It's time for IBM competitors to play catch-up


THE MAGIC number is $999. Until a couple of weeks ago, that could buy you a computer with lots of frustrating compromises or one without a major brand name. But the new Aptiva E16 from the International Business Machines Corp. is a $999 unit that does almost everything right and has room to grow. The E16 will be available only in Officemax stores until early next year, but IBM's competitors clearly have some catching up to do.

Instead of the Intel Pentium 166 MMX microprocessor found in the two other sub-grand computers I tested, this Aptiva uses a cheaper but better-performing IBM-label version of the Windows-compatible K6 MMX chip designed by Advanced Micro Devices Inc. The E16 also comes with 256 kilobytes of Level II cache, a temporary storage bin that helps move data between random access memory and the processor.

The Hewlett-Packard Co.'s $999 Pavilion 3100 has a skimpy cache of just 32 kilobytes; the $999 Presario 4500 from the Compaq Computer Co. has none at all but lets you add 512 kilobytes of it for about $80. In my tests, the Aptiva outperformed the Pavilion and even an upgraded Presario.

All three computers skimp on random access memory, offering 16 megabytes in an era of bloated software that hollers for twice DTC as much. Fortunately, all three can be expanded. Though you can survive on 16 megabytes, I strongly recommend upgrading to 32 but paying no more than $100.

The Aptiva offers great expandability, thanks to all the expansion slots and bays in its big floor-standing tower case, which bucks a stupid trend by actually including a flat spot on top where you can set a peripheral device.

The Presario is a stubby minitower with much less expansion potential and a fashionable but annoying rounded top. The Pavilion's small flat desktop case has just one slot free, restrictions on what you can put there and nowhere to add an internal device like a Zip drive.

The Aptiva comes with a so-called "56K" modem of the K56flex variety. Compaq charges about $90 to upgrade its 33.6-kilobit modem to that level, and the Hewlett-Packard modem is not upgradable. If your Internet service provider uses the competing X2 standard or does not offer "56K" service at all, the issue may be irrelevant, but IBM's offering is the most generous.

The Aptiva's CD-ROM player seems more precise because it was able to read a mildly defective disk that made the other units gag. The Presario's CD-ROM drive hides behind a tacky plastic insert whose only function is to make inserting and ejecting disks a pain. Fortunately, you can remove it.

If you are new to computers, find a friend to show you the ropes. These machines are no easier to use than their predecessors, and their software manuals are wretched. When it comes to hardware, only IBM's manual is truly useful.

With these computers, $999 does not buy you a monitor. I recommend a "17 inch" model if you can afford it, but you can easily get by with a smaller one.

Even with their limitations, these computers are far more powerful than the one that cost me $3,000 just three years ago. But this part of the market is just heating up, and careful shoppers may find better deals in units both slightly cheaper and slightly more expensive.

There is no need to rush. As good as these cheap computers may seem today, better and cheaper ones are guaranteed to follow.

Pub Date: 12/08/97

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