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The Cutting Edge: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION
| POSTCARD FROM CYBERSPACE / DANIEL AKST

The Net Offers Wealth of Information for Computer Shoppers

February 14, 1996|DANIEL AKST

Regular readers of this column are by now familiar with the tragic handicaps under which it is written. Its author sits hunched day and night squinting into the undersized monitor of an ancient, coal-fired 486, cobwebs forming on his beard as he waits for dialogue boxes and Web pages to appear. The overstuffed hard drive, meanwhile, flogs itself to exhaustion in a futile effort to compensate for a congenital shortage of RAM. You can't imagine the soot.

In an effort to awaken from this Dickensian nightmare, I decided to investigate the purchase of a new PC. Naturally, when I needed information I looked on the Internet.

The Net turns out to be an excellent resource in this department. Most computer magazines have a presence, and some of them have good World Wide Web sites. Yet it's a measure of how far this medium has to go that nothing I found on the Internet was as easy or useful as the Dec. 5 issue of PC Magazine, which reports on its testing of 103 computers more or less in the class I'm considering.

Perhaps the most useful thing on the Internet for prospective purchasers, particularly of components rather than full-blown systems, are the newsgroups focusing on such matters. Unlike computer magazines, which often seem as determined to sell you something as their advertisers are, the newsgroups give you a chance to reach the people who actually use all this stuff. Their experience can be invaluable when you are shopping.

A while back, for instance, I was looking for a fast PCMCIA modem, and so I visited comp.dcom.modems and alt.periphs.pcmcia, where I saw a posting about a new 28,800-bps TDK model that adhered to the old v.fast standard--and so was cheap--but also offered a free upgrade to now-standard v.34. I e-mailed the man who'd made this posting and learned he was happy with his purchase. After talking to TDK, I bought one.

Needless to say, computer-oriented newsgroups abound, and most news-reading software allows you to search the titles for topics of interest. (Groups in the comp.* hierarchy are a good place to start.) You can also do this on America Online and CompuServe. CompuServe's own forums, by the way, are another excellent source of real-life user experiences, as well as assistance for computer-related problems. Both CompuServe and America Online also have a good many vendor forums.

This is not to slight the World Wide Web. PC World magazine, for instance, has an excellent Web site at http://www.pcworld.com. I was able to read up here on the latest features I should expect in a good Pentium machine. PC World also offers ratings, and even lets you generate your own list of rated machines in order of the priorities you set.

To the magazine's credit, its home page featured an ad for some software called RamDoubler, although the very same page gave prominent display to a story headlined "RAM Doublers No Substitute for Real RAM." The story says, in fact, that such products can actually degrade PC performance.

Ziff-Davis, the computer publishing giant, has an extensive presence on the Web at http://www.zdnet.com, where you can access such journals as PC Magazine, PC Week, PC Computing, ComputerLife, MacUser, MacWeek and Family PC. PC Week is a good place to look for news of impending price cuts (there are always impending price cuts) and other industry developments. And if you're looking for something specific, you can search across all the Ziff-Davis computer publications here, which is handy for looking up product reviews.

Like the PC Web site, this one asks that you register before it will give you access to some of the best things it has to offer. In this case, registration gives you an opportunity to use ZD Net Personal View, which lets you specify what you'd like to keep track of and produces reports drawn from various computer publications.

CMP Publications, another major publisher in this field, offers a searchable archive of all its computer publications, including Windows Magazine, Home PC, Communications Week, NetGuide and Information Week. Just point your Web browser at http://techweb.cmp.com/ and select any of the publications; the page for each publication has a button at the bottom for searching the archives. Click this button and you'll get a form allowing you to search the entire family of CMP periodicals going back to Jan. 1, 1994, which of course was the Dark Ages.

All the major computer companies, including IBM, Compaq and Dell, and many smaller ones have Web sites of their own. Just use http://www. yahoo.com to search for their names. At http://www.micron.com, for instance, you can access detailed information about Micron Electronics' product offerings. You'll also find their 800 number.

One nice thing about these Web pages is that the information is often more up-to-date than in the magazines. For instance, one manufacturer was listed in PC Magazine's comparisons as lacking 24-hour technical support. It's clear from their Web page, though, that they've added it, in addition to cutting prices and adding features.

That's the whole trouble with trying to buy a new computer: It's always better to wait a couple of months. And why not? Heck, I wait that long sometimes just for Netscape Navigator to load.

Daniel Akst welcomes messages at Dan.Akst@latimes.com. His World Wide Web page is at http://www.well.com/~akst/

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