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-- by Jonathan Blackwood
A thousand bucks. It's a nice round number that stands out in a blizzard of PC specs-like MHz, MIPS and MFLOPS. But this particular set of digits' eye-catching appeal can be attributed to its location: on the price tags of full-featured PCs.
That's right. The $1,000 PC has arrived, and you may be surprised at what a grand will buy these days.
The price of components and complete systems is falling so rapidly that you can put together a desirable system for much less money this year than in years past. Two years ago a $200 hard drive had a capacity of 540MB. Today $200 will buy you 1.7GB. In 1995, 32MB of 72-pin, page-mode RAM would cost you some $1,300. Today, the same amount of memory costs less than $200. Average PC prices have tumbled to the point where 200MHz Intel Pentium systems routinely sell for less than $2,000.
Now comes a raft of new computers at the startling $1,000 benchmark. Established players such as Compaq, AST and NEC/Packard Bell have PCs in that range. New players such as Monorail and ReCompute have entered the market with attractive new offerings, and recyclers such as Way 2 Cheap Computers from Austin, Texas, provide more appealing computers than ever, at lower cost.
What do you get for $1,000? For one thing, you get a non-Intel processor, unless you go the recycled-computer route. And a monitor may not be included at this price; the more palatable machines run a bit more than $1,000 with monitor.
These new $1,000 products may find their way into the home or office. You probably won't see many Fortune 500 companies buying machines with AMD or Cyrix processors-yet. But the small office/home office (SOHO) and consumer markets have warmed to the notion of top-shelf performance at generic prices. Not every desk in a small business needs a system that will run AutoCAD or calculate derivatives. And these businesses aren't likely to embrace the new network computers, because they don't have the MIS staff to support them.
Many potential consumer buyers seek only an inexpensive computing appliance. They want a machine capable of surfing the Web, or running a word processor or spreadsheet. And they often want a second machine to augment the super-powerful multimedia system that serves as the primary PC.
Putting the First $1,000 PCs to the Test
We looked closely at five examples of the thousand-dollar genre. The Compaq Presario 2100 and the Monorail Model 7333 are clearly targeted at home users. Like your television set, both are designed without user-serviceable parts. The AST Adventure 200, Way 2 Cheap's recycled W2C Business Pro Plus and the recycled Compaq ProLinea 590 from ReCompute are more traditional offerings with available extra drive bays and expansion slots. The ProLinea, part of ReCompute's Multimedia Pro line, was updated further with sound card, speakers and modem.
The Compaq Presario 2100 and the Way 2 Cheap model hit the $1,000 price point only without a monitor. You can order the Way 2 Cheap system with slightly less RAM or a smaller hard disk to come in under the mark with monitor. You can buy the Presario without a monitor, assuming you have one already lying around.
Like the old Ford Model T, the Presario 2100 comes in any color you want, provided it's black. It's a closed system that enables you to upgrade only its RAM. The Monorail Model 7333 is also a sealed unit. Unlike the Presario, it includes a display-a built-in 10.4-inch dual-scan passive-matrix LCD screen of the type found in notebook computers. It's also a black, handsome unit that would fit in nicely with almost any home decor.
The Monorail is literally intended as a computing appliance, with no user-serviceable parts. You can upgrade the RAM, hard disk or processor by shipping the unit back to Monorail, approximately a four-day process via Federal Express. (You can also upgrade it yourself, but it's not easy and probably not worth the bother.) The Monorail has a single half-length ISA slot, so you can add a network card if you want to put it on the receptionist's desk in a small office. Everything else is built in, from the integrated stereo speakers to the 4X CD-ROM drive to the 33.6Kb-per-second modem. Each of these systems shipped with a 33.6Kbps modem, except for the ReCompute, which came equipped with a 28.8Kbps model. None of the systems in this roundup come with Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports, though you can add one through an expansion card to any one of the three standard desktop boxes.
But Are They Compatible?
How well will these inexpensive machines run your software? Of this grouping, only ReCompute's provides an Intel processor-if a somewhat dated 90MHz Pentium. In this case, the price you pay for a genuine Intel Pentium is somewhat lackluster performance.
The AMD and Cyrix processors handled everything we threw at them with aplomb-including our macro tests using Word, Excel, Photoshop and DeBabelizer Pro, and various games. If compatibility was an issue in the past, it seems less so these days.
How do these computers compare with other, more mainstream computers we've tested recently? They seem most similar in features and price to the Kingdom 6x86 P166+ Super Value system on our WinList. That system uses a Cyrix 6x86 processor. The Kingdom PC retails for $1,297 with a 15-inch Princeton Graphics monitor, but comes with a complete software package, including Microsoft Office 95.
AST Adventure 200
AST's entry in this group is available for $999, only at Wal-Mart. The system is built around a 100MHZ AMD-K5 processor. Though its slimline desktop configuration makes upgrades easy, its meager 8MB of RAM makes for slow going in Windows. Its average time of 67.67 seconds to execute our 32-bit Word macro was excruciatingly slow. An extra helping of RAM would alleviate the problem, so count on adding RAM soon after purchase if this machine appeals to you.
Moreover, that slimline case is less useful than it seems at first. With its riser card for expansion slots, finding a replacement motherboard would prove difficult. The 14-inch monitor was the worst of the CRTs in this group, with poor overall image quality.
Compaq Presario 2100
This system goes back to the future, offering a closed case reminiscent of the first Macintosh. Many people will find the 2100 an imperfect fit. Nevertheless, it will satisfy your needs of if you don't mind being behind the technology curve. Compaq loads Microsoft Works 4 instead of the Office 95 suite.
The real problem with the 2100 is that the only hardware component you can easily add is RAM-the 2100 has no expansion slots. Compaq tried to lessen this liability by loading the 2100 with better-than-average components, such as high-grade speakers, a 33.6Kbps modem and 24MB of RAM. Parallel, serial, game, speaker and microphone ports let you plug in external components.
The Presario's other interesting design approach is its use of Cyrix's MediaGX 133MHz processor. Besides functioning as the CPU, this chip replaces the memory controller, graphics accelerator and sound card. The Presario turned in impressive video scores and pumped out rich stereo sound-but it was also one of the slower macro performers in this group, particularly on our 32-bit Excel benchmark.
Monorail Model 7333
Monorail serves up the most portable machine in the group. If you're looking for a PC you can move from room to room or throw in the backseat to take on a trip, it's a good candidate. The system uses a 133MHz AMD-K5 processor and is sold exclusively through retail.
The entire system represents an intelligent series of compromises. It's not the fastest, the least expensive, the most expandable or the most capacious system on the market. Yet it'll pretty much do whatever you need it to and ask for little in return.
Monorail is betting there's a market for a computing appliance out there, created by people who don't want to open up their systems-ever. The company has a special contract with Federal Express. If you want to upgrade your computer's RAM, hard disk or processor, FedEx will come to your door, whisk the machine away and return it within four days. No muss, no fuss. Though the system we examined had a slow CD-ROM drive, middling performance for a 133MHz PC and a small screen, it was easy to live with and a good enough system for word processing or Web surfing.
ReCompute Compaq ProLinea 590
ReCompute attacks the low-cost market by recycling computer hand-me-downs from corporate America. Specializing in name brands like Compaq and Dell, the company thoroughly reconditions the systems and updates them with modern sound cards and modems. ReCompute also offers a 30-day money-back guarantee and a one-year extendable warranty. Standard upgrades for RAM, monitors, hard drives and processors are available at the time you place your order.
For your money you get the assurance of rock-solid compatibility in a corporate-style computer that has a lot of life left in it. The downside is you're looking at two-year-old technology, on average. In many cases our expectations have outgrown the basic equipment found in a system two years out of the docks. For example, the 540MB hard drive on the ProLinea we examined here seems antiquated by today's standards, as does the 90MHz processor. Otherwise, its performance was in the middle of the pack in this group, and its monitor was the best of the lot. Its mini-AT-style case provides plenty of room for expansion, as well.
Way 2 Cheap W2C Business Pro Plus
This recycler put together an appealing package that was the best macro performer in the group. The key to its performance lies in the company's decision to provide 32MB of RAM, which boosts its 100MHz AMD-K5 processor past its faster kin. The mini-tower case provides plenty of expansion room, too. This system is sure to please small businesses, consumers and hobbyists alike. Its Socket 7 motherboard allows for a wide choice of processor upgrades, and four PCI and three ISA slots mean you're likely to be able to upgrade to whatever peripherals your heart desires-short of Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP), which will require chipset and hardware support not currently available.
The Business Pro Plus' one noticeable weakness is software. It includes only Windows 95 and an assortment of educational and entertainment CD-ROMs.
Not Perfect, but Often Good Enough
More sub-$1,000 PCs are coming, but not in time for us to review for this story. Several companies, including Hewlett-Packard and Acer, have recently entered the sub-$1,000 market, and Compaq and Monorail will soon offer 150MHz systems at around $1,000.
The systems we looked at will leave the power user cold. But even a power user may choose one of them for a second computer at home.
You won't find an ideal choice for all situations here. If portability is a consideration, the Monorail is for you. If compatibility is of paramount importance, ReCompute's Intel-only solutions make good sense. If performance is your primary concern, choose the Way 2 Cheap system, with its plentiful RAM and 12X CD-ROM. The Compaq Presario stands out primarily on the strength of its sound system. Consider the AST only if you're willing to spring for extra RAM right out of the gate. In any case, it's clearly time to consider a PC with a price tag that barely reaches four figures.
Windows Magazine, July 1997, page 220.