Yesterday's Cold War arms race had nothing on today's back-to-school computer race. To hear the kids tell it, Johnny could read - and write - if he only had an ultralight multimedia laptop.
And for parents, it's tough to resist pleas for something that is at least arguably educational, as opposed to a car or an overnight camping trip with friends.
So, some guidelines:
No notebooks. Sorry, a notebook is a series of compromises in favor of weight and portability. It's much more expensive than its desktop counterparts. Example: Gateway Computer's multimedia desktop systems start at $1,699 for a 120-megahertz Pentium, 16 megabytes of RAM, eight-speed CD-ROM, 16-bit sound card, 15-inch SVGA monitor, one-gigabyte hard drive, two speakers and a 28.8 kilobits-per-second fax/data modem. Starting price for Gateway's multimedia notebooks is $1,000 more. Besides, a desktop machine is unlikely to be left in an unlocked locker or unguarded gym bag.
No Apples. I wish it were still the early 1980s, too, but it isn't. There's a lot more software for the Windows/PC platform; it's updated more often; and it has an overwhelming market share. It also is almost always less expensive than a comparable Apple product.
Software written for Windows 95 only. Some folks are still releasing DOS-based software, for Bit's sake, and while almost all Windows 3.1 software will run under Windows 95, it's cleaner if the platform and the software match. Now that you know what not to buy, what's the recommended mix?
Pentium processor. Minimum 120-megahertz, and 16 megabytes of system RAM. The software coming out these days is great, but it demands speed and lots of memory. Bear in mind we're talking minimums here.
A gigabyte hard drive, at least. That means storage for 1 billion characters. Some of the applications suites lurking about the marketplace can take 200 to 300 megabytes alone.
Six-speed CD-ROM drive, at least. Eight is better. As this is written, 10-speeds are appearing. The idea is that the faster you can snatch data from the CD-ROM, the less you have to keep handy (and taking space) on your hard drive. That CD-ROM drive should be coupled with a 16-bit Soundblaster-compatible sound card. Both of these are required because so much of the available software requires a CD-ROM drive just for installation, and most of the educational and productivity software assumes you have both capabilities.
A 15-inch color monitor, at least. With a dot pitch of .28 millimeters or less, at least one megabyte of video RAM (more is better) and a 64-bit graphics card.
A fax/data modem, for a world increasingly online, that can handle at least 28.8 kilobits per second. Again, more is better, but bear in mind that the advertised numbers reflect ideal telephone line conditions. Get a noisy line and your speeds can drop by half as the modems spend time talking to each other with "Say what? Say again?"
The software bundled with your computer will almost certainly include Windows 95, an encyclopedia or two, pitches from all the online services, and probably Microsoft Works.
What to pay? $1,700 to $1,800 for what was just described.
Whom to pay? I've used and liked Compaq, Gateway, NEC, usually hear good things about Dell.
Where to shop? Compare mail-order and retail. Generally, not always, mail-order is a bit cheaper, but the big electronics retailers are aware of that. And there's a lot to be said for in-store demos and local service support.