Dvorak’s Machine for the Rest of Us
If you work in the computer industry -- whether you’re a programmer, a systems analyst, or a retail salesperson -- there’s a very good chance you’ve heard of a man by the name of John C. Dvorak. If not, you should know that he’s one of the most respected computer journalists around. His straightforward and bold style of writing has earned himself quite a “wise guy” reputation in his field.
Although I am almost always entertained and enlightened by Mr. Dvorak’s articles, I did happen to come across a column he wrote in the April 27, 1993 issue of “PC Magazine” that left me somewhat puzzled. And since I am a student of computer science, I believe the topic he wrote about needs to be slightly expanded and reevaluated from some different angles in order to prevent a similar type of confusion in other people as well.
The subject that he addressed in this column was an issue that many people in the computer business debate. He discussed what he believes to be the “minimum” personal computer system that people should consider purchasing for 1993; in other words, a system whose technical specifications are the minimum standard that should be met and possibly surpassed when making the purchase. In particular, the system would include a 66-MHz 486 processor (one of the fastest in the business), sixteen megabytes of main memory, high-resolution color video, a 440 megabyte hard disk drive, a CD-ROM drive, a 16-bit SoundBlaster audio card, and much more. According to his figures, this blazing number-cruncher would cost roughly $4,100 plus tax. If the system would be purchased through a mail-order vendor, shipping and handling charges would also need to be added.
Without a doubt, a system such as this would meet the needs of even the most demanding power-user for years to come. However, this is essentially where the flaw in the article comes into focus. What it amounts to is that even though the current trend for many computer users and buyers is to purchase expensive hardware simply to avoid lagging behind everyone else, I feel it simply must be pointed out that many individuals really do not need to purchase a system having the same level of power and features as the minimum machine described in the article.
Mr. Dvorak did make it very clear that he did not have the casual computer user in mind when he designed his minimum machine. He reminded the reader once again by stating that the system he was about to describe was an all-purpose GUI (Graphical User Interface) computer – not a computer that would only be used to call a local computer bulletin board once a month. Certainly this advice is very logical and is filled with good intentions, but it may not even be necessary, especially in a technical journal whose core readers already have a broad knowledge of today’s available hardware and technology.
There’s a good chance that if a well-seasoned computer user needs to buy a system of such high caliber, they will have already gained the knowledge needed in order to make such a purchase from past experience (and from reading periodicals such as this one). This may leave users reading the article who hover around the middle area of the spectrum (such as college students or small business owners) in the dark as to what they should buy. After all, my impression of the article as I started reading it was that it would describe a generic minimum computer system for everyone, not just power-users.
Mr. Dvorak does bring up a very good point early in the article, and that’s the fact that many people “nickel and dime” their way through their computer buying decisions; therefore, they end up purchasing a computer system that quickly becomes obsolete. I have also seen this happen, and although I don’t like this phenomenon, it just seems hard to avoid in many cases, since cost always turns out to be such a crucial and unavoidable issue.
This sad trend may begin to change now that falling prices have become the norm in the computer industry, but for the time being, it remains a fact that some people just can’t afford to buy the computer of their dreams. And the term “minimum machine,” when taken at face value, would imply that the computer described in Mr. Dvorak’s column is more of a “base” model, meaning that one should consider adding even more features (thereby increasing the price even further).
First of all, assuming that cost is one of everybody’s top criteria when buying such a fancy appliance, Mr. Dvorak’s estimated bottom-line of $4,100 for his minimum computer system may pose a problem for many people, including a few power-hungry computer devotees. The fancy luxuries of a $4,100 computer system would tempt the I.T. (Information Technology) department of any business, but it’s likely that not all of them would be willing to spend that much money.
Second, although it’s strictly mentioned who this computer system is mainly for, other users should realize that while a CD-ROM drive, sound card, 2.88 megabyte floppy disk drive, and tape backup unit are all wonderful items, they aren’t crucial to writing a document on a word-processor or constructing a financial electronic spreadsheet.
And finally, now that Pentium computers (the successors to the class of computer Mr. Dvorak recommends) are slowly starting to emerge, a person who is really thirsty for a high-horsepower machine may be better off waiting a short time and purchasing one of these, provided they have the proper funds. If one is already going to spend between $4,000 and $4,500 on a loaded 486 PC, buying a Pentium-based PC at twice the processing speed may be an even wiser investment in the long run.
It can be very comforting to have some kind of basic platform from which to build your ideal system. And I’m sure it’s quite possible that there are some people who can afford and who are willing to invest in the minimum machine recommended in Mr. Dvorak’s article. However, I feel that for those who want to play it safe, it’s best to implement a buying strategy designed around what you actually intend to do with your PC instead of the illusive needs brought on by today’s tempting technologies. If you purchase correctly, there’s no way this plan can go wrong, whether you end up with a 16-MHz IBM-AT compatible or a 60-MHz Pentium screamer.