Getting The Most Byte For Your Buck

The phone rings and nobody's home. Instead of being picked up by a conventional answering machine, the call is taken by the PC. "Hi, we can't answer the computer right now. Please leave a message." That's the scene in a current TV ad for Compaq's Presario, a line of personal computers aimed squarely at neophyte buyers.

PCs that answer the phone? It's part of the noble yet still-elusive effort to transform the PC into a no-brainer--a home appliance that can be taken out of the carton, plugged in, and put to work immediately. The Presario, along with Apple's Macintosh Performa and IBM's PS/1, are helping to bring that ballyhooed vision closer to reality.

OBSOLESCENCE. At the moment, less than a third of American homes have a PC, and 4 of 10 adults surveyed by IBM don't use one at home or the office. Computers are still too complex for many people. And, the reasoning goes, why buy anyway, when the darn things are seemingly obsolete by the time you figure them out? Indeed, the world of microprocessors and megabytes is a nerve-wracking place for the uninitiated. If your geeky pal who plunked down $3,000 for a computer just three years ago is whining about owning an inadequate system, what can you, a novice, expect?

Quite a bit, actually. PCs, however gradually, are getting easier to use, and recent bloodletting in the industry has created a price-cutting atmosphere. Moreover, $2,000 to $3,000 today buys a lot more computing power than it did a year or two ago. For that price, you might also take home an ink-jet printer, a fax modem to transmit documents or connect to on-line services, and a CD-ROM drive that runs the latest multimedia software on compact disks. "It's no longer a price war, it's a value war," says Robert Bauer Jr., director of North American desktop marketing at Compaq Computer.

One measure of value: a computer bundled with gobs of software. Just about all IBM-style machines come with the latest version of Microsoft Windows, which lets users launch software programs by clicking with a mouse on small icons. Buyers of most systems from Gateway 2000, a leading mail-order dealer, can also choose among the Microsoft Excel for Windows spreadsheet or several other programs. Some IBM PS/1 models are preloaded with 11 Disney titles, including Mickey's ABC's, for kids 2 to 5, and Stunt Island, a game for teenagers.

PRELOADED. Apple's Performa line ($1,000 to $2,050), billed as the "family Macintosh," can be run right out of the box. The machines include an animated tutorial for novices, built-in stereo sound, and a fax modem, as well as a spreadsheet, word processor, and other preloaded software. And as ever zealous Mac aficionados correctly point out, Macs have long set the standard for ease of use.

Like some Performas, Compaq's "all-in-one" Presario 425 combines the monitor and computer into a one-box design, and includes such preinstalled software as Quicken, a popular personal-finance program. Presario's built-in answering machine adds voice mail: "Press one for Sue, press two for Bob." What's more, the Presario is almost "plug and play." Users connect the power cord to the wall and the keyboard and mouse to the back of the system. An on-screen Welcome Center explains how computers work.

The Presario comes with Compaq's three-year warranty on parts and labor, and buyers can phone a 24-hour toll-free technical support line for the life of the product. During the first year, Compaq will even dispatch a technician to your house for free. But before choosing any brand, shoppers should ring up a manufacturer's support line ahead of time, just to see how long it takes to reach a live voice. Says Seymour Merrin, head of consultant Merrin Information Services: "A consumer should be able to call a vendor's 800 line and within a few minutes talk to a human being who can help them through a problem."

Of course, anyone perusing computer ads these days must also play the specs game. The Intel 486SX/25 microprocessor, running at a clock speed of 25 megahertz, is the current entry-level standard for desktop IBM-style PCs. Chips carrying the SX suffix are generally slower--and $200 to $300 cheaper--than those with DX. Macintosh computers use Motorola chips; a 486SX is roughly equivalent to a Motorola 680LC40.

Folks on a tight budget who are convinced they'll do little more than use a word processor can squeak by with a 386 machine, judged a barn-burner in its own right not long ago and still capable enough to run the most popular programs. Some 386 machines are advertised for under $500. But many computer wonks advise buyers to pay for more muscle than they think they'll need. Software authors continually write programs with the fastest and most powerful systems in mind.

SPEED DEMON. Even so, the typical home buyer need not spring for Intel's Pentium, the current speed demon, which comes in 60- and 66-Mhz versions and can spit out data about 75% faster than a 486DX2/66. Pentium machines such as the new Dell Dimension XPS P60 (including CD-ROM) and the P5-60 from Gateway, which start at around $3,000, are aimed at advanced users who perhaps operate a small business at home. Folks concerned about obsolescence can buy 486 machines with chip sockets for upgrading to Pentium. Of course, by the time you're ready for a Pentium, you might also crave a new monitor and a more capacious hard drive--in other words, a whole new system might make more sense. The first Power PCs, based on new microprocessors being developed by Apple, IBM, and Mo-

torola, will be aimed at higher-end customers. They will appear by mid-1994.

Regardless of the microprocessor, buyers shouldn't skimp on random-access memory, or RAM, a PC's internal memory. These days, most systems offer at least 4 megabytes, though it's worth an extra $200 to $300 to spring for 8 MB or more, especially if you're running Windows. Look, too, for a system with enough free expansion slots and so-called drive bays that let you plug in an internal CD-ROM, circuit cards, or other add-ons.

The next basic requirement is a hard drive big enough to store all of your programs and files. Although you might save a few hundred dollars by buying a machine with 120 MB, you'll probably regret your parsimony in a hurry. A hard drive with a capacity of at least 200 MB is becoming more common, and you shouldn't be averse to splurging for 300-MB drive or even bigger. If you think that's overkill, consider that Windows itself takes up 10 MB on your hard drive and a new flight simulator game, Strike Commander from Origin Systems, runs best when it claims 41 MB on your hard drive and 8 MB of RAM.

To exploit graphics best, consider a system with a 15-inch color monitor, about a $100 step up from a standard 14-inch model. Consum-ers should insist on noninterlaced monitors, which are less prone to annoying flicker than interlaced versions, and a super-VGA model with a dot pitch of 0.28 or lower, a measure of picture sharpness. Some computer vendors try to stick you with a cheap monitor. Before you buy, make sure the retailer will take back a monitor you're not satisfied with.

TRICKY LINK-UPS. A modem that can send and receive faxes is also a handy addition and will allow you to tap

into Prodigy, CompuServe, and countless computer bulletin boards. It's worth spending $170 or so for a speedy fax modem like the U.S. Robotics Sportster that can transfer data at a 14,400-baud rate, in techno-speak, rather than a 2,400-baud laggard, such as the one the Compaq Presarios have.

To add multimedia, which blends video with animation, text, and sound, you'll need a CD-ROM drive, sound card (on a circuit board that plugs inside the PC), and speakers. If you already own a PC, Creative Labs and Media

Vision sell multimedia upgrade kits starting at around $350. Shoppers who are buying from scratch should choose, at minimum, a double-speed CD-ROM drive that can transfer data from the disk to the PC at about 300 kilobytes (300,000 characters) per second. New, triple-speed drives (450 kilobytes) cost about $500.

A decent multimedia-ready PC costs $2,500 or more but can save a lot of installation headaches. CD-ROM drives, electronic circuit boards, and other peripherals don't always mesh well, so when possible, let the manufacturer figure out how to get all the parts to work together.

No less an industry luminary than Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates admits that installing CD-ROMs and sound cards is difficult, and Microsoft, Compaq, and Intel are working on a plug-and-play standard that's scheduled to be out by next year. That's welcome news, because all in all, buying a PC is still a lot more painful than it ought to be.

      The configurations below show what you might get in a typical system. Actual 
      prices vary widely depending on brand, where you buy, and the trade-offs you 
      make. For instance, if you opt for a bigger monitor, you might have to settle 
      for a smaller hard drive or less memory. If you go with a CD-ROM, you might not 
      be able to afford a laser printer.
         Microprocessor   Ram      Hard drive    Monitor    Printer   CD-ROM
                         Megabytes     MB        Inches                Speed
      UNDER $1,000
      386 DX or                  4    80 to 170   14          Dot      None
      486SX                                                  matrix
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