Two 'sweet spots' govern what computer to buy

Your computer

November 16, 1997|By Michael Himowitz

EVERY YEAR, with the holidays coming up, I start getting calls from people looking for new computers.

When I began writing this column more than a decade ago, most of my callers were on their first PC.

Now they're often on a second or even third machine. They're more knowledgeable and less scared about the prospect of computer shopping. They're no longer wondering whether it's worth spending a couple of grand on a hunk of mysterious hardware. PCs have proved themselves. Today's buyers are generally more concerned with getting the most digital bang for their buck.

Luckily, they've never had more choices. At the high end, powerful computers with superfast processors, gargantuan disk

drives, arcade-quality video and studio-quality sound are available for well under $3,000. This range is heaven for the game players and the gadget-happy. You'll find computers with remote controls, built-in telephones, answering machines and even TV tuners (so you never have to miss Oprah while you're working).

Bargain computers have gotten cheaper and better, too. For $1,000 to $1,500 you'll find capable machines that that can handle any mainstream business application, let you browse the Web and help entertain and educate the kids. These are more than adequate for anything but serious game-playing and high-end graphics work.

Unless you look really hard for a stripped-down model, you'll find that all these systems come with CD-ROM, modem, sound card, speakers and a bundle of useful productivity and educational software.

But as I've mentioned over the years, there's always a "sweet spot" in the market between the extremes. It's based on two premises. First, you should always buy the best technology you can afford because it will give you more pleasure now and last longer. Second, you'll always pay a stiff premium for the latest and greatest. So avoid the bottom of the market and aim toward the high end without going overboard.

Where's the sweet spot today? Actually, there are two sweet spots, depending on whether you're looking for a capable computer or a real powerhouse. This has to do with Intel's current crop of Pentium microprocessors, which power about 80 percent of the PCs on the market. The processor, or CPU, is the heart of your system; it does the real computing work and orchestrates everything else -- your disk drives, video, sound board, CD-ROM, modem and printer.

The power of a processor depends on its design and speed. The design of a processor determines the type of instructions it can process and the method it uses to execute them. Where does it get these instructions? From the computer programs that turn your PC into a word processor, a stock portfolio tracker, an F-16 flying missions over the Persian Gulf, or all three at once.

The speed of a processor determines how fast it can execute those instructions.

A processor's speed is measured in megahertz, or MHz for short, and it refers to millions of cycles per second. The more Mhz you buy, the faster the computer will run -- and the more you'll pay for it. Most desktop computers today run at speeds from 133 to 300 Mhz (Time travel: The first computer I bought in 1983 ran at less than 1 Mhz).

Now let's put these together. Intel makes two basic flavors of Pentium processor. Both use a new technology called MMX,

which can speed up graphics, games and other multimedia programs.

You'll find the regular version, generally labeled Pentium MMX, and the latest incarnation of the chip, the Pentium II.

The Pentium II is designed to speed up so-called 32-bit programs that take advantage of the advanced features of the Windows 95 operating system. In practice, the Pentium II is faster at almost everything than its older cousin running at the same clock speed.

For my money, the sweet spot in the lower end of the market is the 233 MHz Pentium MMX, which is the fastest version of that chip now available. You'll find excellent 233-Mhz multimedia systems in the $2,000 range, including a 15-inch monitor. They'll provide more power than most home and small business users need today and plenty of reserve for the future.

If you're the kind of guy who has to have a Maserati when a Ford Taurus will do, look at a 233 or 266-mhz Pentium II system. These are a notch below the fastest machines on the market, but you'll barely notice the difference in speed and you'll save hundreds of dollars. Unless you're managing huge databases, there isn't a standard business program that will come close to making one of these monsters breathe hard.

But if you're heavily into flight simulators, 3-D arcade games or serious digital photography and desktop publishing, you'll appreciate every bit of the horsepower under the hood. The tariff for a good Pentium II system is $2,500 to $3,000. That's not exactly cheap, but it will be quite a while before you need a new computer.

Of course, there are other factors that determine the price and usefulness of a computer system, including memory, storage, video capability, and what I like to call gadgetry. We'll discuss some of these next time out.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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