Personal Technology

Walter S. Mossberg, The Wall Street Journal 19981001

The Fall Crop of PCs Packs Lots of Power At Attractive Prices

THIS IS a great time to buy a PC. The industry is offering a host of attractive models in the $800 to $1,300 range, and these low-cost machines aren't just no-name, stripped-down loss leaders. They're powerful, full-funetion computers with top brand names. They can surf the Internet with ease and run all the latest programs a typical home or small-business user could want.

They won't quickly become obsolete, even after they are discontinued to make way for the new models that appear two or three times a year. In addition, you can find many of these models sold in aggressively priced bundies that include decent printers and monitors.

So here's my annual autumnal guide to the key specifications to look for when you're shopping for a desktop PC. Don't let a salesman push you into buying more computer than you need.

This guide concentrates on Windows PCs, because buying a Macintosh for home is much simpler: Just shell out $1,299 for Apple's only consumer model, the very capable iMac, and add $100 to $200 for the floppy disk drive Apple left out.

Processor: I suggest a processor chip - the brain of a PC - that runs at a minimum speed of 300 megahertz. You can safely substitute Intel's new, cheaper Celeron chip for a Pentium II (the guts are similar). But steer clear of the first-generation Celerons, which were slower than their ratings implied. Buy only the 333-MHz model, or the 300-MHz model labeled "300a," rather than its older cousin labeled just "300." These Celerons are almost as speedy as comparable Pentium IIs, but cost way less. You can also safely buy a non-Intel chip-AMD's K6 - but go for the.newer AMD K6-2.

Memory: This matters more than ehip speed, so get at least 64 megabytes, and more if you can. Don't worry too much about what type of memory comes on a new PC. They're all about the same for most common tasks.

L2 Cache: This is a dedicated memory bank that the processor uses to speed up its operations. On a Pentium U or AMD chip, it should be 512 kilobytes. On a Celeron, which uses a more efficient design, 128 kilobytes is enough.

Hard Disk: Try for at least a fourgigabyte size, more if possible.

Modem: Make sure it's a speedy 56K model, and that it is labeled "V.90" the term for the new international modem standard. If you plan to use a cable modem, try to buy a PC with a built-in Ethernet networking connection, because cable modems typically use such hookups.

Video System: Ignore most of the claims about video, but to assure fast handling of graphics and games, make sure to get at least two megabytes of video memory, which is usually separate from the PC's main memory.

Monitor: By spending less on the PC, you can treat your eyes to a somewhat better screen. A 15-inch screen is OK, but consider a 17-inch model with a "dot-pitch," or sharpness, rating of 0.28 millimeters or less. The cost of some flat-panel monitors-or LCDS, like the screeiis in laptops-has fallen to $1,000 or less. But their quality varies; watch out for dark spots and fuzzy charaeters.

Audio: Don't pay extra for subwoofers and other fancy speakers and sound systems, unless you plan to use your PC as your main music playback system.

Zip Drive: This is a type of largecapacity floppy disk drive that is handy for backing up your hard disk or transporting large files. If it doesn't cost more than $100 extra, it's nice to have.

DVD: Most PCs have a CD-ROM drive, but sonie boast a drive that can play both CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMS, which have a much higher capacity. Unfortunately, there's still not enough software on DVD to justify spending extra for the drive.

USB: This is a new kind of connector that makes it easy to hook up new-style printers, scanners and other add-on hardware. Make sure your PC has at least two USB ports.

Internet: Most PCs come with Web browsers and e-mail software, and most inciude some sort of offer for Internet aecess. But if you're not an oniine veteran, you may want to seleet a PC with easy sign-up and several months of free service. In addition, some models have keyboards with special buttons that connect you rapidly to the Net, which is a nice convenience.

Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Gateway and others all offer computers with these specs for under $1,300, after various discounts and rebates. For example, this past weekend the Best Buy chain was selling an HP Pavilion 6350 with an HP ink-jet printer and a 15-inch monitor for $1,199. This computer, which is being phased out, is still plenty powerful, with AMD's 333-MHz K6-2 processor, 64 MB of memory and an eight-GB hard disk.

Gateway is offering for $999 via mail-order its G6-333C, with a 333MHz Celeron processor a 15-inch monitor, 32 MB of memory and a 3.2GB hard disk. For an extra $114, you can double the memory and hard-disk capacity.

If you want more power and capacity, CompUSA sells a $1,299 Cornpaq Presario 5150 with a whopping 128 MB of memory, AMD's 350-MHz K6-2 chip and an eight-GB hard disk.

There will always be something with more power at a good price just around the corner. But if you need a new PC right now, you don't have to wait and you don't have to buy a topof-the-line model for fear of obsolescence.

For answers to your computer questions, check out my Mossberg's Mailbox column on B8 in today's Technology Journal pages.