New Hardwre Makes For Hard Choices
Strange as it may sound, standing in the middle of the Las Vegas Convention Center surrounded by the fury of COMDEX isn't the best place to be thinking of hardware. Not if you want to grasp a realistic perspective of computer life at home. Not if you want to maintain your equilibrium amid an avalanche of the hottest hardware since the gun-fight at the OK Corral.
Even so, that was my position last November, roaming the aisles of COMDEX and wondering how all this wonderful computer technology was going to affect home-based computing. It's hard enough figuring out how a 486-based computer that harnesses the power of digital video interactive technology does what it does, without having to imagine how such a machine can possibly benefit my neighbor down the street who's still puzzled over how to program a VCR.
Maybe it would help to start with the basics. And that means spelling out what my opinions are about hardware. The COMPUTE! hallways are seldom free of good-natured (though I suspect sincerely felt) ribbing and taunting from a spectrum of experienced personal computer users. During an especially good day, the verbal exchanges rise to the level of serious discussion. We like to think we always ride that high road, but, as with anybody else, our arguments sometimes dip to the playground level. (My bits are badder! Oh yeah? Well my bus is bigger! Hah! Stick that in your throughput!) Still, it's stimulating and a heck of a lot more interesting than what usually passes for conversation in late-twentieth-century America.
Myself, I'm a minimalist. Or maybe a better term would be skeptical minimalist. That is, I believe that the more you get out of a minimum amount of equipment, the better off you are. The latest and greatest technological gadgetry seldom lives up to its hype. Besides, most folks can't afford the latest-generation computer equipment anyway. I have a simple rule: Stop to think about your computer purchases. If you think you can get along without it, you probably can. That rule doesn't make me the most modern computer user (I can't see beautiful VGA color on my home computer, and the most complex simulations and the application are beyond the power of my machine), but it certainly keeps me happy.
Not everybody is comfortable making that sacrifice, and that's fine. The newest hardware means hard choices. Is the 386SX the home machine for the 1990s, or can you get along with an AT-class machine or less? Myself, I spend most of my computing time at home writing, and too much of it playing games. I bring work home with me when deadlines demand it, and I track family finances. My 8088-based system has served me well for several years, and I have no compelling reason, except for the gee-whiz factor, to change. My writing wouldn't get any faster. The few minutes I would save crunching my small spreadsheets or searching my personal databases don't outweigh the expense of an upgrade.
The same goes for other systems. Do you need a Mac SE, or is your Plus getting the job done? Are you happy with your C64, or is your budding interest in home video strong enough to warrant an Amiga? Instead of upgrading your desktop system, maybe it would be better to pick up one of the new laptops. Sometimes it isn't a whole new hardware solution that you need, but only a peripheral. I don't use a mouse at home, but I might buy one because I think it could help my preschool-age son gain better control over the software he likes to play with.
The most important consideration you can make when contemplating new hardware is to take careful stock of your intended use of that equipment. Maybe you need the speed and processing power of a 386 if you're a freelance designer working with a topflight CAD package. Or maybe you want to buy a PC compatible that will take your home business into the next century and give you access to all of the anticipated software. Or, maybe you had planned on an AT, but with the drop in 386 prices you think the 386 is a better deal. Go ahead—buy it if you have the money, and don't feel guilty.
Maybe you're a little bored with your current state of computing. Have you tried telecommunicating? A modem is a lot cheaper than a whole new system, and it opens up great new avenues for exploration. Maybe you're eager to try some of the bigger software programs available, but you dread swapping all those disks in and out. A hard disk will cost you less than $300 and free you from floppy frustration. If you're a game player looking for a new facet to entertainment, a sound card will enhance many of the latest games.
When it comes to hardware, take a hard look. Evaluate your needs and balance them against your desires. The glitter of a new CPU is always tempting; the promise of speed, color, and a new generation of software is hard to resist. The promising technologies of today—digital video, CD-ROM, 32-bit power—will still be around tomorrow. And the siren song of full-blast PC power will by then have faded to a chorus of consent.