CALL IT CATCH-95. Compaq Presario computers, like most new models available for the holidays, come with Windows 95 preinstalled. The catch? Just as you begin to troll the modern Yuletide carol hailing long file names, you discover that the free copy of Microsoft Works on the machine's hard drive is version 3.0, which does not understand the names. IBM Aptiva models include Works 4.0, which does know about long file names, but also throw in Smartsuite 4.0, which does not.
Catch-95, by no means limited to these models, is the latest stumbling block in the drive to turn computers into consumer products. Imagine the fun in unwrapping an expensive TV set and discovering the remote control is last year's model and can select only single-digit channels.
True, this year's hardware offers power unimaginable a couple of years ago, along with improvements like cases that are easier to open or have spiffier looks.
Today the box typically contains a Christmas stocking of a dozen assorted CD-ROM disks, and half a gigabyte of software clutters your hard drive.
But you typically do not get any simple way of reinstalling that software selectively or of uninstalling it to reclaim the space you paid for, nor, unless you have considerable computer experience, do you have any sense of what to do with that software. Manuals that once got you up and running have become passe; introductory material now appears on screen with all the music, content and accuracy of commercials.
A computer novice who buys one of this season's machines without guidance deserves pity. Today's Windows-based personal computers are among the least accessible consumer products on the market.
Computer companies now use automotive marketing technology to loosen your purse strings. A little more money moves you up to a more powerful engine, a bigger gas tank, a turbocharger. The monitor generally costs extra, except with some all-in-one models. Speakers are increasingly bundled not with the computer but with the monitor.
If you keep your eye on the important points, you stand a better chance of getting your money's worth.
For example, for desktop machines, if you are not considering a Macintosh, a Pentium-based unit is the sensible choice. Brute speed increases with the megahertz rating, which ranges from 75 to 133; 90 offers an excellent compromise between price and performance and is the minimum required for Microsoft's forthcoming MPEG software.
More important is the memory called RAM; with Windows 95, 16 megabytes of random access memory is far better than eight, and mandatory for some programs. If you have to choose between 16 megabytes of RAM and more speed, buy the RAM.
Quad-speed CD-ROM drives and gigabyte hard drives have become standard. Try to get a 28.8-kilobit data/fax modem. Expect the manufacturer to toss in lots of software, too; make sure Windows 95 has been preinstalled and that key programs can understand long file names. A three-year warranty is a bonus, but paying for an extended warranty makes little sense.
Special features often sound better than they work. When you use the "shut down" option of Windows 95, the Aptiva cleverly turns off the machine instead of making you do it, and the handy "rapid resume" feature lets you pick up precisely where you left off. But software that lets you control programs with voice commands is too inconsistent and the fax-and-answering-machine software, like most, is confusing and undependable.
A much-touted feature turns the unit on when the phone rings; the software takes six rings to get going, so it should work for faxes, but not for impatient voice callers.
Look for a monitor with a "dot pitch" of 0.28 millimeters or less and a vertical refresh rate of at least 75 hertz at 1,024-by-768 resolution. But examine it in action if possible, since identically priced monitors can range from miserably fuzzy to crisply sharp, and supposedly identical units vary significantly. Listen to the speakers, which you may well want to upgrade. Do not hesitate to return a display you suspect is defective; your eyes will thank you.
Watching typical computer video fare on even the best monitor is like looking through a tiny window covered by a coarse
screen. A technique called MPEG-1 can make the window bigger and the screen finer, but the picture still does not equal a poorly tuned TV.
The Aptiva's version of MPEG was noticeably jerky and blocky. On the Presario, which includes hardware for the job, the jerkiness was missing, but the screen was often divided into vertical stripes, particularly annoying in panning scenes.
A Compaq spokesman said the effect would be minimized slightly by installing revised software, and greatly by adding another megabyte of video RAM at a cost of about $100. Since this is an interim technology most software does not currently use, since it will be built into Windows 95 applications (and eventually the operating system) and since it should eventually be blown away by MPEG-2 digital video disks, I would not spend an extra nickel on it.
If you know nothing about computers, get a knowledgeable friend to help you buy and set up the machine. If you want to enjoy the holiday, set up your computer in advance, before the help lines get mobbed and while you have time to get replacements for missing parts.
And note that computer prices are widely expected to drop significantly after the holidays, perhaps by as much as $500. Enhancements and repairs to Windows 95 should arrive before Valentine's Day. You and your loved ones may want to forgo the joys of Catch-95 temporarily and gather under the mistletoe instead of in front of a monitor.
Stephen Manes is a columnist for the New York Times.