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More power, less money

After waiting several years, Paul Kuykendall bought the high-powered PC he wanted at the price he wanted to pay.
[Times photo: Jim Damaske ]

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 1999

Despite the quake in Taiwan, prices for computers are falling and performance is increasing.

Paul Kuykendall waited for years before buying a home PC because he wasn't satisfied that the computers on the market combined the speed and power he wanted with a reasonable price. Things changed this year.

He got speed. He got power. He got it cheap: a Gateway computer with lots of bells and whistles, not one but two printers and a scanner, all for about $2,700. That's less than a high-end machine by itself cost a couple of years ago.

"I wasn't interested in just having a little word processor or balancing my checkbook," said Kuykendall of Belleair Bluffs, who wants to do graphics, animation and Internet surfing with the machine.

Not everybody is looking for a turbo-charged PC engineered for power users such as Kuykendall. But there are good deals for computer newbies as well. This year, about seven out of 10 computers cost less than $1,000.

It's a buyer's market, even though there was speculation that a September earthquake in Taiwan would create a shortage of certain chips, forcing PCmakers to raise prices or trim features. That would have reversed, at least temporarily, a trend of ever-more-powerful computers at ever-cheaper prices.

"I expect that the chip problem is more likely to be a manufacturer's problem (higher costs, lower prices) than a customer problem," Stephen Baker, director of hardware service and analysis at market research firm PC Data Inc. in Reston, Va., wrote in an e-mail.

Some companies might reduce the amount of random access memory in higher-end systems, Baker said. Dell Computer, for example, cut back some system configurations last month to 64 megabytes of RAM instead of 128.

Still, buyers thinking about a computer this holiday season will get a lot more for their dollar than they would have a year ago.

Even if the prices are appealing, buying a computer isn't a painless experience. Consumers have to slog through a jungle of technical jargon. Does the PC have the power they need for what they want to do? Is the much-advertised "free" PC a good deal? Is the computer reliable? What does the warranty really cover?

“I wasn’t interested in just having a little word processor or balancing my checkbook.”
— Paul Kuykendall
new computer owner
"The nice thing about PCs today is, unless there is some application that suddenly starts consuming vast amounts of . . . horsepower, even lower-end machines have enough power" to handle most functions, said Tracey Capen, PC World magazine's executive editor for reviews.

Consumers won't have to settle for the traditional beige box, as more manufacturers have followed Apple's eye-catching lead with the iMac.

"For the home side, one of the things that strikes us are some of the new designs," Capen said. "Vendors are trying to push away from the typical square box (with) new shapes, new colors."

Lower prices are not limited to PCs. Printers and scanners have gotten less expensive -- and better -- too, as Kuykendall found out during his shopping.

Kuykendall, who is disabled and lives in Belleair Bluffs, considers himself a relative computing novice, even though he had some computer experience in the '80s when he worked for an architectural engineering firm.

He didn't do much shopping, just checked newspaper ads and listened to friends and family, who recommended Gateway, one of the pioneers of mail-order computer sales.

Kuykendall bought (here's where the jargon inevitably begins) a 500-megahertz Pentium III system, with 256 megabytes of random access memory, a 27-gigabyte hard drive, and a CD-RW (compact disk, rewriteable) drive.

The terminology, he says, can be intimidating.

"Not only is there RAM; there's DRAM and SDRAM and USB," Kuykendall said, laughing. "But once I started using it and reading a few things, it really started to make a little bit more sense, except maybe the scanners."

He started his online surfing with America Online, one of the services packaged with the computer he bought. He calls it user-friendly and easy to learn, more so than the computer.

"I'm amazed," Kuykendall said, "at how successful I've been at it."

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