Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 161 / FEBRUARY 1994 / PAGE 59

Why buy a new PC? (personal computer) (COMPUTE's Getting Started With: Buying a New PC)
by Richard O. Mann

It's always difficult to decide on the purchase of a new computer, whether it's your first computer, an upgrade of an existing unit, or a replacement for your faithful old XT or other outmoded computer. As soon as you think you know what to do, another conflicting factor pops up to confuse things.

When Is the Right Time To Buy?

Timing depends on balancing your desire to have the absolute latest in technology with your desire to spend as little as possible. Product cycles come into play here. With the Pentium shipping in quantity but not yet starting its inevitable price decline, prices of hot 486-based computers are extremely reasonable. If you don't need Pentium power, this is an excellent time to buy a member of the large 486 family.

If you want a Pentium, the most economical strategy might be to buy a guaranteed-upgradable 486 while waiting for Pentium upgrade chips to fall to a more reasonable price. Or, if nothing but a true Pentium box will do, you'll have to decide between today's high prices and waiting for prices to fall. So far, every new generation of PCs has started in the $5,000 to $7,000 range, then eventually fallen to much more reasonable prices--$1,500 buys a basic 486 computer today. With each generation, the time lapse between introduction and lower prices has shortened.

There's more to a computer than the CPU chip, of course. The cycles of technological improvements and accompanying falling prices of all but the latest technology also drive the market for hard drives, CD-ROM drives, sound cards, video cards, and peripherals in general. Once you've settled on the basic CPU setup, you can focus your attention on all of these other perpherals.

Should You Buy New or Upgrade?

Because the differences between a 386 and a 486 are primarily internal (not requiring a whole new bus and other components), CPU upgrades have become a thriving sub-industry. You can obtain significant performance increases by merely swapping out the CPU chip for a later model, which is much cheaper than buying a whole new system.

A computer with an upgraded CPU chip, however, isn't the same as a new computer or the same as a computer built around the upgraded chip. First, an old computer with a new CPU is still an old computer. Its many components--motherboard, bus, disk controller card, hard disk, floppy disk drives, CD-ROM drive, sound board, video card, monitor, and so on--are still as old as they ever were, moving inevitably toward the day when they wear out or break down. Chances are, too, that they aren't able to work as fast as your new CPU does, which slow down the operation to the speed of the slowest component involved.

An upgraded chip is most effective in situations where the rest of the computer is fast enough and new enough to support the upgrade. Millions of 486 systems sold in the last two years are excellent upgrade candidates, because they come with a built-in socket for the Pentium chip.

Another danger in upgrading is that you'll find that after the CPU upgrade, you need a bigger, faster hard disk or a new double-speed CD-ROM drive, or a video accelerator card, or some other performance-enhancing component. You may find that you've spent the price of a whole new computer putting new components into an old box with a slow, weary bus and other important innards that can't keep up with all the flashy new components.

When upgradiing costs as much as a new 486 computer, it's usually counterproductive. And consider how nice it would be to have two computers--the old, poky machine for routine tasks and your new screamer for Windows work, multitasking, and multimedia applications. With the increasing demand for computers in my family, a second computer--even a poky old 286 or XT--is worth its weight in DRAM chips.

When to Buy?

Buy a new PC when your existing PC won't efficiently and quickly run the new software that you want to--or need--to run or when it would cost more to upgrade the old PC than to buy a new one.