The University of Pennsylvania's Online Computing Magazine

PENN PRINTOUT April 1993 - Volume 9:6

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Purchasing a computer...what to do, what to do?

By Don Montabana

Today's personal computer marketplace is akin to the Mad Hatter's tea party in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland--nothing stays the same for very long, nor is it necessarily what it appears to be.

The number and variety of Macintosh and IBM/PC compatible systems have increased at an ever-accelerating rate over the past year. Today's systems are not only faster, but they come with a perplexing array of options. No sooner does the unwary consumer sort out the existing options--which microprocessor, which bus architecture, internal or external cache, and so forth--than a host of new models appears that are even more powerful and, in today's volatile market, less expensive. It's not unusual to find oneself back at "square one," contemplating a whole new set of choices.

Further complicating the picture are networking issues. PennNet, the University-wide network, is migrating from asynchronous connectivity to more sophisticated Ethernet/IP connectivity, which provides easy-to- use, high-speed access to a wide array of remote services and information repositories (see "Consumer guide" on page 6). Ethernet/IP connectivity is already available in many campus offices, and from off- campus locations by means of a high-speed modem and a special protocol called SLIP. Departmental local area networks are increasingly based on Ethernet, and ResNet, the multiyear effort to wire all residence halls for data, video, and voice communications, will support only Ethernet. Ethernet capability, however, is not yet a standard feature in most desktop computers and needs to be considered as an option at the time of purchase. (Ethernet/IP compatibility is especially tricky in the case of laptop computers.)

The upside is that all these changes are for the good--faster, cheaper computers, and faster, easier network access to unprecedented numbers of useful services. The downside is that it's getting increasingly difficult to decide what to buy and when to buy it. But help is on the way! A University-wide team is evaluating the myriad systems and options available from different vendors in preparation for Penn's annual Fall Truckload Sale of Computers. The team's goal is to recommend for purchase a selection of Macintoshes, IBM/PC compatibles, and peripherals at favorable prices that will serve your computing and networking needs over the next several years.

The Fall Sale team expects to have recommendations by early May. Since the number of system and peripheral options is so vast, and interoperability with PennNet and local area networks is increasingly important, support from the Computing Resource Center and the Office of Data Communications and Computing Services will increasingly be limited to a subset of vendor options. Departmental and individual purchasers are encouraged to purchase from the "supported list" because it increases the CRC's and DCCS's ability to assist you with hardware, software, and networking problems you may encounter, as well as with upgrades.

Early in June the campus reseller, the Computer Connection, will send out a mailing describing the systems, software, and other options that will be available in the Fall Sale. If you can't wait for this mailing and would like information about the recommendations earlier, check PennInfo or contact the Computer Connection, 898-3282, or the CRC, 898-9085. During May and June the CRC is also holding Q&A sessions on buying a computer for personal or departmental use.

DON MONTABANA is Director of the Computing Resource Center.