Choosing a Computer

It is not possible to guide you to an exact make, model and price. The computer industry being what is is, any recommended model would be discontinued before the ink on this page was dry.

Instead, these notes aim to guide you in making your own choice among the computers which are available now. These notes are aimed at people who have little or no experience of computers.

Armed with no more than this, you can ignore almost everything said by sales-people except the price. This is a good plan, because sales-people know much less than you do about what you need. They often know much less than they appear to about computers, too.

You need to ask yourself just four basic questions:

Then you decide:

The answers to some of these questions inevitably involve jargon - which is no more than names for things not found in the everyday world. With computers, you have to get used to using some arbitrary labels for things. There is a brief attempt at describing how the parts fit together at the end.

What flavour - Mac or Windows?

What do your major clients use? This is the basic rule, and the one sales-people never mention because they already know what they want to sell you.

If you file pictures to an all-Macintosh house, get a "Mac". If you regularly file text to one magazine, ask what word-processor the subs use and what flavour of computer it runs on. Consider getting that program and that flavour of machine.

If you already have a Mac or Windows computer, it'll be easier to access your old work and information if you get the same again - though it's much, much easier to switch from Windows to Mac than vice versa.

If there is a particular program you know you need to use, buy the flavour of computer which runs it best, or at all. The publishing program Quark and the photo-editing program PhotoShop are examples that used to run much better on the Mac. They probably run tolerably well on Windows 2000.

If you work for clients which use a mixed bag of computers, the choice is largely a matter of taste. Some people find the Mac easier to use. Some people value the fact that Windows gives you more control over how it behaves. In general, Macs still cost a bit more, for the same amount of computer power, than machines that run Windows. If you can, get to play with a Windows machine and a Mac to compare.

A "Mac" will say "Macintosh" on the box: there's just one brand. A machine that will run Windows may say "Toshiba" or "Gateway" or any one of dozens of brand-names. It will also say on the box that it runs "Windows ME", or "Windows 2000".

Avoid anyone whose eyes gleam religiously when they promote the virtues of their favoured system. Shun anyone who proselytises anything. Computers running the "Linux" operating system are increasingly popular, but setting one up and making it behave the way you want is probably still not a task for people who find this text useful.

Desktop or portable?

Will you, at any time in the next three years, be (a) freelance or (b) working from anywhere other than a desk? Then get a portable computer.

For a given amount of computer power, you can expect to pay about 30% more for the portable form than for the "desktop" form.

Desktop computers also have the advantages of generally nicer keyboards and brighter, adjsutable displays. These things help in avoiding Repetitive Strain Injury.

Especially when contemplating buying a portable computer, once you've picked a possible brand - try it out. Type at least 200 words on it; see how the keyboard feels to you and how much of a strain the screen is to look at. Ask how to adjust the screen. Then start to walk out of the shop saying you need an hour to think.

Portable computers offer you one major and potentially confusing choice: the type of display:

  • "STN" or "Supertwist" or even "Supertwist Nematic"! All these silly names mean exactly the same thing: the cheaper kind. But they've got a lot better in the past five years, so you won't so often be offered:
  • "TFT" or "Thin-Film Transistor" or "Active Matrix". All these mean exactly the same thing: the more expensive kind by several hundred pounds; brighter, clearer and sharper, in general terms.

Look at examples of each and compare. Look again in bright light. Look in your wallet. Decide.

How powerful?

Will you, at any time in the next three years, be doing anything with pictures or with page layouts (aka DTP)?

If the answer is yes, you will want the most powerful computer you can afford.

If the answer is no, you need only a basic modern computer.

Using the internet does not require a particularly powerful computer. Only work with pictures and DTP requires a powerful computer - unless you plan to go into weather forecasting, running the Treasury Economic Model, nuclear weapon design, or something like that.

There are three relevant measures of power:

  1. Processor speed - measured in "Megahertz", also written "MHz"
  2. Memory, also called "RAM" - measured in "megabytes", also written "Mb"
  3. Disk space - also measured in "megabytes", also written "Mb". A 1000-word article as "plain text" occupies 0.006 Mb; a novel up to 0.5 Mb; a magazine-quality photograph may be 1Mb or more.

In each case, bigger numbers mean faster, bigger, better, and more expensive.

Holderness Patent Analogy #1:

Memory is the size of your desk. How much your computer has decides how complicated a job it can do, or how many jobs it can do at one time. Doing more than one thing at once is very, very, useful.

Disk space is the size of your filing cabinet. How much your computer has decides how many completed jobs you can store. Storing all your work on disk for posterity is exceedingly sensible.

If you ask a computer to do a job which is too complicated to fit "on the desk", it will shuffle up a pile of "virtual papers" and stick them in the "filing cabinet". Then when it needs them again it will shuffle up and stash some others, and fetch the first lot back. This is called "using virtual memory". It's fine for a writer on a good day. It can on a bad day, for a photographer with a tight deadline, mean waiting half an hour (no kidding!) for a photo to appear on your screen.

So having enough RAM memory is often more important to the working speed of your computer than the processor speed is.

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.

Internet account

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.

Sound card

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.

Video toaster

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.

Holderness Patent Analogy #2:

A computer system is like an onion. The following is an attempt to help you understand how the layers work together.

From the outside inwards, you have:

  • The programs you use. You think "I want to fetch that thing I was working on yesterday". You tell the program, usually these days by clicking on things on the screen with a mouse. A program is a set of rules for deciding what you're up to: "If she clicks there, types that and then clicks there, turn this bit green". A program's job is to manipulate your information, which it "thinks of" as -
    • Data files. These are where your computer stores your work - words, pictures, tax accounts, whatever. Some programs store work in a way which only they understand - a PhotoPaint "native format" picture, or a Microsoft Word document. Fortunately, any useful program can (with a bit of cunning) be instructed to store the same information (minus a few refinements of design) in a file format which any other useful program can deal with - "plain text" or "TIFF photos" for example. You often end up with two files, each storing the same information in a different arrangement - one for your program, one for export. If you email the export file to someone else, you're home and dry. But whether another computer can read those files from a disk depends on -
      • The operating system. This is a program, too. It's called "Windows 2000" or "Macintosh System X" or something like that. It sits underneath all the programs you use, dealing with the very, very tedious details like where files are physically located on the disk and how they're arranged - the disk format. Windows can't read Mac files. The Mac System can read Windows files. Operating systems have many sub-layers. You will discover this when you buy a printer or scanner: you will often need to install a driver - a sub-layer of the operating system which talks to that bit of machinery.
        • The hardware. This is the really, really stupid (but very quick) stuff: processors, disk drives and so on. The operating system protects people who write programs from having to deal with it directly.

Windows and the Mac System obscure the difference between programs and data, because their data files are tagged with what program they "belong to", and you can start the program by clicking on a picture of the data. But as soon as you use the internet, you need to remember the difference. You will often need to start a program, and then tell it to "import" a data file which came from a computer running an alien operating system (Unix!).

Last modified: 24 June 2002 - © 2002 contributors
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