The Beginner's Computer
Jun 10, 2000
I've read a number of opinions about what kind of computer system a beginner should buy, and am now finally ready to produce what I feel is what a beginner needs. First, let me start off though by saying that a beginner to me is someone who is unable to do any computer programming and is at best, only able to perform basic word processing and Internet tasks (e.g. web surfing).
It's important to recognize that your computer is an instrument not simply for the execution of work tasks, but also one that can allow you to improve the efficiency in which you perform such tasks, not to mention increase your abilities to perform more complicated or unique tasks. Thus, when you go out to buy a computer for a beginner, it should not be a computer that is limited to performing the basic tasks of which the beginner may already have a partial grasp.
A beginning user generally will want to perform the two basic tasks mentioned above: word processing and web surfing (and e-mail). However, there is no need for the beginning user to be stuck at this point, never learning to do more. Thus, the beginning computer should be one that can comfortably perform such tasks, but also provide the user with the ability to learn and operate more.
A good beginning computer features a processor such as a Celeron or AMD K6-2. Celeron is made by Intel, which is the dominant processor manufacturer in the industry (supplying as many as 80% of the chips used for retail computer sales). Either chip is acceptable as a beginning processor, but neither is a "performance" chip. These chips are not meant to handle intense graphics or memory consuming operations comfortably. However, they operate at a speed that is perfectly acceptable for word processing and Internet related tasks. You probably should be looking in the range of 400 to 550 mhz.
Make sure that your computer has at least 96 megabytes of RAM. RAM is temporary memory, essentially, and is vital to the operation of your computer. Whenever your computer is processing a function, it uses RAM to perform the operation. This is vital to large program operation and multi-tasking (being able to run multiple programs at the same time).
Since you should want to have Internet access, a 56 K modem will be vital to performing such a task. Most 56K modems that come with any of the major brands are perfectly adequate.
Having a CD-ROM drive is extremely important. Anytime you want to install a new program (or game), it will almost always require a CD-ROM drive. Any CD-ROM that is faster than 32x (meaning 32 speed) will be sufficient to run comfortably and load data from the CD to your computer (note: this will also play music CDs if your system has speakers).
Make sure your computer has a 3.5" floppy disk drive. I haven't seen a computer made in a long time that didn't come with this feature, but I'm mentioning it just in case. Floppy disk drives allow you to save smaller files on disk such as word processing documents.
Though I would not generally consider a keyboard and mouse to be a peripheral because they are vital to the operation of your computer, they aren't internal features. Please make sure your computer comes with a keyboard and mouse. Without these two pieces of hardware, a beginning user will have a very difficult time operating a computer (frankly, most advanced users would as well).
Having a printer is not vital for a beginning user, but definitely something to consider. If the user is a student or an office worker, the ability to print out documents will be important. Unless the graphics quality of the documents is important, I would recommend going with either a Hewlett Packard Desk Jet or a Canon Bubble Jet. If you choose one of these printers, make sure you go with a lower end model. They may be a little slower and have less detail than the higher end models, but they are perfectly adequate for basic printing tasks.
External speakers are something you might want to consider as well. I use my computer to play music more often than I use my stereo. A good pair of small Altec Lansing speakers will do just fine. These will often not come with the computer, so you may have to buy them separately, but they provide a neat dimension to computer use (in my case, I always work with music on in the background).
Your monitor most likely should be a 17" or 19" monitor. I'm not really concerned with the quality of the monitor for a beginner, but if you don't have good eye sight, you may want to go with a 19" monitor. However, you can always use a 17" monitor and increase the display resolution (meaning that you can increase the size of everything that is displayed to you, i.e. magnification).
Finding the Right Package
The first thing I would emphasize is that you purchase a computer from a name brand. I would personally avoid Packard Bell and NEC because they tend to have lots of defect problems (not to mention quick deterioration).
Brands such as Compaq, Hewlett Packard, and Sony all feature reasonably priced computers at the levels described above. They can be found at any Best Buy, Circuit City or Comp USA (not to mention countless other retail establishments) at a price around the thousand dollar range (sometimes as low as $700).
Also, please be wary of rebates on computers. If you ever see a $300 or $400 rebate, it's probably because you have to sign up for 3 years with an Internet Service Provider at a rate of $20-25 per month ($720-900 over three years). When you buy this service all at once normally, you can get a reduced rate (perhaps as low as $15/month). However, when you buy this service in conjunction with a rebate offer for your computer, you don't get any discount.