• This column was published in The Weekender, a mainstream South African newspaper, this past weekend (28-29 July, 2007). Click here to subscribe and read it in all its original glory – with pictures and everything.

A FRIEND went looking for a new PC recently and came away with a new theory: “The modus operandi is to baffle with BS in the hope that customers will buy piles of hardware and software that they may, or may not, ever need,” he explained over a pint at our local.

He has a point. I recently had a similar experience, after deciding to get a PC for my mom. However, like most males, I have an inherent distrust of salesmen. And, like most men (who aren’t salesmen), I have a copy of Ten Rules to Make Shopping as Painless as Possible.

Rule number one is the most important: “Always, always, always, understand exactly what you want before you set out.” Since this is probably most relevant when it comes to buying technology, I worked out what would be required of a PC for me old mum. The point of departure was to establish what she would likely want to do: send and receive e-mail; upload, file and forward family photos; play Sudoku; and the odd bit of web browsing. So, goals clear in my mind, I set out.

First stop:
It started tamely enough when I went to Game. Almost immediately I was shown a nifty HP desktop PC going for R4 999. But I hadn’t completely discarded the possibility of a laptop, so I asked and was pleasantly surprised: Game had a neat Toshiba notebook for the same price. Both were preloaded with Windows XP Home and were adequately configured – meaning they had roughly double the resources specified as minimum by Microsoft and I saw no need to run any heavily resource-intensive extra software.

Best of all Game was offering a R1 000 discount on the Toshiba notebook if I signed a new internet contract with MWeb. And, pursuant to rule two, my shopping venture nearly stopped right there. For the uninitiated: “Close is close enough; get out as soon as humanly possible.” But I was feeling energetic so I persisted.

Unfortunately, the salesman couldn’t answer my questions. He just stood there helplessly, waving his hand in the direction of the till, saying his colleague would help me, just as soon as she had finished on a phone call. I decided not to wait, opting instead to investigate the competition.

Next stop: Incredible Connection – where the salespeople are more numerous, marginally more helpful and much more elusive. When I walked in, all the salespeople appeared to be busy. Somewere even helping customers. After wandering around a bit myself, I approached one who promptly tried to sell me a machine with: an Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 2.40GHz processor; 2048MB DDR2 RAM @ 667 Mhz;1 TB (2 x 500GB) SATA hard disk (7200 rpm); a Sparkle Nvidia GeForce 8500GT 512MB DDR3 128Bit PCI-E 16x Graphics Controller; a DVDRW dual layer drive, etc.

Fortunately, I know a little bit about computers so I understood what he was trying to peddle me would be overkill, analogous to trying to swat a fly with an AK47. So, I asked: why would she need so powerful a machine?

“To run Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate,” he replied. I nodded sagely because, based on what I have read, he’s probably not far off the mark. This is not to say I haven’t had an opportunity to play with Microsoft’s latest operating system. On the contrary, Microsoft SA kindly provided an evaluation copy some months back but I have yet to try it out.My challenge is simple: I don’t have a spare PC capable of running it and I’m not risking my production machine. I also don’t have R20 000 to buy the machine specified by the salesman.

Having established that a Vista Ultimate-capable machine was overkill, I then uttered words that caused the salesman’s eyes to glaze over: “entry-level PC”. He grudgingly took me to a Mecer desktop PC not too dissimilar to the HP I’d seen in Game. However, it had a slightly faster processor, double the memory (512MB instead of 256MB), a bigger screen and a larger hard disk, for more or less the same price.

But it would need the extra system resources because it was preloaded with Windows Vista Home Basic. And, according to Microsoft’s website, the minimum requirements for that version of its new software requires at least that much memory. Following my rule-of-thumb to double up on Microsoft’s recommendations, a memory upgrade would probably be required if I wanted the machine to outpace molasses.

When I asked about a portable PC in the same bracket he indicated a similarly equipped Acer notebook, preloaded with Windows XP instead of Vista. Then he said both machines could be had for R500 less if I signed a 12-month internet access contract with MWeb. And since he was in a helpful mood, again I asked what other software I would need.

Spotting an opening, he said I would need security products in the form of antivirus, antispyware and firewall software, and – if word processing was required – Microsoft Office. In all I was looking at R3 000-R4 000 for software, I was assured, depending on which brands I selected. I wasn’t sure, so I asked about open-source and Linux. “I don’t know Linux,” he said. “We don’t stock it (and) I don’t know about it.” He quickly excused himself and disappeared into another part of the shop.

Stop three: One retailer everybody has an opinion about is HiFi Corporation. There I found a really sweet deal – one that clearly didn’t come through unofficial channels because it was a local brand. It was a ProLine PC of similar specification to the other desktop PCs I had seen and it was going for only R3 299 – with a Lexmark printer thrown in. Again it was Windows XP, meaning additional security software would be required and an office productivity suite.

Thankfully, this was more affordable at HiFi Corporation: antivirus software for R599 and Microsoft Office for R1 400. Then I thought: why does my mom need all this software when perfectly capable alternatives are freely available on the internet?

All that would be required on my part would be a couple of downloads or, better yet, save the bandwidth by popping down to the nearest Freedom Toaster.

And then I thought: why do I need Windows at all? Why not give mom the same system I’m using: Ubuntu Linux. Then I don’t need to worry about hectic system requirements. I have six- and seven-year-old PCs happily running Ubuntu and it comes with all the software mom would ever need.

And best of all, if I don’t need Windows I don’t have to pay for it: a Matrix Warehouse pamphlet I picked up outside HiFi Corporation offers a similar desktop PC to those I had already looked at without Windows or, indeed, monitor, for only R1 899 (including free internet for six months). Add a 17-inch monitor (also from Matrix) and I can get mom up and running for only R2 698. Bargain!

The best part is not having to support Windows, which means the volume of frantic support calls from mom will be far lower and the risk of compromise by viruses and malware is much lower. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem possible to get a laptop PC without Windows, meaning that even if you want to use Linux instead, you still have to pay Microsoft. There’s something seriously wrong with that picture.

However, if it’s an affordable PC you want, the message is clear: unless you’re a serious gamer, plan to assemble the human genome in your garage or you really, really want to run Windows Vista Ultimate, you don’t need to break the bank when buying a new PC. Indeed, you would more likely than not get away with what is disparagingly called an “entry-level” machine.

Note to self: e-mail Mark Shuttleworth to thank him profusely for Ubuntu.