They are all perfect, but the more expensive ones are better.
  - My friend,
Brian, in a slightly different context.

The main thing to remember is that computers are now extremely cheap! This is good news for new computer buyers, and even better news for used computer buyers, because a lot of computers are getting upgraded and a lot of perfectly functional parts not being used anymore.

The real showstopper is that computer hardware advances have outstripped the requirements of users by several generations. What this means is that while computer hardware that is one generation obsolete has a low market value, hardware that is two generations obsolete is very likely to have been discarded as useless, because newer hardware is seemingly so much more capable.

It is these second generation obsolete components that we are interested in, because these not-so ancient parts are still capable of being used to make a computer that is very useful. The latest and greatest computer is not needed to do useful work anymore.

And that is what this document will tell you: how to identify computer hardware that is still capable of delivering meaningful functionality, and, more importantly, how to put it to work. (If you already know all about choosing hardware, then you might want to just skip to the sources for cheap hardware page.)

Use your browser's back button to return to the Table of Contents. Forward if you go too far back.

The Computer Itself

A caution. This isn't intended to explain everything that there is to know about computers. Also, I purposefully skipped over a lot of explanations in order to focus on requirements that are easy to check if you only knew that they existed. E.g., I might say: "check to see that it has at least 256k of cache" without giving any explanation of how cache works. This is on purpose; most people don't need to know the allocation algorithms of caching. It's useless information to them. But they do need to know enough to ask about it. And how much to ask for.

Another caution. This document is also lacking in specfic product documentation. No "Hey, is a 123456x Syn-tell motherboard any good?" Also on purpose. "They are all perfect...." is the whole point. I want to focus on the general functionality that you are likely to be able to acquire, in a certain price window, without getting bogged down in (futile) discussions of specfic hardware . You have to be flexible. Sometimes it doesn't all work together. OK, move on and try fitting another piece in the puzzle.

Now, say that you have an old 386Sx computer. While that wouldn't be too valuable itself (it could probably be made to access the web, but would be very slow), it might be possible to upgrade it. Hopefully, the computer's case complies with one of the industry standards (an AT case) and can be upgraded. (Some can't.) You probably still can use the monitor and keyboard.

Assuming that it could be upgraded, what you would most likely need is to have the motherboard and CPU replaced. Would probably need to buy new RAM (memory). MAYBE you could re-use the other existing cards. Does it have a CD-ROM drive? Floppy drive probably would be re-used, maybe video too.

It all depends on your finding somebody technical, preferably a tech friend, or failing that, a good computer store. Probably not some large chain store. Often the best bet is a small Mom and Pop independent store.

Or maybe you can get lucky and find a good used computer, all ready to go.

I'll take another tack. Let me describe several situations and minimum computers that would suffice, however you acquire them:

Use your browser's back button to return to the Table of Contents. Forward if you go too far back.

The Dirt Cheap Computer

At the time I am writing this, used computers similar to this are selling for $100, complete (except for monitor.) The individual components are being sold so cheaply now that you have a very good chance of collecting enough components to assemble a computer like this for something approaching zero dollars.

CPU:        33-66 Mhz 486
RAM         8-16 megabytes
Cache:      256k
Hard Disk:  200-512 megs
Video:      1 meg Super VGA card
Sound:      Well yes, practically anything will do.
CD ROM:     1X
Modem:      14,400-28,800 bps
Monitor     14" VGA or Super VGA
Keyboard, mouse, cables, maybe a printer

This is the kind of computer that is quite likely to be available for very cheap. At least, all the parts should be. A basic computer like this (minus monitor) should cost no more than $100 these days. The individual parts should be very inexpensive.

Maybe you could find a complete computer outfitted like this. Geeks (and even normal people) probably have 486 motherboards left over, because they had upgraded to something else. Most of the other stuff, too. Good chance that somebody could install something like the above in your existing computer for cheap (or free), if they are friends.

Cautions. Don't go too far back in antiquity. Hard drive should be IDE, not MFM, RLL, ESDI, or any other dinosaur technology. Similarly, monitor and video board must be something with "VGA" in it--no EGA or CGA or monochrome anything.

Software: MS/DOS 6.22 Windows 3.11, Netscape Navigator 3.04 or Microsoft Internet Explorer. Or Linux.

Also check out New Deal, which is an alternate operating system that has some common applications (word proccesing, web browser, etc.)

Bump up to 66 MHZ, 16 megs RAM, bigger hard disk, can then use Windows 95/98--everything takes more with Windows 95/98, particularly, hard disk space requirements.

Can do SOME graphic creation with the above. (See monitor) section for more info. Can do web page authoring too. And the boring stuff like word processing and spreadsheets, too. Not too hot for modern games, though, which is why so much of this stuff is laying around not being used anymore.

This class of computer is also good to run Linux on. It isn't powerful enough to run the newer GUI windowing systems, like KDE or GNOME, but is entirely adequate for command line server applications, like being a firewall or web server. Or to just learn Linux.

Sources for cheap hardware.

The Cheap Computer

CPU:        100-300 MHZ Pentium  (and up)
RAM         16-64 Megs
Cache:      512k
Hard Disk:  1 - 2 gig (and up)
Video:      2-4 meg accelerated Super VGA card
CD ROM:     4x  (Don't care.  Fast CD-ROM drives are for playing games.)
Sound:      16 bit sound.  Wavetable synth (MIDI music will sound better.)
Modem:      56,800 bps (56k)
Monitor     15-17" VGA or Super VGA
Keyboard, mouse, cables, maybe a color ink jet printer.

A used computer (without monitor) something like the above should cost no more than $150-$250, maybe $300 if it is really towards the top of the range. (Plus or minus whatever.) Individual components won't be free, but should still be reasonable.

Cautions. Beware of 60 MHz Pentiums. These were the first Pentiums that were made and had a lot of problems. If you have a choice between a 60 MHz Pentium, and a 66 MHz 486, choose the 486. Also, a lot of low end computers leave out the cache memory. It's needed.

Note that a NEW, brand name, computer (almost) meeting the HIGH end of the above sells for about $700, including monitor, modem and printer. (Well, probably not with a good 17" monitor.) $1,200 should buy a real screamer.

If you have the money to consider one of these $700 packages, you still shouldn't buy one anyway, because these entry level computers have limited expansion capabilities. What they are now is what they always will be. Better to spend a few hundred dollars more and get a computer that is built with more "industry standard" parts. We're talking board expansion slots and drive bays.

I'm mainly defining targets so that you know what computer pieces are valuable to scrounge for, if you want to do things cheaply.

Sources for cheap hardware.

Monitor and Video Card

The main thing that cheap complete computer packages skimp on is the quality of the monitor. Everything else is surprisingly adequate, except for future expendability. (Expandability isn't too great either.) It is usually best to consider a monitor included in a low-end package deal to be a throw-away and to plan on getting a good monitor separately.

Cautions. Main thing to watch out for with cheap monitors is the dot pitch. Smaller is better. .39 is bad. .26 is good.

I have seen at least one recommendation to get one of these $499 (without monitor) computer systems AND a $700 19" monitor, which might sound silly, but really isn't.

It is a real good investment to buy a 19" (or larger) high quality monitor. (We are starting to get out of cheapness and into expensive, though. $700-800 for good 19" monitor alone.) If you are planning on doing a lot of graphics work, then it is needed. In any event, CHECK THE VISUAL QUALITY OF THE MONITOR BEFORE YOU BUY IT.

Check the monitor at the resolution that you will be using it. I.e., NOT at 640x480, which is the resolution that the stores like to demonstrate monitors at. At 640x480 everything looks sharp. Also, demand that the refresh rate be set suitably fast, so that there is no flicker. This is what determines a good monitor: A lesser monitor will cheerfully run at 640x480 at a high refresh rate. Or it will run at a higher resolution (but at a slower refresh rate.) Doing both at the same time, while maintaining brightness and sharpness is what defines a good monitor.

Also, if you are using a 19" monitor, you will be demanding more processing power from the video board, so that that becomes more of a consideration.

Main limitation of a 1 meg video card (and Win 3.1) is that it can comfortable only do 8 bit (256 colors at once), which is real limiting for graphics work. (There are often problems if you ask a Win 3.1 system to use more than 256 colors.) Next step up is to have a 2-4 meg Super VGA video card, and be running Windows 95/98.

Then you can run 24 bit video ("millions" of colors, AKA "TrueColor.") This is what you need to be able to see all the colors at once. When a computer uses a video mode that can display less colors (256, usually), it will "dither" the few colors it can display in an attempt to fake all the real colors. It makes the graphics look (falsely) mottled. Marginally adequate for just surfing, real crippling if you are creating graphics.

(I created web site graphics for almost a year with a 256 color computer. Then I got 24 bit color. Oh my God! when I then went and looked at the web sites that I created.)

Horsepower Requirements

Lineage: 486, Pentium, Pentium MMX, Celeron Pentium II, Pentium III. As you go up this evolutionary scale, performence increases, along with the cost--the faster ones cost more money. The question is just how fast do you really need to go?

If you want to do graphics work on the computer, or run a current version of Linux, then you probably should hold out for a Pentium and Windows 95/98. (Better quality graphics programs require Win 95/98.) If you are primarily interested in doing web graphics, and not "real world" quality graphics, then the news is good, that practically any Pentium with 16 or 32 megs will be good enough.

(Web graphics are only 72 dpi resolution. (Dots per inch.) Real world photographic quality requires a much higher resolution, which GREATLY increases the processing requirements. The best computer you can buy is none too good for this kind of work.)

And another qualification. If you plan on doing 3-D "rendering," then you'll need a powerhouse computer after all, even at 72 dpi. This means generating three dimensional computer generated images (like were used in the movie "Toy Story.") My own 166 Mhz non-MMX Pentium is not anywhere near fast enough if I try to use one of those programs. (You don't need to render 3-D graphics to be a web designer.)

Or for playing games. The latest computer games also require powerhouse computers, well for exactly the same reason: because they do a lot of rendering of 3-D images, which gobbles up a lot of computer (and video board) power.

A powerhouse computer is defined (currently) as having a Pentium III CPU running in the high 450+Mhz region, 128 (or more) megs of RAM, a carefully chosen 3-D accelerated 16 meg video board, 10-20 gigabytes of hard disk space. $1,500 to $3,000. (Hard to keep track these days.) Probably should also have a 19" monitor ($700). Not much chance of buying used, or getting discounts on much of anything. Bright side is that it's still cheap.

(An aside. Around here, several people use 486 computers (to do word processing and surf the web) and haven't felt any great need to upgrade. No games or graphic creation work, though.)

Scanners and Other Graphics Stuff

More happiness. For web graphics, NEW flatbed 24-30 bit color scanners are only $50-$300 (and are generally all that you need.) I'm talking photographic quality. Flatbed scanners have increased in quality very fast. (And have dropped a lot in price.) DON'T BUY A USED FLATBED SCANNER, unless it is free, or damn close.

Figures of merit with scanners are true (not interpolated) optical resolution (now a choice between 300 and 600 dpi) and number of bits for the color depth (24 bits is borderline, should be at least 30 bits for a new scanner.)

Cautions. Non-Twain driver is bad. Interface should be either standard SCSI or parallel. (SCSI is harder to install, but works faster than parallel.)

Flatbed scanners only scan prints or other stuff printed on paper. For higher quality photography work, you need a transparency scanner--$700 to start. Next step up in quality is to have photos processed onto Kodak Photo CDs, which you then can manipulate with a program like PhotoShop, or Paint Shop Pro.

Phillip Greenspun has a great article on scanning photos for the web. More photography info on his site.

I've scanned all the graphics on my web sites with a MicroTek E3 scanner, which now sells for $149. I like MicroTek scanners. I really like the TWAIN interface software, that is practically a whole photographic correction program in itself.

Always get a scanner that is TWAIN compliant. Don't have to know why. Just require it.

Also, you might want a pressure sensitive graphics tablet, so that you can draw directly into graphics programs using real-world drawing techniques. ($300-600, up) (Trying to draw with a mouse sucks.) Probably should get a flatbed scanner first.

Of Mice and Keyboards

Cheap, even when buying new. There are two main kinds of mice: Ones that connect to your serial port (you will usually have at least one free serial port), and "PS/2" style ones. Both kinds work equally well--it mainly depends on which kind of free port that you have to connect them to.

While you can get away with a $9.95 "generic" mouse, a real Microsoft Mouse ($50, or so) is well worth the investment. A Microsoft Mouse responds a lot smoother and you spend less time "fighting" with your mouse pointer. You will be using the mouse all the time.

Mice like to get gunk on their rolling balls, which makes them not respond too well when you are trying to move the pointer. The fix is easy: turn it over, unscrew the little cover that holds the ball, remove the ball and clean it with rubbing alcohol. Brush out any junk that you see in the ball cavity, too. Replace the ball and cover. You don't even have to turn your computer off to do this--just do it whenever the mouse starts giving you grief. (This works for most mice. It is possible that your mouse might have different maintenance needs. Check its documentation first.)

Tip: try to keep your mouse pad brushed off to cut down on this happening. Also, tell your cat to mind its manners around the mouse. (Cat hair is a prime offender.)

A good mouse "feel" is subjective. You might prefer the feel of a, say, Logitech mouse instead of a Microsoft one. Try 'em out in the store.

One real good use for a $9.95 mouse is to be a spare mouse. There is nothing more aggravating than having your computing come to a screeching halt because the mouse died. (They do.) Get a spare mouse.

Keyboards are a real commodity, usually costing about $25, new. Not much to say, except that there are two different kinds of connectors. ("Standard" and PS/2, I think.) Has to match with your computer. We have IBM to thank for this PS/2 foolishness.

Real old keyboards might have some kind of "XT/AT" switch somewhere on them. If the keyboard doesn't seem to work from the very beginning, try looking for some kind of tiny switch somewhere, changing it, and then re-booting. If this switch gets inadvertently flipped....

Other than that, get whatever kind of keyboard that you feel most comfortable typing on.


Conventional modems. Well, they pretty much always work. Fastest right now is 56K. (There used to be two competing standards. Now the standard is V.90. This is one reason to buy 56k modems new, and make sure that it complies with V.90.)

Regular modems come in two main varieties: internal and external. An internal one is basically a PC card and goes inside the computer. External one is, well, external. It is a box that connects to one of your computer's serial ports.

Advantage for internal: Cheaper. Has built in high speed UART serial port. Disadvantage: Hard to install. Real geek job. (Often have conflicts with existing serial ports.) Have to turn computer off if you need to reset the modem. (Which you may never have to.)

Advantage for external: Easy to install. Can see blinking lights, which MAY be helpful if having a communication problem. Also, if it screws up, you can just turn its power off and on again. Disadvantage: Requires high speed 16550 UART chips in the serial port, which means a little bit more $$$. (Not much--just another thing to watch out for when buying a computer.)

14k (14,400 bps) modems are slow. Main advantage is that people practically give them away now. I bought one, almost a year ago, over the counter in a real store for $9.95. They work. Internet is itself sometimes slow. Sometimes, my cable modem connected to my Win 95 Pentium is no faster than my 14k modem in my 33 MHz 486. Life sucks.

One intriguing choice that has become available recently is cable modems. These are modems that connect to your TV cable, and do not use the regular phone lines.



More Cable modem information.


Uh, why? This is the Cyberspace era, not the Gutenberg era. Paper's dead. I sometimes go for weeks without turning my printer on.

However, if you really have to kill some trees, then here are some recommendations.

Ink jet printers. Currently the most popular type of printer.



Cheaper ink jet printers can only accomodate one ink cartridge. (Either black OR color.) This is bad. The better ones will take one black ink cartridge and one cyan/yellow/magenta color cartridge.

Laser Printers are the most practical printers to have if you don't absolutely need to generate color printouts.



If you are into printing, you might consider having one of each type printer. Use the laser for most garden variety printing, and use the ink jet when you need to make pretty pictures.

Hint: if you want to print originals of the highest quality, considering printing all text on a laser printer, and the color graphics on an ink jet. Requires fairly hairy page layout wrangling, but is worth the effort.

Ink Jet and Laser printers are also improving at a rapid pace, and you might want to consider buying new, unless you get a really good price on an old one.

Graphic Arts Considerations.

There are other, more specialized printers for serious graphic work, like generating true photographic quality prints, or for printing on paper that is larger than 8 1/2" x 11".

Also, if you plan on doing page layouts that will ultimately be printed by a real typesetter, then you probably need a laser printer that has Adobe PostScript for doing your proofing.

To be continued....

Some Final Computer Considerations

Choosing an Internet Service Provider

Here is what you need: basic web access, email, and web page hosting--the more space, the better. You need a local phone access number. Pretty much all providers offer this as part of a standard package.

A lot of ISPs offer service like this with pricing generally around $19.95 a month for "unlimited" service. The problem is that ISPs are fighting a price war with each other and their temptation is to skimp on performance in order to cut costs. Namely by not having enough phone lines on their end, so that you always get a busy signal when you try to connect. So the best way to find a good ISP is to ask other local users what their experiences are. In general, small companies are more responsive.

Don't become too married to the idea of $19.95 a month. There might very well be ISPs in your area that have decided to not play in the price war game and provide much better service by charging a slightly higher price. This is the kind of ISP that I strongly recommend. Uh, yes, you can always change to a different ISP at some point in the future, but you will find out when you do that, that your email address (and web page address) will also change. Remember what a hassle it was when they put 911 in and changed everybody's (real world) mailing address?

Make SURE to ask if web page hosting is included with the ISP service. (It is with AOL.) You will be wanting to put up a web page, and can start working on it as soon as you get your own computer. ANY working computer is all that you need to create a web page. The only additional program you need is a FTP program to transfer the page contents to the web site host. (Ask if the previous owner can install one for you, if you are buying a used computer.) And some kind of bare bones text editing program, which all computers usually have installed anyway. (We're leaving graphic programs as a big optional for now.)

Connecting to the Internet does tie up your phone line when you are using the computer, which might require some finesse on your part, depending on how many house mates you have. ("Will you please get off the computer, so I can make a call.")

You might have to adopt a creative sleeping schedule. (To use the computer in the middle of the night, or very early in the morning. Very early in the morning has the added benefit that the Internet is faster then.) We all have to suffer a bit for our art.

Use your browser's back button to return to the Table of Contents. Forward if you go too far back.

How to Create a Web Page