Feature Article
Sub $1,000 PCs

October 1, 1997
By Scott Lewis

(Note: I have changed my mind on this topic since this article was originally written. The Sub $1,000 market is becoming a viable avenue for good, if not great, computers. If you have NO desire to upgrade a computer, this market segment may be a good choice. I will write about this topic again in a future column.)

You've read the ads... Fully Loaded PC, Only $999. This reminds me of one of Bill Cosby's routines from his stand up comedy days. Do you remember Bill telling the story of Noah. When God says, "Noah, I want you to build an arc. Put two of each animal in the world, male and female, into the arc." Noah replies, "RIGHT!"

I have recently been seeing more $1000 PCs in the Sunday ads. Best Buy and CompUSA seam to be the biggest sellers of these. What I have noticed in the last few weeks is the number of these machines that have Intel CPUs. Originally you would never get a PC at all for under a grand. Then Cyrix got Compaq to use its MediaGX processor and build a PC for $999 (without monitor, duh). This system was a joke. You have absolutely no upgrade path for anything. Since the video, audio and main processor are all included on one chip, with its own motherboard design, you have no chance of upgrading any of those sub-performing components. Also, the case was one of those slim desktop designs. This means you can't even put in a second hard drive when you fill the puny thing it comes with. In a nutshell, only grandmothers should get one of these machines. They would only handle basic computing operations, and maybe surfing the web. I wouldn't even recommend one to my mother-in-law.

Now, Compaq has increased its $1000 PC line. The most recent ad I saw in a Best Buy flier shows a Compaq Tower machine with an Intel Pentium 200 MHz processor, 16 MB RAM, 2.1 GB hard drive, 33.6 modem, 16X CD-ROM, 1 MB video memory, and speakers. No it doesn't include a monitor, duh, but I was surprised that it had as much as it did. I could almost recommend this machine to my mother-in-law. A 15" monitor could be had for $350 or so. So for around $1350 you could get an almost loaded computer. Right?!

Let's see. Can there really be a decent computer for 1000 bucks. In a word... NO. This machine would probably need a video card upgrade to play any decent games, and it does not have the MMX version of the Pentium. (You were planning on loading Quake on this machine for the times when you have to go over.) But for mother-in-law stuff like CD-ROM encyclopedias, puzzle games, grand-children software, and a little web surfing, it would make a half way decent machine, right? Wrong. Even the mother-in-law would probably benefit from a good memory upgrade. Windows 95 works under 16 MB of memory. I should know, I ran Win 95 on 8 MB of memory for 9 months. But disk swapping will be frequent, and that hard drive is not a screaming SCSI II drive. The tower design, and Intel CPU mean that the motherboard probably has a Socket 7 for CPU upgrades, and at least a couple of memory open slots. You would probably want to bump the memory to 32 MB.

So, with that decent monitor (a 14" is not decent), a memory upgrade, and sales tax, we are looking at a over $1500 bucks. Also, try explaining to your mother-in-law that she needs a memory upgrade before she even brings the machine home. Pray your mother-in-law leaves the video at the factory setting of 640x480 with 256 colors. But that might not cut it when she starts surfing the web. Web browsing sites with 256 color graphics usually looks best with colors set to 65K or more. Do-able on this machine, but you/she will probably notice the performance loss.

So if you are looking for a $1000 PC I wouldn't hold my breath. In my opinion, you will need to spend at least $1500 for a decent computer, without printer, or else your mother-in-law will be disappointed with the performance within a year, maybe within a month. If you are looking for a machine to recommend to your mother-in-law, then tell them to plan on $1800 for a good PC that will last a long time, comes with a printer, and includes sales tax. Then tell them not to read a single computer ad for at least a year.

What about mail order

If you are looking for a really good system then mail order is the only way to go. I have heard that Packard Bell sells machines that are ready for upgrading as soon as you get them home. This may not be exactly true, but it does ring of some truth. Most of the Packard Bell machines I see are missing something, or are too high priced for A Packard Bell. However, don't recommend mail order to a older family member, especially if it is a first PC. You actually want them to go to a Computer Superstore, or someplace with living, breathing people that know at least something about computers. Otherwise you will be troubleshooting every little thing for them.

Just imaging trying to get that great new piece of software working with that Packard Bell navigation software that they have become so familiar with. You wouldn't want to use it, so you try turning it off. Next thing you know your in-laws are screaming how they can't do anything without it. Trust me, I have dealt with this problem. Just wait till your mother-in-law asks you to install Windows 98 (99, 00) on that machine. Let her stick to the superstore folks for that. Otherwise you will really be the evil son-in-law.

Do you have any opinions on this subject? Let me know.