How to Buy a Computer
(especially a Macintosh)

by David Matuszek
Last updated:November 20, 1998

Table of Contents
(These links skip you forward on this same page.)

(These links bring you to a new page.)

What is this page for?
Every once in a while (a few times a year), friends ask me for advice about buying a computer. Or maybe they just mention that they are thinking about buying a computer, or that a friend of theirs is about to buy a computer, and I take that as permission to start talking. Either way, I love computers and love to be involved in buying computers, so I frequently end up writing out pages of information on the subject. This time, I'm putting my advice on the Web, and maybe next time I can just point to it.

So this page was written basically for my friends, and the friends of my friends. If you are thinking about buying your first computer, I think this page will be very helpful. You will probably also find it useful if you want to upgrade from an older system but haven't been paying much attention to the current market.

Can you trust my advice?
Well, for starters, you should read my disclaimer, which says that I guarantee nothing and accept no responsibility for any colossal blunders you might make. What do you expect for free?

However, over the years I have bought fourteen computers (and been given two more), the most recent one in October of 1997, so I've had at least a little experience. I've also upgraded some of them, and of course I've bought multiple monitors, hard drives, etc.

If you want formal credentials, I have a PhD. in computer science from The University of Texas at Austin, and my entire career has been spent in the field.

I have no connection with any of the companies that I talk about, other than as a user of some of their products. My opinions are entirely my own, based mostly on my own experience but also partly on what I have read in magazines and on the Internet.

I don't claim to be completely unbiased. I prefer the Macintosh OS over the assorted PC operating systems, and these notes are largely oriented toward Macs. I do try to provide some objective criteria for choosing between Macs and PCs, but you should be aware of my bias.

Macintosh or PC?
This is the single most important decision you have to make, because the two machine types are incompatible. You can't run Macintosh software on a PC. You can't easily run PC software on a Macintosh. You can, however, exchange data between the two types of machines.

For example: WordPerfect is a word processing program. You can buy one version of WordPerfect for the Macintosh (and run it only on a Macintosh), or you can buy a different version of WordPerfect for the PC (and run it only on a PC). The Mac version won't work on the PC, and vice versa. However, if you have the PC version of WordPerfect on a PC and the Mac version on a Mac, you can fairly easily move that half-written novel back and forth between the two.

Even if you don't have the same program on both a Mac and a PC, you can always exchange plain text between the two. ("Plain text" is text without formatting information, such as specific fonts, italics, boldface, indentation, etc.) Virtually any word processor will read and write plain text. You can frequently exchange a limited amount of formatting information (depending on the particular programs used). Similarly, for spreadsheets, you can rescue at least the final numbers by exporting them as tab-separated fields, and importing them on the other machine.

You may have seen advertisements implying that Macintoshes can run PC software. Well, they can, but...if you want to run PC software on a Mac, you have to buy either special software (called an "emulator") or special hardware.

Special software is cheaper than special hardware, and can be used on a wider variety of machines, but it runs quite a bit slower than special hardware. The emulator that I use ("Virtual PC") costs about $150 and does an excellent job. It's fast enough for most office-type work and for many games, but is not adequate for really demanding games (flight simulators and shoot-'em-ups).

For some (but not all) Macintosh models you can buy special hardware ($350 to $1000 or more); this way, you end up basically with a Mac and a PC in the same box. A few (very few) Macintoshes come with this extra hardware built in.

For a long time, there was no way to run Macintosh software on a PC machine. I have recently seen an advertisement for a Mac emulator, but I have my doubts about the quality of the emulation.

Which is better, Mac or PC? Apple has a page entitled 75 Macintosh Advantages (surprisingly, they seem to have found 75 good reasons), but I haven't found a comparable page giving PC advantages. I have a separate page that describes a survey of people who use both Macs and PCs. Anyway, here are the two most important factors:

And one bogus reason:

Basic concepts and terminology
I've moved this information off onto a separate page. Unless this is your first computer, you can probably ignore this section.

A field guide to older Macs
If you are looking at older (used) Macs, you may be confused by all the names (Mac, Quadra, Centris, Performa, etc.) and numbers (III, 631, 7100/80, etc.). You are right to be confused; Apple has come out with hundreds of different models. Here's what you can figure out from the names:

That's pretty much all you can tell from the model names. They really don't mean very much.

Now here's what you really need to look at:

Beyond this, you need to look at: So the model name really doesn't tell you very much. If two Macs have the same model name, they are basically the same machine; but one might still have more RAM or a larger hard disk than the other. (This isn't supposed to happen, but it does.) Pay attention to the important numbers, not the names.

My experiences with Mac clones has been very good. I have used and maintained a Motorola Starmax 3000/200 and a Power Tower Pro 225, and both are very solid, very compatible machines. However, Apple has shut down the clone market--only UMAX still makes Mac clones, and they will probably quit doing so sometime in 1998.

A field guide to newer Macs
Apple has greatly simplified its product lines into four groups: home computers, professional computers, educational computers, and laptops (portable computers). All are based on G3 processors, so you can pretty well rely on the MHz speed ratings.

The only real difference between the home, professional, and educational computers is how they are marketed. The professional computers are the bigger, faster, more expensive ones; the educational ones are sold to schools (and you probably can't buy one unless you are affiliated with an educational institution). Among these, look at the numbers: How much does it cost? How much RAM does it have (and how much can be added)? How large is the hard drive? And, of course, how fast is is? (They are all really fast, though; unless you do photo processing, the difference between really fast and really, really fast probably won't be that important to you until the next generation of slower, bloated software comes out.)

Personally, I would put Macs into four different groups: older Macs, standard desktop Macs, laptops, and the iMac.

For standard desktop Macs, go by the numbers.

Laptops are more expensive than desktop machines, and some people have just a laptop. If bringing the computer along on trips is important to you, you might get just a laptop; but for general use, I like a desktop better--the screen is much nicer, the keyboard is bigger, and so on.

Then there's the iMac, the way cool blue-and-white jellybean Mac. Introduced August 15, 1998, at $1299, it's an incredible value. If you are a first-time buyer, with no unusual needs (such as, you have to have a laptop), get an iMac. The choice here is so obvious that it practically invalidates this whole set of pages that I've been updating for the past couple of years. It`s that good.

However: it has no floppy drive, so if you have older software on floppies, you can't easily install it on the iMac; and it has no SCSI port, so if you have external hard drives you can't attach them. It uses a keyboard and mouse that are electrically incompatible with other keyboards and mice. It uses a USB bus, so you have to either buy a new USB printer, or hope that they make a USB adaptor for the printer you already have. None of this is a problem for a first-time user, but if you already have a lot of software and hardware you want to move to the iMac, you need to consider how you are going to do it.

My recommendations


"A Mac is a Mac is a Mac." What this means is that the Macintosh line of computers is exceptionally inter-compatible: with very few exceptions, software that will run on one Mac will run on any other Mac. This means that you can buy almost any old, used Mac and use it to do productive work. Nothing is perfect, however, and there are exceptions to this rule. Here are the main ones:

PCs have a variety of operating systems, and programs come in assorted versions for various operating systems. I can't help you figure out what works with what.

A Performa is a Macintosh sold in a retail store like Sears, Circuit City, or Staples. The only difference between a Performa and other Macs is that a Performa comes bundled with a decent starter set of software. This tends to make Performas a better buy for a first computer, but less interesting after you have owned a Mac and accumulated your own selection of software. To do price comparisons, figure out which of the software you really want (different Performas come with different software), and subtract the price of only that software from the price of the computer.

Speed. Speed costs money. Lots of money. This is where you can spend your excess cash on something you probably don't need that much. The high-end computers (currently 225 MHz to 350 MHz) cost more than twice as much as computers in the mid range (160 MHz to 200 MHz range). Unless you are doing some really CPU-intensive stuff (e.g. ray tracing, video editing), save your money for other things, such as a really nice monitor and printer.

Extra speed is nice for playing video games. Games are getting fancier and more CPU-intensive. Most Power Macs will handle most of the current crop of video games just fine; but games are getting more demanding. A low-end Power Mac will probably have some trouble with next year's high-end video game.

Speed is also nice for demanding tasks, such as computer programming and graphics processing. If you do a lot of this, you will appreciate a faster CPU. For word processing, speed hardly matters at all, unless you are using some big bloated program like Microsoft Word. For using the Internet, it's the speed of your connection that makes everything so slow; a faster CPU won't help.

If you must have speed, remember that you can compare MHz ratings only between computers with the same processor chip (such as a 604e), and even then it's not a terribly reliable measure. The G3 chip, in particular, is significantly faster than anything on the market today (including the Pentium II MMX) with the same MHz rating.

If you can, buy a G3 Power Mac. Two years from now, it won't seem as much of a dinosaur, and you can probably still sell it for a reasonable amount of money. As I mentioned, more and more programs will be coming out that require a Power Mac. Faster is better, but be sure it's worth the extra cost.

If you can't buy a Power Mac, speed is more of an issue. The 68040 Macs are still fast enough for many video games, and those are probably the most demanding programs you are likely to put on your machine. If you can't afford a 68040 machine, buy as fast a machine as you can afford that still has adequate RAM and hard disk space, and don't worry about it.

Versions of the Mac OS after System 7.5.5 will not run in their entirety on very old 68K Macs. What this means is that software written to take advantage of features in System 7.6 (released in February 1997) may not run on these Macs or, more likely, will run but with certain features disabled. However, you will be able to get certain components of System 7.6 and install them on these machines, thus possibly getting around the problem in certain cases. (I would be more explicit if I could fortell the future.) This really doesn't change anything that I said above, but it does hasten the 68K's journey into obsolence.

The next major improvement in Apple's operating system is MacOS X, which they want you to pronounce as "Mac O S ten" (yeah, right). MacOS X is supposed to run on all Apple-branded G3 computers (it may not run on clones), and probably will not run on 604-based computers; it certainly won't run on anything less. MacOS X is due in late 1999, and if you want the latest and greatest, you should get a G3.


RAM comes in SIMMs (Single Inline Memory Modules), DIMMs (Dual Inline Memory Modules), and some other kinds as well, in dozens of sizes. It isn't very well standardized, so you have to be careful to get the right kind for your computer. If you later take it out (most likely to replace it with higher-density memory), it probably won't fit in some other kind of computer.

The easiest way to get the right kind of memory is to ask your vendor, who is supposed to know these things. You need to know (1) exactly what kind of computer you have, (2) how much RAM you already have (look at About this Macintosh... or About this computer... under the Apple menu), and (3) how much RAM you want to have. If you want to figure it out yourself, the Macintosh program GURU from Newer Technology,, will tell you everything you need to know.

RAM keeps getting cheaper, and as a result it is one of the easiest components to pay way too much for. Currently (April 8, 1998) most kinds of RAM are under $2/MB, if you shop carefully. The RAMWatch page (maintained by MacResource, not by me) is a good place to find current prices.

Macintoshes have always shipped with too little RAM. 680x0 Macs shipped with 4 MB, and Power Macs initially shipped with 8 MB (Power Macs need more RAM than 680x0 Macs). This is enough to use, but just barely; some programs won't run at all with this little RAM. My recommendations are:

More RAM is more convenient, because you can run multiple programs at once and switch back and forth between them at the click of a mouse -- for example, drawing pictures in one program and pasting them into another. Once you get used to it, this is a much nicer way to work. Programs like Netscape often start up other programs to do some of their work for them. And having more memory tends to speed up many programs.

As RAM prices continues to drop, programs are written to require more and more RAM. Netscape is a prime offender in this regard; Microsoft is another. It's best to buy a computer that can hold 64 MB or more, even if you don't start with that much RAM.

Installing RAM is really simple (except in laptops), and you can save considerable money by doing it yourself; but if you break one of the clips holding the RAM in place, it will probably cost you a new logic board. Your call.

The hard disk
A hard disk is an essential part of a modern computer, and almost every computer has one built in. 100 MB is microscopic by today's standards, 250 MB might be adequate, 500 MB is okay, and 1 GB (1000 MB) is good. You can buy external hard disks as your needs grow.

The monitor
If you expect to use your computer only occasionally, and not for long periods of time, the quality of the monitor isn't all that important. If (like me) you spend hours at a time staring at the screen, then you need a better monitor.

Here's how to choose a monitor. First, learn the basic jargon (given below), so you have some idea what you're looking for. Second, go a look at a bunch of monitors, so you see for yourself what the terms mean. Become sensitive to the differences between monitors. Finally, when you choose a monitor, trust your own eyes--if the picture seems sharp and steady to you, it's probably fine.

The picture on the monitor is made up of pixels, or "picture elements." The resolution of a monitor is how many pixels it displays. By far the most common resolution on Macintoshes is 640 (across) by 480 (vertically). The physical size of a 640 by 480 screen is 13 or 14 inches (measured diagonally, like a TV). This is a good minimum size; many games depend on having a screen at least this large. You can get a bigger screen if you can afford one, but most people don't need more. Put your money first into quality, then into size.

Some older monitors have a fixed resolution; almost all modern monitors support a range of resolutions. Similarly, some older Macs support a fixed resolution, while modern Macs support a range of resolutions. To use a particular monitor with a particular Mac, they have to agree on a (at least one) resolution. If they agree on a range of resolutions, you can choose which resolution you prefer. But there is no point in spending extra money for a high-resolution monitor if the Mac can't use that resolution.

Older Macs vary in the number of different colors they can display--2 (black and white), 8, 16, 256, 32768 ("thousands"), or 16.7 million ("millions"). Your Mac may need to compromise on the number of colors in order to give you higher resolution. For example, a Mac might be able to display millions of colors at 640 by 40, but only 256 colors at 1024 by 768. On some (but not all) Macs, you can increase the number of colors by adding more VRAM (video RAM). In general, 256 colors is fine for most things, although color photographs appear somewhat "grainy;" thousands of colors is plenty for most nonprofessional use; and professionals in photography or desktop publishing generally require millions of colors.

The refresh rate is how many times a second the picture is redrawn. The lower the refresh rate, the more flicker. Flicker leads to eyestrain and headaches; but people vary a lot in the speed at which they can see flicker, and probably also in how much it bothers them. 60 Hz (60 times per second) is absolutely minimal. 68 Hz is fast enough for most people, while some people still see flicker. 75 Hz is fine for just about everybody. (Hint: when you are examining a monitor for flicker, don't fixate on one spot, because that tends to hide flicker. Let your eyes rove over the screen. Stand up and sit down while watching the screen. Look at the screen from further away than usual.) You should also know that flicker is worse under fluorescent lights.

The dot pitch is how close together on the screen pixels can be without smearing into one another. Smaller numbers are better. Roughly speaking, 0.30mm is adequate, 0.28mm is good, 0.25 is excellent.

If good color is important to you, get a trinitron monitor. For many years Sony has made the best monitors because it held the patent on trinitron monitors. They still make great monitors, but the patent has expired, and other companies are starting to make comparable monitors.

If doing this research is just too much trouble, and you just want me to tell you what monitor to buy, get either a Sony or a ViewSonic. Both companies make excellent monitors (I'm sure other companies do, too, but these are the ones I know and use).

Finally, Macs and PCs use different monitor cables. Most PC monitors can be used on a Mac if you get the right adaptor. Many new Macs can use a PC monitor directly, without an adaptor. Don't forget to get the adaptor if you need it!

The keyboard

Most Macs come with a keyboard, and I've always been happy with the keyboard that they come with, so I don't have much to say on this subject. Here's one point, though: Macintosh programs do not use the function keys on the "extended keyboards". If you really want a big fancy keyboard with lots of keys, you should buy extra software such as QuicKeys or OneClick; these programs will let you assign meanings to the extra keys.

If you have carpal tunnel syndrome, there are "ergonomic" (funny-looking) keyboards that might or might not help.

The mouse

A Mac always comes with a mouse. Learn how to clean it. Use the Mouse control panel to set it to a comfortable speed for you.

If the mouse gets jerky, or doesn't easily move past a certain point, clean it. If the mouse button gets sticky (either the Mac doesn't always notice when you click the mouse, or it acts as if you are holding the mouse button down), you probably need to buy a new mouse.

If you would prefer a trackball rather than a mouse (which might be better for people with carpal tunnel syndrome), the Logitech TrackMan Marble for the Mac is the best.


Software is what makes your computer do things. A computer without software is like a VCR without tapes--pretty useless. The following is a small sampling.


The GUI for Macintosh is called MacOS, and it comes with every Mac. You don't buy it separately, unless you have an old version and a reason to upgrade to a newer version. Most Macs in stores have System 8.0; the most current version (as of January 1998) is System 8.1.

As the System is updated, software will gradually appear that depends on the new features. For most people it's probably best to put off buying upgrades until you have a good reason (e.g. your new software requires it). Majors upgrades will probably cost in the neighborhood of $100; minor upgrades are likely to be free on the Internet or "almost free" ($13) on CD from Apple. Apple is working on a brand-new operating system, currently named Rhapsody, that is to have the power of UNIX and the ease-of-use of MacOS. A partial release is expected in March 1998, with a full release scheduled for August 1998. It will run on PCI PowerPCs with at least 24 MB of RAM. In my opinion, the most important thing about Rhapsody is that it will also run on 486DX and Pentium machines. Apple will continue to support MacOS for at least a couple of years after the release of Rhapsody, so you don't have to switch if you don't want to. See the Rhapsody site at for more information.

The printer

Both Hewlett Packard and Epson make great inkjet printers for the Mac. I think the Hewlett Packard printers are more solidly built and reliable, while the Epson printers are better at printing photographs.

The modem

14,400 bps modems (also called 14.4 modems) are cheap, if you can find them any more. A 28,800 bps modem costs about $100, and 33,600 bps modems start around $130. Most Internet suppliers have 28.8 modems by now, and a few have 33.6 modems. There are two competing incompatible standards for 56K modems, which is why most people won't buy one yet (the modem makers have agreed to settle on a single standard sometime in 1998). You can get a slower or a faster modem than your Internet provider uses, and the two modems will communicate just fine, at the speed of the slower modem. Get a fast modem if you can, but 14.4 is still OK. Do try to get a modem with an on/off switch; one of my modems doesn't have one, and disconnecting is sometimes a real pain.

ISDN is a faster alternative to modems, but is significantly more expensive, more complicated, and requires special wiring. Stay away from it unless you know what you are doing.

To get connected to the Internet, buy a copy of the most recent edition of Adam Engst's book, The Internet Starter Kit, and do what it says. Be sure to get the proper version of the book (Mac or PC). There are a zillion books about the Internet, but I know this one is good. 'Nuff said.

The CD-ROM drive

For a long time, CD-ROM drives were considered optional. Not any more. All new Macs come with CD-ROM drives. If you have a Mac but no CD-ROM drive, it's time to get one.

CD-ROM drives come in single-speed, double-speed (2x), on up to about 36x. Quad-speed (4x) drives are on the way out; 8x drives and 12x drives are common, but some 12x drives have vibration problems with poorly balanced CDs. Higher-speed drives read the same CDs as lower-speed drives; they just read them faster.

Double-speed drives are OK, but you will have occasional minor problems with them -- most commonly, "breaks" in music because the drive can't keep up with the tempo (most modern games have background music). Quad speed is just fine for most games.

You should know that an 8x drive is not twice as fast as a 4x drive; it just spins twice as fast. Finding the proper place on the CD takes almost as long -- about 1/5 of a second -- but once found, the data gets read twice as fast. The end result is that an 8x drive is somewhat faster, but not nearly as much as you might think. (As newer games are "tuned" to the faster speeds, the faster drive will make somewhat more of a difference than it does now.)

If your CD-ROM drive seems slow, that's because the technology is inherently slow. Maybe the faster drives will help this; maybe not. You can't always go by the numbers; some 4x drives are actually less responsive than some 2x drives. Apple's own 300i Plus (2x) and 600i (4x) are rated by the magazines as the fastest in their class.

Modern CD-ROM drives are tray-loading: the tray comes out, you put a CD on it and push it back in. Some drives still require you to put the CD into a cartridge first, then stick the cartridge into a slot. This doesn't sound a lot less convenient, but trust me, it is. Tray-loading is the only way to go.

Where to get good deals
Again, I have to emphasize that this is just my opinion. However, it is my honest and reasonably informed opinion; I have no connection with any of these dealers. If you find better deals, take them (and let me know about them!).

General: AbsoluteMac tracks prices on Macintosh systems and hardware. This might be a good site to visit before making any major purchases. Deal-Mac is another good place to look for bargains.

CPUs: MacMall often has very good prices on Macs. Early in 1996 I got a refurbished (68040) Performa 631CD for $599 (without a monitor), and it's been a great machine.

If you are a college student, check your college store, particularly in the fall. Apple sometimes has "bundles" that are spectacular deals; I saved about $900 on a 7100 for my son when he entered college.

RAM: I really like Chip Merchant (1-800-808-2447); they have the best prices on RAM and I've never had any trouble with their product. They are knowledgeable and will help you figure out which RAM you need for your particular computer. However, they will not provide instructions for installing RAM (I think they're afraid of being sued if you screw it up).

Current price for RAM is just over $1/MB and dropping. Many places are still selling RAM at last year's prices, so wake up and pay attention.

There's a RAMWatch web page maintained by Mac Resource that provides up-to-date information on RAM prices and suggests some other vendors to call.

Hard drives: I buy all my hard disks from Alliance Peripheral Systems (1-800-874-1428). APS disks are inexpensive (but not the cheapest you can find) and high quality, and their tech support is very helpful. When you order, ask them if they have any special deals; a couple of times I've called to order something, only to end up with something better. One of the Mac magazines did a consumer survey and rated APS and LaCie (1-800-999-1312) tied for the top spot in customer satisfaction.

An interesting alternative is the Zip drive by Omega, available just about everywhere for $150. This uses removable 100 MB disks which you can get for $20 apiece, slightly less in quantity. I have one and really like it. (SyQuest makes a comparable 135 MB unit, but I've heard it's harder to set up and use.)

Software: If you are a college student or faculty member, your college store is likely to have educational discounts on the most popular software. Often these are deep discounts (25-50% of list). Sometimes you can find better discounts elsewhere, but not often.

Otherwise, your best bet is the assorted mail-order houses. In general they always have the latest versions (unlike stores), overnight shipping, low shipping charges, knowledgeable salespeople (especially during the day), and good return policies. Their software prices are usually very good and usually within a few dollars of what the other mail-order houses are asking.

My favorites are:

Another place to try is MacConnection, 1-800-800-1111. I gave up on them years ago because I could never find anything in their catalogs; then they started to combine Mac and PC stuff in the same catalog. They've since fixed those problems, but now I'm out of the habit of buying from them. Anyway, their prices and policies are as good as anyone's.

The catalogs from these mail-order houses contain paid advertisements. If you don't see an ad for something in one of these catalogs, that doesn't mean they don't have it. Many smaller software companies can't afford much advertising; even the larger ones don't advertise all their products all the time. If you want something that isn't in the catalog, just ask about it.

These software houses usually also have good prices on CPUs (especially MacMall), but poor prices on hard drives and terrible prices on RAM. Consider other sources for your hardware needs.

Retail stores: This probably varies greatly by area, and my experience is limited to the area just west and south of Philadelphia, so take my recommendations with a grain of salt. So for whatever it's worth:

Places to Avoid
I have not had any personal experience with these places, but they have a poor reputation on the Web (lots of negative user experiences).

All I claim is that these are my honest opinions. You want free advice, you got it. If taking my advice causes loss of life, limb, or pocketbook, that's your responsibility, not mine. I am also not responsible for the heat death of the universe.