When Shopping for a PC,
Be on Guard for Little Lies


It's hard enough to select and buy a personal computer, given all the confusing techie specifications the manufacturers and dealers use to describe various makes and models. But the process is made even tougher by misleading claims that litter computer ads and store signs.

Regular readers know that one of the biggest of these misleading claims is the notion that higher processor speeds, as measured in megahertz, usually deliver greater actual performance. In fact, even a dramatic increase in chip speed isn't likely to make a discernible difference in the performance of typical tasks like Web surfing, e-mailing and word processing if your computer has a decent amount of memory.

But that's not the only disingenuous claim or inference you'll encounter when shopping for a new computer. Here are 10 little lies told by computer makers and retailers:

1. Memory: Many lower-priced machines don't actually deliver the full 64 or 128 megabytes of memory, or RAM, they claim. That's because they siphon off a lot of memory to power the video processor, which on costlier models has its own, separate, store of memory. A PC with 64 megabytes of such "shared" memory may have only 54 or 60 megabytes for use by programs at any one time.

2. Internet Readiness: Lots of machines are described as "Internet-ready." But these days few of them are really any more Internet-capable than any others. All have modems, and many have Ethernet ports that let you plug in a cable or DSL modem. On Windows machines, it's the operating system that really controls the way you hook up to the Net, and they all share that. An Internet button on the keyboard is just a convenience, not a necessity for Internet connections.

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3. Screen Size: Standard monitors never deliver the screen sizes they tout. If a monitor is advertised as having a 17-inch screen, measured diagonally, it will usually display an image of only about 16 inches. A 15-inch monitor shows a 14-inch image. That's because the actual image is surrounded by a useless black border, like on a TV. The ads' fine print often discloses the real size as VIS, or Visual Image Size. The anomaly doesn't occur on flat-panel monitors, which have no border.

4. Laptop Weight: Many laptop makers state the weight of their laptops in an unrealistic and misleading manner, assuming, for instance, that you'll be replacing an internal CD-ROM drive with a flimsy, cosmetic "travel panel." They also usually leave out the weight of the electrical adapter. For instance, IBM advertises its T-21 laptop as weighing 4.7 pounds, but it's really 5.3 pounds with the CD-ROM drive, which is one of the machine's most important features.

5. Battery Life: Laptop makers use a variety of methods to figure out battery life, but one thing is clear: The claims are almost always overstated. They often seem to assume a light-duty work pattern and severe power-management controls, like keeping the screen so dim that only a nocturnal creature could view it.

6. CD-ROM Speed: CD-ROMs are often rated as running at speeds like 32X and 40X, where X is the speed of a standard audio CD player. But such figures are misleading for two reasons. First, CD-ROM software and audio CDs won't play any faster at 40X than at 8X, the highest speed most require. Second, a high speed is usually attainable only when retrieving data from certain parts of a CD. The overall average speed is usually much lower.

7. Printer Speed: Printer makers always claim a certain speed, in pages per minute, for black and color printing. But they don't tell you -- except deep into their marketing materials, in tiny type -- that these speeds refer to printing at the machines' draft or economy settings, which produce the worst output and aren't commonly used. For instance, the Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 990C printer claims a black speed of 17 ppm and a color speed of 13 ppm. But at the normal print setting, these speeds drop to 6.5 ppm and 5 ppm, respectively.

8. High-Speed Modems: Many computers are said to include "high-speed V.90 modems." But these are just dial-up phone modems, and they are actually quite slow, compared with today's broadband speeds. They are all rated at the same maximum theoretical speed: 56 kilobits a second. In fact, most can't average much better than 44 kbps. That's pretty pokey.

9. On-Site Warranties: If a computer maker or store tries to sell you an "on-site" warranty, beware. They will, indeed, come to your site to fix your machine, but only as a last resort. Usually, they will force you to go through an exhausting and frustrating process of trying to diagnose the problem yourself before they'll even consider dispatching a technician. I've heard of users being required to spend hours on the phone stripping down machines, or even reformatting a hard disk, before the company will send a technician.

10. Bundled Software: Some computer makers and stores try to dazzle you with lists of software programs included on the PC. But in many cases, these are special "light" versions of the retail software, minus some features and often lacking manuals.