Network: Which PC for home use?

Narrowing down the choices is the hardest part. Steve Homer takes you through the homework possibilities
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Buying a PC for a home office is like buying any PC - it is a question of finding the right horse for the right course. First, do you buy a desktop or portable computer? There are many powerful portable computers to choose from. Plugged into an optional monitor and "real" keyboard, there is nothing to differentiate them from a desktop PC. They have the great advantage that you can take them with you when you go out on a job or into your main office. The disadvantages are that they are much more expensive than comparable desktop models, attractive to thieves, and easy to break.

The second question is whether to buy a business-only computer, or allow yourself a bit of multimedia too. This is not a purely frivolous option. While sound is still an optional extra, it is likely to become more important during the life of your PC - so it could make sense to buy a sound card and pair of speakers.

The other "multimedia" specification for a home PC is a CD-Rom drive. An increasing number of important, massive applications such as business databases are being shipped on CD-Rom. While most of these programs are still also delivered on floppy disc, you usually get quite a few "extras" on the CD-Rom version.

Finally, to Macintosh or not to Macintosh? No matter how much Microsoft shouts and screams about how good Windows 95 is, many people swear that it is still not as easy to use as a Mac. On the other hand, much more business software is available for the PC than for the Mac. There is, fortunately, a compromise. Buy an add-on board for a Macintosh containing a Pentium chip which will allow you to run PC programs.

But most of us will buy a PC because that is what we are used to. What set-up should we go for? This comes down to four factors: processing power, memory, hard-disk space and, perhaps most important of all, service.

Processors, the mind of the computer, keep getting more powerful. If your requirements are for basic business functions such as word processing and some e-mail, then you can get away with a 486 chip, but a fast one (the speed of chips is quoted in megahertz or MHz). However, at this stage in the 486's life cycle, you should probably pay the extra and move up a chip generation to a Pentium.

If you want to run all the fun graphics programs that will be coming out in the next couple of years then you should probably go for a Pentium 100 or 133MHz model. But again, if you can avoid games and multimedia encyclopaedias and just want to do good business work, a Pentium 75MHz will be quite adequate.

Next, memory (Ram) - probably the most important determinant of speed. Until a few months ago, memory was the only part of the computer where prices were increasing. This was partly due to historic reasons (a fire in a Japanese glue factory - I kid you not), the buoyant PC market and the advent of Windows 95. You need 4Mb to run Windows 3.1 properly, and 16Mb for Windows 95. Fortunately, prices have been dropping since the end of last year. Six months ago, for example, Dell was selling 8Mb of Ram for pounds 210 plus VAT, eight weeks ago it was pounds 180 and today it is pounds 120. One strategy here could be to buy say 8Mb or 16Mb now and add another 8Mb in six months time when memory is cheaper and your bank account can bear it (but don't forget memory prices could start going back up).

Finally, there is the hard disk. This is the computer's permanent store for information and programs. Programs continue to get bigger. So don't be tempted to save pounds 20 and go for a smaller disk. Ideally, buy a 1 gigabyte (1,000Mb) disk. Check when you buy your PC that it will take another hard disk (almost all will) so that in a year or so you can add a 2Gb disk - it will be faster and cheaper by then.

Once you have decided what you want to buy, check the prices and availability but also - this is crucial for business use - check the warranty. Ideally you should have on-site warranty, where the company comes to you. You may still find yourself without a computer for several days, so you should see if the company will give you a machine on loan while fixing yours. Back-to-base warranty may be a better deal because the machine might be mended more quickly. Ask a lot of questions about the warranty. Remember that computers are not like modern cars: a surprising number do go wrong.