Compaq's $1,000 Bargain

Its new Presario 2100--not the cheapest on the market--redefines the entry-level PC

People will buy millions of personal computers this year, but in the U.S., more than two-thirds of those machines will go into homes that already have a computer. Only if computers get drastically cheaper and simpler will market penetration grow much beyond the current 40% of households.

Cheaper is taking care of itself. It's not hard to find a Pentium system complete for less than $1,000. The trouble is that these tend to be stripped-down systems or discontinued models. They haven't been designed to make life as easy as possible for neophytes.

Now, Compaq Computer, which had been concentrating its efforts on business and high-end consumer systems, is offering a product designed from the case up for first-time, low-budget buyers. The Presario 2100 will retail for just under $1,000 when it hits the stores in March. The matching V400 monitor will add about $300.

SEALED SHUT. Keeping the price that low requires compromises, but Compaq chose carefully and in ways that were designed to make the 2100 easier to use. For example, the computer case is sealed, simplifying the design and eliminating the need for expansion slots and bays. Market research had told Compaq that most buyers never open the case. So the company built in everything it felt budget shoppers would want. Preloaded software is basic--Windows 95 and the all-purpose Microsoft Works, among others. The result: Plug in the 2100, and it's ready to go.

I just wish that Compaq had left some room for growth by including a Universal Serial Bus connector with its serial printer and game-controller ports. USB devices, which should hit the market later on this year, will make it simple to add accessories such as cameras and scanners to computers simply by plugging them into a standard connector.

The processor is another major design departure. Instead of the ubiquitous Intel Pentium, the Presario uses a 133-megahertz Cyrix Media GX chip, more or less equivalent to a 133-Mhz Pentium. The 2100 is slower than most new computers, but it is more than adequate for most people. And the chip saves a lot of money in manufacturing.

While the 2100 poses no threat to a new 200-Mhz MMX Pentium, I found it snappy enough for multimedia kids' programs and for such demanding applications as Microsoft Office 97. Nice additional touches include a built-in 33.6-kbps modem, 24 megabytes of memory, and a sleep button that shuts down the computer and eliminates the need to reboot when you go back to work.

SHARP FOCUS. Compaq also departed from convention by building speakers into the case rather than attaching them to the monitor. The sound, which you control on the case, is surprisingly good for a bargain system. The design eliminates the need to hook up a set of audio cables to external speakers.

The matching black V400 monitor isn't a bad deal at $300. Compaq calls it a 14-in. monitor, although with a 13.2-in. viewing area (measured diagonally), it's only a bit smaller than most 15-in. units. And unlike some other low-cost displays, it's sharp and free of distortion. You may find a good-quality monitor for less, or you may want something bigger: The design lets you choose.

The Presario 2100 isn't the cheapest model on the market. The Packard Bell C115, for example, sells for just $999 with a monitor. But Compaq has done more than build a cheap computer. The company has redesigned the entry-level PC for both low cost and unprecedented simplicity, a move that can only benefit consumers.