Personal Preferences

THE FRONTIER DAYS are ending in the personal-computer business, which is arguably a good thing. It is easier to select a machine for general business purposes now that the IBM Personal Computer has become the industry standard. There’s less danger that a newly purchased computer will be orphaned by the software industry now that two or three “disk operating systems" are widely accepted. (An operating system is a set of fundamental instructions that allows a computer to use programs. Four years ago, there were a dozen of them. Now, with a smaller variety of operating systems, most new computer programs can be made to run on most machines.) Computer equipment is much cheaper than it was only three years ago. Then you might have had to pay $4,000 to $6,000 for a full business setup, including a computer and a printer. Now you can find systems for half that much, and some home computers, suitable for games and other casual uses, are available for less than $500.

Do these developments, amply chronicled not just in computer magazines but also in the general press, mean that everyone should go out and buy a computer? No. As the industry evolves, it becomes more and more obvious that personal computers make sense for certain people performing certain tasks and are expensive superfluities for nearly everyone else. It would be stretching things to say that computers are merely the white-collar world’s equivalents of drill presses or machine tools—that is, purely functional implements. To many people they offer an element of fun. To many others they bode terror: people may be physically more frightened of a whirring metal lathe than of any computer, but they rarely worry that their failure to possess lathes and to become “latheliterate" will be a handicap to them.

My purpose here is to suggest several ways of making choices about computers. I will be talking about machines in the personal-computer category, which cost $1,500 and up and can handle the best-established programs for word processing, financial calculations, and other business functions. This excludes home computers, such as the Commodore VIC 20 and 64, Atari’s 600XL and 800XL, the now-discontinued Texas Instruments 99/4A, and Coleco’s new Adam system. These are much less costly, and for some purposes, such as educational programs, they are ideal. But they have various limitations, usually the quality of their video displays or the storage capacity of their disk drives, that make them less attractive for heavy-duty word-processing or business use. For most people, one of the more expensive machines constitutes a major purchase. Your answers to the questions that follow may help you determine whether such a purchase makes sense, and if so, how to begin sorting among the many choices available.

How mould you use a computer?

Surely the worst reason for buying a computer is to cope with the fear that many TV commercials try to evoke: if you don’t buy one, your kids will flunk out of college and fail in life. This is the old encyclopedia salesman’s line, no less disreputable for being tricked out in a high-tech disguise. Fifteen years from now, some sociologist is sure to demonstrate a correlation between parents who bought computers and children who are admitted to medical school. But it will be a statistical artifact: these families will be the same affluent ones whose children would have become doctors and lawyers anyway.

Except, perhaps, to those who hope to make their living in the computer business—a sizable class, but not the entire population, despite appearances to the contrary—childhood exposure to the workings of computers should be no more essential than childhood classes in repairing cars. Yes, computers may someday be as ubiquitous as cars; yes, it is convenient to know how to deal with them. But the level of knowledge necessary for dealing with computers is going down; the routine use of automated teller machines is an example. As computers grow more sophisticated, they become ever easier to use—as automobiles did, when they moved out of the handcranked era.

Computers can help children drill in reading and math and foreign languages. For some students, a computer seems to be the device that creates a spark of interest in academics. Programming languages designed especially for children, like Logo, may steer some students toward adult interests or careers in electronics—as ham radios did a generation ago. Very young children may find written composition more satisfying if the results appear neatly and semi-magically on a computer screen, rather than as scrawled and scratched-out letters. On the whole, it’s probably good for children to have put their hands on a computer. But it is not a matter of life and death.

Among adults, there are several categories of people for whom computers make obvious sense. One is writers, by which I mean those people who commit a lot of words to paper in a typical week or month. They include students, researchers, letter writers, secretaries, journalists, novelists, lawyers, and the few business executives who have resisted the idea that placing one’s fingers on a keyboard is a mark of secretarial caste. Anyone who must produce form letters, whether for political campaigns or for sales drives, should have a computer. As several millennia of literature attest, no one needs a computer in order to write. But most people find computers much more convenient than typewriters, especially if their work requires frequent revision and retyping. I’ve yet to hear of a writer who used a computer and then willingly switched back to a typewriter or a quill pen.

Another category is accountants, which includes the managers of small businesses and any others responsible for keeping track of inventories, figures, and accounts. Here the advantages of computers are obvious. For some kinds of household finance, especially keeping income-tax records, computers can also be very useful.

From the industry’s point of view, the most important category of users is the MBAs of the world, who want to convert numerical information into bar graphs or pie charts and then insert the results into memos or reports. Indeed, the Harvard Business School, fons et origo of MBAs, has announced that its first-year students will be required to buy their own portable IBM PCs. “Integrated” programs, which allow business managers to move data quickly from master accounts to reports and charts, have been the stars of the software industry. One in particular, called Lotus 1-2-3, has been a runaway sales success.

The features you will be looking for in a computer will depend on which of these categories you fall into. (If you’re in none of them, you should think of a computer as a luxury purchase, like a video recorder, and judge it according to how much pleasure it seems likely to give you.)

People who will primarily be writing should care quite a bit about how words look on the video display. Computers with screens that are larger than normal, such as the Tele Video 803, or that offer very sharp resolution, such as the Texas Instruments Professional Computer, the HP 150 from Hewlett-Packard, and the Victor 9000, may be appealing. The feel and convenience of the keyboard are also important. These are subjective judgments, but some form of palm rest and numerous “function keys” are advantageous. There is a difference between “click” and “non-click” keyboards; the click version, notably that of the IBM Personal Computer, requires a much stiffer push in order for keystrokes to register. Finally, writers should pay attention to the storage capacity of the computer’s disk drives. It becomes much more convenient to write, and to use good word-processing programs, when the computer has two disk drives and each of them can hold more than 200 kilobytes of information, known as 200K. Drives that hold 300K or 400K are even better.

Single-drive computers often can’t run the best word-processing programs, and they are maddeningly inconvenient when you want to make backup copies of your disks. Writers need pay almost no attention to how much random-access memory—the storage capacity inside the computer itself, known as RAM—a computer has or whether it uses an “8bit” or a “16-bit” microprocessing chip. The bottom-of-the-line personal computer is an 8-bit machine with 64k of RAM. For writing, that is all you need.

For accounting and financial uses, however, the niceties of screen appearance and keyboard feel are less important, and having a 16-bit system with lots of RAM matters more. Nearly all the MBA-style integrated systems are designed exclusively for 16-bit chips. In this market, it often makes sense to choose the software first and then shop around to see which computer will do the best job for the least cost of running Lotus 1-2-3 or Context MBA or some other program. The idea of comparison shopping brings us to our next question.

Whose money are you spending?

In the capital of Ghana, meals in hotels can cost more than they would in New York City, but on the street, Ghanaians buy their supplies of cassava for a few pesewas a day. This is what economists call a “dual economy,” which also characterizes the personal-computer business today. The great dividing line in the personal-computer market is between people who are charging their purchases to their companies and those who are spending their own money.

The initial rise of the IBM Personal Computer was due to purchasers who were spending the company’s money, not their own. There is really nothing wrong with the IBM PC, but it can cost $1,000 to $2,000 more than machines with comparable features from other manufacturers. To choose IBM is to commit the sin of “paying for the name.”But if you are spending someone else’s money, why not go with IBM? It is an impeccably safe decision; in making it, you avoid all risks that the manufacturer will fold or that someone will accuse you of having made an irresponsible choice. It is also a sensible decision for those who live far from a big city and want to be sure of reliable service and supplies.

By contrast, a computer company known as Kaypro owes its existence to people who are spending their own money. The Kaypro was the second prominent entry, after the ill-starred Osborne 1, into the market for low-priced portable computers. Osborne was slow coming out with an improved version of its original computer, and the company went down in the first well-publicized Silicon Valley crash. Kaypro, which has kept offering better models and lower prices, has been a spectacular success. It rose from zero sales of personal computers in 1981 to fourth place in the industry now. It is outsold only by the big boys: IBM, Apple, and Radio Shack.

To an expense-account purchaser, a Kaypro may seem risky and somewhat unglamorous, but to someone paying out of his own pocket, it looks like a wonderful deal. The truly distinctive feature of the Kaypro, like that of the Osborne, is not its portability (each is roughly the size and weight of a sewing machine) but its price. For a price initially set at $1,795 and soon lowered to $1,595, it offered a perfectly serviceable 8-bit computer plus a collection of software that itself listed for more than $1,200. Kaypro now offers a package including a computer and programs for less than the list price of the programs alone. You could get along for years with nothing but the initial software. It includes programs for word processing (both WordStar and Perfect Writer, plus an excellent spelling checker called The Word Plus), for filing information, and for developing “spreadsheets,” which can be used for almost any mathematical or accounting purposes.

So, if you are spending someone else’s money, you may feel drawn to the dominant IBM PC. You’ll probably also want to spend time in some of the nationwide computer-store chains, which usually sell both hardware and software at full list price. If you’re paying your own way, you might look instead for smaller dealers who are ready to haggle, and concentrate on the Kaypro or another established bargain such as the Morrow Micro Decision or TeleVideo’s model 803. Mail-order houses offer big discounts on computers, but they provide none of the hand-holding and troubleshooting that most new owners need in the first week or two after the sale. You might also consider new low-cost computers being offered by Intertec and Cromemco, or the venerable Apple IIe, which has long been overpriced but is finally being discounted. (Warning: the Apple’s keyboard and screen make it a far-from-ideal system for writers.) Or you might inspect some of the numerous “IBM compatibles,” such as those mentioned in the next section.

The technical difference between 8and 16-bit computers has to do with the microprocessing chips that control the computer’s logic. Some handle instructions or information in units of 8 “bits,”others in units of 16. A bit is a 0-or-l unit of machine code; it takes a grouping of 8 bits, known as a byte, to represent one character from the alphabet.

A 16-bit chip has two advantages. Most varieties work faster than 8-bit chips, which can be important for large mathematical operations—but not for word processing, which requires surprisingly little computational power. Also, they can “address” a much larger amount of active computer memory, which means that they can manipulate more data at one time. Typically, a 16-bit computer will contain between two and sixteen times as much memory as an 8-bit machine. This, in turn, makes possible the integrated programs like 1-2-3, which allow you to flash instantly from graphics to word processing and then go on to financial calculations.

The 16-bit chip has acquired a waveof-the-future aura, largely because IBM selected the Intel 8088, a 16-bit chip, for its Personal Computer. There are so many 8-bit programs and computers on the market that no one need fear the extinction of the breed, but if you are worried about not being able to use all future business-management programs, you can eliminate even the hint of fear by concentrating on 16-bit computers, or by choosing one of the several machines that contain both 8and 16-bit chips and can run either kind of software. These include the Z 110, made by Zenith, the Fujitsu Micro 16s, the Digital Rainbow 100, and an adapted version of the Victor 9000.

THE SAFEST COURSE of all, naturally, is to stick with the IBM PC or one of its many “compatible” clones. “PC compatibility” is an elusive concept. Some manufacturers mean by it only that their computers use the same microprocessing chip that the IBM does; others, that their computers will run programs written for the operating system known as MSDOS, which IBM has made the standard for 16-bit systems. No competitive machine is identical to the PC, since IBM kept a small part of the computer’s internal architecture a proprietary secret; this means that some proportion of the programs written for the IBM PC will not run properly on the clones. The best test of compatibility is to ask a dealer to insert into the non-IBM machines that you are considering IBM versions of the programs you want to run. The most demanding tests of compatibility are said to be 1-2-3 and a game called Flight Simulator.

There are distinct advantages to buying a compatible machine. Because the PC has become so popular, the industry is glutted with suppliers who make attachments and improvements for compatibles, usually at a lower price than for comparable equipment for other computers. When new programs come onto the market, they are released first, and sometimes only, in an IBM format. By choosing IBM or a clone, then, you can keep your options open.

Unfortunately, PC compatibility has become so oppressive a force that other manufacturers are degrading their products in order to make them resemble the PC. One of the mysteries of the computer culture is why IBM, inventor of the marvelous Selectric keyboard, equipped the PC with an aberrant keyboard that has the Shift and Return keys in surprising locations. Companies with distinguished keyboards—TeleVideo, for example—are now altering them so that their keyboards will be more like IBM’s. The Victor 9000 contains a unique diskdrive mechanism that enables it to store 1,200K of data on each disk, about four times as much as the PC can store. Soon Victor Technologies, whose computer is the best-selling 16-bit system in Europe but which has been driven to Chapter 11 proceedings in the United States by its machine’s lack of PC compatibility, will offer an attachment that will make the machine compatible, but at the cost of drastically reducing the storage capacity.

If you want to take advantage of compatibility, you should compare the PC, dollar for dollar and feature for feature, with other 16-bit models. At the moment, the best-known compatible is the Compaq, a bulky “portable” model, which is more completely compatible but also more expensive than most of the other IBM substitutes. A model with a monitor, two disk drives, and 128K of memory costs $2,995. (Unless stated otherwise, the prices that follow are for models similarly equipped. An IBM PC thus outfitted costs $3,658.) IBM has announced a “portable” of its own, but if there is any sanity in the marketplace, this thirty-pound behemoth should not eliminate demand for the Compaq.

Other compatibles include the Chameleon, from Seequa Computers, a smaller and less expensive portable (starting at $1,995 with some software); Radio Shack’s Model 2000, which uses a faster, improved version of the 16-bit chip and coyly calls itself “MS-DOS compatible,”rather than referring to the hated IBM ($2,999); the family of portable and desk-model machines from Eagle Computers ($3,295/$3,419) or Columbia Data Products ($2,995/$3,620), which are very compatible and, in the case of Columbia, come with free software; the Hyperion, a trim portable with a high-resolution amber screen ($3,690 with 256K of RAM); Texas Instruments’ Professional Computer, which offers better graphics than the IBM ($2,970); the Sanyo MBC 555, one of the least expensive compatibles, which includes a Kaypro-like package of free software ($1,595); the Visual Commuter ($2,885); and the Corona ($2,995). Others are coming onto the market day by day.

Many manufacturers, including IBM, offer a model equipped with a mechanism known as a hard-disk, or Winchester, drive, which stores about twenty-five times as much information as a floppy disk and speeds the operation of many programs, for $1,000 to $1,500 more than the price of the standard model. Hard disks are useful for large accounting projects and are luxuries for writers. It is cheaper to buy a built-in hard-disk drive at the beginning than to add one on later.

Also, Digital’s Rainbow is a solid though costly 8-and 16-bit machine ($3,795). Its only drawback is a kind of anti-ergonomic design, which leaves the screen sitting so low on the table that you must hunch over to see it. The Kaypro has a similar disability, unless you use several thick books to prop it up. The HP 150 from Hewlett-Packard is an attractive, well-equipped, fast-working 16-bit machine that comes with a bizarre extra known as a “touch screen.” To indicate your choices, you can use the keyboard—or touch certain parts of the screen. The screen itself is not sensitive, but your finger breaks a grid of light beams that shine across the screen from the edges ($3,995 with 256k of memory).

YOU MAY ALSO elect to ignore the quandary of IBM versus compatibles versus 8-bits altogether and take a different path. Epson offers one alternative with its QX-10 computer, which comes with a unique and completely noncompatible set of software. Epson has advertised this machine as being revolutionarily simple to use, and, indeed, its keyboard has buttons labeled “Print” and “Retrieve” and “Draw” in place of cryptically identified function keys. It strikes me as easy to learn but cumbersome to use, since the same elaborate programming that makes it “user friendly” renders its functions slower than other machines’.

Another option is to look for true portability, which is offered by several lapsize eight-by-twelve-inch computers with full-sized keyboards. The two leaders are Radio Shack’s Model 100 and NEC’s PC-8201. Both offer similar features at roughly similar prices. NEC prices start at $799 for the basic model, with 16K of memory. The Radio Shack model with the same amount of memory costs $919.

A more dramatic alternative is now offered by Apple with its new Macintosh computer ($2,495 with one disk drive, $495 more for a second drive), unveiled early this year. Simply as a business story, the Macintosh is irresistible, especially when contrasted with IBM’s new home/ personal computer, the PCjr, which was introduced nearly simultaneously. The PCjr is a low-cost model designed primarily to pose no marketplace threat to the PC. The keys on its keyboard look like Chiclets, and repel any serious attempts to type on them. The PCjr is clearly the product of marketing men, rather than of people who are excited about computers, and so far it has met a deservedly lukewarm reception.

Plenty of marketing is going into the Macintosh, too, but Apple is betting the company’s future on a leap in technology. The technology is not entirely new, since it was incorporated a year ago in Apple’s overpriced ($9,995) Lisa computer and before that in the Xerox Star system. But it will strike anyone who sees it for the first time—including the thousands of college students whose institutions have already contracted for mass purchases of the Macintosh—as amazingly new and promising.

Like the Lisa, the Macintosh is based on the Motorola MC 68000, a chip that most of the industry regards as 16-bit but that Apple is promoting as 32-bit. The chip permits both machines to perform splashier tricks with graphics than almost any other computers can. The most obvious difference between them is that Lisa can juggle several projects at once—a memo might be displayed on one part of the screen and a graph-in-progress on another—while the Macintosh takes them one at a time. I will not attempt to describe how the Macintosh and the Lisa operate and will instead propose that if you are thinking about buying a computer, you spend two hours sitting through a demonstration of the Macintosh or the new, less-expensive line of Lisas (less than $4,000 with one disk drive, less than $5,500 with a built-in hard disk).

The Macintosh—Lisa approach relies heavily on a “mouse,” a mechanical device about the size of a cigarette box that moves the cursor to different parts of the screen when you move the mouse to different parts of your desk. It is meant to be quicker and to feel more natural than pushing the up-arrow or the right-arrow button on a keyboard. The mouse is marvelous for graphics, bur I find it annoyingly clumsy for writing. Perhaps the Macintosh’s most serious limitation for writers is that, at least in its introductory version, it cannot be used with a letterquality printer. Moreover, the word-processing programs initially available on the Macintosh are rudimentary, so writers will want to think hard before letting their initial infatuation sweep them away.

It is impossible to tell whether the Macintosh will make Apple a robust, long-term competitor of IBM. Apple’s products, like IBM’s, have never been underpriced, and the industry grapevine has carried warnings that Apple may have fatally limited the Macintosh’s appeal by pricing it about $500 too high. Still, I hope that Apple wins the gamble that the Macintosh represents, because everyone in the business, including IBM, will be better off it IBM must cope with a worthy rival. Standardization has made the computer market a less threatening place for most purchasers, but too much stabilitycan erode the very qualities that made the personal-computer industry such a boon to America in the first place. If the PCjr and the Macintosh represent the different paths toward the future that the industry might take, I know which choice I’m rooting for.

How many bits do you need ,and do you want compatibility?