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MCC Presents Advice for Computer Needs

By Jeremy Hylton
Editor in Chief

"Go slow. Don't buy something just because it's there," cautioned Ginny Williams at yesterday's presentation, "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Buying a Computer (But Were Afraid to Ask)."

Williams, marketing coordinator for the MIT Computer Connection, discussed many of the factors new students should consider before buying a personal computer. Joined by Jeffrey R. Solof '81, MCC sales manager, Williams also answered questions about how the expansion of the campus-wide network into dormitories may effect the decision to buy a computer.

The presentation, which was given twice yesterday and will be repeated twice on Friday, started with an introduction to computing resources available to students.

"You're not required to have a computer here, and we have a very rich computing resource here called Athena," Williams said.

Over 100 classes use the Athena Computing Environment for coursework, and public workstations are available around-the-clock, Williams explained. A personal computer could be convenient for late night work or when public clusters are crowded, she said.

Many personal computers, however, do not come with the wealth of software available on Athena, Solof warned. Software like Maple, a symbolic math program, and most courseware are not available for personal computers, he said.

"Make sure you're familiar with Athena," Williams said. Students would benefit from waiting if they are not certain about their specific computing needs or and whether Athena will satisfy them.

For students who were interested in buying a computer, Williams described some of the trade-offs involved in choosing between desktop and notebook computers, and between Macintosh, PC-compatible, and UNIX-based computers.

"Notebooks computers are everywhere. They're portable. They're convenient. And they can be pricey," Williams said. Desktop computers offer more options for expansion, displays, and different keyboards, she said.

Some students may be interested in buying workstations, like the those used at Athena, Williams said. Workstations are very powerful and have become more affordable, noting that a minimally equipped Sun workstation sells for $3300, she added. Because of the cost and complexity of using such a machine, Williams warned, "Do a lot of research before you buy one."

Resnet links computers

Many students asked questions about Resnet, the network being constructed to connect all undergraduate housing to the campus-wide network. With the purchase of an ethernet card, personal computers can connect to Resnet and the rest of the Internet.

Solof said there would be no charge for connecting to the Resnet or for maintaining a connection. Information Systems is also developing Macintosh- and PC-based versions of some Athena software, like zephyr and discuss, he said.

There are a number of difficulties that personal computer users will face using Resnet, Solaf said. Programs like Mac X and DesqView/X will be of little use, because they act as terminals for other computers. Athena does not provide servers for those kinds of programs.

Connecting a computer to Resnet also complicates a computer purchase, Solof said. Off-campus independent living groups will have substantially slower ethernet connections to Resnet than on-campus ILGs and dormitories, he added.

"Try to get the specifics of your living arrangement set, and then start thinking about things like ethernet," Solof advised.

Students who want to buy UNIX workstations or run UNIX on a personal computer will also face extra hurdles, Solof said. There will be no official support for the PC-based version of UNIX, PC Linux, though the Student Information Processing Board will offer support.

Workstation owners could also purchase a version of the Athena release software and effectively install Athena workstations in their rooms. The Athena software will cost $350 a year for installation and support, according to Gregory A. Jackson, director of academic computing.

MCC offers service, advice

Williams also talked about practical considerations, such as where to buy the computer and how to get it serviced. She said there were many stores in the area other than the MCC that sell computers, including Lechmere, Sears, and Circuit City.

She cautioned that students should consider things other than price, though. Computer buyers should consider the quality of the available service and of the sales force.

The MCC sells products at an educational discount to members of the MIT community, Williams said. She added that MCC salesmen are not paid on commission and provide consulting both before and after the purchase.

"You're not going to come to us and get something you don't really need," Williams said.

The MCC will also sell special educational bundles during September and October, Williams said. Bundles may include a computer and either selected software or peripherals. "The bundles are a great deal because they're cheaper than buying the individual components," she said. The disadvantage of bundles is that buyers lose the freedom to mix and match components, she added.