State Of The Art And Built To Stay That Way

As the recession wears on, the last thing personal-computer makers need is for potential customers to sit on the sidelines, paralyzed by the fear that their machines will become obsolete within months of purchase. Still, buyers are justifiably wary. Just two years ago, most people were taking home PCs powered by Intel's 80286 chip, with 20 megabytes of hard-disk-drive storage, and 1 or 2 megabytes of memory. Now, Intel is selling a 486 chip and talking about a 586. At least 60 megabytes of storage and 4 megabytes of memory are standard.

To tackle the obsolescence dilemma, the computer industry has hit on a solution: upgradable personal computers. The idea is that when computer owners start to feel that their PCs aren't fast enough, don't have enough data storage, or don't have enough memory to run new software, they can simply swap the old part for a more powerful new component.

SCREWDRIVER JOB. The concept isn't exactly new. For decades, big companies have been updating mainframes with new disk drives and memory. But upgrading those big machines can take days and requires the work of trained specialists. And with PCs, it has been possible to increase power, in the form of add-on cards that bring networking capabilities, for instance, to the machine.

Now, PC companies from IBM to Compaq to Acer are manufacturing a new breed of upgradable PCs. What's new? This year's models are especially easy to update -- the owner can often do the job in about 15 minutes with nothing more complicated than a screwdriver. Compaq Computer and the others now sell upgrade parts, too. Most often, it's a processor or memory chip, built onto a flat card. And the PCs are designed to accommodate new parts so that they can work well with the older components in the machine.

Here's how it could work. Say you've recently bought Dell Computer's 333P. Priced at about $2,499, it runs on a 80386 chip. Six months from now, you're a computer whiz: You've got all the records for your small business loaded onto the machine, you're getting ready to do your 1991 tax returns, and you're thinking about producing a brochure to advertise your company. Suddenly, the machine starts slowing down, and that's driving you nuts: You want more speed. To move your 333P up a notch, to 486 performance, you can buy a $1,299 486-card, slip the top off the PC, and slide the card in. The old 386 chip is automatically disabled once you install the upgrade card.

SMART PARTS. Some PCs are harder to upgrade than others. Some models, including the Dell, require you to run time-consuming software programs that help the machine upgrade itself. With others, you must fit tiny pieces into a small space: Imagine having to line up the 130 pins on the back of a microprocessor with the appropriate holes in the computer.

To avoid that, look for PCs that were designed to be upgradable. That will ensure that the machine is fairly simple to update, that upgrade parts can be found easily, and that instructions for performing the work are readily available.

In September, Compaq announced such a product line, the Deskpro/M, which starts at $3,099. Compaq calls these machines "intelligent," because when one component inside is updated, the PC automatically upgrades the rest of the computer to work with it. All you have to do is snap in the new piece.

Maybe the easiest machine to upgrade is Tandon's Option PC. When you first buy the Option, Tandon lets you mix and match processors, disk drives, and memory -- you pick out only the components that you want. A 386-based system will run about $3,500. Later, upgrading the Option is as easy as putting a videotapein the VCR: The whole process takes less than 30 seconds. You slide out one module and pop in the replacement, which runs from $895 to $2,795. Disk drives can be updated in the same way. No screwdriver isrequired.

For now, there's little hard evidence of how well upgrading really works for computer buyers. That's because few people have tried it. Last year, less than 5% of the customers who had machines that could be upgraded actually did so, says PC maker AST Research, one of the pioneers of upgradable PCs.

SEA CHANGE. As AST points out, though, those who own upgradable PCs bought them fairly recently and haven't had the need to update them yet. But that could change fast, thanks to new software that will hit the market next year. Take IBM's upcoming OS/2 2.0 operating-system software, which provides a PC with its basic instructions. OS/2 will need a minimum of 15 megabytes to 30 megabytes of hard-disk space in order to operate. To run applications programs such as word processing sofware withOS/2, you'll need much more space. Multimedia software -- the programs that let your PC combine data with video and sound -- also needs lots of power to run.

And buyers who are newly hooked on Microsoft's popular Windows 3.0 software, which has sold 7 million copies since its introduction 18 months ago, are itching to upgrade their machines to accommodate the new applications that work with Windows. To run well, the programs need to be installed in PCs running on 386-type chips. 8p> Another reason to buy upgradable PCs: They're a lot easier to repair. In the past, a processor failure often meant shipping the whole computer off for weeks or months to a dealer or repair shop. Upgradable models, however, let you do the work at home, with minimal hassle. And if you're a nervous Nellie, the promise of being able to improve your machine over time should make you feel better about the prospect of buying one. Corporate computer buyers say they have an easier time selling their bosses on a big PC purchase if they tell them about the upgrade capability.

STANDARD ISSUE? But there are drawbacks -- including economic ones. Upgradable PCs cost slightly more than similarly equipped nonupgradable models. Sometimes, it's cheaper simply to trade in your machine for a new one. That's because, while installing a new processor as part of an upgrade will be about one-quarter the cost of a whole new machine, chances are if you're ready to upgrade the microprocessor, you're also ready for more memory, a bigger hard-disk drive, a monitor with better resolution -- maybe even a new keyboard. And by the time you're through with all the parts, you may be better off donating your old machine to a school or charity.

In the near future, upgradable PCs will be standard issue, and few -- if any -- companies will be designing computers in the old way. That will make their customers happy. But they've got another big incentive to do it: In the long run, it's cheaper. That's because making upgradable PCs requires the design of the parts to be standardized, allowing the PC maker to slim down inventories by using the same components for different models.

Of course, if you want to buy a PC now, that just raises that old obsolescence dilemma: Should you wait until the upgradable features become standard?

Here's the bottom line. If you're looking for a personal computer, the ability to upgrade is reasonable to include on the list of features you want. Think of it this way: Even if you never use it, the option can be reassuring -- particularly when you're writing out a big check for your new PC.

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