THE NEXT MONTH or so seems a particularly poor time to buy a computer. Today's machines are certainly competent, but lots of useful improvements will not arrive until next year. Improved machines should cost no more than the old ones, but a computer you buy today will be upgradeable only with needless expense.
For example, a technology called MMX is being built into special new Pentium chips. It promises modest speed increases for current programs but significant improvements for programs specially written for it. Originally intended for Christmas, MMX is now poised to arrive early next year -- Computer Retail Week has reported the release date as Jan. 8. Jim Turley, senior editor of the industry newsletter Microprocessor Report, described the MMX situation this way: "Right after Christmas, things suddenly heat up and become very, very interesting."
Industry observers expect MMX to be included in virtually every Pentium machine by this time next year. Upgrading an older machine will mean replacing the processor at significant cost. Since MMX machines are unlikely to cost much more than plain vanilla Pentiums, why not wait for them? A bonus: fancy new graphics chips are expected to arrive soon, too.
Another reason to wait is to make sure you get the latest version of Windows 95, which includes software to manage the Universal Serial Bus port found in many new machines, along with version 3 of Internet Explorer. Most important, it removes a longstanding technical limitation that wastes a significant portion of the capacity of the large hard drives that have become standard. But that improvement will not be available for current machines until the next full upgrade of Windows. Some mail-order computers already include the new version, but it is not widely available on machines sold at retail for the holidays. Wait till next year, and your new machine should include the new version, which reveals itself as version 4.00.950b (as opposed to 950a or just 950 for earlier versions) if you click the system icon in the control panel.
Next come modems. Four new technologies, all capable of downloading data at 56,000 bits per second, all incompatible with one another, will arrive early in the year. Although some older modems will be easy to upgrade, others will not. Newer models will be no more expensive, so why not wait for standards to be settled?
New forms of digital disks also make waiting a good idea. The much-heralded high-capacity DVD-ROM should finally arrive around the first of the year. Not much computer software specifically designed for the DVD format is likely to be available soon, but these units can also play music CDs, video CDs, CD-ROMs and movies with video quality better than on videocassette.
The first DVD-ROMs will not play recordable CD-R disks; later models may. Although CD-R is not a format most people are likely to encounter, you may want to wait for the second generation. And conversations with engineers at last week's Comdex trade show suggest that upgrading current machines to DVD is likely to be complicated and expensive and may deliver unsatisfactory results on slower models. By far the simplest and cheapest way to get DVD on a computer will be to wait till next year and buy a machine that includes it instead of a CD-ROM drive. Figuring out which systems deliver best on the promise of DVD-ROM may take a while, but the upgrade path seems fraught with frustration.
This Christmas, the right thing to do is lumber along for a while with the machine you have; well before Santa makes his 1997 appearance you will know how to replace it.
Pub Date: 12/02/96