Buying A Computer: How To Get What You Really Need

Personal Computers


COMPUTER prices are dropping. Dog bites man. Computer prices are always dropping. Wait a bit and you get more power for less money. But what if you need a Windows 95 machine today?

A desktop machine is not always the best solution. Laptop units offer convenience and portability. Figuring in the built-in display, they can end up costing little more than functionally similar desktop models.

But desktop computers tend to be more durable and remain more popular.

A cheap one, about $1,000 excluding a monitor, should run current office software and most multimedia titles just fine.

However, it will be unable to run some existing games, graphics and multimedia programs that demand advanced hardware features, and may run next-generation software unacceptably or not at all.

And some machines like the Compaq Presario 2100 lack expansion slots for adding useful devices you may want, not to mention Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports that let some peripherals connect from the outside.

More money buys more flexibility and the promise of longer useful life. A machine as fast as they come today will show its age in two or three years but should still run most software acceptably.

In today's consumer market, computers based on the 200 megahertz Pentium MMX chips top the performance charts, though faster chips are on the way. The cheaper 166 megahertz Pentium MMX is a reasonable compromise that can save you a couple of hundred dollars.

An MMX machine will run most software about 7 to 10 percent faster than a Pentium of the same nominal speed, largely because the MMX chip has an extra 16 kilobytes of Level 1 cache.

With programs specially written for them, mostly graphical ones, MMX can produce even greater improvements. But the main reason to choose MMX is that some programs are beginning to require it, and virtually all machines will include it by the end of the year. If you are willing to forgo MMX, you may be able to drive a good bargain.

At least 16 megabytes of memory are now essential; 16 more are increasingly useful and should cost about $100.

Any machine you buy should also have at least 256 kilobytes of Level II cache memory, and the video subsystem should include at least two megabytes of its own. If you are uncomfortable fiddling around inside computers, have the vendor install any extras you need.

CD-ROM drives compete on speed ratings; a so-called 8X unit is fast enough.

But in the age of expanding software waistlines, a two-gigabyte hard disk now seems a reasonable minimum. Think I'm kidding? A Hewlett-Packard Pavilion unit arrived with more than 900 megabytes of its disk already occupied, more than a third of the available space.

Computer makers incessantly try to differentiate their basically similar machines. Many come with software meant to make things easier, but it usually just wastes memory and gets in the way.

Some units come with buttons to control the answering machine software or play music CDs, but the buttons merely invoke software commands you can issue with a mouse click. One useful feature is a button that lets you put the machine to "sleep" and wake it up where you left off. Among options, the most useful is some sort of backup device.

Speakers included with new computers are typically designed to hang on a "multimedia" monitor from the same vendor.

Some are so skinny that they can barely stand on their own, and many sound terrible. If you are sensitive about audio fidelity, try to upgrade to better speakers or, better still, plug your sound card into a decent stereo system.

Do not necessarily accept the computer maker's monitor. Others may perform better. In my experience, Trinitron tubes seem brighter and sharper than others, though some people dislike the two faint horizontal lines that stretch across the picture. The dot pitch should be 0.28 inches or less; with a Trinitron look for stripe pitch of 0.26 inches or less. The "17-inch" monitors are much more pleasant to work with than smaller units.

Software that comes with the machine may be junk or may save you money. If you need a particular industrial-strength office suite, look for vendors who will throw it in free.

The most problematic item may be the modem. Some of the 33.6 kilobit modems in current computers can be upgraded to one of the new so-called 56 kilobit standards; most cannot.

The next generation of computers, expected this summer, should include the faster modems; unless you find a machine with an upgradeable modem, that alone may dictate a wait.

Computer makers continue to do irritating things. Perhaps the oddest is offering many virtually useless ISA expansion slots but few PCI slots, which are clearly the wave of the near future.

Adequate printed documentation is becoming a rarity, but online help does not help at all when your machine dies, and phoning for assistance may cost money. Mail-order vendors can be as helpful or as clueless as chain stores.

Finding a local purveyor of impeccable reputation to build a no-name machine for you from standard parts can save money, but avoid that route if you lack computer savvy.

Never buy a computer without a money-back guarantee and adequate time to install and check everything you think you might possibly use.

Parts are often missing or broken, and the list of potential software problems is endless. An IBM Aptiva unit recently arrived here brain-dead. Lights went on, the fan spun, but there was not even a beep from the machine. Dog bites man.

Pub Date: 4/28/97

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