One Stop Multimedia Makeovers

Suddenly, a personal computer with color capability and a large storehouse of memory isn't good enough. Now, if you want the latest encyclopedia program for your kids or an electronic tour of the Louvre, you need stereo sound, animation, and video, too. To get those features, you have two options: Junk your old system and replace it with a $2,000-plus multimedia PC, or better yet, if your equipment has at least a 386SX chip, buy a multimedia upgrade kit.

These kits were made possible by a standard called MPC, for multimedia PC. Established by 12 computer companies that make up the Multimedia PC Marketing Council, MPC spells out the minimum features and peripherals a PC should have to be considered multimedia. With those guidelines, some enterprising companies have assembled kits that include everything you need to add to a basic PC: a sound board, CD-ROM drive, speakers, all the cables, and free software to get you started. At about $500 to $1,000, the kits cost hundreds of dollars less than it would to buy the components separately.

First, make sure you have enough computer power. MPC recommends at least a 386SX microprocessor, 2 megabytes of system memory, and a 30-megabyte hard drive. But you're really better off with at least a 486SX, 8-megabyte system memory, and a 100-megabyte hard drive. In fact, the Multimedia Marketing Council plans to unveil a new standard this month called mpc 2, which will come close to that recommendation.

STABILITY FIRST. Then, when you choose a kit, make sure it is labeled with the MPC logo. And it's probably wise to stick with the leading brands, Creative Labs and Media Vision. The off brands compete mainly by price, and there's no certainty they'll still be around for customer service in a few years.

You should also buy the best system you can afford. Technology is advancing rapidly, and a lot of the cheaper systems will be woefully obsolete in a few years. Spend the extra $100 for a kit with 16-bit sound. In fact, the best bet is the Pro 16 from Media Vision for about $1,000. It's the only major brand on the market that includes a double-speed CD-ROM drive--one of the requirements of the mpc 2 standard.

The hardware in the various kits is similar. They differentiate themselves by the CD-software programs included. The Pro 16, for example, offers an electronic encyclopedia and karaoke setup among its eight programs. The Sound Blaster Edutainment CD 16 from Creative Labs, also with eight programs, includes an encyclopedia and World War II flight simulator. Try out the software in the store and decide which programs you like best.

Finally, consider how adept you are at fiddling with the guts of your computer. If you're easily frustrated while sorting through tangled power cords and connector cables--and trying to shove them and your drive into a tight space--buy a kit with an external CD-ROM drive. It plugs easily into a connector on the back of the PC.

Getting the stuff to work can be harder. Every peripheral on your computer has to communicate with the main processor over its own "IRQ" line and send data to memory over a "DMA" line. If a component in your kit is set for the same channel as something already in your PC, you'll have to figure out where the conflict is, change the software setting, and perhaps throw a switch inside your computer.

BUSY SIGNALS. I tried kits from both Media Vision and Creative Labs and found that when it comes to solving problems, Media Vision is better. The startup software helps you find IRQ and DMA conflicts, and its instruction manual is easier to follow. (Creative hasn't even written new instructions for the kit but simply includes the separate manuals for the different components.) I also got more busy signals from Creative's tech-support number. Still, the Creative kit ran the first time, so I didn't need help.

In the end, you may want to have an expert install the system for you. Creative has sponsored a free installation program with the CompUSA stores and plans to include all of its retailers nationwide in a few months. Even without problems, you may have to reconfigure your computer's memory to run large, CD-based DOS programs. Unless you're comfortable altering your "config.sys" file, get some help.

      Sound Blaster Discovery CD 16 Market price: $500.
         Features: 3 CD software
      programs, including an
      encyclopedia and two 
      childrens' games
      Sound Blaster Edutainment
      CD 16 Market price: $600. 
      Features: 8 CD programs,
      including an encyclopedia, 
      a WW II flight simulator, 
      and other games
      Fusion CD 16 Market price: $600. Features: 5 CD 
      programs, including an 
      encyclopedia, a chess game, and a space-flight simulator
      Pro 16 Market price: $1,000. Features: A double-speed CD-ROM drive; 8 CD 
      programs, including Mayo 
      Clinic Family Health Book,
      a karaoke setup, and 
      several games
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