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Can’t Afford a Computer? What If It’s $999?

With all the talk about personal computers, you’d think they were ubiquitous. But they’re not. Only about 35% of American homes have a PC, and the percentage is even lower in most other countries.

One reason is price. Releasing a PC priced at less than $1,000 has long been a goal for major PC makers hoping to reach first-time buyers and families looking for a second PC.

Although it’s been possible to buy no-name PC clones for less than $1,000, the big PC companies have typically priced their entry-level machines at about $1,500. That is now starting to change. Last week, Compaq announced the Presario 2100, a well-crafted home system with a suggested price of $999, not including the monitor. That price will also buy a Packard Bell C115 multimedia PC with a monitor. Or for $899, you can buy a Monorail PC with a built-in flat-panel display.

Compaq designed the 2100 not only to carve a niche in this new sub-$1,000 category, but also to fit reasonably well into a home’s decor. With its sleek black design, it looks more like a stereo than a computer.

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Though inexpensive, the machine is far from stripped-down. It comes with 24 megabytes of memory, a 2-gigabyte hard drive, an eight-speed CD-ROM and a 33.6-kilobytes-per-second internal modem. Bundled software includes Quicken, Microsoft Works, Compton’s Encyclopedia 97, Amazon Trail and Pinball 95.

As PCs go, the machine is quite easy to hook up. Just plug in the keyboard, mouse and monitor and turn it on. Plug a phone line into the internal modem and you’re ready to go online. There is no need to fool around with awkward external speakers; stereo speakers and the volume control are mounted inside the case.

Rather than the usual Intel Pentium, the system uses a 133-megahertz MediaGX central processor unit (CPU) from Cyrix. Aside from being cheaper than an equivalent Intel CPU, the MediaGX includes the circuitry to control audio, video, hard disk drive and other components, thereby reducing the size of the machine and the price by eliminating the need for additional chips and plug-in boards.

The lack of an Intel CPU is no reason to avoid a machine. Cyrix CPUs can run the same Windows 95 and MS-DOS software as Intel chips. I tested the machine with Microsoft Office 97 and other business programs; more important, my 10-year-old son, William--a tough critic--says it does a good job running his games and multimedia programs. As for peripherals, scanners, tape backup systems and Zip drives can plug into the machine’s printer port. You can also add additional memory.

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The Packard Bell C115 is a more traditional PC, with a 120-megahertz Intel Pentium CPU and 16 megabytes of memory, a 1.2-gigabyte hard drive, an 8X CD-ROM drive and a 33.6-Kbps modem, which can also be used as a speakerphone. The basic hardware is adequate for running Windows 95 and most applications, though you’d get a bit better performance by adding another 8 to 16 megabytes of memory. Unlike the Compaq system, the Packard Bell has four standard expansion slots, one of which is used by the internal modem.

The Packard Bell’s bundled software includes WordPerfect, Corel Quattro Pro, Microsoft Works and several entertainment programs. The machine was easy to set up, although having to use a special tool (included) to attach the speakers to the monitor is a bit tedious.

The $999 price includes an inferior monitor, which you should avoid. Text displayed by the 0.39-mm dot pitch monitor shipped with this machine is blurry and hard on the eyes. Never buy a monitor with a dot pitch higher than 0.28. You can buy the machine without a monitor for $799, or negotiate with your dealer for a better monitor.

If you buy either machine, I hope you don’t need to call technical support. Compaq charges up to $35, unless the problem is related to defective Compaq hardware or software. Packard Bell tech support, which is free, is notorious for its busy signals.

At first glance, the $899 Monorail 7245 PC from Atlanta-based Monorail Inc. ([888] 880-7245) looks cool and innovative. Instead of an external monitor, the machine’s main unit sports a built-in 10.4-inch dual-scan passive-matrix liquid crystal display, similar to what you’ll find in low-end notebook computers. That same unit also houses all the components, as well as the floppy drive, CD-ROM and hard drive.

Shipping a PC with a flat-panel display is, in theory, a good idea. But like other passive-matrix displays, the Monorail’s is duller than a standard monitor. The mouse cursor leaves an annoying trail or shadow when it moves. I’m willing to put up with the compromise on a notebook PC, but not at home, especially if the kids are using it for games.

What’s more, the basic system is pretty low-end. Its 75-MHz processor is slow by today’s standards, and the built-in 4X CD-ROM drive--while adequate--is far from state-of-the-art. The 90-day warranty is far below industry standards. The machine comes with 16 megabytes of memory (expandable) and a 1-gigabyte hard drive. There is also a 33.6-Kbps modem, 16-bit stereo sound and ports for a printer, serial device, game controller and external monitor. For $1,299, you can buy a similar machine with a 133-MHz CPU and a 2.1-gigabyte hard drive.

Lawrence J. Magid can be reached by e-mail at magid@latimes.com. His World Wide Web page is at https://larrysworld.com

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