The computer industry views life through the other end of the binoculars. It wants you to pay through the nose for features you do not need now and probably will not need in the future because, well, that's the way things work with personal computers isn't it? Usefulness takes second place to the gimmicks list and go- faster stripes and meekly we queue up at the counter.
A few weeks ago I flew back from the US and counted six people in the cabin using notebook computers, complete with colour screens, that probably cost the best part of pounds 3,000 each. Five of them, would you believe, were playing Windows Solitaire.
This is not the sort of thing you will find discussed at the Windows Show, but there is some reason to believe that, for some of us at least, the more primitive the computer you buy, the more likely you are to focus on getting some real work out of it.
Take the writer Stephen King, for example, for whom the word prolific scarcely seems sufficient. King writes at a phenomenal rate; 10,000 words a day is not unusual. Being filthy rich, he can also afford the kind of machinery the rest of us may only dream of. So what is the techno-engine of this fecundity? The last I heard, a battered old Wang word processor with a green dot phosphor screen. A kind of bigger Amstrad PCW and not much nicer either.
Look at it from the other way round. When Douglas Adams was unknown and scratching around typewriters he produced The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Now he measures his bank balance in gigabits he is surrounded by a galaxy of expensive Apple Macs that talk and transcribe music for him when he feels like playing the guitar instead of writing. But the question must be asked: are the books any better?
The difficulty is that the more complex the computer you pick, the more diversions stand between you and the work you want to do. Microsoft Windows is positively stuffed with blind alleys in which to lose a day or two - games, desktop patterns, screen savers, bizarre . INI files that the computer mags try to get you to fiddle with. And that is before you even get to the applications.
This kind of power is fine if you genuinely need it. And if you want to use the latest software, especially anything with the magic moniker of 'multimedia' on it, then you do need it. But if all you want is something that can handle word processing and spreadsheet numbers and nothing else, there are alternatives and they may well prove more productive in the end than that flashy state-of-the-art Pentium PC the man in the shop wants to flog you.
The golden rule of utility computing is never to expect too much of the machine you buy. Truly cheap these days means buying a PC-compatible machine with a 386 processor and running software still happy with this rapidly ageing chip. You can still use Windows, but do not try to put any of the big Microsoft or Lotus word processors on the system - they will run too slowly and take up too much disk space.
Pick Clarisworks, which can be found for about pounds 100 including VAT or less, and you will have a Windows package that is reasonably happy on a 386 with 2 megabytes of main memory (ram) and 40 megabytes of hard disk space - and postively speeds along on a 4-megabyte 386. The word processor has all the usual bells and whistles, such as a spell check and thesaurus, and there are good basic spreadsheet, database and graphics programs.
If you want to stop yourself fiddling with Windows, try disabling the mouse. You can do most serious work within Windows using keyboard short cuts. They take a bit of learning, but once you know them, they are much faster than fiddling around with a mouse. It tends to be the trivia - or graphics packages - that need the point and click stuff.
Shop around and you can find 386 PCs with a mono screen from about pounds 350 including VAT. For not much more you can find some 386 notebook computers, though watch out for poor screens and dodgy keyboards on early models.
Finding a bargain Mac is much more difficult. Apple's product range is in a state of some flux as the company tries to shift us all on to their latest Power PCs. That means that some cheap deals come - and go - faster than the adverts in the computer magazines can manage.
Buying cheap Macs means chasing the bargains by ringing around before they are advertised. But it does work. The selfsame Apple Centris 610 on which this is being written, which cost pounds 1,100 a year ago, recently went out of the doors of Computer Warehouse for less than half that price. And I have to tell you that, for an old Apple hand, the original asking price looked cheap
THREE COMPANIES that often have 'new but old' computers going through their doors are:
Morgan: branches in London, Birmingham and Manchester; mail order on 021 456 5565. Recent deals include a 386-processor PC with mono monitor for pounds 350 and Amstrad's pounds 200 NC-100 notepad for pounds 93.
Crown: sells both PCs and Macs; 0704 895815. A smart little Mac LCII with screen and keyboard was going recently for pounds 370, while a Compaq multimedia 486 PC, with speakers, sound card and CD-rom drive was selling at about pounds 1,000.
Computer Warehouse: sells Apple only; 071 724 4104. Macs have been advertised for as little as pounds 250.
Be warned: the bargains move quickly, particularly if they are Macs, and sometimes involve shop-soiled goods.
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