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Monday, March 19, 2001
Lead Article

Going computer shopping?
By Kuljit Bains

ILLUSTRATION BY SANDEEP JOSHI

BUYING a computer is becoming almost inevitable in middle-class homes. This in spite of the fact that most potential buyers do not know what to expect from a machine or even what they need it for! But they do need it, thatís what they know.

 


Since you spend a tidy sum on acquiring a machine, so it better be spent on just what you (will) need, what makes sense by current technology, and no more. This is easier said than done for the average first-time buyer, for he is also most likely to find out the basics of computers after having committed his money.

This piece attempts at guiding the innocent through the jungle of processor speeds, confusing jargon, false promises, varying prices and qualities, fine prints, in short, from the moment you give in to the desire to bringing the e-age idiot box home.

What do I need?

The first thing to decide on is what configuration to buy. (The configuration of a computer is its horse power, engine size, mileage, maximum speed, seating capacity, etc.) For this you need to know what use you are going to put the machine to. In the context of this article thatís easy to decide since we are targeting the home users, and their needs are similar, notwithstanding what the know-all youngster in the family says.

The essential uses of a home PC are document preparation, simple bookkeeping and Internet access. Other applications may involve music, photo alteration, multimedia transmission over the Internet, scanning, simple games, and storage of data of various kinds. The other common consideration among all home PC buyers is the paying capacity.

One demand that is not there on a home PC is multitasking (doing more than one or two of the above listed jobs at on time). Even the job we do put it to is usually not enough to push the PC to its limit, in fact, nowhere near the limit. The multimedia jobs that a home user does are also not heavy enough to warrant the cutting-edge technology.

To take an automotive analogy again, the needs of a person who would like to go vegetable shopping in a Pajero we shall not discuss. What we want is a new-technology, value-for-money car that may also be able to find parking space.

However, even within the given bracket there are options. Thatís what we will look into.

The value (both money and utility wise) of a PC is a sum total of its performance in terms of speed, the value-adding features, stability, and, of course, snob value, which we shall try to keep at the minimum.

Performance

The performance or "power" of a computer is the speed at which it executes the commands you give. This is usually the sum total of the speed of the various components that constitute the computer, because a computer is not a compact unit, but a set of separate devices working in tandem with each other. Thus to specify the performance of a computer you have to understand the role and power of each of these components and reach the desired configuration. The basic components are the CPU, motherboard, RAM, hard drive, various cards, monitor, keyboard, and last but not the least, the humble mouse. We will now take up each of these separately.

CPU: The central processing unit is the heart of the computer and is what actually does all the computing. Even though itís just a chip, it is the single most expensive component. While there are various companies that offer CPUs, in our market the prominent ones are offered by Intel and AMD.

Taking up the Intel range first, it has two major variants ó the Pentium and the Celeron. While the latest in the Pentium line is Pentium 4, the most used currently is the P III, because of a vast price difference. Using a P4 at todayís prices would almost mean buying two P III computers. P III allows for the most demanding software that a home user may need as well as multitasking and gaming, and is thus about the best that you can get. Within a PIII there are varying speeds availableó 700 MHz to 1.4 GHz. But the most appropriate would be 700 or 800 MHz, because while it is very recent in technology it is also not the latest, so the costing is in its favour. (In computers the trick is to buy what is just short of the latest, because the latest is always absurdly expensive.)

Intel Celeron chips, which also come with 800 MHz speed, can save you anything from Rs 2,000 to 3,000, and yet serve the purpose of most home users. The difference between Celerons and Pentiums is that of on-chip memory called cache, which is 128 kb and 256 kb, respectively. Celerons are only slightly deficient in multitasking or for heavy-duty games, otherwise are a decent enough alternative.

AMD Duron chips are also as good in performance as P III chips and come for the price of Celerons, but are somehow less accepted in the Indian market. Among the reasons given are that they heat up faster and have limited compatibility with the RAM that is generally available. However, good cooling for AMD chips may be a solution.

Motherboard: This is what the name suggests and it is on this that the various components nest. There are two essential kinds ó AT and ATX motherboard ó which come in various models from mostly Taiwanese companies. While AT is what most sellers give, it is suggested that you go for ATX even though it costs an extra Rs 2,000. ATX boards have an onboard printer port, serial ports and PS/2 ports. In the case of AT, these have to be attached by cables, affecting the speed. There are various models for motherboards ó Intel 810, 810E, 815; SIS; Via ó but most users prefer the Intel chipsets. All these boards come with integrated sound and graphics abilities, which is desirable.

RAM: Random-access memory makes a lot of difference to the delivered speed of the computer. This is where the computer keeps the software and other data while it is using it. To some extent, higher the RAM, better will be the performance. While a lot of brands sell computers with 32 MB RAM, which is alright, you should not buy anything less than 64 MB, because then you have catered for that little extra need as well as future needs. RAM is nowadays going pretty cheap so it does not add much to the overall cost. This is one thing on which home users may even splurge and go for 128 MB as the extra cost would be only about Rs 1,500 but the benefits would be much more. Only take care that you get one the more recognised brands and not something spurious.

Hard drive: This is a storage device for your data, also called the hard disc. It is very important to have a reliable brand for the safety of your data depends on it. There are two important factors to it ó speed and capacity. The speeds are 5400 RPM and 7200 RPM; the later would obviously be better. While they come in various capacities like 10, 20,30, or 40 GB, the standard nowadays is 20 GB, which is by far sufficient for any heavy home user. Somebody interested in storing a lot of pictures or music may go for 40 GB, but that could cost an unnecessary Rs 3,000 extra. These discs come with varying warranties; you should insist on a three-year warranty.

Cards: Sound cards and PCI VGA cards used to be installed till recently, but nowadays they are not needed as motherboards come with onboard abilities for sound and graphics. Though you may go for these cards if you want exceptional music or graphics quality, it is not recommended for a regular home user. Save money. Then there are 3D accelerator cards for high performance games and 3D graphics. Again, these are not suggested for a money-conscious buyer because even without it fun-enough games can be played.

Monitor: While a lot of branded models come with 14" monitors, it is better to get a 15" monitor as the cost difference is minimal. There are 17" and 21" models also available, but then they are for high-end users. Avoid monitors that come with in-built speakers, for there might be interference in the picture. Do ask for a warranty.

Keyboard/mouse: These two are input devices and are your bodily contact with the computer. Largely you may focus on ergonomics, i.e. convenience of use, in selecting your model. Keyboards come in prices ranging from Rs 375 to Rs 5,500, depending on the features, but the ones around Rs 600-700 are just fine. The same goes for mouse selection ó the ideal model would be priced around Rs 400-600.

Cabinet: The metal box in which all components are housed. Roomier the better for it will allow for better cooling and have scope for future component additions. ATX cabinets have auto power shutdown facility, while AT does not. We would suggest buying an ATX cabinet even though it cost about Rs 500 extra.

Add-on devices

These are the value additions to your basic computer. While some of them like the modem, printer, and floppy drive are absolutely essential, others like the CD drive are desirable, and yet others like DVD drives and CD writers or scanners are luxuries by a home userís standards. We shall go over their features in brief.

Modem: A device thatís an interface between the electrical signal from your phone line and your computer that is digital. Its application is in connecting to the Internet. They used to come in 28 kbps models, but now the common ones are 33.3 kbps and 56 kbps. While it is alright to have a 33.3 kbps model, as Indian phone lines do not have even that much speed, 56 kbps also may not be a bad choice as the price difference is marginal, and you would have scope for future in case our phone lines improve. The other point is that modems are either internal (installed on the motherboard) or external. While most sellers would expound the virtues of external modems, internal ones are for all practical purposes as good and cost one-third. No serious problems have been reported from internal models, as some people would fear.

Floppy drive: A device used to read from and write on a removable disc called a floppy. Floppies are most convenient to take data from one machine to another. Buy any branded 4 Ĺ" floppy drive. There is not much choice as to variables and they cost anything around Rs 700.

Printer: There is no point not buying it; after all, if youíve prepared a document and canít print it, thereís no use preparing it for we are not yet in a paperless world. Inkjet printers are the most appropriate for home users, while laser printers are for heavy or demanding users. Youíll have to buy a colour inkjet printer for the black-only printers are out. But donít worry they all come below Rs 6,000, but thatís not much looking at what you can do with them. Broadly there are two kinds of inkjets, one in which the head is partof the ink cartridge, and other in which the head remains fixed in the printer and only the cartridge is removed. Printing is slightly costlier in the former, but they are recommended for a small user as they are easier to maintain and handle.

CD drive: They are used to read CDs and are essential a most software nowadays comes on CDs only and also most multimedia files sre on CDs. Speeds higher than 52 X may not be relevant. For that matter even lower speeds are fine but they are not available. Speeds of 72 X add only to the oomph.

CD-writer: Used to do just what the name suggests. Not recommended for a home buyer for heíll have no use for it worth the cost.

DVD: If you use digital versatile discs you do not need CD drives. A luxury at the moment, but technology of the near future, so you may consider them as an option. They give you very high picture and sound quality and cost around Rs 6,000.

Speakers, mike/headphone, cameras: The cost for these begins around Rs 300 and can go up to Rs 5,000. The ideal for a common user who doesnít want to make a music system out of his PC, are those costing around Rs 600. The bigger speakers would also entail installing sound cards, which is an avoidable cost. You may also want to buy a mike/headphone set for Net telephony, listening to music or recording your own voice to send to someone over the net. Reasonable ones can be ought for up to Rs 500. Cameras could be a luxury (not recommended) ó Web cameras can be had for Rs 5,000 and digital cameras could go up to Rs 20,000.

UPS/CVT: Uninterrupted power supply (UPS) units can give you a back-up of from 15 to 30 min. Depending on the back-up capacity, the branded models cost upwards of Rs 4,500. We would suggest 15 min. back-up and known brands only. Do get a warranty and find out about the after-sales service. Constant voltage transformers (CVT) are a cheaper alternative, but would give no back-up in case of power failure, but at least constant voltage would be supplied ó the least you can do for the PC.

Branded or assembled?

This is a million-dollar question. While most MNC brands are very reliable, they are at the same time costlier by about Rs 10,000 as compared to locally assembled ones. There are Indian brands, too, which cost nearly the same as assembled ones, but they may not be as reliable and also would not have the advantages of an assembled machine.

When you get a PC assembled locally, you can dictate the exact configuration you want and also the brands of the components. The prices will be the lowest possible due to the intense competition. Also, many buyersí experience tells us that a local assembler gives prompt after-sales service for his business spreads only by word of mouth. Now the final decision is left to your personal choice and philosophy of life.

Cost

What should you be prepared to pay for a typical assembled P III, 64 MB RAM, multimedia system along with a modem and a UPS? A rough calculation, allowing for brand variables, would give us a figure of less than Rs 40,000. The printer is not included. With a Celeron chip you could save up to Rs 3,000. The branded machines would be relatively costlier, as explained above.

Dealing with a vendor

To begin with, select a reliable vendor through recommendation, but avoid close friends or relatives for then you cannot bargain or demand your rights freely. Ask for a detailed price list broken down component wise. If dealing with a brand, ask about all the fine print ó taxes, freight charges, installation charges, on-site warranty, etc. Even with them ask for the detail of the configuration so that you can compare prices accurately. Ask if the monitor is included in the cost.

The next step should be to compare prices with a few other vendors. They could vary by about Rs 2,000. When finally you do buy, ask the seller to give you a detailed, signed list of the components that he has installed along with their brands, configuration and cost. Certain unscrupulous sellers, though not commonly, can change the clock speed of the CPU to pass it of as a higher version. The brands of the components may also not be the same as told. Be careful. Ask for the packing boxes of the various components. If you are very particular and have the time, ask the assembler to make your PC in front of you. Though these last few tips are not valid for branded computers.

Armed with this knowledge you can be sure that youíll not be ripped off. Be prepared to come out unsatisfied for thatís how it is with most people. In any case, given the runaway pace of IT development, whatever you buy will seem inadequate within a year. But thatís the way of the cyber world, Happy Shopping!

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