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School days bring digital angst Tips on buying that new machine

A couple of days ago, a friend called and asked what kind of computer to buy for her son, Billy.

"As I recall, Billy is what -- three years old now?" I asked.

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"Almost four," she said. "But he is heading off to preschool, and we wanted to get him some educational programs. There's all kinds of neat stuff out there, but we checked, and our old computer won't run any of it."

I suggested that she might be better off holding onto the old box for a year or two. I also ventured that Billy might be better off sitting in Mom's lap while she reads to him than staring at a screen while he gums up a mouse button with jelly-smeared fingers.

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"Of course we read to him!" she snapped. "But we don't want him to be computer illiterate."

Welcome to the end of summer, the season of digital angst. Across the nation, parents are consumed with a fear that if they don't run out and buy a new computer when school starts in September, their kids will turn out to be digital dolts.

There's no fighting this mass paranoia, so I'll give in

First, the whole notion of a family PC has changed. Years ago, adults used expensive, high-powered computers at work and bought a low-end machine for the kids. Unfortunately, the animated "edutainment" and game software that kids love today soaks up computing power. So now you need a lot more oomph for the kids' stuff than for the word processors and spreadsheets that grown-ups play with.

With that in mind, you'll find systems designed for the home and small office that run between $1,000 and $3,000.

At the low end are computers with slower Pentium processors, 16 megabytes of memory and disk drives that store one or two gigabytes of data.

They'll handle most multimedia titles, but just barely, and they're not as likely to be upgradable or expandable. That means they'll be left behind sooner. The price makes them attractive, but they're no bargains.

At the high end, you'll see Pentium II barn burners that can control three space shuttle missions and recalculate the national budget while your teen-agers play Network Doom on the World Wide Web.

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If you buy one of these, you and your kids will be ecstatic. You'll also be a lot poorer.

In the middle, however, you'll find what I call the "sweet spot" of the market -- powerful machines that will please the kids and keep your home office humming without breaking the bank. Here's what to look for in the $2,000 range.

Processor: A Pentium with MMX technology (or its equivalent) that runs at a speed of at least 200 MHz. The MMX designation means the chip has new circuitry designed to speed up graphics and multimedia programs.

Memory: Get 32 megabytes of RAM. Some systems are still shipped with 16 megabytes, but Windows 95 runs much faster and more reliably with increased memory.

Hard disk: Look for a capacity of 2 to 3 gigabytes of data. More is better. Multimedia titles, digital photography and other things your kids get into will eat up hard disk space.

Video: Find a graphics adapter with at least 2 megabytes of video memory. You'll need this for high-resolution color images.

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If possible, get one that's enhanced for 3-D graphics. Over the next few years, more programs will take advantage of this capability.

Multimedia: Most machines come well-equipped in this regard. Look for a 12-speed CD-ROM and a sound card with wave-table synthesis.

Wave-table sound cards generate more realistic instrumental sounds. If you want to try Internet telephony, make sure the sound board is a "full duplex" model.

Modem: For the fastest Web browsing, look for a modem that can transfer data at 33.6 or 56 kilobytes per second (kbps).

You won't be able to get 56 kbps connections until international standards are sorted out sometime next year, but it's good to have that capability in reserve.

Monitor: A 15-inch monitor is the minimum -- pass up low-priced systems with cheap 14-inch monitors. The monitor should have a "dot pitch" of .28 millimeters or less. This is the distance between phosphor dots, and the smaller it is, the sharper the image.

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Adults of a certain age might want to spend a couple of hundred dollars more for a 17-inch monitor. It's much easier on the eyes -- trust me.

Software: Most computer makers include a bundle of more-or-less useful software for you and the kids. If you're not already wedded to a word processor or spreadsheet, look for an integrated suite of productivity programs such as Microsoft Works, Microsoft Office Small Business Edition or Lotus SmartSuite.

You'll also want an encyclopedia and possibly a financial package such as Intuit's Quicken or Microsoft Money.

Printer: For all-purpose use, check out the new color ink-jets from Hewlett-Packard, Cannon, Epson and Lexmark. They start as low as $200.

More money buys you greater speed, durability and more flexible paper handling. But most of the units I've tested deliver near-laser quality text and remarkable reproduction of color photos.

Pub Date: 8/24/97


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