Considering taking the plunge? Well, there is no time like the present. It is a buyers market for the PC shopper. Prices have never been lower on 486 based systems and Pentium based systems are falling in price as well. If you're hanging back, waiting for the latest, greatest, top-of-the-line system that won't be outdated as soon as you plug it in, forget it. It just won't happen in an industry that evolves and mutates at lightspeed.
Just a little over six years ago, the 286 family of compatibles were considered fast and a 40 MB hard drive was big! Such a system today can't run Windows or many of the most popular software applications, due to system limitations that are non- upgradable.
If you are a knowledgeable shopper, you can purchase a powerful PC system that will more than meet the needs of most home and small business users and can also be upgraded in the future. Don't just look to the bottom line on those ads, however. You need to be able to translate the techno-talk so you can be sure you are getting at least today's standards that can expand to meet your needs.
The ad reads, "486SX 25MHz 170HD 2MB RAM, $799.00". Is this a good deal? The number 486 refers to the generation of Intel- based co-processors. The co-processor is the brain that runs your computer. 486 is still the standard chip and the next generation, Pentium chip, is considered to be the upgrade. If you are buying a 486 system, be sure to ask if it is upgradable.
The letters that follow the chip name, either SX or DX, refer to a math co-processor. It is present in a DX system, and absent in an SX system. This feature is useful if you require floating point math calculations or have math intensive needs. A DX system is faster in these areas and is therefore, more expensive.
The number that usually comes next, either 25, 33, 50, or 66 refers to the speed in which the computer performs operations in one second. This clock speed is given in megahertz where 1 MHz equals 1 million cycles per second. A computer with a faster clock is able to perform more operations per second. 33 MHz is considered standard and adequate. A DX2/66 system is a still 33 MHz system with a clock-doubling feature added.
HD and RAM refer to the size of the hard disk and system memory in megabytes. One byte is a character, like A or 9. Remember, your hard disk is a passive, storage medium for programs and data. RAM or Random Access Memory is the active working space where all your computing is performed. It is important that you do not downsize in either of these areas.
A 230MB hard disk is the minimum you should consider for today's programs. The trend towards graphics based programs necessitates lots of space and each upgrade of existing software seems to take more storage space. It is not unusual for a single Windows program to take anywhere from 10 to 32 megabytes of hard disk space.
Since RAM is the active working space, it will be here where you will be most aware of performance lags. Although 2MB RAM is the minimum necessary to run Windows, it is painful to watch. 4MB is the bare minimum you should settle for and 8MB is really standard, especially if you are considering adding CD-ROM. Be sure that your memory is expandable to at least 32MB. When it comes to memory and hard disk size, buy as much as your budget will allow. You won't be sorry.
As we now look back on the bargain system, it seems to be just that. The clock speed is slow, there is no math co-processor, the hard drive is under-sized and the memory is skimpy by today's standards. Though fine for a starter, this system, as is, will not keep pace with the evolving software market.
Finally, buy from a local vendor or store where you can get ongoing service (preferably onsite) and advice. You may get a better price from a catalog or warehouse, but it's not worth the grief when you encounter problems later.
There are some great values to be had, but determine your system needs first...then shop price.
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