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    Fast Forward's Rob Pegoraro Discussion:
    PC Hardware Preview

    Friday, June 25, 1999 at noon.

    Rob Pegoraro

    What could your next computer be like? Faster? Cheaper? Better? Smaller? In a color besides beige?

    The answer is coming into focus now: The computers you'll be seeing on store shelves this fall and winter are already making appearances at trade shows and in press demonstrations.

    FFWD editor Rob Pegoraro just spent three days inspecting them and a heap of other hardware, from printers to digital cameras to scanners to handheld computers at the PC Expo trade show in New York.

    He was online from noon to 1 p.m. Friday to take questions on the present and future of home computing.

    Read the transcript below and this week's Fast Forward and past discussions with Pegoraro.



    Transcript Follows

    Bethesda, MD: It seems like there is a perpetual problem with buying a computer: you buy a fairly high-end machine, but six months later there are computers available that are twice as fast and cost half as much. Is there any solution to this? How do you know when to buy?

    Rob Pegoraro: Good morning/afternoon, everyone... it's a beautiful day in New York City but I'm cooped up indoors. I hope at least some of y'all are outdoors with laptop and a wireless modem.

    But anyway: On with the show.

    There's several different answers to your question, Bethesda. One is "never": There always will be a faster, cheaper alternative, and in that sense you'll never reach maximum cost-effectiveness. For instance, all the "low-end" PCs I've seen at PC Expo use 466 MHz Celeron processors, a much faster chip than the entry-level stuff of six months ago. I would expect things to run even faster in the fourth quarter of this year.

    Another answer--and what any marketing type worth his/her salt will tell you--is "now." If you need a computer, buy one. The use you get out of it in those six months (or six hours) that it's state of the art is worth the cost.

    A third answer is actually a different question: What do you need the speed for? If you're not into playing a lot of computer games, the extra processor cycles are probably going to waste. It just doesn't take that much horsepower to run the spell-checker in Word or to display the Yahoo! site in your browser.

    Finally, you can save a little bit of money by timing your purchase around manufacturers' product cycles. Every time Intel rolls out a faster batch of processors, the older models drop a little in price. There isn't a regular schedule to that, but if you follow the news from Intel, you can economize a bit by purchasing something slightly behind its time. If you're shopping for Macs, the same rule applies; Apple tends to roll out new models at the two annual MacWorld trade shows in January and August, and also at its developers' conference in May. Buy an older-generation computer after those events and might save a bit.


    College Park, MD: Did you see any evidence of a shift away from Windows-based PCs? Any major vendors pushing Linux or other OSes?

    Rob Pegoraro: Not a whole lot, College Park, but that doesn't necessarily mean much: PC Expo, as the name might suggest, is a very Windows-focused show. Almost all of the computers here were running either Windows 98 or Windows NT. But:

    * Palm Computing was attracting huge crowds at its booth. The hardware isn't anything particularly new, aside from the wireless Palm VII (it's only being sold in the NY area for now), but the amount of developer and consumer interest in the platform was pretty phenomenal; people were beaming their business cards left and right at booths. Interestingly enough, I only saw one attendee using one of the WinCE "palm-sized PCs."

    * Linux (for the uninitiated, a free version of the Unix operating system most of the Internet runs on) was running on a few machines here and there, but the "Linux pavilion"--a set of six booths in the basement of the convention center here--didn't seem to get too much traffic. I wouldn't draw any conclusions from that, though.

    * The people at Be, Inc. had a decent presence at the show. They're very much a dark-horse candidate; technically speaking, the Be OS (it runs on both Intel PCs and non-G3 Macs) is a stunner, with unbelievable speed and responsiveness, but it still has a tiny user base and really limited developer support.

    * Oddly enough, I saw a few people using iMacs in their booth demonstrations--most likely, because one of those candy-colored things is much more noticeable than the typical boring PC.



    Warrenton, VA: Compared to desktops, notebook pcs have stayed relatively expensive. Why is that and do you see that changing by year's end?

    Rob Pegoraro: It's all about those flat-panel screens. Unlike nearly every other computer ingredient, they haven't gotten cheaper--in fact, they've become more expensive in the last few months. Apparently, it's related to the Asian economy; demand is high, but the manufacturers there can't get investment capital fast enough to step up production. (This also applies to the flat-panel screens now being sold to go with desktop computers; I saw a few 18-inch LCDs that cost $3,000 and up.)

    People say that prices on these LCD screens should begin to drop in about six months or so, as more factories come online. Don't hold your breath much before then.


    Washington, DC: What's the difference between a Celeron and a Pentium processor? I've seen some really cheap Celeron computers advertised that seem to have really good specs. How can Intel expect people to buy Pentiums when the Celerons are just as fast but much cheaper?

    Rob Pegoraro: You've put your finger on Intel's marketing dilemma, D.C. The reality is that for a non-game-playing user, any processor sold today is overkill. It's like buying a Corvette and then only using it to tool up and down Wisconsin Avenue.

    The other problem is that Intel's competitors, AMD and Cyrix, are busy eating its lunch in the low-end and middle segments of the market. I.e., most of the home-computer business today. Intel knew it couldn't match those prices with the traditional Pentium design, so the company came out with a lower-cost variant, the Celeron. (See our article on processors from last November's home-computer buying guide for the ugly details: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/tech/novpullout/feature2.htm )

    These days, buying a Pentium III will get you maximum games performance, as well as improved performance in a few other processor-intensive applications like speech-recognition software. You also get geek bragging rights. That's about it.


    Silver Spring, MD: I keep seeing ads for the Pentium III that show users speeding through the web and I've heard that there are some sites you can't access without a Pentium III. I thought the point of the Web was that it's platform-independent. What's going on? Does the Pentium III really make that much of a difference?

    Rob Pegoraro: Remind me to smack the next Intel marketer I see, Silver Spring. Those ads are utter hype.

    We all know that Web browsing isn't a really heavy-duty application for a computer, especially given the low speeds of modems today. What Intel has done is basically bribe a few Web developers to create "Pentium III-enhanced" versions of their sites, which use various programming tricks and multimedia components that require a PIII to work. I have yet to hear of anybody doing this "enhancement" without active encouragement from Intel, for the very good reason that Web developers want audiences. Whenever those marketing funds from Intel dry up, I expect these special versions of these sites to be quietly folded.



    Springfield, Va.: I really want to get a wireless modem, but haven't done much homework yet. I'm a little scared of the price and the quality of service I might end up with. Any tips for hunting down a good deal?

    Rob Pegoraro: Didn't see many wireless modems at the show, Springfield, but in any case the only game in town for now (if I recall correctly) is Ricochet . Cost is fairly reasonable, maybe $25 a month, and the speeds are competitive with desktop modems. Most Ricochet users whom I've talked to seem to like the system alright.


    Arlington, VA: Rob,
    I am interested in buying a "digital workstation" so I can burn music CDs from a variety of digital sources and work on editing photos, graphics, etc. I always seem to get conflicting views on what platforms work the best and what I'll need. Any baselines I should look for, or advice?

    Rob Pegoraro: You're buying at the right time. CD-burner drives are *it* this year; just about every manufacturer plans to make them an option on their home computers, and many companies will be including them as standard equipment on higher-end models. This means you may not have to deal with adding an internal CD-RW (recordable-rewritable) drive or futz with plugging one into the back of the computer.

    Unless you want to be able to run a lot of other programs while you're burning your CDs, most current computers should work fine at this task. Pay attention to the write and rewrite speeds of a drive; most drives only write at 4x speed (2x on a rewriteable disc), but a few handle recording at 8x, which would let you record an album's worth of music in 6 minutes or so. Other than that, capacious and fast hard drives help; if recording video sources is important, you need a computer with a "1394" (aka FireWire and, on Sony models, i.Link) port is important. Apple, Sony and Compaq all offer computers with those. Good luck!


    Washington, DC: Re: Your response to the Celeron question:

    I know it doesn't take much to push text around. But you don't think Windows98 or WindowsNT will feel sluggish on a Celeron?

    Rob Pegoraro: Win 98 doesn't; it's not a huge evolution from Win 95. NT (Microsoft's professional-level operating system) might, especially if you don't have anything less than 64 megs of RAM installed.

    You might've heard of Windows 2000, the successor to 98 and NT, which is supposed to come out in the fourth quarter of this year. If you're buying computers for an office, pay attention to its system requirements, which are steeper than 98's. But at home, the consumer version of 2000 isn't due until 2001 at the earliest. In other words: Don't believe the hype.


    College Park, MD: Hey Rob, a lot of my friends have done what you mentioned, buying cheaper chips when the new ones come out. They have also started to overclock them. I heard that you can overclock a Celeron 300A chip to 450Mhz quite easily. Do you know what cpu cooler I should use for overclocking a celeron 366 ppga in a sloket adapter?

    Rob Pegoraro: I've done some overclocking myself, College Park (anybody who has any tips on getting a 266 MHz G3 upgrade running reliably at speeds above 299, please e-mail me :).

    I can't answer your cooling question without knowing what's venting the machine right now. Most Intel chips get pretty toasty, and you don't want to fry any hardware or fuse any circuits. The computer's manufacturer, I'm sure, won't be of any help, as overclocking often voids warranties; you're better off consulting other people with similar hardware in newsgroups or mailing lists; Maximum PC magazine has written a number of articles on the subject as well. (Don't have the URL handy, but it should be in all the search engines.)


    Annapolis, MD: I've heard that Compaq is talking about getting out of the PC business. Any insight on this? What was their offering like at the expo? Are we getting to the point where we will all be buying PCs either on the Web or over the phone?

    Rob Pegoraro: Not so, Annapolis. Compaq has been tripping over its own shoelaces a lot recently, but its core business is going to stay PCs. The company had an enormous range of computers on display, from $800 home systems to huge server computers that you'd use to run entire offices--not to mention a few WinCE handhelds to dock to all the other computers.

    More and more companies are selling their wares over the phone and online, but it's never going to displace in-store sales entirely. One, the costs of shipping a computer can easily outstrip any sales tax savings. Two, not everybody wants and needs a system customized to their own specs. Three, a computer is still an expensive purchase, and many people have to see and touch the machine themselves before they put down their credit cards.


    College Park, MD: You've probably gotten a million emails about this since last week's Fast Forward column, but just in case: to reset the default font in Word, -lucky me, I discovered this by accident a year ago- go to the Format menu, choose Font..., set your desired font, and hit the button in the lower left corner marked "Default." It gives you a dialogue box that just needs to be told "yes." Happy typing.

    Rob Pegoraro: Actually, I've only received two e-mails on the subject, so I suspect others have been confused on this subject as well.

    For the record, when I was trying to get Word out of its Times New Roman rut, first I looked in the Options dialog box. I expected to see a setting for that under the "General" or "Edit" tabs, but no luck. The Customize... dialog box also didn't help. Then I went to the talking paper-clip assistant, who suggested this weird routine of tinkering with the Normal template. That didn't take, which meant the program just had its third strike.

    That's my big gripe with Word: Way, way too much of the program's functions can only be discovered "by accident," because too few functions are located where you'd think they would be.


    Burtonsville, MD: I have about $1,200 to spend on a PC and printer. Can I get a complete system that includes a laser printer, plenty of speed for Internet browsing, and enough memory to avoid "upgrading" in the near future? My use needs are mainly word-processing via modem to my university account, Internet research, and no game-playing. Also, do I save by purchasing online rather than at a "superstore?"

    Rob Pegoraro: Should be doable, Burtonsville. You can get a decent entry-level PC, 15-inch monitor included, for under $1,000, and a printer can be had for under $200. A laser printer might cost a bit more--there aren't as many people competing at the low end of the market as there are in the ink-jet business. Feel free to economize by getting the slowest processor sold, but don't get less than 64 megs of RAM. I would definitely check out what's being sold online by people like Gateway and Dell, mainly because you can probably pick up a printer as an add-on for less than what you'd pay for it as a separate purchase at a store.

    On an unrelated note, my apologies for any occasional slugglishness y'all are seeing; this server seems a little overworked today, and my Internet connection here may not be the swiftest either.


    College Park, MD: Have you noticed that if you go to ask jeeves and type a question that contains the word "PC" it says it knows the answer to the question: "Why are PCs better than Macintosh computers?" It seems like they are saying that PCs are unquestionably better than Macs. Is that a fair assessment?

    Rob Pegoraro: Don't know about you, but I generally don't take advice on operating systems and other religious issues from strange computers. (Ask Jeeves, FYI, is a Web-search engine, at http://www.ask.com .)

    I'd Ask Jeeves on that question myself, but I just got an error message that the site's too busy. But I will tell you this: The idea that either platform is "unquestionably better" than the other one is a fiction. There are some uses that PCs work better at than Macs, and vice versa. Personal taste and preference is also enormously important. You should use the computer you like and not let peer pressure dictate the decision.

    On that potentially subversive note, I will sign off for now; please keep reading, and we'll chat again in two weeks. Take care...

    - Rob


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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