Getting The Most Byte For The Buck

This year, a record 9.4 million consumers will snap up new home computers. Many will be first-time buyers. Millions more are current pc owners who are trading up to new models. And untold millions will be buying the disk drives, monitors, sound cards, and other gizmos to turn their trusty home pcs into multimedia Information Superhighway cruisers.

These consumers will prowl stores, flip through mail-order catalogs, scratch their heads, and ask all their friends for advice. "I shopped up and down the market for months," says Tom Miller, a senior vice-president at Foote, Cone & Belding Communications Inc. "I didn't know from RAMS." In the end, he bought a modest mail-order pc, and he and his family are happily playing cd-roms and cruising online services.

With so many choices and so many trade-offs, no wonder even experienced buyers get bogged down. Is a 1-gigabyte hard drive enough storage, or should you pay $200 more and get a 1.6? Do you really need an mpeg-standard digital-video card? Should you insist on a pc that's also a fax and answering machine?

HEAVY HARDWARE. The answers to these and many more questions can be found in the following pages. As the computer makers say: There has never been a better time to buy a pc. Of course, they said that last year, and they'll be saying it next year. Still, you can get a lot of byte for your buck this season.

How good are the deals? For about $1,600 to $1,700, the typical home pc based on an Intel Corp. chip comes with a 75-megahertz Pentium chip, 8 megabytes of memory, a 720-megabyte hard disk, a quad-speed CD-ROM drive, and a 14.4-kilobits per second modem. A powerhouse such as Gateway 2000 Inc.'s P5-120 has a 120 Mhz Pentium, 16 megabytes of memory, a 1.6-gigabyte disk, Microsoft's new Windows 95, and more than 50 software packages--all for $3,318. Apple Computer Inc. has just cut Macintosh prices by as much as 20%. Computer City sells 1-gigabyte hard-disk drives for $199--less than a third of last year's price. Hewlett-Packard Co. offers a $100 rebate on $599 OfficeJet printers. And Microsoft Corp. has slashed prices on its consumer software by as much as 45%.

Before you start snapping up bargains, though, keep one thing in mind: Think big. Small-business and home pc buyers tend to keep their computers at least five years. So purchase for the future. That means spending as much as you can on oodles of memory, plenty of hard-disk storage, and slots for new hardware add-ons as they come along. "It's just like you can't be too rich or too thin--you can't have too much memory or too much storage," says Eric Lewis, manager of personal systems at market researcher International Data Corp.

That's especially true given the software you'll be seeing. Win95 and whizzy multimedia software--games such as Activision Inc.'s SpyCraft or 3-D Kitchen, a program for designing your dream kitchen--will put your hardware to the test. They eat up memory and disk storage. So stock up. If you're upgrading an older pc to use Win95, count on boosting your main memory to at least 8 megabytes--16 megs is even better--and installing at least 720 megabytes of disk-storage capacity. Again, a gigabyte is better.

ON THE GO. Computer makers have come up with a range of home-pc configurations to reach every kind of consumer. For as little as $1,200, you can get a complete system that will let you get started. You want all the bells and whistles? Try Packard Bell Electronics' Pentium 100, listing at $2,898. Great for schoolwork, home finances, Web surfing, and just plain goofing off: You can get TV, FM radio, and a remote control to change audio tracks on the CD player.

Consumers on the go have new models to choose from, too. Some have color displays nearly as big and clear as those on desktops. Some sport CD-ROM drives. With a $500 docking station or a $200 to $300 port replicator that connects your laptop to a standard monitor, keyboard, and office network, you can even forget about buying a desktop at all.

Whether it's Mac or PC, desktop or laptop, a MechWarrior 2 game or Quicken to balance your budget, there's stuff to stretch the mind or give it a vacation. Wayne Mitchell, who manages a fund-raising database for San Francisco Day School, just spent $3,000 for a Pentium 100 machine with the multimedia works. Today, he's cruising the Microsoft Network, using E-mail, editing sound files, and noodling with graphic design and animation. Says the 29-year-old Mitchell of his new pc: "It was lovingly put together by technonerds." Here's hoping the same for you. Happy hunting.

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