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Which PC to buy is no longer black and white

By JOHN TORRO

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 1999


photoThe $499 eMachines 400-megahertz computer tested surprisingly well.
[Photo Courtesy of eMachines ]
It never used to be a problem recommending which PC to buy: I simply told people to buy the fastest one they could afford.

Even the more powerful PCs had to labor to handle most of the common software applications. Those same software applications would be even more demanding a year later in their next release. And 12 to 18 months after you bought your PC, you would be seeing ads for computers twice as powerful for the same (or a lower) price.

Now, those seemingly immutable laws of the PC marketplace appear to have taken a sabbatical, as I discovered when Tech Times recently asked me to test one of today's new "cheap" PCs.

I took home an eMachines 400-megahertz Celeron with a 6.2-gigabyte hard drive and 64 megabytes of random access memory (RAM). This computer retails for less than $499 without a monitor (though this model will soon be phased out for something more powerful).

I wasn't sure what to expect from my first experience using the "lowly" Celeron chip, Intel's entry in competition with bargain chips from smaller rival AMD. To be honest, I expected I would soon be writing a scathing review of a toy computer that huffed, puffed and crashed at a few simultaneous requests for word processing, printing and Web surfing.

Instead, this bargain box did surprisingly well. Even Microsoft MapPoint 2000, a mapmaking and analysis program that heavily taxes a PC, ran with great response, as did the various pieces of Microsoft Office 2000.

Certainly, I'm not trading in the luxury car of a PC that I use for advanced computing to buy myself a subcompact such as the eMachine. However, that decision may be based more upon ego than reason.

So what do I recommend when asked what kind of PC to buy? The answer is not so black and white any more.

I'm no longer a PC elitist: I'm ready to recommend computers from $600 on up as good deals for the price. Never before in the industry have the low-end machines been this capable and this inexpensive.

And if you do decide to spend more, you can rest assured that your PC will stay ahead of the obsolescence line far longer than ever before.

$1,200 or less

Most systems below $1,200 likely will be based on Intel's Celeron chip (or its AMD equivalent). The Celeron does not carry the more prestigious Pentium name, but it is really a Pentium II in Celeron clothing.

Although the Celeron chip is an excellent performer, more than adequate for most software applications, the total package it comes in bears a closer look.

For instance, the eMachine I tried out had 64 megabytes of random access memory (RAM). That's barely adequate -- and don't let anyone talk you into 32 megabytes or you'll get sluggish performance. Similarly, the eMachine's 6.4-gigabyte hard drive is adequate, but it may prove limiting, especially if you create or download a lot of multimedia files.

My test PC also included a 40X CD-ROM, 3.5-inch floppy disk drive, 4MB 2X AGP integrated video card, a 56K v.90 data/fax modem, a sound card, two tiny speakers and two USB ports.

Again, the 4MB integrated video adaptor, while adequate for most applications, may be limiting when it comes to more demanding graphics applications, such as advanced photo and video editing or some games.

Another thing to consider about PCs at the low end of the scale is the overall quality. Many of them have not been around long enough to build much of a track record. Technical support and warranties also are less than what you would expect with some of the higher-priced PCs.

From $600 to $1,200, you can add more capacity and options to the bargain machines. I would start by upgrading RAM, where your PC does its computing gymnastics, from the minimum of 64 MB to 128 MB. Arrange for the upgrade before you take the computer home. Doubling the RAM from 64 to 128 MB will cost an extra $100 or so, but it will be money well spent -- especially if you do anything besides browse the Internet.

If the 6 to 8GB drives that come with the low-end PCs are a limiting factor, you may want to upgrade the hard drive to at least 10 to 13GBs. This may cost another $75 or so.

If you upgrade the hard drive because you plan on doing advanced graphics work, the 4MB video adaptor also would be a candidate for an upgrade, along with getting a monitor larger than the 15-inch model that will likely come with a bargain PC.

These upgrades may send the price into the next general category: PCs costing more than $1,200.

$1,200 to $1,999

In this price range, you'll find some high-end Celeron microprocessors as well as Intel's main chip, the Pentium III in the 450 to 550-megahertz range.

I recommend going with a Pentium III and leave the Celeron behind, even though it performs well and at higher speeds will be more than adequate for most software applications.

At this price, you need to consider some of the other benefits of the Pentium III, such as the Streaming SIMD extensions (a powerful technology that boosts game performance, 3-D graphics and other high-end functions) and the faster "system bus" that moves data to and from main memory. The Celeron system bus runs at 66MHz while the Pentium III system bus runs at 100 to 133MHz. The difference this makes will vary, but at this price range you want it anyway.

Random access memory (RAM) is a constant -- and the more the better. The same rules apply -- 64MB is bare minimum, and in this price range you should be looking for a system with at least 128MB. Make sure you get a configuration that includes room to add more RAM later.

You can expect hard drives ranging from 13 to 20GBs. Systems at the high end of this range should come with the Ultra ATA 66 controller for faster disk access. A 17X to 44X CD-ROM should be standard in this type of package. But I would expect a PC in this price range to come with a DVD-ROM drive, which has a higher capacity than a CD-ROM. For slightly more than $150 you should be able to get a CD-RW (rewriteable CD-ROM) for creating your own CDs, as well as backing up your hard disk.

The AGP graphics adapter should have at least 8MB of memory. Upgrades are cheap here -- for an extra $50 you should be able to move up to a 16MB video card, which I highly recommend if you do advanced gaming or graphics design work.

An extra $100 also should take you from the 17-inch monitor that is usually standard in this range to a 19-inch monitor. The bigger the monitor, the better the viewing at high resolutions. Before getting a big monitor, don't forget to make sure you have room on your desk for the giant.

The sound card should be good quality, and I also would expect a subwoofer to be included, especially the closer you get to $2,000. If not, it shouldn't cost more than $50 to upgrade. It will be money well spent if audio quality means anything to you.

Above $2,000

Not too long ago, we would be talking about a true bare-bones machine starting at this price. Now, they're powerhouses. Let's hope this trend continues.

Here's what to look for, jargon included: PCs in this range should run on chips at the 550-megahertz level, moving up to the top-of-line 733MHz. For $2,000, I wouldn't expect to get anything less than a 600MHz with 128 megabytes of RAM. A 16MB video adaptor with a 17-inch monitor also should be standard at the bottom end of this range, as well as a 20-gigabytes hard drive with an ATA 66 controller spinning at 7200 RPM and a DVD/CD-ROM. The sound card should be high quality and the speaker set should include a subwoofer.

As we get even more expensive, I would look for more and better components. If you can get 733MHz (and I would love it), you'll have more than enough computing power to handle the most demanding software.

Your money would be better spent adding other peripherals that you'll use more: I would look to add on a CD-Rewritable for another $175. Bumping the video adaptor to 32MB should cost no more than $50 -- you'll have a super fast CPU, so make sure the rest of the machine can keep up.

Inching closer to creating our Dream Machine, you may want to consider adding another 64MB of memory for a total of 192MB. Now, you may be saying that no PC needs or could use that much memory. Windows 2000 (the next version of NT) will be available soon. Although you probably won't rush out and upgrade immediately, the machine you're buying should be around for a while and you may decide to move to what is a much better operating system than Windows 95 and 98. Not only will Windows 2000 require more memory, it also will make better use of it than regular Windows 98.

Completing our Dream Machine, look to add a network card (about $40). Why would you buy such a fast machine only to squeeze through a tiny 56K modem and a phone line? Cable modem is a much better alternative, and it requires the network card.

Still have some money left? Consider adding an LCD display. This will add at least another $700 above what you'd pay for a traditional monitor, but the sharpness and clarity are stunning.

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