Mowing down the right computer purchase

Computer Life column for April 18, 1998

Richard Gordon

While I was mowing the lawn last weekend, my neighbor's brother stopped me.

He had seen a WebTV Plus unit at Sears and was very impressed. These are the "set-top network computers" that you can plug into your existing television and your existing phone line to surf the Net.

He liked the price: He could buy a WebTV Plus system and a printer for less than half the cost of a decent "full-service" computer. It seemed like a fun, simple and convenient alternative to buying a traditional system.

We talked about surfing the 'Net and sending and receiving e-mail. He thought that sounded fun, and said he'd do a little bit of that, but what he was looking forward to was being able to type and print some of the letters and newsletters he writes for his civic association.

After we talked about more full-featured word processing programs, he decided that the WebTV system wouldn't do his newsletters and form letters very well. And those are the things he's most interested in computerizing.

As I resumed trudging behind my mower, I thought about how complicated buying a computer really is. Lots more complicated than buying a lawnmower.

No matter what kind I buy--side-bagging, rear-bagging, riding, or whatever, I'll always use it to cut the grass. Obvious things like the size and slope of my yard and the size of my bank balance dictate my shopping choices.

With most medium- to large-ticket purchases--refrigerators, cars, washing machines, dishwashers--you know how you're going to use the thing after you've bought it.

Computer purchases are more nebulous. We don't run out to a store and buy a computer so that we can "compute"--whatever that means.

Before buying a computer, you need to backtrack and figure out for what tasks you want to use the system: What do you want to do that a computer might make easier or more fun? Is there something new that only a computer can help you try?

The basic tasks

There is no universal task for which everyone uses a computer. So, before you go shopping, make a list of the things you want the computer to do. Then, if you need help, require that the salesperson explain exactly how the system he or she recommends will let you do those things.

And if you find a computer that will mow the lawn and prevent crabgrass, drop me a line.

Copyright © 1998, 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, 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.