In Search Of The Perfect System

All of a sudden, your friends are cybernauts. They're cruising the online highways and back roads, listening to Hootie and the Blowfish on their personal information appliance (a.k.a., personal computer) as they pull down the latest comic strip off the Dilbert Web page. Conversations are laced with cool Web sites, interactive movies, and the best config.sys setup for Windows 95. You've even heard of people using a "clicker" (a.k.a., remote control) to run their PCs as well as their tvs.

If you're among the digitally challenged--or if your old PC is just not up to the rigors of multimedia and cybercruising--this is the season to catch up. There's a wealth of PCs to select from out there, and plenty of features--from radio or television reception to multi-CD players to voice mail. What's more, the economics of personal computing are in your favor. The $2,000 or so that you're likely to spend on a home PC this year can buy you a machine that has 50% more disk storage and nearly double the raw computing power of last year's models. Even better, PC makers are throwing in lots of goodies--as much as $1,600 worth of software--to get you to buy.

Where do you begin when there are so many PC makers and so many configurations available? The best place is probably the least technical. Do what some analysts call a "usage profile." What do you want to do with the machine? Are you going to cruise the Internet's World Wide Web, or are you interested in designing your own greeting cards? That could determine whether you put more money into a high-speed modem or a fast microprocessor. Who are the people using the machine? If you're going to share it with the kids, you definitely want as much hard-disk storage as you can afford--games and multimedia edutainment titles soak up disk space. How's the PC going to be used over time? For occasional work at home, or are you planning to start a home-based business in a couple of years?

If this isn't your first home PC, you've already faced the most fundamental decision: a PC based on Intel Corp. chips vs. an Apple Macintosh. If this is your first home computer, you'll have to weigh the PC against the Mac. Mac enthusiasts insist that despite Win95, the Apple system remains far easier to set up and operate. For those in the Mac camp, Apple has created a whole new range of home models that may help them forget the Windows 95 hoopla sweeping the PC market.

SCREAMERS. Back in the Intel camp, there are three basic technology trends: speedy Pentium processors, the new Microsoft Corp. Windows 95 operating system, and multimedia. You can still buy machines using the older Intel 486 chip or its clones. These machines have been marked down--many to less than $1,000--for good reason: Even the fastest 486 will have trouble keeping up with the demands of the new software.

But put the Pentium and CD-ROM technology together, and you get a screamer of a system, with intense data-moving power, full-motion video, and the hi-fi wherewithal to produce 3-D audio. These Pentium-powered multimedia systems can take phone messages for you while simultaneously scanning the stock market, and at night they can entertain you and your kids with games and slick edutainment titles.

The best multimedia PCs use Intel's high-end Pentium microprocessors (operating at 100 to 133 megahertz). At a minimum, they have 1-gigabyte hard drives. That's enough disk space to handle 1 billion characters, the equivalent of storing 1,000 medium-size novels. Top-flight multimedia systems also feature quad- or six-speed CD-ROM drives that run video more smoothly, a stereo sound card, high-fidelity speakers, and a high-resolution screen powered by special graphics chips.

You can use the multimedia systems for word processing or spreadsheet applications, of course, but these systems are built to entertain. Take, for example, Packard Bell Electronics Inc.'s Pentium 100 home machine. The system costs $2,898--about what other high-end home machines are priced at. For $100 extra, you can get an optional kit that gives you built-in tv and an fm radio. And you can use Packard Bell's remote-control clicker to surf channels or change music tracks on the computer's CD player.

In a test of 15 Intel-based multimedia systems by National Software Testing Laboratories (NSTL), owned by BUSINESS WEEK's parent The McGraw-Hill Companies, NSTL ran performance benchmarks and examined how easy the systems are to set up and use. Then, the test scores were combined to come up with an overall rating for each machine. The performance results and price points vary because the systems have 75-, 90-, 100-, 120-, and 133-Mhz versions of the Pentium, and come with different memory and hard-disk configurations. To be included, the systems had to have at least a 75-Mhz Pentium processor, 8 megabytes of main memory, a 500-megabyte hard drive, a quad-speed CD-ROM, a 15-inch monitor, and an external speaker system. Even budget-conscious consumers should start with that base configuration.

Today's home PCs are easier to set up and use than those on the market a couple of years ago. Most PC makers now supply poster-size maps that illustrate how to plug in all the system components. Some, such as Acer America, Compaq, Packard Bell, and Hewlett-Packard, provide color-coded cables for the mouse, keyboards, and other components that plug into ports in the rear of the systems.

MEMORY-BUILDING. After plugging in the monitor, speakers, keyboards, and the mouse, it's time to fire up the system for the first time. Windows 95, which is much easier to use than earlier versions of the Microsoft graphics "environment," is a full operating system that comes preinstalled on most of the systems. You can run Win95 on a PC with 8 megabytes of main memory, and that level of memory is standard on systems sold by many suppliers. But if you can spring for the additional $250 it's likely to cost, it pays to upgrade to 16 megabytes to get the most out of Windows 95.

There are other memory options to look for. Cache memory speeds up the system's performance dramatically. Look for at least 256 kilobytes of cache memory, especially if you are planning to run memory-hungry database programs. For the optimum video performance--to display high-resolution graphics or run digitized film clips--buy a system with 2 megabytes of video memory. Many systems come with 1 megabyte, but with those animations or film clips may appear jerky or less crisp.

While Win95 is a big step forward in ease of use, it may not be enough for less experienced PC owners. So, many PC makers help you around the harder parts of Win95 with easy-to-use programs that simplify Windows or bypass the software. When you start up Dell Computer Corp.'s Dimension P100T and XPS P133c, the machine gives you helpful setup cues, such as "How can I customize my computer?" Hewlett-Packard's Pavilion, meanwhile, has a Personal Page that lets you organize and fire up your software programs without the Windows 95 interface. hp's Personal Page consists of eight cartoon-like characters representing different categories of software, such as a wizard to represent reference works. Packard Bell provides a graphical "front end," called Navigator, that organizes software in a virtual living room and lets you click on images in the room. Click on the stereo system on a shelf, and the PC plays an audio CD.

SUBS AND SOUNDS. One of the best things about buying a multimedia system is all the preinstalled software and CDs you get. System manufacturers make it worth your while by bundling CD-ROMs with titles ranging from the Mayo Clinic Family Health Book to Silent Steel, an interactive submarine game that uses special video-compression technology to offer near-movie-like quality. The Compaq Experience CD-ROM suite, which Compaq bundles with the Presario 9546, includes 10 CDs of dictionaries, games, and an image catalog from Life magazine.

Gateway 2000's P5-120 matches strong performance with big sound. The desktop system comes with two Altec Lansing multimedia speakers, but it also has a separate bass subwoofer that's about the size of a cinder block. Altec Lansing has become the speaker maker of choice. But many multimedia system manufacturers provide their own speakers. NSTL thought the Compaq brand speakers provided high-quality sound on the Presario Model 9546.

WEB WORK. The multimedia systems tested have at least quad-speed CD-ROMs, which are supplanting dual-speed CD-ROMs because they move data twice as quickly (approximately 600 kilobits per second vs. 300 kilobits per second). While most multimedia titles don't take advantage of drives that run faster than dual-speed yet, the faster throughput of the quad- and six-speed drives kicks in when you are loading large files (such as images) or loading a software application from CD-ROM.

Microphones are another common accessory on these high-end multimedia systems, and they can be used for voice-activated commands that control Windows. For instance, ibm's Aptiva has VoiceType Control for Windows that lets you write checks with Quicken's personal-finance software by simply speaking the words "Write checks." Most customers find it easier to navigate by mouse, but the voice option is there if you need it.

If multimedia isn't your thing but the Internet is, you may want to pony up the money for a top-end Pentium machine. Get a system equipped with a 133- Mhz or 120-Mhz Pentium processor, lots of disk storage, and 16 megabytes of main memory. The most critical component, of course, will be the modem that connects your machine to the phone system. Look for a system that comes with an internal 28.8 kilobit-per-second modem. It will cost more, but it will reduce phone charges and save you the annoyance of waiting for graphics-rich Web pages to slowly materialize on your screen.

If the wired world isn't your thing, you may still want a high-octane machine to do some heavy number-crunching on next year's budget for your business or the architectural drawing for a new addition on your house. Two of the systems tested--Dell's Dimension P133c and Gateway's P5-120--performed the best in NSTL's overall ratings (chart, page 116).

GOOD BUYS. Just as most of us can get by without a Ferrari, most home-PC users can do very nicely with a modestly priced, mid-market machine. Digital Equipment Corp.'s Starion 910 ($2,148) has a 75-Mhz Pentium and is easy to set up. The system is good enough for home use with 16-bit audio, a 14.4-kilobits-per-second modem, a quad-speed CD-ROM, and external jbl speakers that do a nice job playing your audio CDs while you do your homework. Compaq's Presario 7170, priced just under $2,000, is a good buy for a 90-Mhz Pentium computer. The machine comes with 28 software titles that Compaq claims are worth $1,200. Meanwhile, Gateway 2000's P5-90 ($2,168) is a 90-Mhz Pentium that has 16 megabytes of memory, a 730-megabyte hard disk, and comes with 51 programs on nine CDs.

Whether you're buying a leading-edge system or a cheaper multimedia box, one last thing to look for is the length of the warranty. PCs are, by and large, highly reliable machines, but it's good to have insurance. A three-year warranty is now standard for most major computer makers. They also throw in lifetime technical support. While PC makers continue to improve the quality and clarity of their technical manuals, it's nice to know that there is a human at the end of an 800 line--someone who will be there when you confess that you still don't know your config.sys from your win.ini.

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