Desktops: Ladies And Gentlemen, The Entertainer

Will the multimedia PC anchor your home theater? That's the plan

Just a year ago, desktop computers had become so similar that it seemed they were all being produced at a giant, secret factory in Texas or Taiwan. Every machine had essentially the same equipment and specifications, and, with a couple of purely cosmetic exceptions, they even looked alike.

This year, PC makers seem to have decided that cookie-cutter, commodity desktops are no fun. The result is an explosion of new sizes, shapes, and functions. Many of the changes share the goal of trying to move the PC out of its sequestered space in the den or home office and into the mainstream of family life. And if manufacturers have their way, a computer will become the center of your home-entertainment system, maybe even replacing your TV.

Of course, the core computers beneath the fancy frills remain similar. With the exception of Apple Macintoshes and their clones, which maintain a shrunken but important place in the market, all but a handful of home computers sold today are built around Microsoft's Windows 95 and the Intel Pentium chip or its clones. In machines designed for multimedia use such as photo editing--or high-powered arcade games--those processors will run at 166 or 200 megahertz. The standard random-access memory on most will be 16 megabytes, the typical hard drive will hold 1.6 gigabytes or more, and the CD-ROM drive will run at 6X (six times the 150,000 bit per second rate of a conventional audio CD) or faster.

"MEDIA UNIT." But with this solid foundation in place, designers are experimenting with the basic putty-colored box plus keyboard and monitor that has defined the desktop PC since IBM invented the beast more than 15 years ago. It's somehow fitting that IBM, which hadn't been a significant innovator in the desktop market since the early 1980s, has come up with what may be this fall's most interesting departure, the new Aptiva S.

The Aptiva S results from the realization that, except to put in floppies or CD-ROMs, people rarely need access to the big box containing the processor, hard drives, and other electronics. So IBM put the floppy and CD into a compact "media unit." A clever monitor stand holds the media unit and provides storage for the keyboard. You then can hide the main system unit up to six feet away. And like an increasing number of computers, the Aptiva is black, the color of consumer electronics. The whole neat package may be more at home in a family room or living room than a traditional PC. And like most of this year's unusual designs with advanced multimedia features, the Aptiva S carries a premium price tag: Systems run from $2,499 to $3,099, and matching monitors cost $499 to $799. That's roughly a 15% premium over machines with comparable power.

Compaq takes a very different approach with its back-to-the-future Presario 3000. Compaq got started in the mid-1980s making all-in-one units that were portable--if you had the strength to carry them. The new Presario 3000 isn't meant for travel, but its one-piece design, featuring a 12.1-inch flat-panel display, creates a 28-pound package that can easily be moved around the house. Because the designers didn't have to worry about battery life, the active-matrix display is much brighter than a laptop version and can be viewed from a much wider angle. While the 12-inch screen seems small, you can compensate by sitting much closer than you would to a television-style CRT. Prices start at $3,499.

One welcome result of the computer-cum-appliance trend is an increased focus on ease of use. For example, all of the new Compaq Presarios have buttons--not on-screen icons but real, pushable buttons--that can be used to play audio CDs, listen to voice-mail messages, or activate the computer's power-saving "sleep" mode.

SOUNDS GOOD. This trend toward greater ease of use--and greater integration of PCs into home-entertainment systems--is sure to be spurred by the entry of Japanese consumer-electronics makers such as Sony and Toshiba into the market. Indeed, Toshiba's Infinia models, especially the top-of-the-line 7200, are home-entertainment centers unto themselves. A TV and FM radio tuner, standard in the 7200 and a $199 option in other models, combines with an excellent internal sound system and very good speakers built into the matching 17-inch monitor to transform your PC into a reasonable TV/stereo. You can control the Infinia's entertainment functions and its speakerphone and voice-mail system with either the usual on-screen controls, a control panel that attaches to the monitor, or a TV-style remote. Infinias run from $2,150 to $3,550, with monitors.

Sony's new VAIO computers also have a clear consumer-electronics focus. Although their design is fairly conventional, they offer advanced multimedia features, such as hardware MPEG decompression for full-screen video playback and surround-sound. And like most top-end machines debuting this fall, VAIOs incorporate a Universal Serial Bus port for future expansion.

Some PC makers aren't limiting their products to simply playing back multimedia content created by others. They've begun adding the tools you need to create your own. Hewlett-Packard, for example, is heavily committed to turning computers into digital darkrooms--which just might produce output for HP's color inkjet printers. The HP Pavilion 7280P comes equipped with a Storm Primax color scanner that can digitize photos of up to five inches by seven inches, plus software for editing those images and incorporating them into craft projects.

Apple Computer, which still dominates professional multimedia creation, is pitching its Performa line as a video-editing tool. Performa's headliner, the 6400/200 Video Editing Edition, comes equipped with video inputs plus the new Avid Cinema video-editing board and software. Plug in a VCR or camcorder, and you're ready to start using simple but sophisticated tools to make a coherent story out of your random video shots.

At $2,699, including a 200 MHz PowerPC 603e processor and 32 MB of RAM but no monitor, the Video Editing Edition typifies Apple's aggressive new fall prices--now roughly comparable to Windows machines. The new Performa 6360, featuring a 160 MHz PowerPC, 16 MB of RAM, and a 2-GB hard drive, offers a lot for just under $1,500, plus monitor.

BIG STRAINS. How to decide among all these glitzy products? First, realistically assess your computer needs. If you just want to use a word processor, read E-mail, do a little spreadsheet work, and track your personal finances, just about any computer on the market, PC or Mac, will be more than adequate. (Make sure you get a CD-ROM drive--software increasingly comes on CD, with floppies available only by special order.) But if you use a computer for heavy-duty number-crunching or database research, the two things that really matter are processor speed and memory. You'll want as much of both as you can afford, with a 133 MHz Pentium and 16 MB of memory a minimum. Whatever you choose, it's likely to be far more powerful than today's typical corporate PC, which sports little memory and few multimedia features.

Choosing a multimedia PC is more of a challenge, but it's a manageable one if you are prepared to do a bit of research. The two uses that are likely to place the greatest strain on a computer are editing images, such as scanned photographs, and playing arcade games. To handle these well, you'll probably pay more--both for a faster processor and higher-capacity components throughout to match the chip's performance.

For best multimedia handling--and the longest useful life--try for a 166 MHz or 200 MHz system. But just as important as chip speed is a mysterious component called Level 2, or secondary, cache. A computer's main random-access memory can't supply data anywhere near fast enough to keep a high-speed processor busy, so a small amount of very speedy, very expensive memory is used as a buffer between main memory and the CPU. A fast Pentium will need at least 256 kilobytes of cache to perform at full potential.

Main memory size is also crucial to multimedia performance. With the recent drop in memory prices, most makers have boosted the RAM in all but their bottom-line PCs to the 16 MB that both Windows 95 and Mac operating systems need to run well. Many high-end machines now wisely boast 32 MB.

Another frequently overlooked component with a big impact on performance is the video card, or graphics accelerator. Many top-of-the-line computers now come equipped with 3-D graphic accelerators, which greatly speed the display of 3-D objects in arcade-type games. For best results, a 3-D card should come with 4 MB of memory; 2-D cards can generally get by with 2 MB, but avoid systems with less.

SONIC AID. Nearly all CD-ROM drives installed in new desktop computers run at 6X or faster, more than adequate for most users. Speed isn't much of an issue with hard-disk drives, either, because everything shipping today is blazingly fast. The smallest drives generally installed in desktop machines are about 1 GB--25 times larger than a 1990-era machine. That may sound like an unfillable amount of storage, but if you like to edit pictures or download music or videos from the Net, you can accumulate a gigabyte worth of data pronto. So consider a 2-GB or bigger drive. If you're really hungry for storage--say, to save pictures from your digital camera--consider a removable disk drive.

Sound quality is one area where the difference between cheap and high-priced computers is greatest. Cheaper PCs generally use a 16-bit SoundBlaster compatible system, coupled with inexpensive speakers. While acceptable for routine output such as speech, this setup won't crank out the knock-your-socks-off sound that multimedia freaks expect. Wavetable sound cards produce much more realistic output. Surround-sound systems, from Dolby, SRS, or Spatializer, can create an impressive illusion of three-dimensional sound. And better speaker systems include a subwoofer, which supplies the lows that small desktop or monitor-mounted speakers lack.

The final--but crucial--piece of your system is the monitor. The trend has been to unbundle monitors from systems, allowing manufacturers to quote much lower system prices. But monitors are more closely integrated into systems than ever. At best, an off-the-shelf monitor will look funny with the new, consumer-electronics-style computers. At worst, you'll loose important functionality. For example, IBM's Aptiva S needs its custom monitor to make its unique compact storage system work. Likewise, the Toshiba Infinia's control panel is designed to attach to the monitor, which also has excellent integrated speakers.

Whether you're looking for a workhorse for your office or a centerpiece for your new home theater, your computer options have never been greater--and prices have never been lower. Enjoy.

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