Bargain PC is suitable for average user; Price: Fierce competition in the microprocessor industry makes inexpensive machines possible.


It sounds too good to be true: a completely outfitted PC for under $500.

This has to be a scheme, a toy computer cobbled together with cheap, trailing edge electronics carelessly stuffed into a wafer-thin plastic case. But the much talked-about eMachine is far from a scheme. For $499 you get an impressive little system that can easily and efficiently handle the jobs required by the average PC user.

eMachines Inc. is a U.S. company funded by two Korean manufacturers, TriGem Computer and Korean Data Systems. Founded in September 1998, the company has become the sixth largest selling computer brand in the U.S., with units flying off shelves.

The eMachine is targeted at two distinct markets: first-time buyers who can't afford a sub-$1,000 system, and PC owners who want a second (or third) machine. At this price, purchasing a computer almost becomes an impulse buy: "Honey, I decided to buy a new PC today so we don't have to go all the way upstairs every time we want to check our e-mail."

My son, upon hearing the bargain basement price of the eMachine, decided to start saving his allowance for one.

Interestingly enough, eMachines asserts that sub-$500 machines are returned to stores far less often than more expensive computers. People apparently have lower expectations about what they're getting in such a machine and are more likely to stay within their budgets when purchasing.

eMachines sells several different models based on low-priced processors from Cyrix, Intel and AMD. The most impressive model in the line, with the most respectable processor, is the newly released eTower 300k. This $399 machine ($499 with a 14-inch monitor) employs the 300MHz K6-2 processor from AMD and includes 32MB of RAM, a 2.1-gigabyte hard drive, 56.6 modem, 24x CD-ROM drive, 4-megabyte ATI Rage graphics card and many other standard PC features.

Windows 98 and Microsoft Works are included. One very smart design feature: the Universal Serial Bus joystick/MIDI are on front of the tower. This eliminates rooting around that weed garden of cables in back every time you want to plug in a joystick.

Installation of the eTower was completely intuitive. Our test subject, a computer newbie, was able to get up and running inside of 20 minutes. The printed materials are clear and well thought out, the cables are color-coded, and you're taken to an online tutorial when you first boot up.

Performance of the eTower 300k is surprisingly sprightly, with programs loading quickly and windows snapping to attention with military efficiency. The price for such a machine is made possible in part by fierce processor competition and dramatically falling prices on all computer components, but it's still obvious that corners have been cut. While the K6-2 is an improvement over cheaper Cyrix and Intel processors, the 300k eMachine has a gigabyte less storage space than others in its class.

The keyboard feels cheap, too. It weighs next to nothing and has slightly sticky keys (though this is only a minor annoyance). The speakers are laughably sub-standard (in a market known for skimping on speaker quality). "They look like earrings!" our test subject chortled as she pulled them from their tiny box. If music and sound are important to your computing experience, you'll definitely want to upgrade to a better speaker system.

eMachines claims its computers are great for gaming, but the 4MB graphics card will not be enough for hard-core players. That said, I was impressed with the 14-inch eView Monitor's image quality and think the video components are more than adequate for the majority of users.

Several years ago, I heard an industry pundit proclaim that within five years, Internet service providers would be giving away computers the way pagers and cell phones are given away today. Having just dropped $3,500 on a PC, I thought he was nuts. Now, two years later, eMachines and other sub-$500 systems are moving into the price range where free hardware is becoming a distinct possibility. In fact, it's happening.

Free-PC.Com of Pasadena, Calif. is giving away low-end Compaq Presarios to those willing to be subjected to a constant ad stream on their desktops and have their Internet travels monitored. What would you rather do: Pay $500 for an eMachine and hang on to your dignity or get a computer for free and have your eyeballs hijacked every time you boot up? My money's on the eMachine.

And if you thought the competition between AMD, Intel, Cyrix and other processor manufacturers has been great for innovation and plummeting prices, wait until all of the computer makers start competing with eMachines to dominate the sub-$500 market. Next thing you know, AOL will be sending computers in the mail instead of those annoying CD-ROM drink coasters.

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