Even MMX is a future dinosaur

Computer Life column for 2/8/97 by
Richard Gordon

While we were waiting for our kids at the Western Y one cold January night, one of the other parents stopped me.

"What's this MMX stuff I've heard about? Is the computer I bought my kids for Christmas already out of date?"

"Well, yes," I answered. "But that's normal."

I explained that you always take a calculated risk when you buy a computer. Even though the technology changes so rapidly that last week's new model will be on sale by Easter, you've got to discipline yourself not to worry about it.

I asked if his family could do the things they wanted with the computer. He listed lots of things they were happily doing, so I said, "Do you really care that you don't have a PentiumPro system with the latest MMX boost for fancy multimedia? E-mail, Excel, Quicken and Word are working well; that multimedia encyclopedia sounds cool; and Reader Rabbit's helping your son learn his vowel sounds."

He left the conversation smiling, feeling reassured that his system was fine.

Because we don't understand the technology, a lot of us have an urgent fear of being snookered when we shop for a computer--often worse than the anxiety we feel when we buy other big-ticket items. With computer purchases, there is no "sweetheart deal" that will let you strut from the showroom feeling that you got a great price on an Important Thing you'll still be enjoying well into the next millennium.

Because it's expensive, it's tempting to consider a computer as a one-shot purchase. However, a computer is really a rapidly-depreciating item with maintenance costs--it's more like a Subaru than a Maytag. Of course, it depreciates for different reasons than a car does.

When I buy a new car, I hope to keep it running for at least eight years. I don't worry about radical changes in gasoline or highway-building technologies forcing me to either change the way I drive or trade in my car.

However, computing technology changes so rapidly that many of us trade in systems before they wear out. Many business people feel lucky to get three productive years from a desktop system. In education and government, we hope for four to six years.

Even today's coolest system will someday seem limiting, small and slow. When that time comes, what will you do?

Most of us should keep two things in mind when shopping for a computer.

First, in a matter of weeks, something newer, faster, less expensive and (supposedly) better will hit the market. But since you are not buying a computer to impress the neighbors, don't worry about it. If you need a computer today, just get it today.

Second, ask yourself: "How long do I want this system to last?" When you purchase a computer, you are not marrying a piece of hardware. Instead, you are acquiring a working snapshot of technology that was current a week, a month or a year ago. Make sure it does what you need now, and always discuss an upgrade path with the salesperson--how much memory can you add? Are there expansion slots for future devices?

My son is only 7. But in those seven years two new computers have come into our house. Both systems are, of course, now "old technology," but I've upgraded both so they can continue to be useful.

I shudder to think how many systems will have passed through our spare bedroom before he graduates from high school.

Copyright © 1997, The News Journal Company

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Richard Gordon helps support faculty, staff and student computing at the University of Delaware. E-mail questions, comments or suggestions to richard@conectiv.net, or write him at The News Journal, Box 15505, Wilmington, DE 19850. Although each note cannot be answered individually, reader comments and questions will often be incorporated in future columns.