A basic modern computer is (mid-2002):
- Windows: "Celeron" or "Pentium IV" processor at a speed of 200 MHz or more; 64 Mb of RAM; 500Mb of hard disk. It may not be possible to buy a brand-new computer as basic as this. (Some sales-creatures may claim the Windows "ME" and "2000" versions run well in 32Mb of memory. They are lying.) These days hard disks are more likely to be measured in Gb: 1 gigabyte = 1000 megabytes.
- Mac: the "iMac": the most basic model has a 500MHz "G3" processor, 128Mb RAM memory and 10Gb hard disk.
A computer suitable for doing stuff with images or DTP is:
- Windows: Pentium V processor with a speed of 600 MHz or faster; 128 Mb or more of RAM memory; 10 Gb of disk space or more.
- Mac: G4 processor with a speed of 600MHz or faster; 256 Mb or more of RAM memory; large hard disk.
People sometimes ask what the "Intel Inside" sticker means. It's an advertising ploy for one brand of processor chip to run Windows. The competing AMD chips are cheaper and at least as good. And, if you're still comparing Mac and Windows: Apple claim that their 1000 MHz G4 processor is faster in practice than a 2000MHz Intel processor and I believe them, for reasons which I'll explain if paid.
You can add more memory later. About a month after you buy your computer, you may well discover some hitherto-undreamed-of use for it - which needs more memory. But, if you are buying a portable computer, ask what additional memory (RAM) costs. It's often more expensive than RAM to fit into desk-top computers. Expanding the disk space in portable computers after you've bought them can be hideously expensive.
What extras & gizmos do I need?
What do you want to do with your computer? Some of these extras you will need straight away. Some you can buy in a few months' time. Some you will never need. Depends on your work.
Who needs one? Practically all journalists, for invoices at least. If you are not going to handle pictures or artwork to send to printers, a so-called "bubble-jet" printer is fine, inexpensive to buy, but expensive to feed with ink.
If you are doing DTP, there are advantages to getting a "Postscript" laser printer - at up to twice the price of a "non-Postscript" laser printer.
Colour laser printers are extremely expensive. Use a bureau for colour printing: take postscript files along on a Zip disk (see below).
Who needs one? Anyone who wants to file pictures electronically, or file copy electronically, or use email, the Web or any other internet service... practically all journalists.
A modem converts computer data to a form that can be fed down a phone line, and back. Many computers come with modems built-in. By now they're all the same speed: they will shift text at a rate of 57,600 bits per second (about 1000 words a second) and pictures at around 36,000 bits per second (a 1Mb magazine-quality image in 4 to 5 minutes).
Most modems on sale now are "faxmodems". This means that they come with a program which you put on your computer to enable it to send and receive faxes as well as computer files, text and pictures. Some are "data/fax/voice" modems. If you will be using your modem a lot, you are better off getting it its own phone line than trying to share one with your old-fashioned voice.
If you choose a desktop computer that doesn't come with a modem already installed, get an "external modem". This is a paperback-book-sized box, with a wire which plugs into the back of your computer. "Internal" modems are cheaper, but if you knew how to install an internal modem, you'd be writing this not reading it.
The difference between a Mac modem and a PC/Windows modem is the program that comes with it, the plug that comes with it, and the price. The modems themselves are the same.
If you want to send large files (images) quickly, you may find it worth getting either an "ADSL" phone line or internet access through your Cable TV provider. Either will require a different modem to deal with the different phone/cable line: almost all deals include this special modem in the rental.
There are also modems which you can use with mobile phones. At present they are commonly available only at a speed of 9600 bits per second: that's six seconds for a 1000-word article or twenty minutes for a 1Mb photo! Five years ago faster mobile modems were promised imminently, and they're still imminent.
Who needs one? Anyone who wants to send electronic mail, or surf that Web. It isn't part of your computer at all - it's permission to use someone else's computer to connect yourself to the Net.
Backup disk drive
Who needs one? Almost everyone. You will back up your essential programs and work files. Hard disks do break. If you have backup files, you can get a new disk, copy the backup files onto it, and carry on. If you don't have a backup, you're scuppered.
You can back up onto floppy disks. But a 500Mb hard disk fills up much sooner than you think. A complete backup would fill 358 floppy disks, which would take days... and days...
So think about:
- "Zip drives". These use 100Mb disks at £6-ish each, or (thus far expensive) 1000Mb disks. The drives connect into either the plug labelled "USB" on the back of your computer, or the plug labelled with a picture of a printer, and cost from about £80. They're not 100% reliable: best make more than one backup of really vital stuff. They are also now a standard way of delivering DTP artwork to printers and bureaux.
- CD-ROM writers, which have come down in price to under £100 - or £150-odd for small
ones for use with laptops. The disks themselves cost as little as 30p. Re-using disks is fiddly - but why bother? These now come built-in on iMacs and some other computers.
Who needs one? Photographers and some designers; some researchers, but you know who you are already.
There are three flavours: hand-held, flat-bed and neg/tranny.
Don't bother with hand-held scanners, period.
The price of neg/tranny scanners is falling fast enough that most photographers should soon be able to afford to file electronically. Scanning negs or trannies on a flat-bed scanner is foolish. For photo/graphic work, you need a scanner with a "colour depth" of at least "24 bits". More than one member recommends the Nikon SuperCoolScan.
A flat-bed scanner should have a "resolution" of at least 600 dots per inch ("dpi"). Most come with some form of text-recognition software that promises to convert scanned documents into editable files. Resw1ts ane varia61e.
Extra batteries, and chargers
Who needs them? Anyone with a portable computer who expects to use it for extended periods away from mains power. In general, reckon on the batteries lasting for 60% of the time claimed in the adverts. (They don't exactly lie: the reason for the difference is <deep jargon>.) More powerful computers eat batteries more quickly. You re-charge the batteries by leaving them in the computer when it's plugged in but turned off. So if you need more than two batteries, a separate charger is not a bad idea. All this, you can figure out after you get used to using your portable.
It is possible, with a sound card and a hard disk of the now-usual capacity, to use a portable computer as a tape recorder. People are already editing radio programmes on portable computers. Now included in many machines.
Well, they used to be called that... really. As multiskilling proceeds apace and the cheapest hardware you can get gets quicker, people are now editing video on desktop machines. To do that, you need a card that slots into the computer, to convert video from a camera into computer data and convert the finished computer data into something you can put on tape. Now standard in Macs.
A monitor the size of a small wardrobe
Who needs one? Someone who does DTP all day, every day. Monitors capable of displaying an entire A3 spread life size can still cost more than the computer.
Where to buy?
Which is more important to you - price, or backup? This was written on a Toshiba portable computer bought at a shop (Gultronics) on London's Tottenham Court Road, chosen because it has a service department in Central London. Not long ago a friend got a Gateway brand portable computer that's twice as powerful, for slightly less money, by mail-order. It had a problem, and she had to post it to Ireland for a three-week holiday. ("Many Gateway computers are just fine, m'lud.") She could have bought one even more cheaply by mail-order from the US, and it would have arrived in London in days not weeks, but... you get the picture. Always ask about service arrangements when buying, or track down someone who can do repairs locally to you.
What about second-hand computers?
Consider this. The all-in price of desk-top computers stays roughly constant, and over the past five years basic machines have fallen from £850+VAT to £500+VAT. The price of basic portables stays at about £1100+VAT. The power you get for that price doubles about every 18 months. Usually, people selling computers second-hand want about 70% of what they paid. You may find a bargain - but take a computer-literate person along to value it.