Confused. Intimidated. Impoverished.
If you feel that way when you think about buying your first computer, you're not alone.
Personal computers present a bewildering array of options to buyers, and a first-timer can get hopelessly confused in a sea of CPUs, RAM and other buzzwords of the trade. It's also easy to get hooked by the lure of the latest technology and spend far more than you need to for your computer.
It doesn't have to be that way.
Most experts agree the best way to buy a computer -- and narrow down the list of options -- is to ask one question first: What do you want to accomplish with the computer?
"Most of the people who call me don't know what they want to do with the computer," said Andrys Basten, a Berkeley, Calif., computer consultant. "They know they have to have a computer to get ahead, and they have a computer at work. But they don't even know the name of it."
For many, the answer to this key question will be the same: to be able to take work home from the office. For those users, the chief concern is buying a computer that will run the same software they use at work -- without necessarily buying the same top-of-the-line model their company owns. The test is probably how fast the computer can run the program.
For others, entertainment may be the purpose. For those users, the quality of the computer screen may be more important than the performance of the computer itself. For users who want to do a lot of work with on-screen images, such as drawings and photographs, both speed and screen quality become important.
After you determine what you want to do with the computer -- and before you buy one -- the most important thing is to decide on the software you want. Experts advise buyers to audition a number of products to find the one you're most comfortable with -- and one you think will meet your needs for some time.
The choice of software will dictate many things, not only how happy you'll be using the computer but also how much memory you'll need and whether you'll need a hard disk.
It will also help you decide among various "operating systems," the basic software that runs the computer. Like a traffic cop, it decides when the various pieces of hardware will run and manages the transfer of data among them. The most common operating system is MS-DOS. Newer ones, such as OS-2 and Unix, are probably more advanced than most first-time buyers need. (Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh has its own, proprietary operating system.)
Once you know what software you want to buy, you'll also know which computer models it will work with.
The IBM Personal Computer -- and work-alike computers from other manufacturers, machines called "clones" -- are by far the most popular. But machines from IBM, and other big-name companies such as Compaq Computer Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., are the most expensive machines of this type. Most experts recommend that individuals steer clear of them and buy one of the less-expensive clones.
But the existence of clones means there are literally hundreds of brands to consider. They range from well-known national brands like Tandy and Everex to home-grown machines offered by unknown "no-name" clones.
One way to sort through the pile is to consult some of the more popular monthly computer magazines, such as PC, PC World or Byte. They frequently publish the results of side-by-side tests of comparable machines, which can help you find one with the right mixture of performance and after-sale support.
Another way is to talk to friends and co-workers who own a computer similar to the one you'd like to buy. See what they have to say about reliability, service and support. Joining a users group can also put you in touch with experienced users who can offer advice -- and steer you clear of problems.
In any case, users will have to make at least one basic decision: whether to buy a computer with an older microprocessor chip, such as the Intel 8088 or 80286, or a model with a more recent chip such as Intel's 80386SX.
Older models with an 8088 tend to be about the cheapest computers on the market. But they also tend to be much slower than newer machines, and the industry considers them outdated and no longer spends much time developing new products for them. But if you're on a tight budget -- and the software you need will run on it -- an 8088 machine may be the way to go.
"If you're just going to do basic word processing, why not just get an 8088 machine?" said Russ Walter, a Boston computer consultant and author of "The Secret Guide to Computers," a $15 buying guide and tutorial for beginning computer users.
For most folks, though, the choice is really between the 80386SX and the 80286.
Among small-business buyers, the 80286 remains the popular choice. According to the Business Research Group in Newton, Mass., more than half the $2 billion small businesses will spend to buy personal computers in the next year will be for 286 or older-style machines. About 40 percent will buy machines with the 80386SX and its big brother, the 80386.
But some experts now say that the 386SX is the chip of choice for many users instead of the older 286. The reason: You'll pay only $300 or so more for a 386SX machine, and it will probably run more of the software now being developed by programmers.
"New software is being written with the 386 in mind," Basten said. "You can use a 286 if you plan to keep your machine for a year or less or if you don't expect to buy a lot of new software for it."
It's somewhat easier to keep track of the competing Macintosh product line from Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple. There are eight models in the line, including one portable machine, that progress in power and price from the low-end Macintosh Plus to the top-of-the-line Macintosh IIfx.
The main selling point of the machine since its inception in 1984 is the combination of things you use to control the computer, collectively known as the "user interface." Apple says the interface, along with the programs on the Macintosh, which all use similar commands, makes its computer significantly easier to use than an IBM PC.
The key factor working against the Macintosh is price. Because there are no legal clones of the computer, Apple has been able to maintain a premium price for its products.
"A Macintosh costs approximately 60 percent to 70 percent more than a comparably equipped IBM clone," Walter said. Another disadvantage, he said, is the small size of the built-in screen used in the lowest-priced Macintosh models.
For buyers who want a Macintosh, the easiest way to slash their cost is probably to buy a stripped-down Macintosh, one without a lot of memory or a hard disk drive. You can add those things later and shop around for the best price.
For IBM PC and clone buyers who want some of the flavor of the Macintosh, Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 3.0 is designed to bolt a similar interface onto MS-DOS. There's a catch, though. Windows 3.0 requires a fairly powerful and expensive computer to run well, and there's not nearly as much software written to work with it as there is for the Macintosh.
Some buyers, especially those with specialized needs in music or graphics, may consider the Amiga computer line from Commodore International, or Atari Corp.'s ST machines. But neither line enjoys the widespread base of users and software that the IBM PC and Macintosh have.
Once you've decided on the computer you'll buy, most experts say you should consider spending any leftover money on a hard disk drive. A 20-megabyte unit used to be considered adequate for most users. But today's new programs are larger than ever before. Graphics, too, are more common in computer files. More space is required to store graphics than text and numbers. So a 30- or 40-megabyte disk may be a better choice.
The computer's random-access memory (RAM) is another place to put extra cash. You'll probably want to put at least 512 kilobytes of RAM in the machine. But if you can afford it, a megabyte will let you accommodate larger programs and more data.