Lower Prices for a Decent Computer

larry.magid@latimes.com

This is a good time to shop for a PC. Low-cost machines, which start below $800, are powerful enough to run virtually all of today's mainstream applications. Mid-range machines--in the $1,000 to $1,200 price range--are ready for tomorrow. And, if you absolutely must own the latest and greatest, you can get an incredible system for less than I paid for my original IBM PC back in 1982.

As far as hardware is concerned, I'm not aware of any major pending breakthroughs that will cause you to regret buying now. Sure, there will be faster and maybe even cheaper PCs down the road, but nothing dramatic any time soon. The one "big thing" on the horizon is Windows XP, which will be on machines sold after Oct. 25. But most machines today will be upgradeable to Windows XP. At some point this summer, major PC makers are expected to start including coupons for a free upgrade to XP, but they're not saying when they'll begin that program.

If you do decide to buy, definitely do some price checking at the various PC makers' Web sites. Gateway is advertising that it will beat competitors' prices. But if you go to Dell's Web site, you'll find machines that include free CD or DVD upgrades and other goodies that could sweeten the deal.

Still, Gateway has done a pretty good job at revising its pricing structure to compete with Dell and others. Gateway also has straightened out its act when it comes to tech support. Frankly, just about anyone can build a good PC, but offering good support over a period of years is a lot harder.

Gateway lent me a high-end 1700 XL to evaluate. It's a very cool--and very expensive--machine with Intel's fastest--1.7-gigahertz--Pentium 4 chip. The machine I'm evaluating sold for $3,300 when it arrived in April. It's since been reduced to $3,014, but that's still a lot of money.

To be fair, it's a very well-equipped system with a 15-inch flat-panel display ($490 more than the standard 19-inch monitor), 256 megabytes of memory ($200 more than the standard 128 MB) and an 80-GB hard drive ($50 more than the bundled 60-GB drive). The machine came with Windows Me, but I upgraded it to Windows 2000. The machine will be upgradeable to Windows XP when it comes out this October.

There's nothing not to like in this machine. But if I were buying one for myself, I wouldn't go for such a high-end system. Whether the machine is from Gateway, Dell, Compaq or any other vendor, I'd be just as happy with a slightly slower Pentium 4 or one with an AMD Athlon chip. These systems, which work every bit as well as the state-of-the art machine Gateway lent me, are a much better value.

Gateway's Pentium 4 systems start at $1,199 for a machine with a 1.3-GHz Pentium 4. That's still overkill for most applications.

The rest of the system isn't too shabby either. It comes with a 20-GB hard drive, but I'd probably spend an extra $50 to upgrade to 40 GB. If you're buying a machine in the next few months, you should definitely get one that's able to run Windows XP, which means you ought to consider 256 MB of memory.

Unfortunately, the Pentium 4 systems use Rambus memory, or RDRAM, which is twice as expensive as the SDRAM used on most Pentium III and AMD systems. As a result, that extra 128 MB will set you back $200 if you buy it from Gateway. You can save a bit by getting aftermarket memory from Kingston or another vendor.

The best deals are on machines with AMD's Athlon processor. The Athlon is as good as or better than equivalent Intel processors, and systems that use them typically cost less than those with Intel inside.

At $1,099, Gateway's 1.1-GB Athlon system is a better value than the least expensive Pentium 4-based machine. But the best value is the Gateway Select 1300CS. In addition to its faster 1.3-GHz Athlon, it has a 40-GB hard drive (instead of 20 GB) and a CD-RW drive that lets you create your own CDs and make backup copies of music and software CDs.

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Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour.

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