Home P Cs: Low Frills To High Thrills

This year, there are lots of models--from $500 to $3,000--with plenty of juice

In years past, buying a home PC was pretty simple once you knew your megahertz from your gigabytes. Basically, you bought as much PC as you could afford and hoped it would still run the latest software three years later.

No more. Thanks to a sudden burst of marketing creativity, PC makers are flooding the market with everything from $500 cheapos to $3,000 muscle-bound monsters to let you surf the Web, watch TV, and update your spreadsheet--all at the same time. But with few new byte-hogging software titles on the horizon, PC buyers should think hard before splurging on this year's superscreamer, especially when so many plenty-powerful alternatives are available. Most heavy users will still probably want at least 32 megabytes of memory and two gigabytes or more on your hard disk. But even these general rules won't cover everyone.

Just ask Richard Miner, chief technology officer for Boston-based Wildfire Communications, which makes voice-activated answering systems. He recently bought $499 PowerSpec PCs from retailer MicroCenter for both his mother and sister. "I built a computer for my Mom, but I became her own personal support center," says Miner with a laugh. "When she called me on the beach in Brittany on vacation [to fix a bug], that was the last straw."

MicroCenter's model isn't for everyone. With just 16 Mb of memory and a 1-Gb hard drive, it has the bare minimum needed to run Windows 95 with everyday applications. But Miner is hardly alone in buying low-end. Experts figure that 40% of all home PCs sold retail this Christmas will cost less than $1,000.

The undisputed king of the segment is Compaq Computer Corp.'s Presario 4505. Its predecessor, the 4504, outsold the nearest sub-$1,000 rival, Packard-Bell's L-198, almost 3-to-1 in September, according to Computer Intelligence. At $999, the 4505 features a fast 166-Mhz Pentium MMX processor and a 2.1-Gb hard drive, and its mini-tower configuration leaves room for expansion, unlike most budget models. But decide quickly--and don't worry about prices falling. They won't, and stores may run out of stock this Christmas.

Stepping up a few price notches brings better performance. Consider Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Pavillion 8160: It costs $1,854, comes with a 233-Mhz MMX processor, a 6-gigabyte hard drive, and added goodies such as Polk speakers and a volume control on the keyboard. It also offers a raft of software, such as Kai's Power Goo for morphing photos. "HP has a strong reputation for reliability and service, and price," says Michael K. Powell, recently sworn in as new Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission. Powell's three-year-old son Bryan has become chief computer helper for grandpa Colin Powell, a mild Luddite who didn't understand the concept of "save" until Michael explained it--300 pages into the elder Powell's recent autobiography.

DIRECT DEALS. In the same price range, Packard Bell's $1,500 Multimedia S-600 and Acer America Inc.'s $1,699 Aspire 1280 are decent alternatives to HP. You should also check out retailer CompUSA Inc.'s tailored systems. In mid-November, the retailer was offering a 233-Mhz system with 32 megs of memory and a 56-kbps modem for just $1,500. The processor is not a Pentium II--the one that Intel Corp.'s disco-dancing factory workers are trying to sell you on TV. Not to worry. The older Pentiums will be more than adequate for most popular business applications and games, especially if you pair it with 32 Mb of memory.

All that said, the ancient rule of PC pricing stands: To have your system run the latest software and gizmos and still look slick in a year, you'll want to pay about $2,500. In that range, consider buying direct. Gateway 2000's G6-266 boasts a 266-Mhz Pentium II and a good 17-in. monitor. NEC, a newcomer to the direct market, is even more aggressive. Its $2,100 Direction model features a 300-Mhz Pentium II. Dell Computer Corp's $2,499 Dimension XPS has a 266-Mhz MMX chip, 32 Mb of memory, and a 6.4-Gb drive.

Mac lovers will want to check out Apple's new online store. The prices are no cheaper, but you can customize the machine you purchase rather than search the store shelves. Steer clear of $3,000-plus systems unless you have a compelling reason to splurge. "We sit around thinking of ways to cram in enough stuff to charge $3,000," admits Webb McKinney, head of HP's consumer unit. What might justify the price? Stellar sound and video, of the sort Sony Corp.'s PCV-240 delivers. It includes a TV tuner, reams of software for making music and movies, and handy jacks for hooking up consumer gear.

Incredibly, all these features actually work, says Carl Holec, a technology analyst with ARS Inc. in Dallas, who owns two Sony PCs. "I'm a power user, and I've never had a problem," he says. He even persuaded his firm's president to buy a Sony. Bottom line: Whether you've got your low-tech mom or hard-to-please boss in mind, it's a great year to buy a computer.

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