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Misconception: All computers are created equal.

by Terry E. Mercer (c) 1997-1999

What Many Salespeople Tell their Customers:

If all of the components are there and the system works, all is fine.
An "xxxMHz" system for $800 is "about the same" as the $3,000 version from another company. After all, the system has a video card, a hard disk, RAM, monitor, modem, keyboard, mouse, and some programs. It lists the same number and type of components as this other computer which costs 50% to 400% more money. Therefore, it is a better deal!

FALSE!

FACT: The type and quality of components used in a system make a huge difference in performance.
Example, a Volkswagen is a car... with four tires, an engine, doors, radio, gas tank, steering wheel, etc. So is a Porsche. In fact a Porsche engine will bolt up to a Volkswagen transmission. But are they the same? They are both cars. Let's say they both have a 2500 cc motor. The Volkswagen's engine was built for gas mileage and doesn't have the horsepower the Porsche has, which was built for speed. Computers are much the same as cars, with a great deal more flexibility and upgradability. Imagine turning your Hugo into a Ford F350 Super Duty Crew Cab and then into an Aquastrada (the most awesome amphibious vehicle ever made - 180mph on land, and 80mph in the water). With cars that isn't possible. With computers, it is not only possible... but often, with a good tech helping you, a great deal more cost-effective and intelligent in the long run.
I can build a new system for under $1000 or for more than $5,000 using virtually the same basics: the same amount of RAM, same size of hard drive, a VGA monitor, etc. The difference lies in the "tweaks," the quality of the components used... the future upgradability & future costs, longevity of the components toward future needs, and integration. The $5,000 system contains products which are designed to run faster, better, with fewer problems, and to best deal with a specific purpose. Prices for non-integrated systems are slightly higher, and offer greater flexibility and upgradability.
A prime example of this concept, at the time this is written, a "standard" (better than nothing) VGA video card costs me around $40 (plus shipping and handling)... and a great one that is a screamer, which has a lot of "bells and whistles," and slams the data to your monitor in virtually any resolution your monitor can handle costs between $200 to more than $500. Is the price difference worth it? The answer depends on your specific needs. If you use a lot of graphics (GIFs, TIFs, JPEGs, etc.), and/or you are waiting on screen re-draws, then you would probably benefit from a faster video card (and/or monitor). Are you running CAD programs? Full Screen Video? Video Editing? A lot of graphics manipulation? If you answered YES to any of those questions, then you will want the fastest video card you can afford in balance with the rest of your system. If the answer is ONLY SOMETIMES or MAYBE IN THE FUTURE then one of it's $200 or $300 little brothers will give you the best performance for the money. Keep in mind that the fastest video card will only push the signal through as fast as your display can handle it... therefore, you need to consider the balance.
BUS Speed - of the motherboard, RAM, and Video are very important. 66MHz is the minimum (for a new system) that you should consider, with the 100 & 133MHz becoming more and more popular. The 200MHz BUS is looming on the horizon, and will be released to the public by early 2000.
Type of video connection - Standard ISA, PCI, AGP, AGP 2x, AGP 3x, and now AGP 4x (from the slowest to fastest). It is getting increasingly difficult to wade through the information and mis-information regarding video cards, video acceleration, to 3D or not to 3D. I highly recommend the Diamond V770 or ATI RAGE Pro All-In-Wonder cards on the newer systems (100MHz bus speeds, and 300MHz or faster CPUs will NOT find a bottle neck with either of these video cards). The Diamond Viper V550 (either PCI or AGP) on the slightly older systems (any low end Pentium Class system), and the Diamond Viper 4MB VRAM (ISA or PCI) for the real old systems (486 class systems).
What is the importance of MPEG (1 or 2) and who needs it? Only those that want smooth DVD on their computer, or plan to create or watch a lot of movies. Bottom line, if you aren't going to be watching movies on your computer, then you don't need MPEG anything. HOWEVER, keep in mind that some of the Training CDs on the market do use MPEG to enhance their play. 
Not all monitors are alike. A "VGA" color monitor can be purchased for $150 to over $2,000. Expect to pay between three and seven hundred for a real good one. You want to get a digital monitor, not analog. The difference is buttons, not knobs. Knobs can wear out and break; buttons either work or not, with much less wear and tear. Signals start out as digital in the computer, a good video card interprets the digital signal and sends in to the monitor... if both the video card and monitor are digital, then there is no additional conversions and thus faster response. Nearly all monitors sold today are digital - therefore, size, dpi, refresh rates, and warranty become the most important facts in selecting a monitor.
If possible, make sure there is a "degausser" which will help give the monitor a longer life and fewer problems. This is a special demagnetizing button, that will help add life to your monitor and keeps the colors true.
Keep in mind what you will be using the system for. Graphics, CAD, and large spread sheets are best done on 17" or larger displays. If you are only word processing and playing non-graphics intensive games then the monitor may not be as important. If you are going to be sitting in front of your system for numerous hours a day, then getting a better monitor will reduce eye strain. If you wear glasses, having a bigger and better monitor will make you happier in the long run. Bottom line, getting the best monitor you can is a good investment because it will grow with you. It will work on any new computer you get, as well as 99.9% of the upgrades you get. The average "good" monitor should last 3 to 5 years minimum I have a couple that are nearly 10 years old and still working great. Many monitors on the market carry a 2 or 3 year warranty, which does come in handy at times. With monitors, in particular, you generally get what you pay for.
Hi-Definition TV - great concept, and within the next 3 to 5 years something might really start happening with it. HDTV has been a reality in Japan since 1990. It has been a concept and in discussions for over 10 years. It is basically going to combine the computer display needs with the current television requirements, and mesh the two industries together giving you, the end-user, a best quality display that is multi-purpose... and gives them something new they can sell you and make money off from. Will it be good? Definitely. It is the "wide screen" version of life, and the movie industry is pushing for it to become a standard (so they won't have to reformat the film from theater mode to TV mode (as they have to do today)). They are very nice, extremely clear picture, faster, better resolution, and more versatile. In my opinion, it isn't worth the money at this time, and the majority of the developers in the software arena are continuing to develop for the existing platforms - not the latest and greatest, and most expensive. The ONLY computer "system" that has mentioned the addition of HDTV is WebTV. A couple video card manufacturers (that have TV-OUT connectors) have stated that their cards are compatible (but not edge to edge, as the shape of the screen is considerably different).

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Copyright 1998,1999 T.E. Mercer, all rights reserved. This page was last updated 02 April 2000
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