When it comes to personal computers, life just isn't fair. Little more than

two years ago, I spent nearly $3,300 for a middle-rung 120-Mhz Pentium PC. The machine was equipped with 16 megabytes of RAM, a 1.6 gigabyte hard drive, a decent sound card and speakers, and--my one splurge at the time--a 17-inch monitor. I subsequently surrendered an extra 500 bucks to double the machine's memory, insert a second 5.1-gig hard drive, and add a speedy 56k modem.

So imagine my chagrin each time I peer at ads trumpeting multimedia hummers that cost $1,000 or less. Indeed, by laying out not much more cash than I spent upgrading my current configuration, I could now cart home a brand-new PC system that, save for the monitor, outshines my 27-month-old in most respects. Spend a few hundred dollars more than that, and I'd own a true PC thoroughbred.

What's more, prices may go further south in the next few months with the introduction of low-cost machines that are based on Intel's new Celeron processor. These will compete with cheaper PCs that employ chips from AMD or Cyrix. By year-end, prices could fall as low as $600, with bundles that include printers in the $1,000 range. Even so, it's a terrific time to jump in now. We buyers have always lamented that our computers seemed outdated almost from the moment we took them out of their boxes. The difference now is that where you once had to spend $2,500 or more for the next greatest model, you can bring home a perfectly suitable PC for less than half the cost.

FAMILY PEACE. With memory and component prices falling dramatically, PC companies are building low-priced machines on purpose, rather than just holding fire sales on yesterday's models. Many people are purchasing these cheapie concoctions as a second or third computer, to satisfy their spouses and kids who all want to use the computer at the same time.

The "subzeros" that are all the rage pack enough power to give El Nino a run for its money. These machines come from Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Packard Bell NEC, and others among the usual suspects. Though giving no details, Apple is broadly hinting that it too will have a sub-$1,000 entry this fall. The current cheapie PCs run plenty fast enough for you to track the family budget, explore the Internet, or help the kids prepare school reports. On the business side, Gateway 2000, which has resisted entering the sub-$1,000 consumer market, has unveiled a $999 machine for corporate customers. Both home and business users once felt the urge to trade up every few years to run the latest operating system or compelling new software applications. But there's nothing on the horizon, including Windows 98, that should tax the sub-$1,000 system's capabilities anytime soon. What people worry most about is being able surf the Web at warp speeds, and even the cheapest PC systems are packaged with the latest 56k modems.

QUICK CHANGE. For the folks at home, a grand nowadays typically buys you a computer that carries a capable 200 Mhz, Pentium MMX processor, a two-to-three-gig hard drive, and 32 megs of RAM. Some will do a lot better than that. For $999 sans monitor, the new Acer Aspire 2842 comes with a 233 MMX Pentium, 48 megs of RAM, and a generous 5.7 gig hard drive. Those were state-of-the-art specs less than a year ago. (For test results on several sub-$1,000 models, check out BUSINESS WEEK's Maven Web site at www.maven.businessweek.com. The tests were conducted by National Software Testing Laboratories, which, like BUSINESS WEEK, is owned by The McGraw-Hill Companies.)

That's not to say that sub-$1,000s should make it onto everyone's desktop. Plenty of PC diehards crave the speediest processors and a bigger hard drive--never a bad idea--and want to take full advantage of emerging technologies such as DVD, or digital video disk. You'll have to pay $1,500 and on up for a machine that boasts such capabilities.

What's more, if you're into heavy-duty number-crunching or arcade-quality action games, the sub-$1,000 machines, with their mediocre graphics capabilities, don't cut it. Many low-priced systems only come with one megabyte of video memory, so make sure you can add an extra megabyte without hassling. "It's not until you get into digital imaging, desktop publishing, and intensive multimedia gaming that you start driving the need for higher-end processors," says Alex Gruzen, product marketing manager for desktop PCs at Compaq.

Keep in mind that sub-$1,000 price tags can be misleading. You'll usually have to fork over extra cash for a monitor. For example, adding a 14-in. monitor to the Acer Aspire 2842 would set you back $225, pushing the total price to four figures. A 17-in. Acer monitor costs $449. Whichever system you are considering, you should choose the largest-size monitor that you can afford.

Think also about whether you might want to upgrade somewhere down the road. Some of the sub-$1,000 models offer only one or two available expansion bays and slots for adding, say, a 3-D graphics accelerator card or extra hard drive. HP's slimline Pavilion 3260 model, for example, has no empty internal bays and just two available slots.

As always, the choice of which computer to purchase lies with how you and the rest of the clan plan to use it. If you just intend to write a few letters or bring home a modest amount of work from the office, you can probably live with a system that takes a few seconds longer to complete those projects on Word or Excel. And even if you are a game devotee, ask yourself whether spending an extra grand to get the most out of them is worth the extra expense. For my money, these cheaper machines do just fine.

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