PUZZLING OVER WHICH CHIP IS BEST AND WHAT'S NEXT
For me, the worst part about buying a PC is the knowledge that as soon as I get it home, unwrapped, set up, and ready to go, I'm staring at an obsolete piece of equipment.
No matter what you buy, or when, the PC world moves so fast that your purchases are superseded almost monthly. Maybe your office bought you a 386 machine. Great! Now, it's time to tell your boss that the 486 boxes are even faster.
On the home computing front, the pace is less frenetic. Still, it helps to know what's coming up, so you can balance lower cost against equipment that stays modern longer.
This year, your big choice is between the 286- and the 386SX-based machines. Intel makes both chips, but the company has a hammerlock on the 386SX (several other companies make 286s). Intel wants you to move up to a 386SX-based PC and has spent a lot of advertising money to tell you that.
Right now, the cost difference between a 286-based PC and a 386SX-based PC is about $500—a lot of money for a home user. And both classes of PC will get cheaper.
There's no doubt that both machines perform the basics quite adequately—word processing, graphics, spreadsheets, and so on. The 386SX may be faster for some functions. Its main advantage, though, will come a few years down the road: 386SX machines will run operating systems written specially for the 386, while older AT-class machines never will.
Does this matter? Sure—if you're planning to keep your PC for at least five years. By that time, the 386 version of OS/2 should have been around for a while. (It hasn't even been introduced yet.) Plenty of software will run with it, and memory should be cheap enough that you'll be able to afford the 8 or 16 megabytes it requires.
But what if you're just starting or you think you'll be switching up within a couple of years? I'd say—somewhat hesitantly—not to worry about the 386SX. Bank that $500 instead, and plan to put it toward your next PC in 1992 or 1993.
Notice I didn't even mention 8088 machines. They're classics; they made the PC market what it is today, just like the Model-T did for cars. Unfortunately, their performance is starting to look like the Model-T's as well. Too many of my friends have been aggravating their ulcers by stewing while their spreadsheets recalculate on their old PC XTs.
Unless you're so strapped for money that you must have a PC and printer for well under $1,000, a 286 has to be your minimum. If cash is a problem, may be you should look for a used PC AT. With even introductory software getting larger and demanding more memory and more processing power, it just doesn't make sense to saddle yourself with an 8088.
For 1990, a hard disk goes almost without saying. Sure, you can get twin-floppy machines. But why? The more appropriate issue is how big your hard disk should be. Should you go for 20 megabytes? Or 40 megabytes? More? This year we should see the bigger disks—up to 85 megabytes—get cheaper, but I wonder how much cheaper they'll get. I'm happy to stick with 30- or 40-megabyte drives.
What about laptops? I love them, but you should think very carefully about whether you want to pay that much extra for portability. Having said that, though, laptops are getting steadily better, and if you need portability, 1990 may be the year that you can justify buying one.
Some of the newest laptops can run four hours or more between recharges, because of cleverly designed low-power circuitry. Backlit super-twist LCD screens have expanded the range of lighting conditions in which you can use laptops. They're still not as good as a conventional monitor, but you're not as likely to get eyestrain headaches as you used to be.
This year's buzzword is multimedia. Simply, multimedia integrates PCs with video, audio, storage CDs, hypermedia, and a host of other really whizzy hardware that we haven't invented yet.
A few multimedia-like products have appeared, but it's still largely a nascent field. As usual, Apple seems to be the farthest ahead. Look at the video called "Knowledge Navigator," and you'll see what multimedia offers us in the future. You'll go home completely dissatisfied with your own PC, but the video gives one company's vision of what PCs (or, more likely, Macs) will be able to do with multimedia five or ten years hence.
By then, who knows what the hot chip will be, what size the typical hard disk is, and what laptops will cost? We'll probably find that the promise of multimedia was only partially realized and that new promises will be made. It's still neat to dream.
Photo by Kern
John Voelcker writes about technology, the auto industry, and the arts from NewYork City mostly on an Apple Macintosh.