Home Computer: Right technology, wrong price: Old hand Andrew Brown looks at the small print of what was offered Computer revolution hits home

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Mary Braid's requirements were about as simple as any user's can be: apart from a modem to allow her computer to communicate with others, she wanted no more than the most basic computer system should deliver.

Yet most of the stuff she was offered cost more than pounds 1,000 and some much more. Almost everyone was trying to sell her machines which would run 'Windows'- the modern system which makes it easier to tell your computer what to do. While this would in some ways make her life easier, the price of convenience - roughly pounds 500 more - was never spelt out to her.

DELL suggested the company's own cheapest 386 desk top system, which, with an inkjet printer, modem, and wordprocessing software would have done all she wanted - but cost

pounds 1,816 including VAT.

MJN offered a similar machine, with a Hewlett-Packard Deskjet printer, a modem, and software already installed to do all she wanted, for pounds 1,664, including VAT. This was by some margin the best deal she was offered on a Windows-capable machine. The next day the salesman rang back and said the price of the printer had gone down by pounds 70.

DAN recommended a machine of similar specification, along with a Hewlett-Packard DeskJet at a total of pounds 1,421 including VAT, but without a modem or software.

Micro World Technology offered their cheapest 386, a fax modem and simple, competent software, for pounds 989 including VAT, but without a printer. With the addition of a DeskJet printer, this would have been perfectly adequate for non-Windows use, though fax modems are much simpler to operate under Windows. They suggested instead a deal which would cost pounds 1,300, including VAT.

MICRO ANVIKA offered a Sanyo portable notebook computer at pounds 700 before VAT, a Canon bubblejet printer at pounds 200 including VAT, a simple modem for data at pounds 90 or with fax facility for pounds 299. These would all have done what Mary wanted. In fact the laptops were a bargain. They offered simple, competent software at pounds 114, with VAT.

DIXONS. The assistant tried hard to persuade Mary to buy something thoroughly unsuitable: an IBM 386SX with only two megabytes of ram memory, which is insufficient to run Windows comfortably. The computer also came equipped with an outmoded version of Windows. The salesman also suggested Wordstar for Windows, a program which is generally regarded as the one of the slowest and least powerful word processing programs available for Windows. Everyone else had suggested she buy a Hewlett-Packard Desk-Jet, which is an excellent printer for home use, quieter and quicker than any dot-matrix and which offers better print quality, yet Dixons tried to sell Mary a dot-matrix printer.

The salesman at Dixons also claimed that modems would cost between pounds 350 and pounds 450: a quick dash up the Tottenham Court Road revealed acceptably fast Amstrad modems for pounds 89, and high-speed modems with full send and receive fax capabilities from pounds 150 upwards. However, the same modem as cost pounds 89 on one side of the street was offered for pounds 260 in a shop across the road.

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