Buying Strategies for Computers

By Elliott Reitz, 7/11/97

If your buying one or more computers, it's important to know what your buying and why. Lack of knowledge can easily lead to getting burned. Education will lead to sound decision making. Buying a home computer or refreshing the technology of a work environment both require a sound understanding of both the Computing Needs and the Technology Growth of the computer market.

Notice how small the monitor is that the duck is gonna smash - this can be a truly satisfying end to an old computer. My first computer died with a shot put into a dumpster even though it still worked. My only regret was that I didn't use a hammer first - like the duck;).

Computing Needs

An assessment of the need for computing is the most important step prior to purchasing. It's really true that the software is as important as the computing platform. Assessment of the computing needs at hand leads to complete planning. Otherwise, you may spend all your money to find out that your investment won't solve your problem. Computers are commonly purchased without adequate software or peripherals. This leads to frustration and follow-on unexpected costs. Thus, consider these categories:

All of these cost something in time, money, and support. For an effective plan these must be included.

Technology Growth

Technology growth will rapidly devalue any computer purchased. Should that stop you or encourage you to wait? Yes. However, waiting too long can also create a situation where your business or personal life suffers. Buying a computer is much like buying a car. When you bring it home, it looses 10% of its value. However, it also depreciates faster than a car because the introduction of a new processor or some other technology causes rapid devaluation.

For general trends, I'll offer these rough estimates of value over time. A new computer looses about 10% of it's value each month for the first 3 months (loosing ~27% of it's value). After that, it continues to loose about 5% each month for a couple years. These estimates are rough because the technology growth doesn't flow smoothly. Between major advancements, computers will hold their value about like a car. Yet major advancements are frequent. Ignoring the irregularities, my value/time estimate is:

If you're buying a computer for the first time it's important to determine what you want that computer to do before you buy it. Otherwise, you could end up buying expensive hardware with no real job for it to do. By the time you figure out what you want it to do it will have lost value. Yes you may just want a toy. However, if that's the case you must realize that up front to avoid feeling you've spent allot of money for nothing.

If you already have an old computer you probably know what you need it for. From there, you'll need to consider software, portability, and how much to spend so that you get the most out of your investment.

Buying High or Low

Will it last longer if I buy a better one? Yes to a point. There is a moving value-curve. The horizontal scale. If you spend too little, you end up with a computer that is difficult to operate and has limited functionality. Spending too much can also lead to problems. The processor type is the most important aspect to the life of your system. Here is a current assessment of PC processors (updated 7/97):

UNIX workstations, Mac's, and other computer types also have similar processor growth options.

Technology Refresh

Technology Refresh is an important aspect of computer ownership. For example, if your last computer purchase was 3 years ago, its functionality is poor, support is difficult, and it IS time to replace or upgrade.

There are several refresh strategies available. Support structures, software and availability of money factor into the approach. Some of the strategies are:

Complete refresh with each processor generation works well in small environments. This leads to a consistent environment shared by everyone in the environment. As the installed base gets larger this becomes more difficult because of the impact of the transition. It also leads to periods of high and low in computing power. For some businesses this is tolerable.

Continuous refresh works well in large environments. This way, the support cost of the transition is leveled out. It also allows the processing power of the newer systems to be directed to where it's needed most.

Scheduled refresh (most often annual) works well in mid-size environments. It also works fits well with adaptation to the availability of money.

Performance Boosts and Limits

RAM, disk size, processor speeds, monitor size are a few of the easily upgraded items on a computer. However, upgrades should be considered carefully. For example more RAM doesn't always mean better performance. Here are some of the considerations.


RAM upgrades make a big difference provided the software will take advantage of it. If the software doesn't use the RAM it's like it isn't there. Operating systems have the biggest effect here. With W31 (MS Windows 3.1) the most common RAM shortage occurs in the 640K base RAM partition. If this is the location of the shortage, adding RAM won't help. Most W31 software won't use any more than 32MB of RAM. However, prior to getting to 32M used, W31 usually runs into shortages of base memory making 16M a more reasonable stopping point. Occasionally 32M will perform better than 16M in W31, but usually that's not the case.

Most 486 motherboards have 4 30pin SIMM (Single Inline Memory Modules) sockets. This limits their growth to 16MB (4x 4MB). Motherboards with 72pin sockets are still limited by the capabilities of the operating system.

With W95 (MS Windows 95), the base memory problem seems to have been solved. However, most of the software still fails to take advantage of >32MB. Thus 32MB seems to be the most reasonable stopping point on W95. Before going past 32M, an operating system upgrade to NT is appropriate. However, some of the peripherals (ie: some scanners) still don't run on NT so be careful. Also, the process of upgrading the operating system is not trivial. Backup prior to upgrade is a the key precaution.

With NT (MS Windows New Technology), software is given full access to available RAM. Memory management functions completely eliminate the base memory problem. This means that the most cost-effective upgrade is a RAM upgrade. Note that a 128MB Pentium 75 will out perform a Pentium 200 with 32M. Most motherboards have 4 slots for SIMMs. This limits their memory growth to 128MB. Some of the motherboards (not many) have 6 slots, limiting them to 192MB. Pentium-II, K6 and Pentium-Pro motherboards usually have 8 SIMM slots, or 4-8 DIMM (Dual Inline Memory Module) slots. This makes raises their RAM limit to 256MB-512MB. I don't know about you, but for me the prospect of my RAM being larger than my last disk is exciting.

Disk Size

With 486 motherboards (up to 486/DX2-66), most BIOS (Basic Input Output System) chips limit the HDD (Hard Disk Drive) size to 500MB. Going higher in disk storage requires partitioning either partitioning the disk, or special software to switch virtual partitions. This is often problem prone. Thus, a processor upgrade should come first. This immediately leads to more. When upgrading a 486, it's usually more cost effective to replace the whole PC-case, operating system, mouse, keyboard, and monitor at the same time. In other words, replace the whole thing. That way the old machine is still available. Also, a complete replacement eases the transition trauma since ongoing tasks suffer less interruption. It also gives you a low-end (mixed blessing) system you can give to someone who has nothing.

With Pentiums running W31, W95, or NT, I haven't seen the HDD limits yet. I recently heard a concern raised over a W95 P-90 getting a 3G HDD. However that was quickly solved. 4G HDDs are now becoming popular and soon I expect 9G drives will become common.

Processor Speeds

Processor upgrades are risky unless you know your RAM and motherboard are capable of the increased speed. Processor upgrades are also similar to the cost of RAM upgrades. Thus I do not recommend processor upgrades. There are 586-P83 processor packs for 486 machines. These are also of limited value and again not recommended. The system is still limited by the disk, video, modem/LAN, and other peripherals.

Monitor Size

Monitor size is one of the most noticeable improvements possible. 17" monitors are the smallest size I would recommend at this time. The cost savings of a 15" monitor directly causes a slow-down on the machine requiring the user to switch screens rather than running multiple apps on the same "desktop". Eyestrain is also a factor. 20" monitors have recently become cost effective. Often a monitor upgrade will also require a video board upgrade to take advantage of its size. This is also a cost-effective investment.

Technology Currency Consideration

By Technology Currency Consideration I mean how current your business or personal needs are tied to the "freshness" of technology. For example, if your business is producing new software to run on NT, a 486 is useless. This means that some businesses and people will need to upgrade or refresh their computers more aggressively. These situations often lead to refresh cycles tied to the processor or operating system advancements. In the mean time, disk and peripheral upgrades are also necessary.


Technology growth (related article) creates new opportunities for solving personal and business problems. Well-planned purchases and upgrades are important to getting the most out of your investment. Wise investment will keep your business or personal computing effective. Technology refresh is necessary to stay current. Many strategies are available, but most important is having one. What's your plan?

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