THE GOLDILOCKS STRATEGY Compaq offers papa, mama and baby computers


Fulfilling a vow made in its darkest hours, the Compaq Computer Corp. has introduced two new families of desktop computers that are hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of dollars less expensive than the company's premium Deskpro/M machines.

Suggested list prices for Compaq's new Prolinea computers start as low as $899, and one can assume the discounted price will be even lower. Compaq has designed the new Prolinea computers for entry-level customers, primarily for home use.

A second new family of computers, called the Deskpro/i series, includes larger business machines priced to compete with models from companies like Dell, AST Research and Gateway 2000.

Compaq also introduced a family of low-cost notebook computers, called the Contura line, and a color-screen version of its popular LTE notebook series. It also sends each new computer out the door with a one-year on-site warranty, matching a valuable service long offered by its rivals.

The addition of two lines of low-cost desktop machines creates what one Compaq official called a Goldilocks strategy -- papa, mama and baby computers -- for combating the clone makers who put Compaq in hot soup last year.

The Houston-based company, which had made only high-performance, high-priced business computers, reported its first loss and layoffs last year as computer buyers shifted to lower-priced PCs.

Compaq, under new management, vowed then that it would allow no rival to beat the company on price, quality or service.

The new machines are the first to be introduced under that new pledge, and now customers can decide if Compaq met its goals.

Unlike International Business Machines Corp., which has been exploring ways to buy inexpensive computers from other companies and resell them under the IBM name tag, Compaq decided to build its own clones at its Houston manufacturing plant. A Compaq spokesman said the decision allowed Compaq to guarantee that its traditional quality standards would be met.

The baby Prolinea computers come in three models, each in two sizes. The Prolinea ZS models are especially tiny, 12.6 inches wide, 15 inches deep and 3.5 inches high, which makes them ideal for people who live in small apartments.

The Prolinea S models are slightly bigger, 16 inches by 15 inches by 4 inches, to accommodate an extra expansion slot (3 standard PC slots vs. 2 on the ZS models), an extra internal disk drive bay (three vs. two), and a bigger power supply (145 watts vs. 73 watts). They are $200 more expensive than the smaller models.

The $899 Compaq Prolinea 3/25 ZS Model 40 is based on an Intel 386SX microprocessor running at 25 megahertz.

It includes two megabytes of system memory, a 40-megabyte hard disk drive with DOS 5.1 already installed on it, a 3.5-inch diskette drive, the ability to display color graphics with a resolution of 1,024 pixels by 768 pixels (a monitor is not included), and all the usual connection ports.

The graphics are superior to other computers in the price range.

A Prolinea 3/25 ZS model 82, with an 82-megabyte hard drive, is $999. Spending the extra $100 for the additional 42 megabytes of hard disk space seems like a very good idea.

The third Prolinea model, which will not be available until late July or August, will be based on Intel's more-powerful 486DX-33 microprocessor. Prices for the i486-based machine will start at $1,799 with a 40-megabyte hard drive, Compaq said.

Unlike other 486-based machines, the Prolinea will not be able to get a microprocessor upgrade down the road, nor will it be able to use plug-in cards built on the so-called EISA standard. To get the processor upgrade capability, which prolongs the useful life of the machine, customers may find the Deskpro/i line more attractive.

The Deskpro/i machines all have a minimum of four megabytes of system memory; a high-performance graphics controller that Compaq calls Q-Vision; a sound technology, called Business Audio, that allows Windows users to embed voice annotation and sounds into documents, and various locks and data security features that businesses find attractive.

The Q-Vision technology will delight anyone who has been frustrated by the speed of Microsoft Windows applications, or any other software that makes extensive use of graphics. Compaq asserts that Q-Vision allows its machines to scroll through Windows operations and redraw windows in one-tenth the time of other systems.

A Deskpro 3/33i Model 120 (all of the above features plus a 33-megahertz i386DX chip and a 120-megabyte hard drive) will have a list price of $1,979, Compaq said. A Deskpro 4/33i Model 210 (i486DX-33 and a 210MB hard disk) will cost $2,549.

To show how serious Compaq has become about pricing, at the start of the year the company was selling a Deskpro/M 4/33 machine for more than $8,000.

The Deskpro/M series has a few features not found on the Prolineas or the Deskpro/i series, including an extra expansion slot and drive bay, the more-advanced EISA slots for demanding business applications and the ability to upgrade most major system components, not just the processor.

Compaq hopes to parlay its reputation for top quality across a broad line of computers that match or beat the prices of any competitor. It is a gamble for the company, but it appears to be very good news indeed for the average computer user.

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