Test Driving Those Bare Bones P Cs

"Honey, can you pick up O.J., bananas, peanut butter, and a PC?" No, you won't find personal computers at your neighborhood 7-Eleven just yet. But given how rapidly hardware prices are crashing, the possibility doesn't seem that remote. On Mar. 15, Seattle-based Microworkz Computer unveiled WEBzter Jr., priced at $299, including a year of Internet access via EarthLink. Microworkz claims half a million systems have been ordered, although it doesn't even start shipping until Apr. 19. Microworkz is hot on the heels of emachines, an Irvine (Calif.) PC marketer that has sold about 500,000 sub-$600 systems since November (BW--Apr. 5). Analysts expect Compaq and Hewlett-Packard to field sub-$500 models around the fall. "The most explosive area of the market is in the $300-to-$600 range," says David Stremba, principal PC analyst for Dataquest in San Jose, Calif.

What exactly do you get for a few hundred bucks? That's the burning question for first-time PC buyers as well as for those who dropped three grand for a state-of-the-art desktop only a few years ago. The answer: While there are trade-offs, most buyers can do quite nicely with an el cheapo machine.

Back in the old days--the early to mid-1990s--people were best advised to stretch their budgets as far as they could and buy PCs with more technology than they probably required. That way consumers could fully exploit a newly minted operating system such as Windows 95 and stave off the obsolescence that seemingly kicked in the instant you lugged the thing home.

Today, no new operating system is taxing the capabilities of most PCs. When some nifty and demanding new technology does come along, it'll be a lot easier to write off $300 than $3,000. Anyway, you probably don't need the last word in PC hardware. Take Intel's latest chip, the Pentium III microprocessor, which typically resides in PCs that cost $1,500 or higher. It's overkill for most consumers. Sure, Intel says Pentium IIIs offer "70 new instructions enabling advanced imaging, 3-D,...and streaming audio and video and speech-recognition applications." Say what? That's mumbo-jumbo for stuff you can't take advantage of--or don't need.

Indeed, most buyers can live quite happily for at least a couple of years longer with machines built around Intel's less expensive Celeron chips, or low-cost rivals from Cyrix or AMD. Moreover, as Intel phases out the II, you might find bargain PCs based on that chip, a powerhouse nearly equal to its successor. "There is almost nothing that can't be done on these low-priced systems, and there should be no regrets about buying them," says analyst Tom Rhinelander at Forrester Research.

POWER USER. Before you go shopping, plan on how you'll use your computer. If you're a power user, bargain-basement computers will probably fall far short of what you need. Travis Richardson of Minneapolis, for example, spent $3,200 for a fully loaded 500-MHz Pentium III from Dell because his wife designs Web pages, he records music and burns CDs, and the kids play 3-D games. But if you only need a computer to prowl the Web, send E-mail, or write book reports, there's no way you'll have to spend more than $1,000--including monitor.

One unit that looks attractive in that price range is the entry-level Gateway Select 366, for $899. Based on AMD's K6-2 366-MHz processor, the system comes with a 15-inch monitor, 4.3-GB hard drive, 32 MB of RAM, and software such as Quicken Basic 99 and Corel WordPerfect Suite 8. If you have a little more money to spare, spend it upping the capacity of your hard drive. An 8.4-GB upgrade costs $65, a 13-GB version, $110. You'll also want to add RAM--64 MB costs $64. Investigate a new color printer, for about $200. If it's available in your area, a cable modem for connecting to the Net at robust speeds runs about $40 a month, plus installation.

Whatifeven $900 is too much? The entry-level model from emachines costs $399, after a $50 rebate. For that, you get a Cyrix chip running at a fast 333 MHz, and USB ports on the front and back of the minitower case for connecting other devices. In addition, it includes a 32x CD-ROM. For $599, you can get an upgraded model with a DVD-ROM instead.

TINNY SPEAKERS. However, the 2.1-GB hard drive of the emachines model is cramped, especially since Windows 98 hogs a big chunk of its space. The tinny speakers that come with the system won't let you enjoy Mozart in full splendor. And overall, the system feels cheap; the keyboard, mouse, and CD-ROM all are flimsy to the touch. So if you end up buying an emachine to replace another computer, hang on to your old mouse and keyboard.

Moreover, with any machine in the $300 to $600 range, don't expect all the software you'll find in a more expensive computer. Your upgrade capabilities are also more limited, and basic components may be missing. You must fork over $99 to add a package containing a floppy drive, CD-ROM, and speakers to the WEBzter Jr. Adding a monitor boosts the tab $140 to $400.

You shouldn't expect much service at the lower end, either. WEBzster comes with a one-year warranty and two weeks of technical support, though for $50 you can increase your coverage to three years, with 24-hour phone support. PCs from emachines also come with a one-year warranty; free tech support lasts 15 days from your first call, but you can get a three-year warranty with 24-hour tech support for $60. Or, for $20 per incident, you can pay for support as you need it. By contrast, Dell offers free lifetime tech support.

You say $300 is too expensive? How about a free PC? Bill Gross, who runs idealab! in Pasadena, Calif., which operates a variety of Internet businesses, is offering a Compaq Presario PC to a limited number of Web applicants who fit an undisclosed demographic profile. About 1.2 million folks have requested a machine so far, although idealab! intends to select only 10,000 initially. To apply, go to www.free-pc.com. You'll have to fill out a detailed questionnaire, including your name, income, and information about your hobbies, publications you subscribe to, and gadgets you own. If you actually receive a computer, you'll have to agree to have it on at least 10 hours a month, and be online for at least one of them. Whether you're online or not, ads from companies sponsoring the deal will be displayed.

GOOD-BYE, PRIVACY. Besides surrendering your privacy and subjecting yourself to an advertising barrage, you get a computer that is no great shakes. It includes a 333- MHz processor, 15-inch monitor, and 4-GB hard drive, half of which is filled with ads. Its modem speed is a lackluster 33.6 kbps. You cannot upgrade the computer, beyond adding a larger display or a DVD drive. Compaq, however, does provide technical support.

In another variation on the free theme, DirectWeb (www.directweb.com) intends to give away computers to people who subscribe to the company's Internet service. For $19.95 a month, you'll get a 333-MHz Celeron-based Ingram Micro machine. No contract is required--when you drop the service, you return the PC. You'll get a faster Celeron if you pay $29.95 a month; at $49.95, you'll get a Pentium III, plus a color HP printer. DirectWeb is starting out in the Philadelphia area, and is scheduled to come to other cities later in the year.

Even Microsoft is getting into the free-PC business. As part of a current promotion, its MSN HomeAdvisor Web service (www.homeadvisor.-com) is giving away computers to homebuyers who find and close on a mortgage loan via the service. If you borrow $125,000, you'll receive a 300-MHz desktop PC with 32 MB of RAM and monitor. Those who close on smaller loans get a Casio PV-200 personal organizer. Mortgage rates vary and are set by such lenders as Countrywide and Chase.

Even if you don't go for the free-PC deals, thanks to falling computer prices, there has never been a better time to pick up a new unit or replace the slowpoke on your desk. You can take home a terrific computer--and still have plenty of money left for groceries.

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