From the December, 1998 issue of PC Alamode
Holiday Buying Guide:
Upgrading Your Computer 
by Vade Forrester

Maybe you donít need a new computer. Perhaps upgrading some of the features of your current machine will give you all the additional functionality you need and will be much cheaper. Letís discuss some typical computer system upgrades that you can make without even opening the case of your computer.
 
 

Printer

There are two types of printers common today: the inkjet, and the laser. The laser printer ranges in price from $300 to over $2500, depending on speed, paper capacity, and network interface. The standard for the business office, the laser printer produces highest quality text and good graphics, but is usually limited to black and white printing. Although laser printers may be a little more expensive to buy, they cost much less to operate. Toner for laser printers is far cheaper than ink for inkjet printers, so if you consider cost for a printer, the laser unit may be much cheaper. Hewlett-Packard and NEC printers usually get good reviews in magazines. Color laser printers exist, and are usually faster than inkjet printers. The price of color laser printers is dropping fast, with Tektronix just offering a $2000 color model, so they are headed for the home system price range.

 Inkjet printers are the most popular for home systems, due to their ability to print color. Ranging from under $100 to $1500, inkjets can produce excellent color prints, especially if you feed them special photographic-grade paper. My eyeballs tell me that the lowest cost inkjets leave a lot to be desired, but in the $300 +/- $50 range, there are some fine printers. I like the Epson and Hewlett-Packard models for overall performance, while Lexmark printers print the best text I have seen from inkjets; youíll need a magnifying glass to distinguish it from a laser.

 Since replacement ink cartridges for inkjet printers tend to be expensive, be sure to check out the price and availability of replacement cartridges before making a buying decision. Are cartridges widely available at stores other than where you bought the printer; perhaps at discount stores like Samís? 

Buying advice: the best way to select a printer is to visit a local store like Best Buy and view their output in person. Nothing beats the eyeball test!
 
 

Scanners

Once a pricey accessory, scanners are now inexpensive, starting at $80 or less. You can still spend upwards of $10,000 for a scanner, but it will be a very high speed model used for archiving huge documents in a professional office. They are well worth their costs for such uses, but for the home, an under-$200 scanner is usually just fine. 

Why do you need a scanner? For inputting text or graphics images from paper into your computer. They can also read pages to fax. Most scanners come with both graphics and optical character recognition (OCR) software that scans in a page of text and converts it to a word-processor document. Scanning pictures from your roll-film camera still produces far better graphic images than most digital cameras.

 Scanners come in two configurations: flat-bed and sheet-feed. Flat-bed models look like a copier machine, with a glass sheet on which to place the copy and a cover that protects the original document from external light. Sheet-feed scanners are usually very small devices that work like fax machines; you place one or more sheets of paper in a slot and the scanner pulls the paper through to perform the scan. Sheet-feed scanners sometimes let you place more than one sheet of paper in the hopper, making them very good for faxing or for scanning text into an optical character recognition program, but they are not as precise as a flat-bed model. And try to copy a page from a book on a sheet-feed scanner!

 A growing number of scanners use a USB (universal serial bus) connection, which is faster than a parallel port connection. Itís also easier to use. Even faster is the small computer Support Interface (SCSI) connection, and some scanners include SCSI cards. Your scanning needs will dictate which type of connection you need. If you scan a lot of high-resolution graphics every day, the SCSI connection will be best. For occasional scanning, a parallel-port or USB connection will be fine, with the latter normally faster.

 Itís hard to find a selection of scanners set up for the eyeball test. Usually in stores, scanners sit by themselves unconnected to a computer. I recently asked a salesperson to demonstrate a scanner for me, and you would have thought I insulted his family. So how do you distinguish between the myriad of offerings? 

Scanner specifications are useful, provided you know whatís really important. Two areas in particular lend themselves to meaningless hype: resolution and color bit depth. Resolution is expressed in terms of scanned dots per inch, with separate numbers given for vertical and horizontal dots. The more dots per inch, the better the scan. Theoretically. The really meaningful resolution is the optical resolution, which describes the detail the scanner hardware is capable of. Be leery of interpolated resolution, which is a software enhancement of the image, and are not comparable among different scanners. Also, keep in mind that high-resolution scans produce enormous file sizes. Scanning an 8 by 10 inch color photo at 300 dots per inch will produce a file that is 40-55 MB in size, depending on the format you save it in. A 600 or 1200 dots per inch scan will produce a much larger file size, and will take a long time to scan.

 Another number specified is the color bit depth, usually specified as 24-bit, 30-bit, or 36-bit, with higher numbers implying better color definition. What no one usually says is that all of the scans are converted to 24-bit color before being saved to a file. There may be a little better performance from higher color bit resolution models, thatís not always the case. 

There are two types of scanner engines, the charge-coupled device (CCD) and a contact-image sensor (CIS). The latter is new, and produces scanners that are very slim in height. While the CIS scanners look attractive, so far their performance is not on a par with the older CCD units. 

The single best reference I know of is a recent article in the October 20, 1998 issue of PC Magazine, which tested 25 current scanners against common benchmarks. Read it at your library; or view it online at http://www.zdnet.com/pcmag/features/scanners98/index.html.

 Buying advice: buy a scanner from a major company which will have better driver support. Be sure the scanner works with your operating system. Get a flat-bed model unless your desktop just doesnít have room for it.
 
 

Backup tape drives

Tape drives still offer the most cost-effective way to make backups of your hard drive. Why should you bother backing up? Because sooner or later one of the following events will occur: a virus will infect your hard drive, your hard drive will crash, you will erase a file that is very important, you will upgrade your hard drive, an essential file will become corrupted, or a software installation will fail and leave mismatched files on your drive. When this happens, you will be in good shape if you have a recent backup tape from which you can restore all or selected files from your drive.

 Although some tape drives mount inside the computer, many attach through the parallel printer port. Most tape drives come with backup software that works well with their drive. Windows 98ís backup program is pretty good, too. 

Buying advice: get a tape drive whose capacity allows you to back up all the information on your hard drive onto a single tape. Use high-quality tapes, not no-name unbranded types. Establish a backup schedule commensurate with the value of your data, but no less than monthly. Be sure the backup software works with your operating system.
 
 

Monitor

Upgrading a 14- or 15-inch monitor to a 17-inch or larger monitor can be one of the most effective improvements you can make. A bigger screen displays more information, requiring you to scroll around less, and saving you lots of time. Time and motion studies have shown that in a business, the time saved by a larger monitor usually offsets the additional cost in a few months.

 Decent 17-inch monitors now cost $300 or less, although premium models still cost around $500 or more (lots more). Let your eyeballs tell you if the premium models are worth it. 

Buying advice: visit a store that has several monitors on display and let your eyeballs guide you. Try to convince the salesperson to show you a real screen image (like Windows Explorer) instead of the pretty, low-resolution graphic that is normally displayed. Be sure that text is clear both in the center of the screen and in the corners. Be sure the image doesnít sag or bulge along the horizontal and vertical edges. Try the monitor controls to see if itís easy to adjust the size and position of the image.