Computer dealers have excellent bargains, says Steve Homer. So go out and buy - and prepare to be amazed when you switch on
First the bad news. There is never a good time to buy a computer. The popular wisdom is that there are two best times - if you bought a computer yesterday, you are already getting the benefit of it. If you buy one tomorrow, you can buy the most up-to-date-model available. But there is good news if you cannot time-travel to buy yesterday or tomorrow - now is a very good time to buy.

Every day, one company after the other cuts prices by 20 per cent or even 30 per cent. There are some tremendous bargains in the shops - it is worth a quick look this Saturday. Should you want to be on the leading edge of technology, new machines with higher specifications are slowly making their way on to the market.

Buying a computer is the same as buying anything - a well-informed consumer can spot a bargain, an ill-informed consumer risks becoming shark bait. If you are going to spend the best part of pounds 1,000 or even pounds 1,500, it pays to bone up on the basics. To really get up to speed quickly, invest a bit of time and pounds 5 or pounds 10 in two or three computer magazines. Not only are you likely to save yourself hundreds of pounds, more importantly, you will buy a machine that does what you want it to do for most of its working life.

But whatever you do, the machine you buy will look old-fashioned within one year. It will look rather tired by the end of the second year and will look pretty much ready for the scrap heap by the end of the third. This is not because it will have broken down and not be working properly (of which more later) but simply because technology moves on so fast.

The basics of choosing a computer are quite straightforward. First you must decide between a Macintosh or an "IBM-compatible PC".

This is as much an emotional decision as a logical one. Macs are still easier to use than PCs, but not by as much as they used to be. They are more expensive than PCs, but again not by as much as they used to be. The other oft-quoted downside with the Mac is that there is not as much software for it as there is for the PC. Don't let that worry you - there is more than enough. The only significant difference is that a Mac is better for serious graphics works and most creative tasks.

But most people will plump for a PC. Here, choosing the right machine comes down to four major components - the processor, the hard disc, memory and after-sales support.

The market has simplified over the past four months. There really is no reason for buying anything but a Pentium machine. These operate at various speeds. If you can afford it you should go for a 133MHz machine, ideally a 166MHz and if you can afford it a 200MHz. The faster the better. For most jobs, a slow Pentium will do you fine. But who can tell what we will be doing with our PCs in a couple of years? So it is nice to have some spare power under the bonnet.

There is only one small problem and that comes by the name of MMX - multimedia extensions, a mid-life fillip for the Pentium processor from makers Intel. It makes multimedia programs (such as video and sound) go a little bit faster still and it makes multimedia programs written for MMX go a whole lot faster. As there is virtually no MMX software to be had at the moment, your best bet is probably to ignore MMX altogether.

If you buy a reasonably powerful PC, you will be amazed at what it can do. You can also think about upgrading it in a year's time with an add- on chip. Make sure when you buy your PC that it will be able to take an MMX "Overdrive" chip. These are expected to go on sale any day now. They will be expensive to buy to start off with, but in a year or so they will probably cost around pounds 150. If you plan to go this route, you could do worse than buy a 133MHz machine as the MMX upgrade processor will also speed up the basic chip speed as well.

The second basic is your hard disk. Today hard disks are cheap and programs are getting bigger. So buy at least a 1 Gbyte (gigabyte or one-million byte) drive, ideally a 1.6 Gbyte drive or a 2 Gbyte drive.

Memory or RAM is now so cheap that you should load up your machine with as much as you can afford. Do not buy a machine with anything less than 16 Mb and you should ideally go for 24Mb.

The last part of choosing which computer to buy is, for the non-expert user, probably the most important. How good will your support be? Most companies offer to come out to you and fix your machine for the first year. After that, you have to lug it back. But perhaps more important is the general support you will receive to help you use it. This, for most of the major companies is pretty dreadful. Some charge you 50p or more a minute to hang on the line waiting for one of their staff to answer a query. Some offer no support at weekends.

When you unbox your new Pentium 133, 16Mb machine and put on the first piece of entertainment software, you will be stunned by the power and, perhaps even beauty, of the modern computer. Pluck up your courage and join the revolution. You will be glad you did