For most people, it's silly to spend thousands on a computer

Personal Computers

March 02, 1998|By Stephen Manes | Stephen Manes,New York Times News Service

THE DAY of the $800 brand-name desktop computer has arrived, if you are willing to overlook the extra $200 for a cheap monitor. That sounds great, but $500 (sans monitor) machines are likely to appear by the end of the year. So what to do?

The pace of change in the computer business has always made buying decisions tricky, but the penalty for guessing wrong has dropped. And now that the difference between the bottom of the line and the top is about $1,200, you can buy two cheapies for the price of a luxury model.

At $800 for a 200-megahertz machine, today's budget computers are fine for mundane tasks like surfing the Web and creating documents.

But bottom-fishers need to be aware of a few snags:

Processor: Raw performance differences among microprocessors with the same rated speed (that megahertz number) are slight. Despite advertising claims, neither Intel's chips nor those of its major competitors, AMD and Cyrix, offer significant advantages.

Besides, processor power in itself does not mean as much as one might guess. In PC World's most recent tests the fastest 300-megahertz Pentium II model took about 22 minutes to complete six business applications; a 200-megahertz unit half as expensive took about four minutes longer.

Cache: Low-end models often omit the so-called Level II cache that is standard on more expensive machines and built into every current (but not necessarily future) Pentium II system. The omission is not fatal, but it can translate to a significant loss of speed.

Hard disk: The drives in cheap machines tend to hold less data than those in more expensive models, and handle it more slowly. But less still amounts to a mere 2 billion bytes, and if you buy a machine with room for extra drives, you can eventually add a new one that is cheaper and bigger than the one you started with.

Memory: Fancier machines' exotic forms of RAM tend to squeeze out slightly better performance that rarely justifies its higher price. Many low-end machines now include 32 megabytes of random access memory, but some force you to scrap some or all of that RAM if you decide to upgrade later. Try to buy a unit that will let you use the RAM you have when you want to add more.

Video: Cheaper usually means slower, but only graphics professionals and hard-core game players are likely to notice. However, low-end circuitry rarely allows the vertical refresh rates beyond 75 hertz (cycles per second) that flicker-sensitive souls like me prefer.

Moreover, cheap units often come with only one megabyte of video memory, not enough to produce photographic color at higher screen resolutions.

Noise: With every cheap unit I have tried that was meant to sit on a desk, the whir and vibration of a noisy hard drive has driven me batty. Floor-standing tower units may not be quieter, but they are farther from your ears and do not shake the keyboard.

Expandability: Internal slots, where you can put cards that can add everything from network connections to television tuners, are extremely useful. So are bays for a new hard drive, backup drive or photo scanner.

Modern desktop computers now come with a floppy disk drive, a 56K modem, one parallel port, two universal serial bus ports, one serial port, one game port, and some software. El Cheapo may come with a nominally slower CD-ROM drive, but you will never notice.

Pub Date: 3/02/98

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