March 1991

How Much Does a PC Cost?

Personal computers keep getting faster and cheaper. We'll briefly review some of the choices you will have to make when you shop for a PC. Our discussion will be restricted to PC-compatible computers, by which we mean computers that run the same software as the IBM PC, XT, and AT, and which are based on the hardware standards set by those machines.

PC-compatibles can have any of the following Intel microprocessor chips (in order of increasing speed): 8088, 8086, 80286, 80386SX, 80386, and 80486. The 8088 and 8086 are too slow by today's standards, and the 80486 is too expensive. That leaves the "286", "386SX", and "386", each of which comes in different speeds. Processor speed is given in megahertz (MHz). Some common speeds are:

     286:   12 and 16 MHz

   386SX:   16 and 20 MHz

     386:   25 and 33 MHz

Here are some typical price ranges for "no-name" or "clone" computers, taken from ads by Southern California dealers (the number after the slash is the speed):

    286/12:   $680 - 845

  386SX/16:   $965 - 1,149

    386/33:   $1,465 - 1,895

Each system includes one megabyte of RAM, floppy disk drive, 40-megabyte hard disk with interface, serial and parallel ports, case, power supply, and keyboard. These prices also include a monochrome graphics adapter and a monitor. In other words, except for software, these are complete, ready-to-run systems.

The point we would like to make is simply that fast, cheap computers are available. The exact configuration given here might not be appropriate for your application, but this is a starting point for determining what you actually need.

Before you buy any computer, carefully consider exactly what you will do when your computer breaks down. PCs are reliable, but they all need to be fixed eventually. Hard disks, especially, have a limited life span.

If a system is critical to your business or profession, you probably need to arrange for quick on-site service by a third-party service company like TRW. Unlike many computer dealers, service companies usually have spare parts or can get them quickly. Many PC clones will be ruled out by this requirement. Mail-order companies often have third-party service, but expect somewhat higher prices.

At the other extreme, some PC users are willing to open the computer and fix it on their own. It may even make sense to stock your own spare parts, especially if you have several identical computers. Fixing a PC simply involves guessing which part is broken and replacing it. You keep trying until it works again.

Finally, consider the kind of support you need. With computer prices so low, no computer dealer can afford to give you much free advice. Many dealers also have limited knowledge of software. So you may need to pay for installation and training.

RTG can assist you with your PC purchase. For a fixed fee we can help you decide what equipment and programs you need for your application. We can also install the hardware and software so it works correctly. Call for details.

Inexact Softfile Searches

In January we discussed Softfile, RTG's personal notebook software. We explained that Softfile indexes the words and numbers in your notes, so you can search for all notes which contain any word or combination of words.

Sometimes you may not know the exact word which will identify a note you want to retrieve. Softfile gives you several ways to deal with this problem. The simplest way is to search for all records which contain any word that begins a certain way. For example, a search for "exact?" will find records which contain "exact", "exactly", "exacting", and so on.

Unfortunately, the imprecision of human memory sometimes leaves us not knowing how to spell the word we are looking for. Even in this situation, Softfile can help.

Softfile keeps a list of all the words in all your notes, and it can search this word list in two ways. First, you can get a list of all words which begin with specified letters. As in our previous example, you can search for all words beginning with "exact". The difference is this: instead of retrieving all records which have words which begin this way, you will get a list of the words themselves. You can examine the list of words to see which ones you really want to use in a search.

If you need still more help, Softfile can provide a list of up to ten words which are similar to a word you enter. For example, if you enter "notes", Softfile might find "footnotes", "notebook", and "notecards". Each of these matches contains "note", but none of them begin with "notes".

If Softfile doesn't find obvious similarities, it will look for more subtle ones. A search for words similar to "personal" displayed the following words: "person", "conversational", "peripheral", "persuasion", "performers", and "perspective".

Softfile limits a search for similar words by assigning a score to each word and retaining no more than ten words. The purpose of the ten-word limitation is to focus on good matches, when there are some, and eliminate the large number of equally-poor matches which often follow the good ones.

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