THE BOTTOM LINE

Two PC buys offer an educational experience

By Bob Little

Special to GCN

There might be no debate about whether a businessperson's desktop unit molds his or her private choices. In case there is, I want to weigh in on the side of the argument that it does.

Having bought in the past six weeks two computers with roughly the same performance capabilities'one for myself and one for my college-bound daughter'I now wish I had been as brand-conscious in selecting my computer as I was in choosing hers. What is most interesting, from a purely source-selection point of view, was how my criteria differed.

For myself, I was trying to solve specific problems, such as not being able to open e-mail attachments that held anything more complex than a text file. If I got an electronic postcard, it might as well have been a letter bomb.

I kept getting the dreaded blue screen with geekish warnings such as: 'You have performed an illegal operation. If we thought it was purposeful, we would place your system in protective custody and send you to MS re-education. Pressing Ctrl-Alt-Delete is not recommended if you value the lives of your loved ones.'

Sound and fury

Also, I wanted to archive some audio CDs and records into my mobile archive system. I had been frustrated in all previous attempts. The Sound-Blaster Live! firmware was not backward compatible.

So, off to the Computer Show and Sale. I must have been in hunter mode that day because I bought the first clone I saw that seemed to fill the bill. Besides, I thought, if anything goes bad, they're local, right? Well, there's local and then there's Gaithersburg, Md. If you live in Springfield, Va., Gaithersburg can seem like the other side of the moon when things go flooey.

I got it home and tried to get on the Internet with one of the provider options in the installed Microsoft Windows 98. The computer said I had to load the Win98 disk. No disk. I called the purveyor of the system.

'You wanted the actual disk?' came the reply. Oh, boy. 'You bet,' I said, 'send it ASAP.' We negotiated a deal.

The system seems to be working OK. A friend told me how to monitor the driver loads on start-up to identify a weird message that flashes by and that might be a problem. So far I haven't experienced any problems'that I know of.

Then it was time to buy my daughter's computer.

Criterion No. 1: Absolute, 100 percent reliability, with people waiting just outside her dorm room to fix or replace the PC 10 minutes after the screen might flicker. To me, that meant nothing but brand names.

A few months ago, my organization was kind enough to plunk down on our desks new Dell OptiPlex somethingorother 450-MHz Pentium III machines with nifty subwoofers. The best part is that as hard as I might try, I can't do anything illegal on it. Not one blue screen. The computer blazes, at least compared with what I was used to. And no blue screens. I love this machine.

I could have bought my daughter's computer online, but I'm only now starting to buy blues harmonica CDs over the Internet. One step at a time. I decided to purchase through the Dell catalog.

When we got my daughter's new Dell to her dorm room, I urged her to set it up right away, even though I had no idea what the instructions would be like.

It was a snap. Everything was color-coded, and the instructions were so big and colorful that we gave serious thought to using them as wall decorations. The computer and printer did not shake hands; they hugged. It almost brought a tear.

Within minutes my daughter was checking her e-mail. We were finished after we downloaded a horse-and-rider .jpg file, manipulated it with photo software we learned on the fly and printed it on the just-unwrapped printer.

We set everything up, inserted the Ethernet card and plugged and played. Then, tearfully, I left my daughter at school. The e-mails have been flowing regularly, the tears less so.

Bob Little, an attorney who has worked for the General Accounting Office and a Washington law firm, teaches federal contract law. E-mail him at rlittle13@aol.com.

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