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Bringing the IBM PC Up to Snuff

The IBM PC is sold "bare bones" to make the initial purchase price seem low. Some personal computers are complete packages including a display, disk storage units and built-in connectors for a printer and communications that make the system ready to go to work as soon as you get it.

The basic IBM PC is known as the "IBM Personal Computer System Unit with Keyboard" and that's just what you get: a system unit and keyboard. This currently retails for $1,355. The focus of this article is on the hardware you need to add to the system unit to make the computer useful.

Disk Storage

The first device to consider is a disk drive, or better yet, two disk drives. These are used for loading programs into the computer and storing data and information that you create. Disk storage is very important and I would recommend getting two "double-sided" drives which gives you the most flexibility and versatility with your system. Some programs require two drives in order to run properly; one drive used for the program diskette and the other for data.

Memory Considerations

The original IBM PC s came with only 16K RAM installed on the motherboard. (RAM is the active workspace inside your computer and is measured in units of "K" equal to 1,024 computer characters.) This is not enough RAM for most of the programs available for the IBM PC. These early PCs have room for an additional 48K worth of RAM chips on the motherboard. If you have one of these early PC s, the first thing to do is plug additional RAM chips into the empty RAM sockets on the motherboard to bring the RAM up to 64K. The PC now comes with 64K RAM installed on the motherboard which is sufficient RAM for most games, many word processors and a number of other programs.

If you want to use sophisticated programs that require larger amounts of memory such as Lotus 1-2-3, Visi-On and others, you will need further memory expansions: 96K, 128K, 256K or even 512K total RAM. Under the current scheme of memory organization, 640K is as far as you can go. The IBM PC can utilize 1,024K of memory; 128K is devoted to the video display (TV screen), 256K is for ROM (Read Only Memory, which has specialized uses, though only 40K ROM is used by IBM at the time of this writing) and that leaves 640K for RAM.

The best way to figure out how much RAM you need is to check out the software you want to use first, then see how much RAM these programs require for optimum operation. If 64K is the largest amount of RAM needed by any of the programs you want to use, then you're all set. If you need 128K then get an expansion card that has another 64K on it. The point is: Don't buy anything you don't need. Sales hype may lead you to believe you need 256K RAM right away. Maybe you do; but maybe you don't. Checking the software first will help guide you in your purchasing decision.

RAM cards are sold separately, but the best value is to buy a multifunction card that offers RAM expansion (these multifunction cards will be discussed at greater length later in the article). Look out for IBM's prices; they offer 32K RAM cards at the ridiculously high price of $325.

Typical setup/scenario: customer has standard 64K RAM in his IBM PC and he has just picked up a copy of a program like Wordvision at a local bookstore (where people don't know much about computers). The unsuspecting customer gets home and tries to run the program but it doesn't work, because it needs 96K RAM to run.

A quick trip back to your IBM dealer who says "You need another 32K RAM for your system . . . and you're in luck. We have a 32K RAM expansion card and the price is lower than our 64K RAM card." It's best to get RAM expansion from someone other than IBM. Before you buy anything computer-related it's good to shop around. Try to find several similar products and compare prices. Check computer magazines and user groups. Don't buy anything the same day you first get excited about it.

When expanding RAM, look for the type of cards that have empty sockets for future RAM expansion. That way you can get maximum potential for expansion. Add more chips to the card later on as you get software that needs additional RAM. Plugging additional RAM chips into empty sockets on a card you already have is better (and cheaper) than getting another RAM card. One of the expandable RAM cards is the Maxicard offered by Vista Computer Company for $379 retail. This comes with 64K RAM installed and is expandable to 576K.

Displaying the Data

Another important board to plug into the computer is a video display adapter which lets you connect the IBM PC to a monitor. IBM sells two types of TV interface cards. One is the IBM Color/Graphics Monitor Adapter which costs $244. This interface card lets you hook up a color television monitor such as the IBM Color Display, selling for $680. It's possible (and usually less expensive) to use other displays. To get the Color Display and the Color/Graphics Monitor Adapter you'd have to spend $924 plus tax, which is pretty close to $1,000. You can find lower priced displays, but let the buyer beware since the quality may vary substantially. Color monitors made by Amdek, Taxan, NEC, Quadram, Electrohome and Commodore are all worth considering. The new color televisions that have a "video in" plug can also be used with some types of color adapter cards. Make sure you check how well the card and monitor combination works before buying.

The other display interface that IBM sells is the Monochrome Display and Printer Adapter. This is a multifunction card that provides both a video interface and a printer interface for a cost of $335. The IBM Monochrome Display is $345. The most common type of monochrome display is the green phosphor such as IBM uses. Green is thought by many to be the easiest on the eyes, though black-and-white and amber displays are also popular. The combined cost of an IBM Monochrome Display and Printer Adapter interface card is $680, a considerable savings over the color display and interface card. Also, a monochrome display provides a clearer image than color. This is better for word processing and other applications that require you to look at the display for long periods of time.

Another advantage of the Monochrome Display and Printer Adapter card is that it provides two different functions; connecting a video display and providing a printer interface. The IBM dot-matrix printer is actually an Epson MX-80 printer with Graftrax that has the IBM label on it. The Epson printers are all quite good and you can save some money by buying the same MX-80 printer from Epson without the IBM label on it.

Communicating

Another important hardware consideration is the issue of communications. A communications interface card can be connected to a device called a modem which allows computers to transmit information over a regular telephone line. This allows you to hook up to large computer information networks such as Dialog, The Source, BRS and CompuServe. It also lets you call someone else with a microcomputer and transfer information with them.

The standard type of communications card is the IBM Asynchronous Communications Adapter which sells for $120 (a cable is also needed and IBM wants another $75 for that). This type of interface is also known as a "serial port" or "RS-232 protocol." It is used for sending a stream of bits one by one (hence the name serial) over a cable in an agreed-upon fashion. But with this interface you still need a modem. 300 bits per second (bps) modems cost $100 to $300 and the faster 1200 bps modems cost between $300 and $700. There are cards which contain all the circuitry needed to connect directly with your phone line. One example of this is the Hayes Smartmodem 1200PC which sells for about$600. This offers software compatibility with the popular Hayes Smartmodem 1200 standalone version that is used with many computers.

Multifunction Cards

Plug-in cards offered by several manufacturers offer more than one feature. These cards are known as multifunction cards. They provide features such as RAM expansion, a built-in clock, a video display interface, printer hook-ups and communications, all on a single card. This has the advantage of taking up fewer slots than individual cards for each function (it's important to keep slots on the motherboard free for future expansion options). Multifunction cards usually cost significantly less than separate cards. As an example of this, consider the AST "Comboplus," a top-selling multifunction card that can be purchased from Advanced Computer Products in Irvine, California, for $695 and includes 256K RAM, an RS-232 serial port, a parallel printer port and a clock/calendar. Buying the individual cards from IBM to do the same things would cost almost $2,000.

[Note: All IBM prices quoted are from IBM's retail price list dated November 1, 1983.]