Computer Recommendations


Allen Polk Hemphill

Click on a subject to jump to that subject.

Part One – Just the Facts
Part Two – A Bit More Detail
MAC or WinTel (MS Operating Systems on Intel chips)?
Definitions – Necessary For Understanding
Hard Drive
Removable Hard Drives
Bus Systems
Bus Speed
Printer Ink and Toner
Graphic Cards
It’s a Numbers Game
Software Version Numbers
Piracy (Stealing)
Word Processing
Desktop Publishing
Graphic Programs
Internet Service Providers (ISP)
BBS and General Computer to Computer Communications
Document Management
Utility Programs
Virus Protection
File Maintenance
The Internet
Getting on the Internet
From Whence to Buy
Buying From A Salesperson
Should You Hire a Consultant?



This book has two parts. Part One is for the novice who wants to know where to go and what to buy TODAY. They don't want a discussion of the details, just where to go and what to buy, in plain English.

I am reminded of President Kennedy, who asked his State Department for quick information on a crises in Africa, but the report was weeks in coming and was three volumes thick when it did arrive. The angry President called the Secretary of State and said, "What I really want to know is 'Do I send the Fleet North or South!'"

Part one is for those who want to know where to send the Fleet – with just as much information as you need so you can be conversant with the salesman.

Part two is more detail for the Buyer who wants to know the detail, and why. It provides detail about computers, because many Buyers do not even know the vocabulary or how the "knee bone is connected to the shin bone". This portion is useful if you don’t want to be seen as "un-cool" by your grandchildren.

I suppose it is necessary to provide my "bona-fides" so that there will be some credibility to this work. I have more than 30 years experience in computers. I was part of a three-person team that wrote the software to track Soviet satellites and American surface ships, to warn those ships when they were under surveillance. I headed R&D into database development and then the entire project as Project Director of the Integrated Flagship Database System for the U.S. Navy at the Naval Electronics Laboratory Center in San Diego. I wrote one of the first Artificial Intelligence and Expert Systems software programs; owned a computer store, turned around two other computer stores, and was a Core Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at a University for 14 years, teaching Graduate Students in the MBA and Computer Science programs.

There is more, but that should suffice.


Part One – Just the Facts

Here is a fact: It’s what you do with what you have. At a meeting of the Hidden Meadows Computer Club several years ago the two computer professionals in the Meadows had what would be considered hopelessly outdated and obsolete computers. Either of us could run circles around any fast computer in the Meadows – because computing is only partly the tool. It is mostly the craftsman.

Back when I raced sports cars, there was a saying in some circles – based on an old Southern racing quote: "He can take his’n and beat you’rn, or take you’rn and beat his’n" If that escapes you it means "He can take his car and beat yours, or take your and beat his". Some drivers are just that good – the common belief was that the driver was more than 70% of the equation. Sterling Moss gave me a driving lesson in one race where he had 30 fewer horsepower!

It is true in computers as well. Spend some money on education. Computers are NOT EASY! There are free classes at Datel in San Diego, and very reasonably priced computer classes at CompUSA, Datel, and LearnSoft.

One of the most professional places is New Horizons, on Miramar Road. They have 200 training facilities in 38 countries, so it is likely that they are good at what they do. I have taken a class there, and plan to take several more. The best deal is a "club" which offers many classes, and you can take any or all of them during a specified period. It is a very good deal, but it is not cheap. When you consider how little most people understand about their computers, I suppose it really is cheap to take these classes.

There are two places I would go today to buy a computer: The telephone, and Rodrigo Chan. Anything you buy in a store has technology that is at lest 10 weeks old, and that is an eternity in today's market. The easy way to buy a professional computer is the same way I do: Call one of my former university students, Rodrigo Chan at (760) 740-8533, and have him build one and maintain it for you.

But, Mail Order is the way most computers are bought today, because the savings are substantial and the 24-hour telephone support for problem solving is excellent. If I wanted to buy a mail order computer today I would call one of the following computer makers,  Dell, Gateway, Lenavo(IBM), or Micron, - in that order, and whatever company would give me the best deal, I would buy.

Based on quality, speed, and support, I would buy Dell, either a 2.8 GHZ or a 3.0 GHZ system. The difference between these three recommended companies is very narrow. Some collect California sales tax, some do not, and that has been known to change, so check before you buy. You could save several hundred dollars and that makes a difference.

If I prized technical support directly from a real human who comes to my home rather than trying to talk me through the problem on the phone, I would call Rodrigo Chan in Escondido and say, "Rod, build me a 2.4 GHZ system (or whatever), deliver it and set it up for me."

I have used all of the listed companies. I am more than satisfied with each method. Because I tend to upgrade often, I am currently running a Rod-built system and he takes care of it for me. There is little cost difference. I have called Gateway Tech support at 8 p.m. and still been on the line with them on an 800 number at 4 am with a really difficult problem, so I appreciate the value of telephone support. On the other hand, I have had Rod working in my home office at 2 am on a difficult problem, and I appreciate his willingness to get me up and running at any cost.

After the warranty is over, Rod charges $65 an hour, which is well below market, and he only charges on-site while others charge portal to portal. Rod maintains many computers in the Meadows, and he is a former undergraduate student of mine. His number is 760-740-8533 - a number I know well, because I call him almost weekly for one reason or another.

Either way, you will be well satisfied. You are unlikely to ever have the kinds of problems I have because you will probably not push a computer as hard as I do - but if anything happens to your computer, and that is unlikely the way computers are currently being built, you want it fixed.

When I have a problem, it is a BIG problem.

I have owned computers from Micron, Dell, Gateway, and Rod. All are great computers and I can recommend all of them but particularly Dell for laptops; Dell, Micron, Gateway, and Rod for desktops. As this is written, I have a Rod built desktop and a Dell laptop, and I will have Rod build my next desktop and buy my next laptop from Dell -- although Sony is coming into my thoughts more and more for a laptop.


Part Two – A Bit More Detail

This book was originally written for Undergraduate Students who were unfamiliar with computers, and was designed to reinforce my lectures. It was re-written for my current audience: Residents of Hidden Meadows in San Diego's North County. Our residents are successful retired and business people who don't have time for lengthy lectures.

I do not presume to be able to be absolutely definitive for a specific purchaser, but there are sufficient "Rules of Thumb" - Hemphill's Rules of Thumb, to be sure - to assist in the selection of hardware and software. These are not hard and fast rules, just good guidelines.


MAC or Wintel? (Macintosh or Windows on an Intel Chip.)

If you are a complete novice, and do not need to be conversant with the IBM world, buy an Apple Macintosh. Mac is a great computer, but the world has voted about 15 to 1 for the IBM standard. There is no accounting for taste. It is slightly easier to use a Macintosh than the Windows computer. Yes, Windows is getting better, but it is still not quite as easy to use as a Macintosh. Period. I know that Apple is in financial trouble, but it has a sufficient installed base that the machines are not going to be "orphaned" regardless of the corporate structure. People who owned a VW Beetle did not care when VW temporarily stopped making the venerable machine, because there was an entire industry developed to repair and maintain that machine. So it is with the Mac.

Nevertheless, most people are predisposed to purchase IBM compatible computers, so we will spend a disproportionate amount of space on them. If you must use an IBM computer or a clone, then read on.

Most people overbuy computers, partly because they can afford the best and partly because they don't know any better. It's like buying a Porsche 911 Turbo, a really great machine but overkill on a speed-limited freeway. If the purpose of the computer is simply word-processing, sending business letters for example, then for God's sake do not buy a powerful computer. It is a waste of money. Any cheap computer will more than do the job. You can go to COSTCO and buy a serviceable machine for less than $500 and it will get you on the internet and do almost all of the basic functions of computing just fine.

I leave this without a great deal more discussion, because people use computers for more than just word processing, and I assume that anyone involved at the executive or managerial level will also use computers for more than word processing and the Internet.

Still, if you intend to buy a computer just to write your memoirs, don't overbuy. Almost any computer can handle word-processing, even a 10 years old computer. Actually, games are the most computer intensive activities a computer can be put to, but most normal business activities require far less power than the computers they are assigned.

The world has gone to Windows in a big way. Despite cries from purists, who believe that everyone should still use unsynchronized gearboxes, the world has decided on automatic transmissions. It is true that a professional driver can handle a "crash box" better than a novice with an automatic transmission, but most people do not want to learn how to feather an engine speed to match transmission speed - so automatics sell better. It is also true that a real professional who has learned DOS can run circles around a newcomer with Windows, but most people to whom I have taught DOS, and they number in the thousands, cursed every minute while learning, and, given their choice, would have preferred Windows. 

Learn Windows. It's much easier. More about Windows  in the section on software. Anyone who buys a new computer will get a computer with WindowsXP. It has a few problems, but all software has a few problems and you will probably never discover the problems in normal use.


Definitions – Necessary For Understanding

Although each of these will be addressed in greater detail, keep these basic definitions in mind as you read this paper:

  1. Hardware is anything which, if you kick it, your foot hurts. It is like the tuner and the speakers of a stereo system. (Obviously, a stereo system without a music source is simply an expensive doorstop. Similarly, computer hardware without software is useless.)
  2. Software is like the music that is encoded on the audio tape, record, or the music CD.
  3. Operating Systems are a "traffic cop" that must be on site before the traffic begins so traffic runs smoothly. All computers must have an Operating System. You do not see the operating system, but it keeps everything running just below the surface. The operating system is one of several systems called a "TSR" (Terminate and Stay Resident), which means that even when you can't see it, it continues to work until you turn the machine off.
  4. Application Software is any of those programs that actually do something productive -- such as word processors, spreadsheets, databases, desktop publishing, graphics, etc.
  5. Utility Programs are those "window sprays and soap" that you need to organize and clean up the files on your computer. No one sees them but you. Like Tide and Windex, no one knows what you use, but it would be obvious quickly if you used nothing! I have more than 130,000 files on my computer, and while you probably won't have that many for a number of years, you can imagine how difficult it might be to organize thousands of files, keep them virus free, and in the right directory.
  6. The Internet is a system of switches and high-speed telephone lines, which connect thousands of large and fast computers. Once you have phoned into one of those computers, the system will let you access hundreds of millions of documents in any of the thousands of other computers. At any given instant you may be routed through computers in 20 different countries to the document you want, which may be stored in a computer just down the street -- but it is all transparent to you. All you know is that what you want appears on your screen. It will change the way the world works, forever.

First you have to buy a piece of hardware that will runs Windows. Windows is an operating system with a case of the slows. Windows needs to be hurried along by very fast hardware. Windows is a memory hog, both RAM and hard disk - so there is a price to be paid for the ease of learning and of use, and that price is in money. It's worth it. Hard drives and memory chips are dirt-cheap when compared to developing better, smaller, and faster operating systems.



Intel makes a series of CPU chips, basically most of the power within the computer all on one chip. Intel numbers their chips, for no particular reason, as 8088, 80286, 80386, 80486 - but their latest is called a Pentium (80586?) for reasons to be discussed later. Higher number chips are more powerful, but there are variations within Intel's numbers. Within each CPU number, there are chips made of different speeds. Pentium chips are as fast as 3 GHZ, but older versions have speeds of 60,90,100,120,133,166.200,233,266,300,350,400, 450, 500, 550, 600, 750 or 800 MHZ etc.

To run any version of Windows, you need the fastest computer you can afford so Windows will not be so slow for you. Fortunately, even fast chips are reasonable.

The Pentium III and IV chips are now the only machines being regularly manufactured. The Pentium CPU chip would have been numbered as the 80586 chip, but Intel discovered that competitors have adopted the same numbering system, and numbers cannot be copyrighted - so Intel named their chip the Pentium, rather than the 80586.

If you have thoughts of desktop publishing or doing serious graphics work with photographs or video, the faster computers are great. If you buy an "upgradable" computer, then, if the spirit moves you and the checkbook and spouse permit you, you can pop a faster chip into your machine with a minimum of effort. Fast Pentium computers will give you the longest period of satisfaction, but a good rule of thumb is, "Never push the envelope of computers" - and a 2.4 or 2.8 GHZ level Pentium computer won't hurt you for several years, regardless of what software writers do. Even an 1.6GHZ chip will be servicable for years, because FINALLY chip speeds have developed faster than the software that uses them -- consequently if you own an 1.6HZ computer there is no earthly reason to upgrade to a faster machine. A 3 GHZ is only about  20% more powerful than a 1.6 GHZ computer. The speed of Intel chips pretty much limited out at 3.0, so Intel and its major (and excellent) competitor AMD have put two "computers" on a single chip -- or dual CPUs.

Dual CPUs do offer a speed advantage IF you do several things at a time. Few people do this.

Manufacturers tend to think of those who buy the latest and fastest computers as people who wear Rolex watches and drive Porsche automobiles - they want, and are willing to pay for, the best. Manufacturers tend to charge premium prices for their best. Find out what is the latest and fastest, then take one giant step back inside the envelope.

As this is written, a 3 GHZ Pentium is the fastest  - so if you step down to even a 2 GHZ, you can save a few hundred dollars and not suffer anything approaching a slow computer. As time goes on, software developers will make their programs larger, which will make current computers appear to run slower - so initial speed will make your computer last longer before becoming obsolete, but you will probably tire of it anyway.


Hard Drive

A hard drive is a piece of rotating machinery that is used to store both software programs and data in a semi-permanent, but erasable format. Any computer that is running Windows needs at least one large hard drive. Since a byte is a character, a megabyte (MB) is a million characters and a gigabyte (GB) is a billion characters (a thousand million). Personally, I prefer at least a 60 GB hard drive, but you could easily buy as large as 240 GB! Whatever size you have initially installed, you will probably add another hard disk in just a few years, anyway. Because Windows is so graphic, and because all current word processors have the capability to add graphics to text, you will be tempted to add graphics information to text. (Give in to the temptation!)

Further, the Windows word processors store text as graphics, making the saving of text files take much more room than under DOS. Graphics take up very large files. One black and white photograph, alone, can take up one megabyte (1MB). Since many programs alone can take up 15 to 35 megabytes, you can see that a 40 GB is really not large enough. But a 60 GB drive at least will give you more than a good start. If you are thinking about doing desktop publishing, a 120 gigabyte (sixty thousand megabytes) is not too large.

When you run out of space, if you ever do, simply buy another, or larger hard drive if you need the space. Finally, as in CPU speed, the manufacturers have developed hard drives faster than our ability to use them up...I never thought I would live to see the day!

We once had to erase legacy files because we needed the space for more recent files. Today, you would be hard pressed to fill a large drive UNLESS you do digital video editing.


Removable Hard Drives

Another alternative to increasing your storage capacity is the "Zip" drive from Iomega, and a newer "Jaz" drive, Imation Superdisk, or the Syquest SyJet These are "removable" drives that can be replaced with fresh hard disks just like a floppy disk. Iomega has a great reputation and their new drives will be excellent -- a little slower than standard non-removable drives, but the ability to slip new hard disks in and out at will means that you will never run out of room. The Zip Drtives come in two flavors 750 MB and 250 MB. Older 100 MB disks will run in a 250 MB drive, and each will run in a 750.  Jaz disks are 2 GB.

A Zip Drive attaches either to your parallel port (more portable) or to a USB port (faster), and costs $149.  Each 250 MB disk costs about $5, and the others, slightly more. The newer 2 .0 GB Jaz drive will cost about $399. They are great, but the Zip Drive has become the standard because it is cheaper even if less powerful. Zip drives are also useful for backing up data, but their relative small size makes them more useful for data than for backing up programs.

Remember, hard drives – both removable and fixed – are rotating pieces of machinery, AND THEY WILL FAIL! All of your programs and all of your work is on that hard drive! Everything must be regularly saved to some other media, or a hard drive failure will cause you psychological damage that will last. See "backing up" discussion.



Cache is a temporary storage used to hold commands and data that have previously been searched for during a particular session on a slower device. For example, you may have asked your word processing software to print a document and noticed that the light on your hard drive flickered for several seconds before the print commands came on your screen. This tells you that the commands for printing were not held in your main memory, but were rather kept on the hard drive. Hard drives are mechanical devices and inherently very slow. That is why it takes several seconds for the searched for information to appear on your screen. It would be faster the second time you want to print if the commands for printing were stored and held in an electronic storage box - and that is what cache does. It stores commands that you have used before, just in case you need to use that command again. In any session it is likely that you will use the same commands several times and a cache will make the system throughput many times faster than a system without cache.

Whatever computer you buy, make certain that it has a decent hardware cache. At least make certain that you get the largest cache available in the make and model you choose. (More on how to choose a make and model in due course.)

At least 512KB of hardware cache (sometimes called L2 cache) is a good idea, and as much as 1 MB may be available and needed in certain models. The most bang for the buck comes with the first 256 KB. (Gains after that are marginal, except with certain very fast Pentium computers.) Cache exists not just as memory cache, which we have been discussing, Cache also exists on the Pentium CPU chip, on hard drives, on CD-ROMS... The more places there is a cache, and the larger the cache available, the more responsive will be the computer system.


Bus Systems

Information needs to flow through a computer system. If you were interested in improving the number of cars that travel between two cities, you would increase the number of freeway lanes between the two cities - and probably increase the speed limit if you had disciplined drivers. It is the same in computers. Fifteen years ago, all microcomputers had 8 lanes running around the inside of the computer, and were called "8 Bit" systems. Then we had 16 lanes, and 16 Bit systems. Now we have 32 lanes, and we refer to those as 32 Bit systems. Soon we will have a true 64 bit system!

When microcomputers began, it was recognized that there would be such rapid changes in the technology that some provision must be made for inclusion of those new technologies into existing computers. Since there was no way to predict what new technologies might be forthcoming, computers were and are built with a number of empty slots into which a card can be inserted to attach the new technology. Many of those slots, called ISA slots are 16 Bit slots and those are acceptable for low technology additions to computers which are, today, 32 Bit computers. (Yes, Virginia, there will soon be 64 Bit computers. Already, the interior bus system within the Pentium chip is 64 Bits.)

PCI is now the 32 bit industry bus standard.


Bus Speed

In addition to the number of lanes available for the electronic traffic to travel, the speed limit is important. The introduction of  new chipsets has successfully delivered a current 133 MHZ bus speed, so that is the new level. It will not last.

Review: Higher Intel chip numbers are more desirable for more power. (An 80586 {Pentium} is faster than a 80486, which is faster than an 80386, which is faster than an 80286. Obviously 900 MHZ, which we used to call by the more descriptive "Cycles per Second", CPS, is faster than 800 MHZ, which is faster than 200 MHZ, which is....) Larger RAM is desirable for using Windows (256 MB nominal, and 512 MB is best), which also needs a larger hard disk (80 GB or larger, and that is just your FIRST one - you may end up with two. You can buy a second 80 GB hard drive for less than $100 or less when you need it. In the world of computers, you want the higher number Intel CPU, RAM, Hard Disk capacity, DPI of the printer and resolution of the monitor. You want the lower number for access time of the RAM, access time of the hard disk, and dot pitch of the monitor.



While computer CPUs are getting all the ink as computer prices tumble, there is an equally interesting revolution going on in printers. Printers are getting both cheaper and better. I just wish that automobiles improved and cut their prices in the same manner!

It was only 25 years ago that I bought a so-called letter quality daisy wheel printer for just over $3,000. Today, that printer methodology is unknown - but you can buy much better printers for $100. It was only 19 years ago I bought a Postscript laser printer for just about $7,000. Today, you can equal the print quality in a better, smaller, lighter, and faster model for $300.

Today, the selection of printers depends less on the quality of the print you wish to display on the paper you send as much as the speed you wish to have the page printed. All printers that cost more than $150 seem to provide excellent quality. Although there are qualitative differences, none impact readability.

The current industry print standard is ink jet printers, which can be purchased for $150-$400. These printers are quiet and have excellent quality both for text and graphics, and most importantly they have great color capability - but they are usually a little slower than a laser. Certain of these models are so light and small that they can be used for travel. There are lighter and smaller models (2 pounds) for those who need to carry a printer in the briefcase with one of the new laptop computers. In the portable ink jet world, the cost per page can run from $.04 to $.25 per page for color. Eventually, if you use the printer for business, you will spend much more for toner that you spent for the printer.

In the $300 - $600 range you can do very well with a slower black and white laser printer - although at 15 or 16 pages per minute these printers are not really slow unless you regularly produce large documents. These "personal" laser printers are truly breakthrough printers. Although there is a perception that laser printers are expensive, those of us who have spent many thousands of dollars on lesser models just four years ago consider these printers to be cheap. I like the H-P LaserJet series, Epson, and the Panasonic personal models. There are laser printers that list for less than $399.

If you want almost all of it - speed, quietness, great text regardless of the size of the text you need, and a variety of typefaces, you want a scalable font laser printer, in color...and that will cost you $600-$1,000 The latest H-P model is superb.

Color is the current phase, and there are some beautiful Postscript color laser out there, some of which print well on plain paper. If you do a lot of color printing, laser printers will save you money on the consumables that are so expensive in inkjet printers.

If you want color today, look at the latest Epson or the Hewlett-Packard Deskjet. For a street price of $180 --$400 they are stunning! Epson provides superb color for $180 and the H-P Deskjet color is excellent. Either the Epson or the H-P would be my personal choice for a first line, inexpensive color printer for most work. Check the output of either of these. I own a H-P and have for decades. I pass older generations of my printers to my children and grandchildren...they just keep on working. My office printers are rated at 5000 pages per month -- that is a LOT of printing.

Meanwhile, the selection of printers remains a matter of personal choice depending upon how much you want to impress the reader and the speed at which you must produce copies. Each year, PC Magazine does an Annual Printer Guide, (usually published by PC Magazine in November of each year) and it is excellent. They test hundreds of printers, and give you photos of the outputs so you can make your own decision. Check for it at your local library. The selection of printers is wide, the prices are low, and the print quality is superb. A buyer does not have to compromise much, if the buyer is willing to spend just a little time and money in shopping.

In the past, I was reluctant to recommend "All-in-one" units -- combination printer, scanner, copier and FAX. Until now. I use the H-P unit in an office and LOVE it!


Printer Ink and Toner

Printer companies could just as well give the printer away – they make so much on the toner or ink. I have, literally, a huge box filled with ink cartridges in the garage – at an average of $25 a cartridge, I have spent several times the cost of the printer in ink cartridges. PC Magazine tells me that the average cost of a page of text on a laser printer is two cents, of text on an ink jet is four cents, and of color pages (assuming about 20% of the page is covered with color) is fifteen to twenty cents a page.



Television technology is getting better every day (even if the programming is getting worse), but the technology is hampered by the necessity of living with government standards established in 1929. Because the government requires that new technologies fit within the bandwidth assigned many decades ago, the development of better TV is constantly delayed.

Because computer monitors do not have to send their signals over the government regulated airwaves, computer standards can and do change regularly. The government can make certain that your 1950 vintage TV can still get signals, but computers have no such restrictions and it is therefore necessary to purchase new monitors as new hardware and software take advantage of new technology.

Today, a 17" SVGA monitor is a good buy only if a buyer is using a computer for a few hours a day. Professionals who must spend eight or more hours a day in front of a screen need higher quality and a larger screen, either a 19" or a 21". The bulkiness of these large screen monitors is being pared down because the monitors are taking up huge amounts of real estate on the desktop - and the coming technology is the thin screen LCD.

These LCD monitors are desktop adaptations of the laptop computer screen and only an inch or so thick. They have so much better resolution that you can substitute a size smaller than a full-size monitor and still be O.K. - which is good because large thin screens are still relatively expensive. Since 14.1" thin screens are the usual size of laptop screens those are the cheapest because no special manufacturing facilities are necessary. When you get to a 17" or 19" thin screen you are talking REAL MONEY. (Almost $1,500 in some extreme cases, although 17" and 18" screens are now less than $500.)

I am currently running a 20.1" LCD monitor, because I run many Windows programs in a multi-tasking environment and I want to watch CNN and C-SPAN on my computer monitor at the same time I am writing. Yes, you can watch TV on a computer monitor even as you work, if you have the right equipment. (It is called WIN/TV Celebrity - a $129 card that fits inside the computer and permits you to do everything you can on a regular TV, and you can re-size the picture to sit anywhere on your screen.)

Today, you should buy at least a 17", 19" or even a 21" SVGA CRT or LCD monitor, depending on your pocketbook. If you have money to spare, Samsung makes great thin screen monitors. I like the Dell, Viewsonic and Sony LCD monitors. You can buy cheaper monitor than Viewsonic or Sony, but if you want the best it will be costly. My personal rule of thumb is that you should spend $50-$60 on a monitor for each hour that you normally work on a computer each day.

One other factor needs to be mentioned in buying a monitor - and that is "dot pitch". Dot pitch is the distance in millimeters between two pixels of the same color, and the resolution is better when that is smaller. A dot pitch of .31mm is satisfactory today for occasional use or for monitors of 20 inch or larger. (If you see a Trinitron monitor with an advertised dot pitch, it is just an equivalent number - you can't measure the dot pitch of a Trinitron monitor.)

When you search for a monitor you want the highest number of lines of resolution, the largest screen size, and the lowest dot pitch. Oh, yes, you want the lowest price. Right now the price of monitors is now dropping the way prices are falling for computers. The price is now dropping rapidly because there is competition from thin screens - so monitors are getting smaller footprints and lower prices.


Graphic Cards

With the new monitors comes a need for more powerful graphics cards, and they too are more expensive. There are new accelerator cards that speed up the monitor by a factor of ten or twenty, and, because monitors are very big users of computer power in Windows, the fast graphic cards really help Windows programs run faster. New cards come on the market daily, but you can get a fast card for $150 or so. For $199, street price, you can get a blinding fast card. Check the latest tests by PC Magazine, or PC World for the latest recommendations. Because I do a lot of video and graphic capture for real estate, I prefer the ATI All-in-Wonder card, but it may be overkill for your needs.

The total package of new monitors combined with the new video cards is stunning as we move more quickly into the age of multimedia. If all you do is word processing, the new monitor technology is overkill, but for those of us who must multiply our productivity in many areas by the use of computers, the new monitors are very enticing.

You buy a printer to impress the person who receives the letter. You buy a monitor for yourself. There are several new cards on the market that permit you to watch TV, either from antenna or cable, or even VCR signals, on your monitor. With Windows, you can watch a baseball game in one small window while typing your memoirs! Ain't technology great!!


It’s a Numbers Game

The speed of a computer system is dependent on much more than the speed of the CPU, but the CPU is certainly a major factor in the speed of a system. Within any group of computers with an x MHZ or GHZ CPU chip, different computers from different makers will vary by 7 or 8 percent.

What makes the difference? The speed of the various components make up the entire system. Itís a numbers game.

Almost everything in a computer is measured in one (or two) of three ways: Capacity, speed and quickness.

Capacity is easy to understand. Capacity is measured in "bytes". A byte is the computer equivalent of a character. So a thousand bytes (called a kilobyte and abbreviated KB) is a thousand characters of capacity. A million characters (or Megabyte, abbreviated MB) means the device can hold a million characters before it is full, and a Gigabyte (GB) is a billion characters capacity. Hard disks, floppy disks, CR-ROMs and the main memory of a computer (RAM) all measure their capacity in how many characters the device will hold before it is full. More is better, and costs more money. Too much is needless spending -- so you need to balance depending on your particular need.

Speed is like measuring the top speed of an automobile – it is a single point of interest but hardly the only piece of information that you need to know. Speed is usually measured in megahertz, abbreviated MHZ, or gigahertz abbreviated GHZ, and more is better. MHZ and GHZ was once called by a much more understandable term -- cycles per second -- but if we talked that way people would understand and then we computer professionals would seem mortal.

More is also much more expensive.

Quickness is a very important measure used in computers. Quickness is a measure of the response time of various parts of a computer. A good example is the quickness of a hard drive compared to a floppy drive: If you try to load the same document from both t floppy disk and a hard drive, you will see a major difference. The access time of a floppy disk is about 350 milliseconds, while the access time of a hard drive is about 9 milliseconds. However long a millisecond (MS) is, you know that taking 350 of them is a lot more than 9 of them.

If you see MB or MHZ (or GHZ), you want more of them. If you see MS or NS, you want fewer of them.



FAX has become a business staple because it is, in fact, a dedicated computer/modem with no need for human meddling - but it is being supplanted by e-mail because e-mail can easily handle color, and encapsulated video, and photographs in great quality.

But for now FAX still covers many bases.

FAX has become so important to business that the world would simply not be the same without it, but the FAX does have some drawbacks. FAX paper is only one of them. Some FAX machines are "Plain Paper FAX." All of these stand-alone machines are excellent - but there is also a very inexpensive card ($75 or less) that can be placed in a computer, and that card turns any computer into a plain paper FAX machine.

A stand-alone FAX machine has the advantage that it can send independent pieces of paper, like articles or cartoons torn from the newspaper. If, however, most of the information you wish to send is generated in your own computer, then a computer FAX/MODEM card is probably better for your use.

Because almost 100% of the information I wish to send is first generated in my computer, and I do not like an office full of FAX paper filled with information I do not want to keep, my FAX machine is a card inside my computer. That FAX card permits me to send and receive a FAX even when I am working on the computer in another program. The FAX card even keeps all unread FAX on my hard drive. I can keep or erase any FAX that I receive, and I can also convert an incoming FAX into a word processing file with my FAX software. The FAX card and sophisticated software is just perfect for me. On the rare occasion where I must FAX an article torn from a newspaper, or a handwritten note I have received, I first scan the information into the computer with a scanner, then Fax through the FAX modem. More about scanner, later.

A FAX/Modem may not be perfect for you. You may be more accustomed to holding information in your hand - paper may be important to you, something that connotes permanence in your mind. In that case, a stand-alone FAX may be best for you.

A FAX/Modem is just a combination of a FAX card and a Modem card - both are communications cards so the combination makes sense.

It does not make any difference to a FAX/Modem whether it is communicating with another FAX/Modem or with a "real" FAX - everything runs just the same. The only difference is that those with FAX cards or FAX/Modem setups, do not have to print out their incoming FAX, and if they do they can print out on their computer printer and therefore do not need FAX paper.

The latest models are Voice/FAX/Modem -- obviously adding voice mail. You can have a professional voice mail system within your computer with a new Voice/FAX/Modem. I recommend the U.S. Robotics model, but you will need special voice mail software to go with it.

If you have a computer and simply want a FAX/Modem, I recommend a Practical Peripheral or U.S. Robotics modem if you want to go first class. If you want the most bang for the buck, the Zoom, or Supra, are excellent. This will permit you to make your computer a plain paper copy FAX. There is software included with the FAX modem setups, but I recommend that you purchase the WINFax Pro software - it is excellent. You can get all you need at CompUSA, Computer City, or Byte and Floppy.

If you are going to connect to On-Line services, and I suggest that you probably will, you need to seriously consider the speed of the Modem side of the FAX/Modem. Today, you should probably purchase a 56.6K Baud modem. 

Some manufacturers try to save a few bucks by installing a modem called a WINMODEM. Try to avoid those, because rather than using on-board memory they use the memory on the motherboard.

For the fastest access to the Internet, go with a "cable modem." You have heard the World Wide Web referred to as the Word Wide Wait -- but a cable modem is 100 times faster than any telephone modem. If you intend to spend any time at all on the "Net" -- and you should, go cable. It is expensive, but worth it. In the Meadows, we have access to Cox Cable. It requires that you have an installation made by Cox, which takes an hour or so, and it cost $50, but it frees you from needing two phone lines, if you do not need FAX capability you will not need a phone modem, and IT IS FAST! (Cancel your subscription to the Wall Street Journal, which costs you $175 a year, and subscribe to the WSJ on-line for $49. That will free up some money to justify a cable modem.)


Multimedia is the buzzword that is driving the computer industry. It appears to be the "killer ap" (killer application) that the industry has been seeking since desktop publishing began to drive the industry seven years ago. CD technology uses optical, or in some cases optical and magnetic technology to store massive amounts of information in a tiny space. The same size Compact Disk, 4 3/4 inches, that is now the music standard can hold more than 150 books on a single disk. The same sized DVD will improve this capability by a factor of 10. The new system is fantastic -- but it will go through teething problems. We are on the cusp of this new DVD-RAM (re-writable DVD) technology, so I recommend being a bit cautious unless you are an "early adapter".

Today, reference material is a major content of a CD-ROM. Some of the best CDs are multimedia encyclopedias with not just information but color photos, movie clips, and sound, but very few people actually need such an encyclopedia. (Indeed, few people need an encyclopedia at all because the Britannica is on the Internet!)

And, CD does have major business uses in other configurations. A business can buy a CD-R or CD-RW writer cheap and make their own CDs, or back up to those cheap disks!

For most of us, the less expensive CD-ROM is where we want to start primarily because almost all computer application programs are delivered on a single CD rather than 20 or more floppy disks. Writers can get access to fine writing accessories like Bartlett's, and Strunk and White, even a huge unabridged dictionary, for just a few dollars more, after they have already expended the money for the hardware.

Having a gazzillion pages of data on disk in the computer does not make a person learned any more than owning a fine painting makes a person cultured.

Still, I am intrigued by the CD and DVD technology, and ownership does have personal rewards or why would anyone own any watch but a Timex, or drive anything but a VW.

One of the little advertised, but most useful of the CD-ROM technologies, is the storage of software on a CD-ROM. This means that you can keep the software on the CD-ROM and not copy it on to your hard drive, saving many megabytes on the hard drive. Buying Corel Draw on CD-ROM saves 35 MB on your hard drive, and buying TurboTax on a CD-ROM permits the software developer to include many books on the subject of taxes for almost no additional cost. It is hard to load large programs from floppy disks.

Consequently, all modern computers come with a CD-ROM or a DVD drive installed.

The only upgrade you may wish is to the speakers. If they sound tinny, and appear to be of low quality, consider the three piece speakers from Creative Labs, Yamaha, or Altec Lansing. One of those systems will provide great sound to fit your pocketbook. I have solved my speaker problem in a rather innovative way - I bought a Bose Wave Radio, which acts as a speaker system for my home computer, for my laptop while trying, as a radio, and as a stereo system. I am not particularly a stereo aficionado, but I love music, and the Bose Wave Radio is light enough to travel with me to Hawaii for several months a year, and on ski trips. I hook it to my laptop and listen to Padre and Charger games over the Internet, or listen to music played on the laptop CD, or listen to FM music, or improve the TV sound. All in a 7-pound package. Magic!


Software Version Numbers

Most software packages have version numbers, and an explanation of those numbers may be in order because they mean more than simply that higher numbers are newer.

When a manufacturer first produces new software, it is numbered with internal numbers less than 1.0. After it is internally tested, it is sent to professional friends in what is called "Beta Testing." Beta testers sign nondisclosure forms, and are rewarded with clean copies of the software when the program is released to the public.

When the first version is sold to the public, it is usually released as "Version 1.0." It is not usually wise to buy any software that is Ver. 1.0, because Beta Testers can't find all the bugs, and it is up to the buyers of version 1.0 to do that. Version 1.0 is usually followed by "version 1.0a" or "version 1.01." Any software with a version number or letter two decimals to the right of the decimal is normally a "bug fix."

When "Version 1.1" comes out, the change in the number one place to the right of the decimal indicates a minor change to the program. It will probably be followed by a version 1.2, and 1.3. At some point, the software developer will get tired of putting patches on patches, and rewrite the program completely. That complete rewrite will be "Version 2.0." Number changes to the left of the decimal denote complete rewrites, but the "0" to the right is another warning sign to be wary of "bugs."

IT IS NOT NECESSARY TO UPGRADE EACH TIME A NEW VERSION COMES OUT! In fact, you probably need to upgrade seldom. You need to look over the new features and see if you really need what the new version offers. The automatic upgrade path is the road to the poorhouse. Be selective.

(Some software manufacturers insist on giving the software a dated year, like Windows95/98 or even WindowsXP-- but the version numbers still exist within those dated years.)

Obviously, since I suggested that you buy a computer that will run WindowsXP. I recommend that you run the WindowsXP environment, but if you know Windows98 you might elect to remain there.

Many people who own computers will not change over from Windows98, because they are already trained on programs and do not wish to change. I don't blame them because if they are well trained they can do amazing things (and fast), but the world is changing. If you buy a computer today, it will probably come with WindowsXP.

All Windows programs are simply easier to use, and much easier to learn. Windows 98 is slightly better than Windows95, which is substantially better than Windows 3.1x, so I am going to expect WindowsXP to be easier yet.

More importantly, owners of previous versions of the operating software will probably need to upgrade their machines at some time but I prefer to wait until I buy a new computer with a newer operating on it.

Those who are buying a new system will have the greatest advantage because they are not saddled with the cost, and trouble, of upgrading. If you have an older machine running "straight" Windows, I do not recommend upgrading unless you are either an expert computer person, call Rodrigo, or believe that you possess incredible luck. Just wait until you buy a new system, and then buy one with WindowsXP and all the requisite application programs installed by the manufacturer. Windows is the automatic transmission that the world needs.

Skill will outperform later hardware in the hands of a novice, and power users take time to learn the skills necessary to run their machines with competence.


Whether you already own a computer or are just buying one, you will be tempted to "borrow" a friendís software rather than buying it.


You wouldnít steal a car, and you wouldnít shoplift a magazine, so why would you steal software? The manufacturer spent a ton of money developing that software and they make their money back and make a profit by selling it. When you steal it, and regardless of your rationalization it is stealing, you deny the manufacturer his rightful money.

Your friends will either want to "borrow" software that you own, and there is some social pressure developed in denying this "small favor" to a friend, but if you are not a thief naturally you can take some comfort in finding a nice way to say "no."

In my particular case I do not worry much about being nice about it. Stealing is not something about which I stay neutral.

If you didnít buy it from a lawful owner, donít use it.

In dealing with college students I have heard all of the rationalizations. "The manufacturers want too much money for the software!" ("So do Ferrari dealers, but you don't steal Ferraris!")

If you can afford it, buy it. If you can't afford it let a friend use his/her legitimate software to do it or look for a cheaper alternative -- like "shareware." Shareware is "try before you buy" and is usually downloaded off the Internet. Try it for 30 days, then either pay a nominal fee or delete it.

Today, many proprietary software developers also offer a 30 day free trial of their software downloaded off the Internet.

Word Processing

There are two excellent word processing programs available under Windows, and the selection of the one for you is easy. The name WordPerfect is probably one of the best known, but it is not necessarily the best. WordPerfect is suffering from being a great professional program, self-owned, to being bought by Novell, to now belonging to Corel. Corel will bring it back to greatness. Eventually. But not yet.

My first choice is the Microsoft product, Word for Windows version 2002 or XP. I use it myself, and it is marginally better, but not sufficiently to offset getting it for free or getting a cheap upgrade from WordPerfect.

Both of these word processors are good, even better than good. Microsoft Word happens to be great, and more importantly is the industry standard.

In computers, you must have a very good reason not to go with the industry standard.


There is only one good choice for spreadsheets under Windows. Microsoft Excel is the best spreadsheet available on the market today, by every objective test conducted by almost every responsible computer magazine and newspaper.  The selection simple. Excel by Microsoft.

Classes for spreadsheets are plentiful. Don't ever choose software based upon the classes at a local university. Universities are notoriously incapable of recognizing trends, and since most of their instructors envy the Professors of Medieval Literature whose teaching notes never change, the computer instructors don't like to change with the world.

Unfortunately, computer advancements are too fluid for such lethargy.

While word processing and spreadsheet selection under Windows is made easy by the simple and powerful software available, the selection of a data base is slightly more complicated. Fortunately, most people do not need really powerful data bases, and even more fortunately, if people do need something really powerful, then any of several fine databases run well under Windows.

Right now, my best recommendation for a novice would be Microsoft Access or the latest version FileMaker Pro. Whoever has the latest version released will probably be best on any given day, but Access will be the industry standard because Microsoft simply dominates the market.


Desktop Publishing

Some people can't live without desktop publishing ( I can't), and if you have a laser printer or a good ink jet printer then you might just as well get into the game - everything looks better when desktop published. Adding graphics to text is much more soul-satisfying and it is better communication. If you have the computer, and the printer, then the addition of the right software just makes sense. It also makes some sense to learn something about desktop publishing before trying it- after all, you will now be author, graphics artist, typesetter, and format designer. You need to find out what the rules of thumb are for good design, good layout, and what constitutes good printing. Since you probably were not born with this knowledge, you should at least take a course on the subject.

The world is not ready for what is called "Laser Crud" in the business world - work designed by people who do not know the first thing about the rules of good taste.

There are more than two excellent desktop publishing packages running under Windows, but most people can be satisfied by one of two packages: Microsoft Publisher for those who like it cheap and easy, and Adobe PageMaker for those who want more professional looking publications.

Adobe PageMaker was the first desktop publishing system. It originated under the Macintosh operating system, because Macintosh had the original consistent graphics operating system, now one is available under Windows. PageMaker was developed by the Aldus corporation, which has been purchased by the Adobe Corporation. The founder of the Aldus company, Paul Brainard, first coined the term "desktop publishing". (This last piece of little-known and completely useless piece of trivia is provided in case you need to drop a comment among a group of computer geeks.)

PageMaker is the industry standard now. It is the best selling professional-level desktop publishing software, although for professional use the new Adobe product called Indesign is better.

PageMaker is the easiest to learn, and it is the most flexible. I recommend its use for businesses -- Microsoft Publisher is also excellent, much cheaper, and all an individual or small business needs.

Microsoft Publisher can be bought for less than $80 at COSTCO, and when compared to the high cost of PageMaker (more than $500 unless you are and active student) it is a huge bargain. Still, knowledge of the rules of thumb of typesetting, graphic art and printing are more important than the software program you use.

Any program is good enough if what you are producing is ugly.


Graphic Programs

For business use by an absolute novice, I recommend the latest version of VISIO  It is easy to use and easy to learn. It is very useful for making organization charts, maps, and flow diagrams.

The best, if you want to do your own graphics, such as a logo, is Corel Draw, but if what you want is to make a spreadsheet particularly spiffy, is Harvard Graphics.

There are excellent graphics programs out there, and graphics is such a broad field, that it is difficult to select one graphics program, but the most substantial computer magazines agree that Corel Draw is superb, and probably the best if you are going to buy just one graphics program. If you have a CD-ROM, then Corel Draw comes bundled with a CD that contains both the program and some 10,000+ clip-art pieces. You can run the program directly from the CD, saving the installation of 36 MB on your hard drive and giving you access to more clip-art than you can ever use.


Internet Service Providers (ISP)

It will not take a computer owner long to discover that computers connect to, and trade information with, other computers. Computers talk with other computers much better than people communicate with computers. This means that you will undoubtedly elect to connect your computer with the collected knowledge of the universe, called the Internet, using a modem and communications software. Each company has its own communications package. Earthlink is a great national ISP. If you intend to connect from Hidden Meadows, CTSNET, a Division of local computer store DATEL is very good, but if you are going to spend more than an hour a day on the Net" you should seriously consider Cox if you are a Cox Cable subscriber.

DSL is a service offered through telephone companies, but it is not ready for prime time, and it is not available in Hidden Meadows anyway.


Document Management

This is a new category that now deserves some attention. Everyone's office is overwhelmed by paper, and one thing that is more evident to the small office is that paper is difficult to store and almost impossible to find. Enter Document Management Programs, or more accurately, a Document Management Program. I recommend OmniPro.

OmniPro is an absolute "must buy" for anyone who is the slightest bit disorganized, or does not have competent and permanent assistance. With OmniPro, you can take any incoming document, scan it into the computer as a copy exactly as it would appear from a Xerox machine -- complete with handwritten remarks and signatures. You can then throw the paper away, unless there is a legal reason for maintaining the original. After the copy is scanned into the computer, OmniPro compresses the file on the hard disk 15-1 to save space. So far, nothing really magical, but watch this: OmniPro will run the saved file through a built-in Optical Character Recognition (OCR), in effect turning the "picture" of the original into words. (Scanning takes a picture of the page, but the computer looks at a "T" for example and thinks of that as a horizontal line on top of a vertical line. It takes OCR software to determine that it is actually a character "T", which is in Times Roman typeface, 11 points in size, and boldface. After the program determines the words in the document, it then runs it through a built-in spell checker, and then indexes all the words. That is the magic.

If, two months later, you decide you need to see all the letters, documents, or even newspaper articles that you have scanned into your computer, you can "search" the indexed files for all occurrences of any word or phrase included. It will find all such articles, and display. FAX, or print any found document, either as the words in the saved file, or as a copy of the original document. As an example, I write many newspaper columns, and that requires continual research.

As I find interesting articles in the newspaper, I tear them out, run them through the scanner into OmniPro, and throw the torn piece of paper away. One day, when I want to write a column, I search for a common word to the subject, find a bunch of articles in 5 seconds, and read all the appropriate stored documents. If anyone questions my documentation, I can print out the exact copy of the original as a reference. I store all incoming letters, and can find and recall each of them simply by searching for the sender's name, or a subject or word in the letter.

Utility Programs

Utilities programs are necessary for the general housekeeping chores that you will need to do. Utilities are the 409, WD 40, mop, trash can and furniture polish that your neighbor never sees, but would surely notice if they were not being used. Utility programs do not help you process words or make pretty flyers, but they do help you find lost things on your enormous hard drive, reorganize your files into more efficient drawers, and put an electronic copy of everything on tapes just in case of catastrophic failure of the hard disk. Yes, it happens, or worse yet, fire, flood or theft.

Now if you want to start a fight in a computer bar (a computer bar?), just express an opinion as to the best utility programs.

If you want a Swiss Army knife, you need Norton Utilities.  Many utilities are included in Windows, but Norton's utilities are still better.

Personally, I believe that a good set of utilities is necessary for my confidence in the computer, so I pay a little extra to be certain that, short of nuclear attack, I can recover. Fully. Immediately.



If you can afford it, backing up to a removable hard drive is a much better concept than a tape, but tape is much cheaper. Your choice.

Another backup alternative, a newer and I think better alternative if you have another use for making CDs, is a hard disk image program, like Ghost, and a CD-RW unit on your computer. I use Easy CD Creator Deluxe, and Second Copy from and a CD-RW drive -- it works fine.

The very best solution (which I also use) is a software program called BackUpMyPC by STOMP, and an external hard drive using USB 2.0 or IEEE1394 connection. You can get external hard drives in very large capacity -- mine is an 80GB but you can get 200+ GB, so it holds LOTS of backup. (Maxtor makes hard drives for backup that are connected by USB 2.0 or IEEE-1394 and in capacities of 80MB, 120MB, and 250MB! The nice thing is that the backup can be stored off site, so a fire or a theft will leave you with a backup!

Many decisions in computers are a matter of taste, because the computers and software are so closely matched, within price groups. Most people only use a small percentage of the total capability of a computer, or a program, so if it does what you want it to do, competently and cheaply, then who cares if some other computer or program also shines shoes and takes out the garbage.

In the case of backup programs, the only requirement is that you do it, and do it religiously. Backups must be done at least weekly. Any program that you will use to backup is better than any program that is so complicated that you will not use.


Virus Protection

It was in the mid 80s when I wrote the cover story for the local magazine now called Computer Edge on the subject of viruses. In those naive days I said your chances of getting a virus in your computer was approximately the same as finding a virginal White house intern under President Clinton.

Alas, that is no longer so. Viruses attack my computer every several weeks, and you don't know what trouble is until you have an infected computer. Believe me, you don't want to find out! It can cost you 20 hours of work and lots of it is easier to just avoid the problem/

A virus is a small program, written by a vandal, that can hide among seemingly innocuous pictures, programs or words. A virus can be put into your computer by being hidden in an e-mail attachment (most likely), or even in a commercially purchased program (least likely). If your computer is infected, the virus can hide in any e-mail you send to a friend or in a bunch of words that you store on a disk and give to a friend.

A virus can be benign, and simply send you a message on your computer screen saying "Pray for World Peace" or it can erase everything on your hard drive. It can even take the numbers in your banking or business information and scramble all of them -- or even worse, transpose just a few numbers.

You have two defenses agonist the destructive forces of a virus. The first is purchasing a virus protection program...I currently recommend either Norton Anti-Virus or MacAfee...and not just installing them but keeping the new definitions updated EVERY WEEK. (I use Norton 2002.)

The second line of defense is to have CURRENT backup. Yes, it is a pain, but getting a malicious virus in your computer is a much larger pain.


File Maintenance

There are several parts to file maintenance, and each is important.

Files are the documents that you save...letters, articles, bank accounts, anything.

First, you need to know that you can create folders so that these files are stored in some rational place, just as you would store them physically in your physical office -- and like file folders in a physical office you can take the files from one folder and place them in another, or erase them, or put several copies in several folders. You can electronically make new folders, erase old folders, and have duplicate folder names in separate subfolders -- just like you can in the physical world.

All of this is accomplished through "Windows Explorer" -- not to be confused with Internet Explorer, the Browser. Windows Explorer is available from the START/Programs menu.

If you run a computer seriously for several years, you are going to misplace files. Guaranteed. I have more than 170,000 files on my computer and even with the best filing system I can use – it is a mess. After publishing more than 1,000 columns, I do not remember the names of many of the columns, much less their contents. If I decide to write a new column on almost any subject, it is likely that I have written something previously on that subject or a related subject - but I wont recall when I wrote it, or what I called it, or even what word processor I might have used.

I use and recommend Google Desktop...FREE.

One other thing. Windows is not very smart. When you write the first part of a letter to your Mother, it stores that electromagnetically on your hard drive in a location it finds through magnetic intersections. Unfortunately, as you subsequently add to the letter, or make corrections, it stores that information at another address, and then still another address. This is transparent to you because the computer quickly assembles the many changes to a complete letter on your screen - and you do not know of all the activity taking place behind the curtain.

Obviously, you need for the computer to assemble all of these "fragmented" files into contiguous files every now and then -- say every several hundred hours of use. For this you could use the Windows "defragment" command, but it is slow and clunky. Norton Utilities has a better and faster product called "Speed Disk" -- but whichever you use you first need to disable all of the programs running in the background. Without going into detail, hold down the CTRL/ALT/DEL keys ONCE and "end task" of everything EXCEPT Explorer -- and particularly your AntiVirus program.


The Internet

The power of the computer is its ability to communicate with other computers, and nothing is as mind-expanding as being able to communicate with huge computers in which are stored the collected wisdom of the ages.

Two thousand years ago, all the knowledge in the world was in the library in Alexandria, Egypt. Alexandria was the center of the merchant sea-lanes of the Mediterranean as a result of a geographic accident. Alexandria was so situated that ships of the day, which had the ability to sail only with the wind, could enter and dock while sailing in either direction. The Egyptian government required that all ships must surrender all their books to be copied by the Library. As a consequence, the Library had copies of all the worlds books, which they had copied by hand. That library, which subsequently was burned in one of the continuing wars between Christians and Moslems, had all the recorded knowledge in the world.

Today, all the knowledge in the world exists in enormous electronic libraries. We call them the Internet, Prodigy, CompuServe, America On-Line (AOL), Dow Jones News and Retrieval, Dialog, etc. The Internet connects 500 million people in 170 countries. AOL has 40 million, and Prodigy is relatively small at 5 million people. CompuServe is now owned by AOL, Dow Jones by Dow Jones, and there is Dialog. Dialog, for example has more than 600 industry specific databases, AOL has its own proprietary databases, and Dow Jones has huge databases of newspaper articles. All can be accessed from the Internet.

It was twenty years ago that a predecessor to these systems, named "The Source" (owned by Reader's Digest) advertised, "If you want to know the floor plan of a Czechoslovakian hospital, call us." That was more than two decades ago, and now almost everything, past and present, is available in just seconds from your computer. Most of it for free.

In 1996, new names -- big names -- tried to grace the competitive on-line services - AT&T, Apple, and Microsoft. They all folded nearly instantly -- not because the existing proprietary systems were so great, but because of the Internet. More later on the Internet.

Dow Jones has all the text of 2,000 newspapers and magazines from the last 10 years, all instantly searchable by keyword. It is powerful and quick. It was not cheap just five years ago, but today the same information I once searched for and paid $165 would cost less than $10 because Dow Jones is on the Internet.


Getting on the Internet

I always told my students, "if it takes you more than 15 minutes to learn the Internet, you are not paying attention."

It is very simple. There are a few decision points, before you start: Which Internet Service Provider, which Browser, and which Search Engine?

The nice thing is that whatever decisions you make on those three questions amount to distinctions without a difference – a round-about way of saying it doesn’t matter, or at least not much.

There is something to say for joining America is fairly easy, and it does have some "people to people methodologies -- but it is "training wheels" that you will quickly outgrow. If ou do ANY business, then having an AOL e-mail address stigmatizes you instantly as a beginner.

While my first recommendation is that you subscribe to Cox (or some local Cable Provider) as your Internet Service Provider, that is probably overkill until you get "hooked" and spend several hours a day. My more practical recommendation is that you join Earthlink. It has a local phone number, and is both reliable and fast. You have many, many choices: AOL, CompuServe, American Digital Network (ADN), CTSNet… and literally hundreds more. None of them are bad. All are competitively priced, I just happen to like Earthlink.

Next, select a "Browser". Your choices are Microsoft Explorer and Netscape Navigator. There is hardly a dime’s worth of difference. It all depends on whether you think Microsoft is taking over the world and want to make a statement about that. I use both Browsers – and like them equally, but MS Internet will be the winner, because AOL bought Netscape.

Once you are connected by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) through their provided Browser, you need to select a Search Engine. Eventually, you may elect to use several of them, but you would do well to select one and learn to use it well. Then you can learn to use a second, and third Search Engine.

The Internet is so huge, more than 1 billion pages, that you will need to get a guide called a Search Engine to help you find your way. The most popular is called Yahoo. That is a good start. My preference is a search engine called Google. ( There is also WebCrawler, Alta Vista, HotBot, and about 400 more. Each has its own slightly different methodology, and all give slightly different results, but if you learn one and use it well that is better than jumping around and using four badly.

If you think of the Internet having "portals" it will simplify your work. The best news portal is probably, but CNN ( is excellent. They list headlines in about 15 categories and you can jump to the detail stories instantly. Fox News ( is almost as good – and either will keep anyone informed more than they really wish to be.

Microsoft Expedetia ( is all anyone needs to know about travel because from there you can get to just about any subject concerning travel. Microsoft CarPoint ( and Edmonds ( are the portals to every automobile maker, trade articles, test drive articles, automobile loan and insurance available.

If you like opinion, the home page for Matt Drudge lists just about every columnist and major newspaper in America and you can jump to their pages with one click. Because I am an "infomaniac", I personally open my Browser to the Drudge Report each day ( ).

Many subjects have a "portal". If you share an interest with someone who has knowledge of the Internet, ask them what they use as a portal site for that subject.

I have many sites that I like, and I’ll share some of them with you – in fact I already have with CNN, Fox, Expedia, Edmonds, and CarPoint. But here are some more of my favorites: Every book you ever wanted to read, delivered to your home If you ski, this site is all you need to know Great clothing Complete driving directions, door to door or city to city Exchange your home for another, for vacations, worldwide If you like Roger’s radio show, you’ll love his Website Download the free program to listen to radio on-line Name your own price for an airline tickets Another great travel site A must for the gardener Can’t decide which washer, tires, or TV to buy? Compare here Track your mother-in-law’s flight in real time across the country on a map, including her altitude, speed – watch her delayed. Smile!

If you just click on the blue, underlined items, while your Internet is active, the selected site will open.


From Whence to Buy

First - don't, if you have a serviceable computer that will last another few months. Technological gains are coming almost daily, prices on computers are in a free fall, and the industry is undergoing a price war like you have not seen since the gas wars of the 70's.

Among "name brands" are some differences in reliability and service. PC Magazine surveys readers in the last quarter of each year, and found that the best reputations were: Apple, Compaq, Dell, Digital, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Micron. The survey results have not changed appreciably for the past five years for most of these manufacturers, so it is wise to stay with those who rate highest.

Once you have determined that it is time, where do you go to buy?

Generally, in the past, it was a good idea to buy your first hardware from a local dealer so you could deal with someone face-to-face. I no longer recommend this automatically. Most local dealers are "box shops" where you will not be recognized by the person who sold you a computer and the computers in local stores are several months old – an eternity in today’s market.

If you speak and operate computers - or have a low cost solution to learning to run one (like a friend) - then you can buy from a discount house or from a mail-order house. I prefer mail order -- they offer the most bang for the buck, and telephone support 24 hours a day.

If you are a student at a local college or can enroll for a few classes relatively cheaply, this will accomplish several desirable things: Get you a computer and software at prices unmatched by the lowest discounts anywhere, and; give you the opportunity to learn some of the software in a structured atmosphere in which learning takes place five times faster than reading a manual that comes with the hardware and software. You can even enroll in a local two-year state supported college and use your student card at many colleges or universities. The rules usually say you must be an enrolled student, staff or faculty member -- it does not usually say you must be registered at the college or university from which you purchase. This is, by far, the cheapest way to buy some hardware and software -- particularly software. As this is written, I can think off the top of my head, of dozens of pieces of software that can be sold by a university for less than half the price of the same software through the cheapest mail order company in the country!

Further, many colleges and universities will sell some fine, name-brand, clones. Because the university computer reseller does not have to pay commissions, or overhead expenses like rent or utilities. Consequently, you can purchase great brands like Dell, at markups that local dealers can't possibly match. For the "real thing" - Apple and IBM - deals on college campuses can't be touched. Manufacturers are starting to segment the marketplace by building different computers for their mail order business, than they do for their retail business, and those are different still from their discount store business. The best deals are usually in the lines they build for their students and sold only on campus.

Should you decide that this route is not for you, or you can't qualify, the next best deals are mail order, and there are mail-order houses whose names you may not know but that are superior in both quality and price to the best names that you do know.

If you are a member of some recognizable industry, as I am in the Real Estate industry, you may find that your industry has some "special deal" with a manufacturer. Real Estate for example has a relationship with both Dell and IBM.

These excellent mail-order names are, in no particular order, Micron, Gateway and Dell. One of these companies can provide top quality computers for you at rock-bottom prices. I personally have owned a Gateway, a Dell, and a Micron. Those brands make up my "best dressed" list today. In this business, however, every time I take a two-hour lunch break I have to be retrained, so the list changes often. (If I were buying a laptop computer today, I would buy a Dell. Sony also builds a great laptop, but Sony is not price competitive.

Each is lightweight, powerful, and cheap. I personally own a Dell. The best is Toshiba, Sony or IBM - but they are NOT CHEAP.) Prices must drop soon on laptops because there is too great a price differential between laptops and desktops.

Local dealers can also have excellent buys, but usually a bit worse quality at a bit higher price. Still, on the theory that is better to buy your gas from the local filling station, even if it costs a few cents more, because they will remember your name the cold morning when your car won't start, buying locally from small stores does have some rewards.

Local dealers are my third choice, even though I once was one of them - back when you really needed a local dealer because they were the only ones who spoke the language. Some local dealers will put together cheap clones, called "rice rockets" because they are made up of parts from the Orient, but those computers lack the sophistication of computers made by companies that have their own research and development departments. Its not that "rice rockets" are bad - they are not, but they sometimes suffer some when compared with the best mail order or name-brand clones. If you have confidence in the local clone builder -- buy it. If price is not just your major concern, but your only concern, then a "rice rocket" is for you.

So, there are many routes that you can take, depending upon what you want and what you are willing to do to get it.

One of the problems with selecting hardware and software is that too many people rely upon a sales person at a local computer store. Let me ask you, if you knew anything sophisticated about computers, would you be working as a salesperson in a computer store?

Not likely!


Buying From A Salesperson

Don't EVER enter a computer store with intentions to purchase a computer based upon the recommendations of a salesperson. Salespeople, with minor exceptions, should tell you what they have available, negotiate price, and write orders. Many years ago, even before I opened my first computer store, I managed a real estate office. I noticed that not one person in several years EVER asked me, or any of my agents, "Who the hell are you and what qualifies you to sell me a half-million dollar home?"

Nor does anyone ever question the qualifications of a car salesman or a computer salesman! And good thing, too. Most salespeople don't know the foggiest thing about cars, or computers - they know just a few buzzwords more than you. (Try asking a car salesperson what the bore and stroke of the engine is in your model!)

Worse, the computer salesperson you get will have been selected for you by rotation. Every manager would like for the best salesperson to be on the floor every second, so that the most sales will be made. Unfortunately, salespeople wear out and can't stand all day - every day. And, other salespeople want some of the quality floor times for themselves, so the manager establishes a rotation schedule to keep peace and quiet among the salespeople.

That does not help you. You want the best salesperson for you - not the next person who becomes "active" on the schedule. The schedule was not made for you, it was made for the sales staff!

If you must buy at a computer store, at least call first and inform the manager that you intend to visit the store on the following day. That gives the manager the opportunity to inquire as to your needs, and the opportunity to assign to you the best salesperson -the best salesperson for YOU. Someone on the staff is particularly well qualified to discuss what in particular you need a computer for - but no one will be as qualified as a good consultant or even a systems analyst working for the computer retailer.

When the salesperson is assigned to you, ask the salesperson to give you a copy of their resume. Most salespeople in computer stores would be ashamed to show their resumes, but that just tells you the problem. You need someone who understands not just computers, but business. It does no good if your salesperson is the worlds expert on Donkey Pong. The salesperson must understand not just computers, but aged accounts receivable and business in general. Now let me ask you, if you understood, really understood, not just computers but business - would you be working as a salesperson in a computer retailer?

Not likely. Avoid the computer salesperson.

Usually, there is a systems analyst working somewhere in the back room - but the systems analyst is not permitted to go on the sales floor. Systems analysts are not, by nature, warm and fuzzy, but they are knowledgeable. If you want to be stroked, go see your psychologist. If you want to know computers, try the systems analyst.

Besides, a local computer consultant that you can trust will know better what you need, and, if you happen to get the same programs that the consultant has, you can call the consultant at 2 am and get an immediate answer to some simple question. Try that with the computer salesperson!


One of the problems in this game is trying to find a good consultant. Anyone can get a card printed at the local Postal Instant Press saying they are a systems analyst or a computer consultant, and, by definition, they are.

I recall one class on beginning computers that I was teaching at the University, and, before the class, a young woman came up to me.

"I don't think I need this class," she announced, "I am a computer consultant." She gave me her card. "I have several clients."

"Fine," I said. "Why don't you just sit through the first evening lecture and then decide. The first two classes are free if you decide to drop "

She did, and, as is my custom, I started out the class with a "No-Name Quiz" just to find out where the general level of the classes lay. The "computer consultant" failed the easy quiz. She must have recognized that she didn't really know much, because she stayed through the whole course. She did not even get an "A" in the basic class and I spent many hours advising her on problems with her clients. I wonder what her clients thought of her work prior to her taking a class or two.

Gateway is an excellent buy, as are Dell and Micron. Each product line is both well priced and highly technological. Each has a powerful and fast Pentium based computer that is virtually a steal, priced below $1,200, if you need that much power. Add a printer, scanner, a few pieces of software and you will be pushing $2,000 - proving, once again the validity of the law that the computer system you really want will cost $5,000. That will always buy you the meanest, baddest computer on the market, with scanner, great printer, huge hard disks, the largest monitor -- and lots of software.

There is no magic to that law. Every new top-of-the-line computer enters at about $3,000 - then drops about $1,000 a year, while the newer technology enters the next year at $3,000.

By the end of 2006, look for the dual 3,000 MHZ (3 GHZ or gigahertz) Pentium chip, and that chip will make this computer scream! Also there are new Pentium-class chip from Intel competitor AMD.

This looks like a good time to view the battlefield landscape before charging into a fluid situation. But if you need a computer, don't wait. Prices are low, and performance is high. If you have a computer and are considering an upgrade, last as long as you can with your current machine because this is a fluid technology and will be so for many years.

Entry level computer systems are at -- $299! Better yet, they are from H-P or COMPAQ. These will have a 2 GHZ chip, so they will be fast. They come with a sound chip, a 60 GB hard drive, and a CD-ROM. Not bad at all. These computers are literally more powerful than a business mainframe was 15 years ago, and, since they are faster than my computer they are all most people need. You may want more, but it is what you do with what you have, and these are plenty for most people’s uses – and more than I have.

At that price, you can afford to throw it away when you become proficient.

-- 30 --










"Indeed the man is a walking Swiss Army knife:"

San Diego Union

This booklet was written by Allen Polk Hemphill. Other available booklets include:

bulletLiving in Hidden Meadows
bulletBuying a Home in Hidden Meadows
bulletListing a home in Hidden Meadows
bulletExchanging Homes for an (Almost) Free Vacation
bulletComputer Buying Guide for Small Office/Home Office


Allen is a graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. After a career in the Navy, serving primarily in Submarines, he managed a real estate office in the Rancho Bernardo area; opened an Apple Computer dealership; became the CEO of a TV station in Los Angeles and the Chairman of a broadcast system – then retired to become a Core Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at a local university for 14 years.

This booklet, and several others – as well as some of the more than 1,000 political columns he has published – are available free on his website:


Copyrighted, 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001, by Allen Hemphill, Broker-Associate, Dolphin Realty.


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Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Allen Hemphill
Last modified: August 13, 2012