Shoppers leafing through computer publications for buying advice this Christmas season will find things much changed from a year ago, especially in the IBM-compatible market. The Apple Macintosh market has changed, too, and in perhaps the most important way: price.
The major differences in the IBM world are the sales success of Microsoft Windows and the emergence of 386SX-based computers as the new standard for entry-level machines. The two developments are related. When version three of Windows was unveiled last spring, Microsoft promoted not only its Macintosh-like ease of use, but insisted it would run well on any PC with at least a 286-class processor and 1 megabyte of memory. It soon became apparent that this was not so.
To get the most out of Windows, you need at least 2 megabytes of RAM, preferably more. While the program will run on a 286 system, some of its more advanced functions -- simultaneous computing in more than one program, for example -- are not available. Because Windows is a graphical environment, the computer has to work hard to draw the screen, much harder than with a text environment that uses only a limited set of characters.
The result is that graphical software is inherently slower than text-based software. Thus the faster the computer, the more smoothly Windows runs. Most 386SX machines run at 16 megahertz, most new 286 systems at 12 megahertz. The additional speed, plus the more adroit way in which the 386 manages memory, make it a much preferable machine for Windows.
A word here about the 386 chip: It is a 32-bit processor, which means it handles data in 32-bit chunks. The 286 is a 16-bit processor. The 386SX is a hybrid of the two. It is a 386 processor with a 16-bit data "bus." The bus is the electronic pathway on which data travels through the computer. The 386SX can do all the fancy tricks the full 386 (called the DX) can, except it receives information along a road only half as wide.
The advantage of this is that the hardware used to build a 286 system can be used to make a 386SX. The result is substantial savings: 386SX systems now only cost a couple of hundred dollars more than a comparable 286. If you want to run Windows or other applications that make use of the 386's power, the SX is a good value.
Does this mean that everybody needs to run out and get one? Emphatically not. For all the trade-press hoopla about it, Windows still is a relative newcomer to the PC market. The number of applications designed to work with it is growing at an impressive rate, but there is a vastly greater selection of standard PC applications. Most of them run quite efficiently on a 286 or even an XT-class computer.
Windows makes great sense for a large organization seeking to standardize its computer applications and save money on training. It makes much less sense for an individual user or small organization that may already be getting along fine with such PC applications as WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3 or any of the standard database programs.
It is tempting to add here that Windows is a good choice for anyone who wants a PC that's easy and fun to use -- something for which PCs haven't exactly been famous. Microsoft has done a good job of that, even throwing in an addicting solitaire game to show off Windows's color graphics. It is now selling what it calls the "Entertainment Pack" for Windows, a set of additional card and board games that, like solitaire, look great in color.
But there's another factor that complicates the picture. Apple's new Macintosh Classic, which can be purchased with a hard disk for about $1,500, has rearranged the low end of the PC marketplace. For years, the trouble with the Mac was that for all its elegance and ease of use, it cost too much. You could get a PC of comparable power for about $1,000 less.
You can get a mail-order 386SX to run Windows for $1,500 these days, but not with a color monitor. Without a color monitor, a PC running Windows does not stack up well against a Mac. The Mac, after all, is the original graphical business computer. It has been around for years and there are far more programs available for it than for Windows.
It has a small "footprint," to use the industry argot. This means you can put it on your desk and have room left over for more than an ashtray. Be careful, though. Macintosh users tend to be fanatics: To them, the Mac isn't a computer, it's a way of life.
Finally, if the PC owner on your list has at least a 286 and doesn't have Windows yet, it's a good gift: It's fun to play around with, even if you don't end up converting to it.
Brit Hume is a contributor to the Washington Post Writers Group. He is chief ABC News White House correspondent and the founding editor of a computer newsletter.