Cheap PC may be no bargain

June 14, 1999|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

There are plenty of bargain PCs on the market today, and they offer astonishing power for the money. For $1,000 or less, you can buy a computer that will run rings around virtually anything that was on the market two years ago.

But when I went shopping for an inexpensive machine a few weeks ago, I learned that all too often, what you see is exactly what you get. And what you may not get is the ability to expand or upgrade your PC as your needs change.

While that may not seem like a problem today, down the road you may find that you're out of space when you try to add another disk drive, network card, or some other gadget that will make your computer more useful, entertaining or both. If that happens, you'll realize that you may have not gotten such a bargain after all.

So what should you look for in a PC? To find the answer it helps to have an idea of how personal computers are designed -- but don't worry, this won't get too geeky.

When IBM introduced its original PC back in 1981, it envisioned the machine as a box full of components that constituted a computer. Putting one together was a lot like assembling a stereo system, with an amplifier, tuner, tape deck, CD player and so on.

IBM, of course, supplied the box and the most important component of all -- the main circuit board, also known as the motherboard. The motherboard contained the processor, the supporting circuits, memory chips, a place to plug in a keyboard and a half- dozen "expansion slots" for additional circuit boards that controlled the monitor, printer, serial port, disk drives and so on.

IBM was happy to supply all of these extra goodies too, but it also made its specifications public, allowing other manufacturers to chip in with their own gadgets -- and setting the stage for the creation of an entire industry.

The beauty of the IBM design was its expandability. If you wanted to switch from a monochrome monitor to a color monitor, all you had to do was remove the monochrome graphics adapter and plug a color graphics adapter into the same expansion slot.

When hard disks became available, a user could buy one, slip it into a vacant drive bay and plug a controller card into a free expansion slot.

An internal modem? Plug it into an expansion slot. A sound card or CD-ROM? Just buy one and plug it in.

It was a good scheme, but it had two major disadvantages. First, making room for all these gadgets required a fairly large and ugly box. Second the design was expensive -- it required a lot of chips and circuit boards. As time passed and chips became more complex and powerful, it became possible to shrink almost everything -- in fact, today manufacturers routinely pack powerful, fully-equipped PC into a three-pound package the size of a notebook.

To save money and space, PC makers began using the same technology to simplify the design of their desktop models.

Today, disk controllers are usually built into PC motherboards, along with controllers for printer and serial ports, all of which once occupied separate expansion slots. Since few users ever replace these items, the move made sense.

Now, however, manufacturers often build video adapters, modems and sound components into their motherboards, which is much cheaper than using separate circuit boards but poses a potential problem -- what happens if you want to upgrade your video or sound?

With some PC's you're stuck with what you get; others can be upgraded, but it may take bit of geeky-tweaky with jumpers on the motherboard.

Because so many devices are built into the motherboard, manufacturers are shaving costs even more by cutting back on the number of free expansion slots.

In fact, it not unusual to find and inexpensive PCs with only one slot available, which means that if you want to install a network adapter and a video accelerator for games, you're out of luck.

Likewise, bargain PCs may not have free external drive bays, which makes it impossible to add a Zip disk or a CD-writer.

All of this may not matter if your expectations are modest -- virtually any PC on the market will let you write the Great American Novel, keep your financial records and browse the Web.

But if you're buying an inexpensive PC now with the expectation of upgrading later, make sure you have the room to do it.

This may reqiure spending a few more dollars to move up from the bargain basement.

At the very least, look for a computer with two free PCI expansion slots (used by most modern components), along with an AGP slot (used for video accelerators).

If you think you might want to add a Zip drive or CD-writer, you'll also need at least one free disk drive bay that's accessible from the outside.

True, you can buy external Zips and other drives that connect to your computer's USB or printer ports, but you'll get much better performance -- and a much neater desktop -- from internal components.

For a truly old-fashioned, "generic" PC -- one with plenty of expansion slots and drive bays -- you may have to deal with direct sellers such as Dell, Gateway or Micron, or visit a neighborhood dealer who builds computers to order.

You may spend a vew dollars more than you would for a lowball machines from a retailer's shelf, but if you want a PC you can build on, these are good choices.

Pub Date: 06/14/99

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.