What do computer buyers know that manufacturers wish they didn't? While makers are pushing to sell $2,500-plus systems that feature the fastest processors and all the latest bells and whistles, consumers are flocking to $1,000-and-under machines. Computer Intelligence, the market research arm of Ziff-Davis Publishing, reports that the average retail price of a computer in August was $1,341, the lowest in four years.
Since personal computers hit the market in the late 1970s, the rule of thumb has been that you had to spend $2,500 to get a truly usable system. And for years, I've recommended that buyers stick close to technology's leading edge to guarantee a useful life for their computer investment. That's because, until recently, it took a computer with near state-of-the-art technology to run applications as mundane as Microsoft Office efficiently.
WHAT'S THE RUSH? In the past year, however, processing power has grown faster than ways to use it. And there are no big, resource-gobbling breakthroughs on the software horizon: Windows 98, due next year, should run comfortably on any machine that can handle Win95 and Internet Explorer 4.0. No new versions of browsers or office suites are on tap.
So if you mainly run typical home and business applications--word processing, personal finance, E-mail, Web browsing, and kids' games--just about any computer on the market will do. The slowest Pentium now offered in desktops, the 166-Mhz MMX, is faster than the speediest Pentium available a year ago. It may take a few seconds longer to launch Microsoft Word with the 166 than with a 300-Mhz Pentium II, but who is in such desperate haste?
Of course, there are people who should buy high-end systems. You'll want all the system you can get if you do a lot of image processing, such as photo or video editing, heavy-duty number crunching, programming, or, above all, if you're a fan of arcade-style games.
For the rest of us, a computer such as the $999 IBM Aptiva E16 is more than enough. Its processor, equivalent to a 166-Mhz MMX Pentium, was designed by Advanced Micro Devices rather than Intel. I've heard of no compatibility problems with the Pentium clones from AMD or Cyrix, which are capturing much of the low-end market. Unlike many bargain computers, the Aptiva features both ample expansion room and 256 kilobytes of special performance-enhancing memory called L2 cache.
BIG SCREEN. What can you do with the $1,000 or so you'll save by avoiding that high-end computer? Before you even leave the store, you'll want to spend about $100 to upgrade the RAM from 16 megabytes to 32, which will buy you more performance than a faster processor would.
Then, get the biggest and best monitor your budget can handle. It may seem absurd to put a $700 monitor on an $800 computer, but that's my recommendation. A good 17-inch monitor (which usually has about a 15.5-inch viewing area, measured diagonally) will give you a 27% bigger screen than a 15-inch. Besides, monitor technology changes relatively slowly, and if you do decide to upgrade your PC, you can always keep the monitor.
The main argument used in favor of buying the fastest computer available is that your needs will change, and you'll want the extra power later. But if a Ford Taurus suits you, you don't buy a Porsche 911 because you might want to race someday. Buy what you need now. If your requirements change in a year or two, you can get the power you'll need then for much less than you'd pay today.