What to look for as computer speeds go up and prices come down


YOU CAN get a fairly good computer for about $1,000. So what do you get by forking over more money and moving up to the top shelf? Three things, and only three: speed, capacity and features.

The good news is that if you buy a cheap machine that has plenty of room for expansion, you can add capacity and features whenever you need them. Virtually everything in the box, from hard drive to video card, can be enhanced or upgraded. The processor is the tricky part: Although you may be able to upgrade it, that rarely turns out to be a bargain.

Besides, more processor speed does not get you as much more performance as you might suspect. Every machine has bottlenecks like relatively slow "buses" that the processor must use to communicate with things like the memory, hard drive and video card.

Those bottlenecks mean that in the real world, the difference between a computer with a 266-megahertz processor and a 300-megahertz model is not even the piddling 13 percent it might seem, and it is meaningless in a world where speed improvements of even 50 percent are rarely perceptible. Apart from graphics-intensive games and programs that do things like editing photos, most software leaves the processor idling along, waiting for the user's keystrokes or mouse clicks.

If you are not a hard-core game-player or graphic artist, a slower computer's biggest disadvantage will probably be its shelf life. As new programs inevitably demand more hardware power, slower machines will be quicker to be frozen out of running them. My 3-year-old 90-megahertz Pentium machine was top dog in its day, and it still runs my old programs just fine. But it is no longer able to handle the latest processor-intensive programs like dictation software and fast-moving games.

The price difference between the top of the line and the bottom is less than ever.

Today $2,000 will buy a 266-megahertz Pentium II machine with twice the speed, twice the memory and three times the capacity of a unit half the price. But to keep from looking like the interchangeable commodities they really are, expensive computers often come loaded down with features of dubious lTC value, like special Internet and speaker phone buttons.

The Model 4850, flagship of Compaq Computer Co.'s Presario line, actually has backlighted buttons, including one with the logo of a rocket ship. At about $2,500, it is as expensive as any standard home computer is likely to get, and it offers useful examples of what to look for and what to avoid.

It is a big black floor-standing tower with a 300-megahertz Pentium processor, a 6.5-gigabyte hard drive, a "56K" modem and 48 megabytes of random access memory, not to mention a DVD-ROM drive and video capture circuitry.

Its companion "17-inch" monitor, the 1725S, costs about $700. It has a built-in microphone, but its picture quality is only fair. Its volume knob controls software on the computer, but it does not always work. And the speakers you can hang on it are virtually identical to the ones that come with Compaq's $1,000 system.

Because they lack internal amplification, the weak amplifier of the system's sound circuitry must drive them. Even with the volume cranked up to the max, the speakers cannot play loudly, and they emit plenty of noise during quiet passages.

The DVD-ROM world seemed to have enormous potential just a year or so ago. Now it is a mess.

First-generation DVD-ROM players could play CD-ROM and audio disks but choked on the recordable CD-R format. Current models, dubbed DVD-II, can play those disks and are twice as fast, besides. Compaq includes one in this machine, but plenty of early model units remain in other computers now on store shelves. Those should be avoided.

But I would avoid DVD entirely for a while. In their infinite unwisdom, two competing industry factions have come up with incompatible standards for rewriteable disks, and DVD-II players cannot read either of them. So-called DVD-III models that should play one or another of the new formats (known as DVD-RAM and DVD-RW) are expected by summer at lower prices than today's models. Besides, DVD software is virtually nonexistent at the moment, except for reworked titles that are already available on CD-ROM.

And then there are movies.

For a variety of technical reasons, computers do not yet do a great job of playing DVD movies, and Compaq's DVD movie software is dreadful. It lacks features found on even the cheapest DVD players meant for TV, and in my tests skipped frames of movies, produced strange anomalies in on-screen menus and crashed again and again.

Besides, Compaq's engineers ignored the problem of audio interference from the electrical signals that course through a computer's innards. When you play a DVD movie on this machine, its potentially high-quality sound is laced with interference that sounds as though a creaky 16-millimeter projector is clattering along in the neighborhood.

For now, there are better places than DVD to invest your computing dollar. A backup device like a Zip drive is one, and so is software you really want. A better monitor, sound card and speakers are others, and they will come in handy if and when you spring for DVD.

One way to get the features you really want instead of the ones some company bundles together is to buy a machine from a build-to-order direct-sales company or a local computer builder with a good track record and a reputation for using high-quality components.

Remember, there is almost never a penalty for sitting on the sidelines. The computer bargain you pass up at Christmas is guaranteed to be an even better deal by Valentine's Day.

Pub Date: 12/15/97

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