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Ten Rules to Buy Hardware

© 1999, by Peter Black

1. Never buy version 1.0.

The integration of hardware and operating system software is extraordinarily complex, and manufacturers rarely get it right the first time. You'll save money and avoid misery if you get a slightly older, more proven model.

2. Choose a laptop over a desktop.

Laptops now feature almost all the power of desktops. They naturally integrate flat screen displays, which are much easier on the eyes. Further, all laptops have batteries, and batteries are uninterruptible power supplies. If the relative cost of the laptop vs. the desktop worries you, add the cost of a flat screen display and a UPS to the tag for the desktop, and things will even out.

3. Buy a slower processor and more RAM

The RAM (random access memory) you buy has much more to do with the speed at which your applications (other than games and high end graphics) run, than does the speed of the microprocessor (forget what Intel would have you believe). That is because a machine with minimal RAM will "swap" information from RAM to the hard disk and back again constantly. Hard disks are slow access, RAM is very fast. Buying a version 2.0 laptop with a boatload of RAM memory is the most effective strategy.

4. Make sure the manufacturer has a good Web site for new drivers and BIOS upgrades.

Inevitably, manufacturers find flaws in the software they ship with their machines. The best of them make it very easy for you to download upgrades, and do a good job of explaining what these improvements will do, and when they will be necessary. You can check this out thoroughly before you buy the machine by cruising the Web site.

5. Get a screen that has a standard 4:3 aspect ratio.

There are many laptops that have screens that are more rectangular than the norm (they look a bit like a wide screen movie, rather than a TV screen). Stay away from them, as there are many software programs that don't handle non-standard aspect ratios well.

6. Buy from a manufacturer that will swap out for repair.

The direct sale outfits, in particular Micron, Gateway and Dell, have terrific programs. If the machine fails while under warranty, they send you a shipping box overnight, with a prepaid shipping ticket. Off you send your ailing laptop, and in short order it comes back fixed or totally swapped out for a new. Same goes for modular components, like DVD-ROM drives. This is infinitely superior to driving the dead machine to an authorized repair shop, and being told they have a three week backlog.

7. Get lots of pre-installed software.

Microsoft Office bundled with your computer is way cheaper than Microsoft Office bought off the shelf. The same principle applies to most software you might want.

8. Make sure the port replicator is included in the deal.

Most laptops do not have all the plugs and spigots built in. Hence, to have full connectivity, it's a good idea to buy the port replicator (the thing that has all the plugs and spigots), sometimes called a docking station when it has room for expansion cards and other internal devices. Make sure that there is an Ethernet port built in to the laptop or the port replicator, because most of the future high bandwidth Internet connectivity solutions (things like DSL, digital subscriber lines) will need it.

9. Make sure the carrying case is well padded on the corners.

The biggest problem with laptops is that you can drop them. There are three solutions. The first is to get an indestructible one (see Panasonic MKIII). The second is don't drop it in the first place (easier said than done: after all, it's a portable). The third is to carry it in a case that is very well padded in the corners (most damage to laptops happens when they are dropped on the corners, and that's the best way to destroy the flat screen display, tres cher to replace).

10. Get the longest life battery and buy a second.

Here's the rule of thumb: Buy enough batteries to cover one full flight from New York to LA with headwinds (7 hours or so).

Copyright 2000 by Xiphias Corporation

The above is an excerpt of Peter M. Black's book, INFORMATICA 1.0: Access to the Best Tools for Mastering the Information Revolution, (Random House, 1999, $22.95). Peter M. Black founded and is CEO of XIPHIAS Corporation, a Los Angeles-based publisher of reference products on disk and the Net. He has a Master's Degree in Sanskrit and Linguistics, and has run XIPHIAS Corporation since 1979. He is the publisher of Encyclopedia Electonica, and is a recognized authority on Infrastructure Warfare. Please visit for more information.

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