache does, and the more cache you have, the more you can take advantage of this feature.

My plans for a clone were out the window. I would buy the HP based on the reviews, the HP name, their reputation, and their service. That evening I was on my way to L.A. to buy it. My friends, as well as my boss, had decided to buy computers also. But each of them was buying a clone either made locally or from a vendor at a computer show. None had done the homework I had done. None was getting a name-brand.

When I brought my new machine home, it went together easily, and in less than a half hour it stood on my kitchen table whirring and humming as it came to life. I was proud. I beamed before my children. I was too elated to pay attention to the little irregularities that cropped up from the moment I had turned it on. But these problems should have been cause for concern because they were going to haunt me for the next four months, nagging at me like an itch no amount of scratching could cure. It was like I had just caught scabies.

The problems begin

I'm a classical music lover, and the first problem I encountered with the machine was that the CD drive wouldn't play my music right. The only way I can explain it is to say that going from movement to movement of many symphonies, there is sometimes no break in the music, and the only way to know you are in a new movement is either to know the score or to watch the "counter" and see the track change. But, on my new computer, as a track ended there was often an abrupt loss of audio until the track actually changed. The break could last anywhere from a half second to seventeen seconds.

HP Pavilions, which is what my machine was called, have the technical support number right there in the software. I called the number, submitted my support identification number, and was connected with a technician whose job it was to solve my problem. The technician I spoke with ran me through several steps, instructing me how to remove software from my machine that he felt was causing the problem, then leaving me on my own to test the machine again to see if it worked right. When I tested it, however, the problem was still there. But I was persistent. I was going to call HP until the CD player worked right. I would make at least two dozen calls to them over the next four months.

During that time my computer would reveal it was sicker than I had thought. One technician told me my computer problem was a "quality" problem, not a warranty problem. I told him that such an explanation was unsatisfactory and demanded to speak to his supervisor. He wouldn't get the supervisor, but I never heard that excuse again.

Three rules when
choosing a computer

You have three points of contact with your computer: the monitor, the keyboard, and the mouse. Make sure you like the ones that are going to be on your machine, because you're going to spend too much time with them. Make sure the monitor is easy on your eyes, that you like the way the keys on your keyboard "click" (or don't click), and the way your mouse fits your hand. Don't decide, "Oh, I'll get used to them." Only settle for something you like from the start.

It had other problems. For example, icons on the Windows desktop, and in the windows themselves, changed on their own. "View" settings changed for no apparent reason. For example, if I changed from "large icons" to the "list" feature in a particular window, then left that window, the settings changed back to "large icons" when I returned. The technicians told me they'd never heard of these problems before. And when I reported that some software written for Windows 3.1 wouldn't run under Windows 95 on my machine, one even told me I couldn't run a program written for Windows 3.1 under Windows 95. But when I loaded the program on a friend's computer that also ran under Windows 95, it performed just fine, and I realized I had a bigger problem than just malfunctioning hardware—I now no longer knew which of the faceless techs were competent.

At one point, one of the techs asked me what I use the machine for. I told him I'm a magazine editor and writer.

"A business?" he asked.

"Yes."

"Well, this machine isn't really meant to be used in a business. This computer was aimed at the home market."

"Your higher price Vectra models, right?"

"Yes," he said.

"They cost a lot more," I said.

A question to avoid

When you're shopping for a computer, the salesman is going to ask you, "What do you want to do with a computer?"

This is an incredibly dumb question. If I bought a computer for exactly what I need it for today, tomorrow, when the new software comes out, I'd already be falling behind.

Try to anticipate unexpected needs. Try to find out what future software changes are being touted in the magazines. Then always buy at least a little more than you think you need today so your machine will not become obsolete tomorrow morning.

"That's right."

"The magazine I work for uses a bunch of clones, as do a bunch of other businesses I know of, including some major corporations. The machines are real work horses with brand name parts. Those machines seem to have minimal problems. Are you telling me that my machine is not the equal of a bunch of clones, and that to get the same performance and reliability from HP I must spend twice as much on another computer that's only claim to fame is that it only works as well as a clone that cost half as much?"

"No."

"Then tell me, what did HP put in their Vectra that made it more expensive? Does the Pavilion model I bought have a cheaper CPU, cheaper memory, cheaper boards, cheaper hard drive...?"

"Actually, they use just about the same stuff in each line," he said.

"Then, tell me, what's wrong with this machine that should make me think I can't use it for a business just as other businesses, including the one I work for, use the comparably priced clones?"

I think he said, "Nothing."

Later on, one of the techs who came out to look at the machine gave me the same story. I made him wish he hadn't started this line of reasoning, too.

The best time to buy

If you can afford a computer right now, don't let the flush of the money stampede you into buying the first computer that dazzles you—and believe me, it will—because, contrary to the old cliché, money will not burn a hole in your pocket.

Then, as soon as you've made up your mind on a system, wait one more day. (This advice counts for cars, couches, refrigerators, and a great many other expensive items. You'd be surprised how much this will save you.)

The sole exception to this rule that I can think of is: if you've already looked around and seen a lot, and you're at a computer show on a Sunday afternoon.

There are two good reasons for buying a computer at a computer show on a Sunday afternoon. First, if the display models aren't sold, the guy has to repackage them and take them back to his shop and he may have come from a long distance. He'll sell it for somewhat less of a profit not to have have to go through this exercise. But more important is the second reason: the technology is changing so fast it can literally change from this Sunday to next Saturday, when he goes to his next show, and he could find himself losing hundreds of dollars instead of having taken a small profit.

I was at least a dozen calls into trying to get the problem resolved. I'm not sure I ever spoke with the same technician twice.

At the start of each call, the tech made me explain the problem from step 1, which meant, if I accidentally left something out, I was left wondering if I'd left out some key issue that could have been an important fact that would straighten everything out. Later I learned that each tech always had access to the history of the problems with my machine on the computer right in front of them.

One of the problems when dealing with tech support over the telephone is you never know who you're talking to. If I pointed out that during a call I was previously given erroneous information, the best I would get was, "You didn't hear that from me." On the other hand, my friends, who had bought their computers locally, could talk to their local vendors face-to-face, if need be, and get a precise explanation.

I realize one of the advantages the big companies often tout is that they will come out to your house or business to service your computer. But, at least twice I was asked to go find other computers in the line to see if my CDs worked on them. And I did, going to several other cities to find dealers selling them. I realized I was now running errands for a Fortune 500 company. By the terms of their warranty, they should have been sending a guy to my house with another computer to run it himself.

Why did I do it? I had too much money tied up in my machine not to do as they asked.

In the meantime, some of my friends were having problems with their clones. But, one after another, a quick visit or phone call to the local dealer seemed to straighten everything out. For me, the months dragged on. There was no shop for me to bring my machine to, and HP seemed reluctant to send a technician out.

But finally they did. Several times. But as I was to discover, if the "fix" the technician is assigned to do doesn't solve the problem, he isn't prepared to try another. He just leaves.

And, if the technician comes unprepared, as one did, he quietly disappears.

A list of components
worth considering

In compiling this list I read many magazines, including PC World, PC Magazine, Home PC, and I spoke with numerous friends and computer "geeks," who have their own lists of parts and components that would make a first class machine at a reasonable price. I plan to have my next machine built from scratch and these are the components I will specify. (Be aware that the computer world is so fluid that this list may be different next week as newer components hit the market. When you're ready to buy, read the magazines and talk with the "geeks."

Main processor: Intel Pentium MMX running at 133, 166, or 200 MHz .

Hard drive: A SCSI (pronounced "scuzzy") hard drive and card. Don't get SCSI on the motherboard. The best seem to be either the Quantum "Fire Ball" or Western Digital "Caviar" series. Don't get less than 2.5 GB.

Motherboard: Intel Marl ATX systems board.

Fax/modem: U.S. Robotics Sportster Voice 33.6.

RAM: Micron or Japanese non parity, 72-pin, tin-plated EDO-DRAM. Get at least 16 MB. If you can afford more, get 32MB. This is not a place to skimp.

Cache memory: You shouldn't settle for less than 256 kilobyte (KB) and 512 KB is a lot better. The more cache, the faster your machine will operate.

Video card: Matrox Millennium card with 4 MB RAM or Diamond Stealth Video 3D 3000 with 4 MB RAM.

Monitor: ViewSonic (I had bought the OptiQuest, made by ViewSonic, because it was rated high and reasonably inexpensive, but I wouldn't buy it again because it makes text in QuarkXpress look fuzzy.)

CD ROM: Mitsumi, Sony, or Panasonic. Get a cheap one; good inexpensive DVD CD ROMs are coming and they are going to allow you to read and write to CDs. They'll also make pretty good backup systems.

3½" floppy drive: Get a TEAC or other Japanese manufactured floppy drive.

Computer case: ATX case with an ATX power supply.

Keyboard: Keytronics 104 keyboard, or a standard IBM

Sound card: Creative Labs Sound Blaster AWE 32 PnP.

In the meantime, my friends' clones were all working, the bugs having been ironed out by some local vendor, often in less than a day. No one was having significant downtime but me.

HP was wasting my time, along with my employer's money and their own. I had guessed that HP had already spent more money on servicing me than the warranty money that was built into the machine's cost. Still, we were no closer to a solution than we were since the first call.

All this waste was possible because, in spite of all my calls, no one was capable of making an aggressive decision. No one could fix the machine, but no one dared tell me to get lost.

Out of curiosity I began checking the specifications of my friends' and coworkers' computers. I discovered that their components were usually the same ones that were on the list of high-quality components I had compiled in January. For example, they got "hard MPEG" (Motion Pictures Experts Group) video cards, even though I didn't; they got more RAM and cache on their video cards; my card was generic (as was my modem, sound card, etc.), but theirs was a brand name. Yet, as far as I could tell, none of these shortfalls saved me any money. Their machines still cost less than mine.

It didn't seem possible, but it appears that America's major corporations, buying in large lots, cannot buy the brand name components and get them into a low-cost quality machine as readily as the little guy. My friends who had bought their machines from the local "mom and pop" dealers or computer shows had none of the problems I had.

HP finally resolved my computer problems by buying the machine back from me, and as I write this, I have gathered my notes from January and started my search again. Things have changed in four months. The 200 MHz Pentium is no longer king because the 233s and 266s have arrived. And I have also changed. I now know I want a machine with known quality parts and I know I want to buy a clone from a local mom and pop shop so I can get problems resolved quickly and effectively.

I will also avoid the brand name computers because all too often they have proprietary components and/or boards which can make it impossible to upgrade the computer as newer and better after-market products come along.

I have gone to the big computer stores and asked questions. Surprisingly, the salesmen at the computer superstores haven't a clue as to what the components in their computers are. On the other hand, in the small stores and at the computer shows, the guys building the clones proudly display a list that specifies each component by brand name and model, and it's all the top name stuff I'm seeing in the magazines.

Am I suggesting you buy a clone? Yes. And here's the strategy for buying one. Read the computer magazines at the library. Find out what the highest rated components are. Find out if those are what the local guy is installing. If not, go to another store or find out why he's not doing it. Use the list I've included in one of the sidebars, if you wish.

Can you get burned buying a clone? Sure. What you're trying to do is give your money the best chance it can to work for you and, from this vantage point, that would be to spend it on a clone, made with the best components, from a local dealer you've heard good things about.

Would I buy anything from HP again? Yes. We use their world famous laser jet printers. HP's printer division makes the world's finest printers, and it is ready to stand behind them. I've bought three of their calculators and feel that anyone looking for a good reliable calculator would be foolish to buy anything but one of theirs. But their computer division may as well be a different company in a different country, and long after this division dries up and blows away, I expect their printers and calculators will still hold a major share of their respective markets.

Would I buy a brand name computer again? Not in the near future. Success is with the little guy who's self reliant, and who stands behind his product, service, and reputation.



What's all this business about megahertz, and why's it important to you?

The "megahertz (MHz) determines how fast your Central Processing Unit (CPU) processes information. Relatively speaking, a 100 MHz machine processes at half the speed of a 200 MHz machine. So, a 166 MHz machine is about 16% less "powerful" than 200 because it processes information 16% slower. But watch out, some 166 MHz chips are actually 166 486 class chips, and the 486 is the generation of chips behind the Pentium (which should have been called the 586). So, a 166 MHz 486 is not as good as a 166 MHz Pentium.

But why do we need all this speed and why the tendency toward more and more speed? Here's why: Back in the old days, the computer didn't have much operating memory (or Random Access Memory—RAM) or storage memory (that's your disk storage), so software was written real efficiently, as well as without a lot of features. For example, the original WordStar word processing program was a mere 64 kilobyte (KB) program and was fantastic, even though it didn't do a lot of nifty things like multiple column formats, spell checks, graphics imports, etc. But as software developers added improvements, the philosophy was that software packages had to get to market fast or you'd lose market share. The result was that the developers couldn't play around with the software for three months, six months, or a year trying to squeeze every bit of efficiency from it. This meant that, as the software improved, it ran slower as there was more for the computer to do. However, the machines were getting faster and a philosophy developed that said not to worry about how cumbersome the software got, because the machines would get faster and the storage memory (hard drives) huge to hold the bigger programs, and these two factors would mask the inefficiency of the software. And so far they've been right.

The latest word processing packages are about 100-200 times larger than the original WordStar. The machines are also about 100-200 times faster. This means that even though you get more goodies with the latest software and it's easier to use, you don't see much of an improvement in the apparent speed with which the computer operates. But it also means that if you try to run the newest software on old machines, you will personally become less and less efficient. So, get speed because the next generation of applications are going to be just that more larger and more unwieldy.

What's RAM and why's it important to you?

Random access memory (RAM) is the second part of the computer's "brain." It is kind of the "short term memory" in your computer. When you run your word processor on your computer, a portion of the software is brought into the RAM. And the CPU will use the software to manipulate the data. The data being manipulated is also held in RAM. You could think of RAM as the work area of your computer. Having more RAM does three things for you:

(1) It allows you to get more of your application into memory where it will do work for you. If there isn't enough RAM, the computer will have to access the disk frequently to call up other parts of the application, and this slows your work down.

(2) It allows you to hold more data in memory, which also makes your work run faster. For many large data files, such as graphics, spreadsheets, and databases, if the entire file cannot be brought into RAM, a swap file must be created on your hard disk where data can be temporarily stored and retrieved. For extremely large data files, this causes serious slowdowns.

(3) It allows for multitasking. Multitasking is when you have more than one software application opened at one time. For example, when working on Backwoods Home Magazine during deadline, it is not unusual for me to have WordPerfect, Photoshop, Excel, the character map, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, QuarkXpress, and my appointment program all open at the same time. I work more efficiently this way. But all of this is only possible because I have a lot (32 meg) of RAM. But 64 meg of RAM would be even better, especially with such memory-intensive programs as Photoshop.

So how much RAM do you need? It used to be that 4 megabytes was enough. But it is almost standard now to have a minimum of 16 megabytes of RAM. Your machine will run faster and smoother with a minimum of 32 meg and, if you generate graphics, you will welcome the extra RAM. Not only that, with 32 meg, you should be able to handle the next several generations of software as they come out.

What's disk storage and why's it important to you?

Most computers sold today have a minimum of three disk drives: a hard disk drive, a floppy drive, and a CD ROM. The one you will use most frequently is the hard disk. This is where you will store your application software (programs), your data (work you do), and it is the place where your machine stores the programs that actually boot it up, that is, start your computer. In this respect, it makes up the last third of the computer's "brain" because it is the "long term memory" of your machine. When I bought my first computer, in June of 1984, it didn't even have a hard drive. It had just two floppies. In those days, you could get by with two floppies. Today, you wouldn't even think of operating a computer without a hard drive unless you were insane.

The "size" of a hard drive does not refer to its physical dimensions (which today is almost universally 3½-inches wide). Size refers to how much data the drive will hold. They used to be measured in how many millions of bytes (megabytes) they could hold. Today, they are measured in how many billions of bytes—or gigabytes (GB)—they can store.

How large a hard drive should you get? The software applications are getting larger and larger. Games in particular are getting larger and larger because of the graphics they contain, and my son runs one that is 400 meg. And there is your clue. If you are heavily into computer games, or if you handle a lot of graphics files as we do here at the magazine, two gigabytes is almost too little because graphics files can eat that kind of space up very quickly. This is also true of very large databases used by some businesses. So if you are not going to generate huge graphics or database files, a 1.6 gigabyte drive is probably barely enough—but more is better and I wouldn't get anything less than 3.1 gigabytes so I can take care of future contingencies.




Read More by John Silveira

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