A friend asked me for advice about purchasing a computer.
It occurs to me that others may be interested, too, so here it is. Please note that I have not purchased a computer in a very long time: the one I am using now was given me, and I built the one before that.
For me, current prices are a mystery, except that I do know they are less than they were. I think you should consider paying US$500 - US$1500, unless you get a machine like the one I am now using, which cost over US$3000. Some less expensive machines are also available in places like WalMart. If they have the capabilities you want, they will do fine. Computers are, after all, `universal information machines'. The issues are speed and what external capabilities you want, such as what kind of screen you use to view text or pictures, or what kind of speakers you use for listening.
Please consider what you want to do, and then figure out what capabilities you need. If you want to listen to music, for example, you will need good speakers or good headphones. You may have compatible ones, in which case you do not need to purchase new ones; or you may not.
For a standard machine, like either my desktop machine or my laptop, I figure that nowadays you are likely to want:
CRTs are cheap. You probably want at least a 17 inch monitor, although it takes up considerable volume.
Fortunately, screen resolution is more important than monitor size. You will be OK with a resolution of 1024x768, which is the current standard. But that resolution may only look good on monitors smaller than 17 inches. I do not know. 1280x1024 works fine on 19 or 20 inch monitors.
I am currently using 1600x1200 resolution on a 15 inch flat screen and find that very nice. The high resolution more than compensates for the smallness of the screen. I simply sit a little closer to it than I do with a CRT.
Please make sure that the Control key is to the left of the `A' key, or easily rebound to that position. Some keyboard manufacturers put a `Caps_Lock' key there, as if they were manufacturing keyboards for 1885 typewriters! They often put the Control key in an extremely awkward place in the lower left of the keyboard, as if they want you to be inefficient and learn to hate computers.
Currently I am using an IBM keyboard which has this crazy labeling; but I have rebound the keys so that my Control key is to the left of the `A' key. I do not understand why computer manufacturers like to pretend their customers are still living in the 19th century. What is worse, some of their customers will come to think that the labels define the keybindings people who think that a map defines a territory and thereby learn either to avoid using the Control key or to become inefficient.
The usual rule is to create virtual memory, called `swap' space, one and a half times or twice as large as the RAM. Thus, if you have 128 megabytes of RAM, your swap should be 196 to 256 MB. I have 384 MB of RAM and only 512 MB of swap space because I started out with less RAM and added it. In editing video, I have run out of both RAM and virtual memory.... Video is infamous for taking up lots of memory.
My sister's husband recently purchased an inexpensive disk with 120 gigabytes capacity for less than $100, so I presume a machine with a 30 - 60 GB disk will be cheap.
A DVD burner is also a DVD reader, which means that if you get one, you can also watch movies on your monitor using VLC or some program like that. Many CD readers are also DVD readers, but do not burn DVDs. (Some burn CDs as well as view or play them, but only play DVDs.)
As for software,
Your vendor may give you a choice of desktop manager or may choose for you. You can, of course, change managers after trying one.
Every visual desktop manager runs under X Windows. The distinction between the window manager that manages X and a desktop manager is somewhat new. I think it is somewhat irrelevant to end users. (Incidentally, when speaking of `desktop managers' people usually are referring to `visual desktop managers'. The Emacspeak auditory desktop manager tends to be ignored.)
A visual desktop manager is a combination of the software that does a job for you and software that manages the windowing system. Each different manager is slightly different. (The Microsoft Windows graphic user interface consists of a windowing system, a window manager, a desktop manager, and a set of applications. As far as I know, Microsoft does not separate its window manager from its desktop manager in a manner readily visible to customers.)
Currently I use Enlightenment, but the two most common and popular desktop managers are GNOME and KDE. KDE is more boring and stable. It is said to be very like the Microsoft Windows graphic user interface. GNOME is more adventuresome.
Both KDE and GNOME provide all the standard features for doing jobs, like Open Office or KOffice for word processing, Mozilla (or its simplified deriviative, FireFox) or Konqueror for Web browsing, the GIMP for image processing. I don't know what makes up the current set of `mainstream features' but am told that the applications all exist.
It is worth remembering that a graphic user interface is just one of the four types of user interface currently available.
For some purposes, like creating and using virtual desktops, a graphic user interface is wonderful. For other purposes, like viewing your email while driving a car, it is not.
No one around you wants you to look at your email while you are driving. They want to you to keep your eyes on the road. (Driving creates what is called `situational blindness' and is distinguished from permanent blindness.) For safety and efficiency when listening it makes sense to use an audio desktop, not a `screen reader'.
Inside my graphic user interface, I tend to run and use the three other major interfaces: the command line or shell interface, the virtual lisp machine interface, and the audio desktop. (I mainly use my audio desktop to listen to Jane Austen's `Pride and Prejudice'; I don't use it much. I am visually oriented.)
I may be wrong. My judgements do not always match others'. One of the integrated interfaces I use is GNU Emacs, the virtual lisp machine environment. Other people often say it has a `steep learning' curve, but I did not find that at all. I first learned to use it well enough for work within five minutes. It took me several years to learn the more abstruse capabilities, but that is a different matter. And that learning never felt difficult. Indeed, I once described Emacs as
... like having a dragon's cave of treasures.
My hunch is that the complainers try to learn everything at once, which is difficult. Also, some may have come from interfaces that use different keybindings for common actions, such as copying text. Changing `finger habits' can be difficult. Often, it is simpler to retain old habits and change Emacs. For example, people who are accustomed to using Control-z, Control-x, Control-c, and Control-v for undo, cut, copy, and paste may want to use `CUA' mode rather than the default keybindings.
I tend to use one virtual desktop for writing, one for browsing the Web, one for connecting to the Internet via telephone, and one for miscellaneous stuff like looking at star maps, manipulating pictures, or listening to `Pride and Prejudice'. Of course, I do other things in each, too, but that is how I organize things over all.
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