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For $999, or less, don't expect a whole lot in a PC


THE MAGIC PRICE of $1,000 for a personal computer is one that has until recently been breached mostly with fine print reading "monitor extra." Now that new models complete with screens are available for under a grand, what do you sacrifice?

With the $999 Packard Bell C115A, the answer is right before your eyes: picture quality. The "14-inch" model 1010 monitor delivers images measuring about 13 diagonal inches.

It has an extremely coarse "dot-pitch" of 0.39 millimeters in an era when 0.28 is typical, lacks a coating to eliminate the many reflections of its highly curved screen and can muster only a flickery maximum refresh rate of 60 hertz at the 800-by-600 resolution that is set until you change it.

Fuzziness, graininess and various forms of distortion add up to a veritable eyestrain machine.

The computer itself is more substantial. It includes 16 megabytes of random access memory, an 8X CD-ROM drive, a 33.6-kilobit modem, the usual complement of ports and a video subsystem far more capable than the monitor.

Two universal serial bus ports are also included, but not the software to make them work. The fast memory known as Level 2 cache, which is increasingly becoming standard, has been omitted, making the 120-megahertz Pentium perform like a much slower chip.

The catch-all documentation is as bad as the competition's, forcing you to puzzle out which information actually applies to your machine. Fortunately, the setup program lets you avoid installing memory-wasting software to do things like answer the phone unless you actually want to use it.

The 1.2-gigabyte hard drive includes plenty of useful software, including Microsoft Works and Money, Corel Wordperfect Suite 7 and lots of ways to hook up to the Internet, but leaves fewer than 400 megabytes of disk space free until you weed out the losers.

The speakers are designed to be attached to a Packard Bell monitor, a frustrating process for which you provide the labor, preferably not in the presence of children unaccustomed to strong language.

Inside the box, the placement of the sound card leaves only one of the two PCI slots available.

Packard Bell's quality control and service have consistently ranked at or near the bottom in customer surveys by publications like PC Magazine and PC World, but the company says it is trying to improve. Still, the keyboard that came with my machine had some problems: a dead Enter key that kept me from getting past the initial screen without trickery and inoperative D, E, G, J, L, O, T and U keys that turned my name into "Sphn Mans."

The toll-free hot line kept me waiting just four minutes for a knowledgeable technician who suggested using the Enter key on the number pad and offered to send a new keyboard within two or three days. In the real world, of course, I would have returned it to the store, muttering impr(e)ca(t)i(o)ns.

If you do buy one of these units, run it hard to catch possible problems before the no-questions-asked store warranty expires. And ask to buy it for about $800, exclusive of monitor. Adding a decent display may put you over the $1,000 mark, but your eyeballs will thank you.

The model 7245 from Monorail Inc., a start-up company, cuts corners differently.

Reduced in price last week to $899, the unit resembles a thick laptop machine with a standard mouse and keyboard instead of a lid. Built into the black metal case is a 10.4-inch dual-scan LCD screen much like those found on the cheapest laptop machines until better ones came along last year.

It displays only 256 colors at a low 640-by-480 resolution, and persistent images make it less than ideal for many multimedia uses.

A one-gigabyte hard drive, 16 megabytes of random access memory, a 4X CD-ROM, and a 33.6-kilobit modem are included. The omission of Level 2 cache makes the sluggish 75-megahertz A.M.D. Pentium clone seem even slower.

The Monorail's vaguely industrial charm immediately wore thin when I tried to skip forward through the long introductory commercial and it got hopelessly confused. The CD music program repeatedly locked up and required a system reboot. Not that it mattered; the speakers are as tinny as any laptop's. Aside from what comes with Windows 95 itself, virtually no useful software is supplied, hardly an inducement to the first-time buyers the company claims to be wooing.

The on-off switch and those that control volume and contrast are stiff and unresponsive. The phone jacks do not pass along the second line of a two-line phone. Standard serial and parallel ports are on the back, but expansion potential is otherwise limited to a single ISA slot.

Unfortunately, opening the box voids the warranty, which is good for a year on most parts but only 90 days on labor unless you buy a $100 extension; internal upgrades are available only by sending the machine back to the company. That can get expensive; adding 16 megabytes of RAM and 512 kilobytes of video memory costs $199. Factoring in mandatory shipping and handling charges ($20 if you pay the freight to the factory or $35 round-trip), you end up paying a huge premium over conventional upgrades.

The first time I tried the customer service line, a recording of Mo, the company's mascot, chirped: "Thank you for calling Monorail! We promise we'll never put you on hold! Well, except for this one time!" before putting me on hold for 10 minutes. It happened the second time, too.

Pub Date: 2/03/97

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