Users opt for models with all the 'bells and whistles'


September 06, 1993|By New York Times News Service

Barbara Belford, an author in New York, recently decided to get a new personal computer to replace her 6-year-old model. She consulted a computer expert, a friend who advised her that since she would use it mainly for writing and editing, she didn't need anything too fancy.

So much for reasoned advice. Ms. Belford bought a "screamer," a machine equipped with a turbocharged microprocessor, a hulking hard disk for storing a library of programs and a compact disk player that can reproduce everything from dictionaries to movies.

Her next book is a biography of Bram Stoker, the 19th-century author of "Dracula," so she's set her color monitor to display white letters on an appropriately red background -- just one of the frills on her $3,000 machine.

"It has all the bells and whistles," she said. "It's great. Now I just have to learn how to use it."

Ms. Belford, a 50-ish professor at Columbia University's graduate school of journalism, is no computer nerd. But her high-end taste for computing is increasingly common among the 30 million American households -- one of every three residences -- that now have personal computers.

Fueling the trend is the increase in work done at home, the need to share the computer with game-playing children, the deluge of new software offerings and the American consumer's fear of technological obsolescence. The answer to each of these needs is extra computer firepower.

Yet sheer salesmanship is at work as well. All those mind-numbing computer ads in newspapers and magazines -- an alphabet soup of numbers, megahertz, megabytes, ROM, RAM, SVGA -- seem to have subconsciously persuaded people who don't know what all the numbers and letters mean, except that more of it is good. They may not need it, but they want it.

"You can never be too rich, too thin or have too much processing power," said Richard Shaffer of Technologic Partners, a high-tech consultant. "It's not about technology. It might as well be thread and hemlines -- this is the fashion side of the personal computer industry."

A hot computer, in a sense, is the muscle car of the '90s, but at a fraction of the cost and guilt-free. After all, it's not a gas hog. It's a productivity tool.

The sales pitch for power-packed PCs does often appear to be borrowed from Detroit's muscle-car days of the late '60s and early '70s, when Pontiac GTOs and Dodge Chargers roamed the roadways.

Gateway 2000, a fast-growing personal computer company in South Dakota, whose $1 billion-plus business is based on selling cutting-edge machines, even has its own stock-car racing team.

A recent series of Gateway 2000 ads pictured the company car and its driver, 30-year-old marketing manager Mike Schmith, alongside its computers, with the headlines "The Heat is On" and "Gateway Gives You More Horsepower."

As with the old muscle cars, there is a certain macho appeal to the hot-rod computer. "No matter how big your hard drive is, it's never big enough," observed Bill Ablondi, a computer consultant.

Perhaps, but today's power-packed PCs appeal to both sexes and all ages. The phenomenon is welcome news indeed for America's PC industry, gripped by a relentless price war, because profit margins are far higher on machines loaded with extras.

Last month, Dell Computer Corp. brought out new high-end models, while IBM formed an entire subsidiary, Ambra Computer Corp., aimed at the high-performance market. And Apple Computer Inc. introduced new top-of-the-line Macintosh machines last month.

In Austin, Texas, Dell Computer has found that powerful desktop machines equipped with CD-ROM, an Intel 486 66-megahertz clock-doubling microprocessor (very fast), and a big 320-megabyte hard drive are selling at a torrid pace. Dell pitches these $2,999 computers in ads filled with product specifications under the headline, "The One with the Most Toys Wins."

"This market is a lot bigger than you'd think if you had a pocket-protector view of the world," said Thomas Martin, Dell's vice president of worldwide marketing.

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