How Not to Buy a Computer

The following is an unauthorized translation of an article by JiΕ™Γ­ FranΔ›k, published in the Czechoslovak computer magazine List sometime in early 1989. Some readers probably remember those times, others have forgotten. As for the rest—consider yourselves lucky.

The number of computers in our households keeps going up, despite domestic production contributing extremely little—and foreign trade only very slightly more—toward that end. Individual import from abroad is still the most “natural” way of obtaining a computer and peripherals. But the process is not without pitfalls.

One of the proven methods of not buying a computer (or even better a printer) is a purchase through a third party. “Dear auntie, I have a pressing need to buy a Seikosha GP 100 printer and Multiface II for my ZX Spectrum1. Both are very cheap and in Munich you can probably find them in every drug store.” Auntie will waste a lot of time shopping but never find the desired peripherals even in the most specialized store. Those who have spent some time abroad (and know how the foreign markets work) no doubt understand the problem. For the rest, unfortunately the majority, an explanation follows.

  1. The Seikosha GP 100 cannot be had, because the ad in a six-month old magazine in fact announced a closeout sale. Incredibly low prices usually indicate that a given model is no longer in production. The capitalist manufacturer does not keep producing a model which is no longer profitable. Low profit is only acceptable for new models which are expected to be successful later. As soon as it becomes a bestseller, the price goes up. The capitalist retailer on the other hand may sell with a loss. Margins are high, and spare parts and accessories in particular are more profitable for retailers than for manufacturers. Those profits cover losses from the sale of goods which no longer interest buyers, and which can only be sold at all when the price drops to the rock bottom.
  2. Multiface II is not available in Munich at all, because Sinclair was never very successful in West Germany. But it’s not available in specialized stores on Tottenham Court Road in London either, even though it’s made in London. The manufacturer is a small company named Romantic Robot which makes the devices more or less by hand, and therefore can’t increase profits by lowering costs. The company does not want to share profits with retailers and sells almost exclusively by mail.

Disappointment caused by unfamiliarity with the market can be experienced even without an aunt. A popular way of not buying a computer is a great “bargain”. I know two people who own a home computer that was a real “bargain”, but in practice they now don’t have anything. One bought a computer on sale on a business trip to Sweden; it was a computer made by a company named Dragon which likely no longer exists, plus three fairly dumb games. The computer “lived” for about a month and then ended up in a closet. The other buyer was not so naive and did some research first. Found out that a new operating system called MSX is becoming successful, and bought himself a MSX machine. But MSX never really made it to Czechoslovakia and in most of the rest of the world MSX didn’t do so great either.

A computer, even the best one, is a fairly dumb machine, which is only brought to life by software. The best way to spend money on a computer but not really have one is to buy something with no real software and no proper documentation. It might seem that the answer is simple—buy a PC, because the supply of software is endless. The trouble is that most Czechoslovaks simply can’t afford one (and don’t have a generous enough aunt), or can at best afford a “bare” PC. And soon discover that without a printer, a computer is just a toy.

It might appear that I’m trying to say that buying nothing is the best option. I only want to point out the dangers of buying a computer abroad. Said dangers are the consequences of roughly four risk factors:

  1. our own psyche
  2. “experts” giving us advice
  3. ignorance of the market
  4. trouble with import

I’ll now describe these factors in detail.

  1. We’re all slightly irrational and sometimes we want things we don’t need. Anyone who wants a computer but isn’t entirely sure what to use it for should buy a cheap used Spectrum or similar. Either they’ll play with it and find out that they really don’t need a computer, or they’ll attempt to get something done and understand what they might need a computer for and what sort of computer would satisfy their requirements.
    Desire can lead us astray; it is sensible to buy the cheapest thing which checks all the boxes, but our psyche tells us that if we’re already buying something, it should really be Something.
  2. Hordes of “experts” point us towards what’s best. The reasons are usually purely technical and have nothing to do with the actual purpose of a computer. If I use a computer that’s 99% a text editor, it doesn’t have to be a 32-bit machine with a math co-processor.
  3. Ignorance of foreign markets can bring disappointments. I know several people who imported Amstrad PCW machines from West Germany, but only after spending a lot of time finding one. Through importing “germanized” Amstrad computers, Schneider built a good position on the German market. Now Schneider sells its own computers and that’s the end of Amstrad in West Germany.
    Computer magazines of a given country provide useful information about what’s available. It’s advisable to pay more attention to the articles than the ads. The articles tend to cover what’s typical in a given country, while ads offer all sorts of odd things. And ads are usually placed by small, less reliable companies rather than larger chains. In any case it’s less risky to buy a name brand computer from a big retailer rather than a suspect off-brand item in an obscure one-man shop.
    Price is of course important. Mail-order catalogs are a good source of data about pricing. But that’s informational only, since prices at a store can be significantly higher. In some countries, advertised prices also do not match reality. In British magazines for example one has to look for the fine print saying “prices shown without VAT”. Related to this is the fact that when exporting an item from a country, the VAT may be recovered. It is worthwhile to research beforehand which stores can do this and how.
  4. Now that the import tax on computers has been abolished, it is easy to individually import a computer as long as the purchase price is not wildly higher than the amount of exported foreign currency listed on the customs declaration2. Those who bought currency on the black market and smuggled it out in a sock risk that the customs officer might not be having a good day. The customs officer is a professional who does not appreciate when a little amateur smuggler tries to make him look stupid.
    If Aunt Amalie in Lisbon bought you a computer, you may be in for a nasty surprise. There’s no import tax to be paid, but there is a so-called notary fee, 20% of estimated value. And the estimated value has nothing to do with the actual price paid, it is derived from the “common price of goods”, and bureaucratic logic says that that’s the price of computers on the domestic market where computers are usually not available. That way, one Deutschmark can end up having “common value” of sixty crowns or so3.
    If Aunt Amalie in Lisbon does buy something for you, the deed should explicitly say something which might seem obvious but is otherwise rather difficult to explain to bureaucrats: Namely that the gift is to your family of four from the aunt and uncle and their three daughters. When several people gift something to several other people, the price of the item is divided by the number of participants of the complicated transaction. If you’re lucky, you will officially only get the keyboard cable and end up paying no fees, even if you end up with an entire computer. Since the details can change by executive order, I recommend checking the current situation with a notary beforehand.

Happy buying!

Translator’s Notes:

  1. It is unclear whether the author intentionally or unintentionally highlighted the kind of ignorance that complicated the purchase of computer peripherals. While the Multiface (aka Multiface One) was indeed a ZX Spectrum peripheral, the Multiface Two was an Amstrad CPC accessory, absolutely no good for use with a Spectrum.
  2. In communist Czechoslovakia, hard currency was tightly controlled. It was possible to officially purchase Western currency at a rather favorable exchange rate, but only in small pre-approved quantities, more or less fixed per day of stay in a given country. A customs official would therefore easily see (based on stamps in the passport) how much money a returning traveler would have been able to spend.
  3. The official exchange rate was about 3 crowns for 1 Deutschmark (DM). The actual price for individuals was about 5 crowns per DM, if one could get them. On the black market, the exchange rate was roughly 15-20 crowns per DM. 60 crowns for one DM would certainly be an extremely unfavorable exchange rate.
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27 Responses to How Not to Buy a Computer

  1. Chris M. says:

    What was the situation like in Eastern Europe for someone like Commodore or Atari? I know the IBM PC was expensive in general for overseas markets, but machines like the C64 (and later Amiga and Atari ST) were way more popular in Western Europe at the time.

  2. Michal Necasek says:

    C64 was relatively widespread I’d say, as in the late 1980s it was relatively cheap (the ability to hook up to an existing TV set kept the total price low). Atari 800 was common, Amstrad CPC was not unheard of, but ZX Spectrum was probably the most widespread. Amigas existed but were rare, Atari ST even more so. PCs were rare as they were significantly more expensive and at the time not very good gaming machines, but they did exist. There were lots of oddball micros as well, both Eastern and Western production. Apple II was completely absent I believe.

    I’m fairly certain that in Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s, ZX Spectrum was #1 and C64 was #2, but beyond that I wouldn’t even guess.

  3. ender says:

    This reminds me of how my father bought a PC in 1989 – several locals opened companies in Austria and sold computers there, so you’d buy it and smuggle over border piece-by-piece. The only thing he had to pay import fees on was the monitor.

    My coworker also told me a fun story about how he imported his computer – apparently only the import of PC XTs was allowed – AT was forbidden for some reason, and the customs officers “recognised” ATs by having a hard drive. So when he imported his computer, his wife hid the disk in her purse; the customs officer had him open the computer, look inside for a while, then pointed at the power supply and said “hard disk!”

  4. zeurkous says:

    @Necasek: nice, but ,s/f0r/for/ πŸ™‚

    During the particular dark year of the article, mewas two years old, and
    thus one year before the XT clone (branded ‘Tandon’, as meseems to
    recall) that immediately got me hooked, and proceeded to, between King’s
    Quest, Castle Adventure, and some rudimentary BASIC fiddling, made me
    internalize an extraordinarily bad design (and ditto program loader) as
    the gold standard for small machines… Ugh, took me decades to get rid
    of that devious influence. But medigresses…

    Sure fun to be lectured a bit on ‘capitalist ways’ πŸ™‚ Just as bad as
    communism, albeit in a diff way…

    > without a printer, a computer is just a toy.

    Like many points in the article, this remark touches far deeper than the
    surface: even back then, with — for mere mortals — almost nonexistent
    networking, one of the most important uses of a computer was

    Indeed, very recently, me’s privately reflected that most of the
    ‘computers’ we use now may better be called ‘communicators’, for that
    has become their main purpose in our daily lives.

    @ender: Captain Picard would have a good one for *that*! Bureaucrats are
    stupid everywhere.

  5. zeurkous says:

    ,s/that immediately/arrived that immediately/

  6. zeurkous says:

    As for the Apple II, well, in .nl (or at least the part where melived),
    it was completely unheard of. Me’s seen Atari STs, heard of the
    occasional Amiga or Macintosh, had the displeasure to sit at an
    Amstrad/Schneider toy once or twice…

    About the latter, merecalls taking one apart years later, and found that
    despite the general flimsy construction, there was actually a metal
    shield soldered over the motherboard that mecould not figure out how to
    remove without destroying it. Under it was nothing worth that kind of
    protection, and indeed it ran fine with the sucker removed. Given that
    the previous owner had to resort to installing a hard card, and that,
    infamously, the power supply was in the monitor (as merecalls it lacked
    a fan, so the whole thing got quite hot over time), with a confounding,
    seemingly custom many-pin connector to feed the machine, mefigures that
    the shield was yet another measure to discourage upgrades. Capitalist
    tactics indeed. It did display GEM in full-CGA glory, so someone must’ve
    been happy 😑

    But, as menow knows, it still wasn’t so bad as w/ the Macintosh…

    Mefinally read about the Apple II in the late 90s. Me’s fairly sure it
    was a Usenet post by an old fart. Now me’s one.

  7. Michal Necasek says:

    You must be using a different font or you have a really sharp eye. Here the ‘for’ and ‘f0r’ looked almost the same. Thanks.

    I’m almost certain that when my father bought a C64 in 1988 or so, he bought a printer as well. Our first PC definitely did have one, and yes, in those days, without a printer a computer was much, much less useful. Even when it was a low-end dot-matrix printer.

  8. Michal Necasek says:

    The Apple II was definitely unheard of in the Eastern Bloc, but now that I think about it, it must have been effectively non-existent in West Germany as well (which was a Commodore land for the most part).

    I see now that there was some “Europlus” version of the Apple II, which was really Eurominus because it was B&W only, unlike the NTSC version. I’m guessing it was about as common in Europe as those MSX machines. But I also clearly remember that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were lots of weird 8-bit machines that no one remembers today.

  9. zeurkous says:

    OpenBSD’s new vt font, ‘spleen’. Melikes it =)

    Yeah, obviously, over in .nl, most home computers were Commodores or
    MSXes (mebelives Philips was in fact heavily invested in the latter).
    They were, however, almost invariably regarded as a toy (again,
    at least where melived). The MSX lusers tended to agree more w/ the
    ‘toy’ image than the Commodore ones, but merecalls both being rather
    ridiculed by pee-cee types.

    Me’d say that that ridicule was partly deserved, but that the
    near-untouchable image of IBM pee-cees was more than a little
    unrealistic (a problem that continues to this day).

  10. ths says:

    I agree, the Apple II was not very widespread (this was the naming for the older model with integer basic), but the success of the ][+ model (with more RAM and floating point basic from Microsoft) was outstanding. There were Apple User groups in every major and medium city. The local user group for the city of Giessen (population 60K around 1985) had something like 40 members and the german-wide Apple user group had nearly 10K members with a monthly printed magazine.

    Apple sold a solid number of machines, mainly to companies because of software like Visicalc, but the success of the Apple models came due to the gigantic number of clones and the possibility of adding expansion cards for all purposes you could think of.

    A lot of companies sold the empty mainboard for DIY as well as completely assembled mainboards and clone machines. Some companies even sold boards for the addon cards, empty or assembled, like 80-column card, Z80 card, serial card, printer parallel card, RAM expansion boards (from 16KB to 256KB), speech synthesizer cards, PAL cards (the onboard video output was only NTSC and therefore no colours outside USA) and so on.

    Afair I built around 30 machines and sold them to buddies at school (I was 14 or so when this started, must be around 1981). The most expensive parts were the RAM chips (you needed 24 chips for the full 48 KB maximum possible).

    I learned programming Basic, Pascal, Forth and 6502 assembler on the Apple, and my first modem to call out to a BBS was a self-built 300 baud modem from the “elektor” magazine connected to the serial card.

    I really loved the Apple ][, and it was the computer I owned and used for the longest time. All PCs and gear after that didn’t last that long. The circuit plan and the F8 “bios” ROM were fully documented in the technical reference, and the circuit plan was a decoration for my room, right beside a map of middle-earth πŸ˜‰

  11. zeurkous says:

    1985 predates me, but mewouldn’t be surprised if the rather small .nl
    market, combined with aggressive propagation of wanky MSX machines by
    Philips (which has a rather bad track record in making computers in
    general, and the MSX was not *that* much of an exception), made .nl a
    little unattractive for Apple.

    Boy does mewish it had been diff, and that mehad seen Apple II’s
    scattered around instead of those MSXes.

    (About Philips’ bad track record: merecalls a story about the postal
    giro service needing to replace their aging IBM machines, and the state
    ordering said service to use Philips equipment in the future. IIRC it
    took 3 generations of completely insufficient machines before they were
    allowed to go with IBM again. And that’s when they got into an MSX
    adventure for on-line banking, that very much impressed officials on
    demonstration to them, and it worked out until they finally found out
    the hard way that MSX machines were being mainly put in kid’s rooms and
    not used by the adults. Cue a scramble to port it to the IBM pee-cee…)

  12. zeurkous says:

    It’s also quite possible that Apple II lusers were more of a coddled
    bunch, and that mesimply never got close enough to their particular
    social circle.

    Mespeculates that if mehad an Apple II, mewould’ve felt more `related’
    to the folks on the other side of the pond. (Something which started
    happening anyway when mewas the first kid in the neighborhood to get an
    Internet connection, but meagain digresses).

    If true, the “Apple vs *” story certainly goes back earlier than
    merealized until now.

  13. Michal Necasek says:

    Interesting. Sounds like Apple II+ was quite similar to the C64 and Commodore’s VIC-20 and other machines, many of which were designed for business use. Same 6502 CPU, too. I know all that stuff was common in the USA and there were tons of add-on boards, but didn’t think it was anything but extremely exotic in Europe.

  14. zeurkous says:

    While not a ‘real computer’ in its western ‘NES’ form, the Famicom also
    had a 6502. Quite popular little thing, and reading the manual mesees
    why, it’s really quite practical.

    One odd thing is that the NES was a common sight in .nl, but almost
    no-one bought a SNES. While that’s indicative of its lower relative
    quality, mewonders if that was the case on the other side of the pond,
    or indeed the BRD.

    The other Michal (that’s me bf =) keeps telling me of the Famiclone, of
    Vietnamese provenance, (complete w/ BASIC and keyboard, but of course
    w/o the disk system) he used to have as a kid, alongside complaints of
    his stupid grandparents throwing it out w/o asking him. Our impresssion
    is that Famiclones were, for a good while, far more common in the
    glorious socialist utopias than the NES equivalents ever were.

    Japan really was a diff story, they pulled the “use local manufacture”
    thing off a lot better than .nl ever did.

  15. zeurkous says:

    The 6502 is quite popular and practical*

  16. Michal Necasek says:

    So MSX actually was widespread in the Netherlands? Didn’t know that. But I know back then the computer market was much less global, and whereas Germany (and I think Scandinavia) was full of C64s, UK was all ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro and such.

  17. zeurkous says:

    Yup, it was the fall-back, relatively el-cheapo stuff. Often bought by
    people who really did have the money to spare for a decent machine, but
    wanted to keep their kids busy w/ something reasonably Calvinistic.

    The Philips MSX machines quite fit that bill.

  18. Richard Wells says:

    I was in Frankfurt for the mid-80s. While I can’t provide a complete survey of the market, what I remember was similar to the US market about 5 years earlier: a fragmented bunch of prebuilt systems, small companies dedicating themselves to specific manufacturers and supplying necessary addons, and a lot of DIY as users adapted whatever equipment could be found affordably to the items already in hand.

  19. Julien Oster says:

    The SNES was very popular in Germany, at least I remember a lot of ads for it, and many of my friends had one.

    I wished for one for Christmas myself, but, either through misunderstanding or (more likely) because of a tight wallet, I ended up getting an NES instead. However, while also popular in Germany before the advent of the SNES, the NES did not really offer much beyond what my Game Boy already did. Add that to the contrasting experience of the very next gen games I played on the SNES at my friends’ places, and the NES sadly (and somewhat ungratefully, maybe) got virtually no use from me.

    As for Apple computers, I don’t doubt the account that they were around in Germany, but most people I knew, this was in Munich, were in the C64 (or sometimes Amiga) camp, with a few outliers like a friend who had a Schneider CPC. While I was aware of Apple’s existence, I don’t recall seeing them before the Macintosh came out.

    Otherwise, I was “lucky” enough to have had access to a PC from a very young age in the 80s, a non-IBM compatible Siemens PC-D. While it therefore could not run all programs, it was actually quite a fascinating, and in some regards “better” machine than the IBM compatibles of the time, sporting an 80186 CPU, 1MB RAM (!), high-def monochrome graphics and, marvelously, an MMU (for Sinix).

  20. zeurkous says:

    Oh yes, the Game Boy. Calvinism struck again — it was considered much
    more wise to buy one’s kid a NES and an el cheapo Tetris-only device
    than it was to buy a Game Boy. Only with Pokemon[0] did the Game Boy
    become popular, and then the NES was soon seen as something for farts
    (young and old).

    All in me little corner of .nl, of course =)

    Honestly, mewas always decidedly unimpressed by the capabilities of any
    Game Boy. To me, beyond the novelty factor, they were pretty much
    useless, with the sole, yet rather minor, exception of the GBA SP.

    Funny that menever liked the Z80 itself either, and that me’s much more
    appreciative of ARM.

    Leaves me to note that the SNES was certainly superior in terms of fx
    and controller, but the deck shape was remarkably awkward, and the games
    tended to favour showiness above quality. Shame.

    Mesupposes there’s a reason why FDS disk writing booths were maintained
    in Japan for a long, long time, far beyond the commercial lifetime of
    the Famicom. Some may even still exist and be in operation.

    [0] Boy, didmedislike Pokemon as a kid. Until mefound out that the kids
    meobserved playing it were being dweebs who had no appreciation for
    the actual game, the story, or the deeper themes. The anime’s
    NY-accented dub kind of put the final nail in the coffin. Due to me
    bf’s influence, metried the Pokemon stuff again last year and found
    that it’s better without a) the leveling-obsessed dweebs, and b)
    the Anime dubbing (which was largely unnecessary anyway, as the
    characters are quite expressive). Shows how a product can leave a
    really bad taste *just* ’cause it’s continually cast in a shallow
    light by its adopters.

  21. Michal Necasek says:

    I think a friend of mine has one of those 80186 PC-D machines. Those were “MS-DOS compatible”, right? Not a PC clone but capable of running DOS.

    I definitely remember Germany as Commodore land. Heck, the 64’er magazine was published from 1984 to 1996 and as a floppy version continued to 1999. And it’s not a coincidence that when Commodore went under, it was bought by a German company (Escom).

  22. Richard Wells says:

    I didn’t see any C64s while I was in Germany despite the announcement of the one millionth German unit being produced in 1986. I would have thought that with 1 in 1,000 West Germans being students at the universities in Frankfurt and Mainz that the local stores would have had a representative selection of stock. I guess that just shows that computer choice was still regionally dependent.

  23. zeurkous says:

    Methinks that you’re hitting the crucial point w/ that last sentence.

    It’s so easy now to take for granted a world where (given a common
    language, or even a machine translator) someone in Tokyo can
    effortlessly chat with someone in Wroc/law, while back in the 1980s,
    for most people, getting someone from 100km away on the phone was
    already pretty unsual.

    *shakes head* Perhaps the world changed too fast. Or perhaps we’re just
    too much of old farts πŸ˜€

  24. Michal Necasek says:

    It’s entirely possible or even likely that in the 1980s, many people thought the world was changing too fast and had changed far too much since the 1950s πŸ™‚ I mean, computers! People in space! And all that stuff.

  25. zeurkous says:


  26. Nils says:

    After reading your article a friend of mine immediately popped into my mind. She was working in a computer shop from somewhere mid-80s until 1992 in Bavaria/Germany
    I asked her about her memories about customers from eastern block.

    Sadly she does not remember much about these, she says most likely because she was not interested in those details.
    One thing she remembers very clearly was, that her boss always told her and other employees: *NEVER* ever give them a bill without the correct price, we really don’t want or need any trouble regarding the border/import-export-rules/etc.

    One day a customer (at first they thought it was a customer) came in with a bill that must have been a fake and asked for a replacement-part and asked for a faked bill.
    They denied writing a faked bill and this guy went out of their shop.

    They were scratching their heads for a while, if this was a (very dumb) attempt by some authorities to unhide something that has been hidden. They never got to know…

    I wonder if a faked bill would have been of any benefit for a person trying to smuggle a computer. Your article + the comments make it sound like there is no benefit. I the border-officer denies, the bill won’t help.

  27. Nils says:

    There are a few words missing in my comment:

    “She was working in a computer shop from somewhere mid-80s until 1992 in Bavaria/Germany ….” … near the Czech border.

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