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Seminar Teaches Students How to Buy a Computer

By Eric Richard
Contributing Editor

The MIT Computer Connection invited parents and incoming freshmen to a seminar yesterday entitled "Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Buying a Computer (But Were Afraid to Ask)." The seminar was designed to inform new students about the computer-related resources on campus and to help them make the decisions needed to buy a new computer.

There are a common set of questions which many freshmen have - "Do I need to buy a computer?", "Should I buy a PC or a Macintosh?", and "Can I connect my computer to Athena?" - according to Jeffrey R. Solof, manager of the MCC. "Our hope is that we can answer those common questions for a large audience."

Solof and Virginia G. Williams, assistant manager for customer communications and marketing for the MCC, gave three one-hour presentations throughout the day. The two sought to answer the audience's questions and explain the technical terminology used in the computer retail business.

The seminar "certainly added some possibilities into consideration," said Mary and Steve Weinstein, parents of Deborah M. Weinstein '98. "We are trying to figure out which units will be compatible with Athena, and whether that is important or not."

For people who are interested in talking with various vendor representatives, the MCC will be sponsoring the Back to School '94 Computer Fair today. Eight vendors, including Apple and IBM, will be on hand to answer questions about their products.

The event will take place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in 10-105.

Answering buyers' questions

In order to make the buying process less complicated, Williams suggested questions which can narrow down the number of choices a buyer has to look at.

"When buying a computer, you want to think about your personal experience with computers," Williams said. "Did you like what you had before?What do you think you are going to use your computer for?Are there specific software packages that you want to run?"

Williams also suggested looking at the systems that other students are using to help in the decision. "What sort of computer does your roommate use?What do other students in your concentration use?" she said.

"If you are using the same thing as everyone around you," it may be easier to get help, Solof said.

Timing a significant issue

The timing of a purchase can also be important, Williams said. Prices fluctuate based on the time of year and on when new technology is introduced, she said.

"When a new computer is announced, it will be at its highest price, and availability may be an issue," Williams said.

"Technology gets faster and cheaper all the time," Solof said.

In addition, because the computer industry moves so quickly, many potential buyers are fearful of buying a machine which will soon be obsolete, Solof said. "It seems like every six months, [the industry] releases a new version of the machine you just bought," he said.

While Williams said that waiting is an option, Solof urged buyers to commit to a purchase at some point. "If you wait forever, you'll get the fastest machine and it won't cost anything, but you won't get anything done until you actually buy a machine."

However, Solof suggested that through proper planning, buyers can avoid this problem. "Having the capability for expansion is one way to fend off that feeling," he said.

Potential buyers should be aware of the amount of memory, disk space, and expansion slots that a new machine can support. "You want to think about how much your computer can grow," Solof said.

In addition, "you really do want to shop around for the best deal in terms of features and support," Williams said.

Technical decisions to make

One of the most important questions for any buyer is which type of machine they want, Solof said. Generally, users must select between PC-compatible or Macintosh machines, although other options are available.

If you are brave, Linux might be something to consider," Solof said. Linux is a piece of publicly available software which allows users to run the Unix operating system on PC-compatible machines.

"There is a critical mass of both [PC-based and Macintosh machines] that you can't go wrong" with, Solof said. "It is really up to your personal comfort level."

One of the first decisions to make is which processor to choose. "Right now, if I were buying a PC, I wouldn't buy anything less than a 486DX machine," Solof said. "If I were buying a Macintosh, I would buy at least a 68040-based machine."

"These machines will do all the basics and provide a reasonable life span," Solof said.

In terms of memory, Solof recommended at least 8 megabytes of RAM, especially for Macintosh systems. "You are barely going to eek by with 4 [MB], so I wouldn't do less than 8 on either platform."

Another consideration is how much hard drive space a user will need. "You can eat up an 80 MB drive in no time flat," Solof said. "I wouldn't think of anything less than a 160 MB drive, but I would sleep more comfortably with 250 [MB]."

Finally, users must look at what other options they have to choose from. One particular option is CD-ROM drives, which are gaining popularity, according to Solof.

"If you are buying a machine now that you would like to use happily for three or four years, I'd certainly consider a CD-ROM," Solof said.