Imagine IBM signing up with Walt Disney to produce a Mickey Mouse computer and you'll have some idea of the craziness in the home computer market today.
With corporate sales flattening, home is where the action is. Even a company whose middle name is "Business" is getting into the act with a variety of inexpensive new machines designed to please mom and dad, who want to bring work from the office, and the kids, who want to do their homework and be entertained.
Personal computers are popping up in appliance stores, next to the refrigerators and VCRs, and in department stores, two aisles down from the pots and pans. You can stop at the discount warehouse on Saturday morning and come home with a couple of tires, a set of socket wrenches, a case of corn flakes and a 486/SX computer with a 200-megabyte hard drive.
At $1,200 to $2,000, these machines aren't exactly cheap. But unlike the wave of inexpensive "home computers" that kicked up a storm a decade ago, these computers aren't likely to wind up in the closet. They're serious machines than can handle all but the most demanding business chores.
To make them attractive to home buyers, many of whom are novices or office workers who are used to corporate support when they run into problems, manufacturers are bundling their machines with user-friendly software that allows people without advanced degrees in computer science to get them up and running. And increasingly, manufacturers are adding games and educational programs.
IBM is a case in point. Not that long ago, the company turned its nose up at the home market. Its most famous, or infamous effort, was the ill-fated PCjr, which the company deliberately crippled so it wouldn't hurt sales of its real machines. When buyers found out it wasn't as good at games as cheaper computers or powerful enough for business purposes, they were furious. Junior died unmourned.
It took a while for the company to recover, but now that the IBM Personal Computer Co. has ejected from the corporate mother ship, the spinoff is producing some of the best home PCs on the market, and they now account for more than a quarter of the firm's PC business.
By the way, the Mickey Mouse computer is real. In one of its bundles, known as the Imagination System, IBM has licensed 11 Walt Disney software titles, ranging from Mickey's ABC's and Follow the Reader for young computer users to Stunt Island and Coaster, two simulations that will keep older folks happily, if unproductively, occupied for hours.
The package includes the Disney Sound Source, an inexpensive add-on sound generator.
Not to be outdone, Packard Bell,another major player in the retail home computer market, recently announced that it has exclusive U.S. bundling rights to Ocean Software's Jurassic Park interactive computer game.
While games may be a nice inducement, what counts is what's under the hood. Most home computers are based on Intel's 80486/SX processor running at 25 mHz, a lower-cost, lower-powered version of the 486/DX chip found in heavy-duty business machines.
Chip lacks coprocessor
Technically, the SX chip lacks its big brother's built-in math coprocessor, which is important for applications such as sophisticated graphics programs and and complex spreadsheets.
Theoretically, a DX chip will provide about twice the performance of an SX running at the same speed. But in reality, other factors such as the speed of the hard disk and video board can be just as important. Some computer makers are now offering home machines with faster, 33 mHz SX chips and even DX chips.
Expect to pay $300 to $500 more for a DX computer. I think it's worth the money, but if your budget is tight and you're going to use the computer for basic word processing, business records and games, it isn't strictly necessary.
Another common bundled component is the fax modem, which lets you communicate with other computers and on-line services such as Prodigy, CompuServe and America Online, as well as send and receive faxes.
For data communication, these modems generally operate at a maximum speed of 2,400 bits per second. If you're serious about communications, you may want to choose a computer without a fax modem and buy a higher speed, 9,600 or 14,400 bps modem. These run between $200 and $300.
In the higher price ranges, multimedia computers have become best sellers. These include a sound board and a CD-ROM drive, which provides access to electronic encyclopedias, atlases, reference works and some really incredible games. Once again, if your budget allows it, you won't regret spending the money.
Be aware that to stay competitive within any given price range, most manufacturers will skimp on one component or another.
Some systems come with 200 megabyte hard drives, others with 120-megabyte drives. Some may come with sharp monitors (look for a .28 mm dot pitch), others with coarser screens. Some may have only one free drive disk bay and two or three internal expansion slots, others may have more. A warning here: A few makers are still producing computers with two megabytes of internal memory. Stay away from these. Four megabytes is the minimum you'll need.
Aside from games, the software bundled with home machines is remarkably similar. All come with the Microsoft Windows graphical environment and an integrated program such as Microsoft Works or PFS: Window Works.
Good for basic work
These programs combine word processing, spreadsheet, data base and graphics capabilities. While they can't match stand-alone programs in any category, they're perfectly good for basic business and educational work. If nothing else, they'll get you running until you decide if you need more sophisticated software.
To make things more complicated, most computer makers today are producing dozens of different models, with different features, at prices that vary by a few hundred dollars. This is partly to meet the needs of different users, and partly to make sure that no two retailers in the same market are forced to compete on price with identical machines.
If you're comparison shopping, my advice is to worry less about bundled games (your kids will be bored with them in a couple of months, anyway) and find the fastest machine with the biggest hard disk and the sharpest monitor that your budget allows. That will ensure that your computer will not only serve you well today, but will also serve you well tomorrow.
(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)