A Writer's Guide to Buying a Computer for Under $180by Robin Miller
The Internet Writing Journal, October 1997
There is no reason for a beginning writer to spend more than $180 for a computer and all the software needed to make it run, or more than $400 for all the equipment needed to go into the desktop publishing business.
The computer I am using to type the words you are reading right now is a seven year old 286 IBM PC clone with 2 MB RAM, a VGA monitor, and a 40 MB hard drive. It is worth $100, tops. The "trick" that gives me full word processing and desktop publishing capability with this obsolete box is a little-known software package called New Deal Office 97 that gives me almost all of the useful features found in Windows 95 and Microsoft Office combined.
Unlike the Microsoft products, which require huge amounts of memory and expensive "state of the art" microprocessors to run, New Deal Office works on any PC this side of an IBM XT. And unlike Microsoft Office, which sells for over $200 in most retail stores, New Deal Office 97 only costs $79.
New Deal includes NewWrite, a full-featured word processor (including spill checker) far easier to use than Microsoft Word, a graphics program that handles BMP and .GIF images, a contact manager for tracking submissions, a spreadsheet for calculating royalties, a database for information management, an on-screen calculator for the math-impaired, solitaire for times when you are "between assignments," an on-screen clock to check when you're working against tight deadlines, and a communications module adequate for sending out e-mail queries and proposals.
In other words, everything a writer needs to function, all in one low-cost package that takes about an hour to install and learn to use.
A new $2000 computer and $500 worth of software won't make you write any better than a $100 used computer running New Deal's $79 package.
Let's prove this with a little experiment:
Look at this paragraph, then at the ones that came before it. See any sudden improvement in writing quality? I didn't think so, even though I saved "writew.txt" to a floppy in New Deal, popped it out of my 286, drove to the nearest Staples store, stuck the floppy in a new multimedia Compaq on display here, and opened the file in Microsoft Word. I'm standing in the store typing this right now, and people are giving me strange looks. But you wouldn't have known this if I hadn't told you. It's what's inside a writer's brain, not what's in his computer case, that counts.
Just to make sure this is true, let's switch machines again.
Now I'm using an MMX graphics workstation with a giant 20" monitor, full of software so sophisticated I don't know what half of it is for. The owner of The Strand Cybercafe in downtown Baltimore, where I am paying $8 per hour to use this monster, says its total value, including software, is close to $8000.
Edgar Allen Poe is buried a few blocks away from here. He wrote with quill pens (often bought used from scrap metal dealers, according to local legend) and never saw a computer in his life.
Does having an MMX workstation (and ergonomic keyboard) at my fingertips suddenly make my prose better than Poe's?
Please don't answer that question.
But don't expect a fancy computer to make you a better writer than you really are, either. If you are writing poetry or novels, you really will write as well on a $100 286 as you will on any other computer, so buying anything more expensive is a waste.
If you write heavily on and about the Internet, as I do these days, you'll be forced to spend $300 - $500 for a used 486 system like the one I recently acquired, with enough RAM and hard drive space to run Windows 95 and a memory-hogging graphics web browser, and you'll need to stick a ($49 from an online surplus outlet) 33.6K or faster modem in it for web searching, but a Pentium-based system ($700 or more, used) is probably overkill unless you have an ISDN or T-1 Internet connection to go along with it.
As for new computers, they are so expensive that I don't even bother looking at them. And why would a writer want one? Editors don't care what kind of computer you own. All they care about is the quality of your work and the legibility of your printer's output -- which is why the one brand-new piece of hardware I advise all writers to buy as soon as they have a few extra dollars to spare is an inkjet printer.
Canon, Epson, Lexmark, and Hewlett-Packard have all recently introduced color inkjet printers that sell for $200 or less. I chose the HP 672C (street price $199) because it works well with DOS and New Deal and the ink cartridges are refillable at low cost, but all of these printers, despite their low prices, put out copy clear enough to please the world's fussiest bifocle-wearing editor.
And if that editor still doesn't bite, the computer, software, and printer combination I have described above, total cost $400 or less (including sales tax), is all it takes to self-publish a newsletter, 'zine or chapbook that looks as good as one written and laid out on an $8000 graphics workstation.
**Robin Miller writes a weekly online column for The Netly News called This Old PC about buying and selling used and surplus computer hardware and software. He despises spell checker programs and insists on referring to them as "spill" checkers.