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Fast Forward's Rob Pegoraro
Buying a Home Computer

Friday, November 19, 1999, at 1 p.m.

Rob Pegoraro
"Have you bought a new home computer yet?" The industry asks this question about this time every year. Friday's Fast Forward issue looked at this year's selection, reviewing models such as Apple, Compaq, Dell, eMachines, Gateway and Hewlett-Packard; Friday afternoon, Rob and his readers handled questions, offered comments and shared experiences -- what to look for, what to avoid, where to shop.

Rob Pegoraro: Hello all--welcome back to the Fast Forward Friday talk-fest. We've got a bunch of questions here, so let's get cracking...

Arlington, Virginia: Rob: My wife and I are in our sixtys and getting ready to get our first home computer. We project to use the computer for connection to the Internet, and a few non-internet items. However, in the future, I can see us paying bills, shopping etc. My question is, how much computer and accessories do we need? Also, how much money can we expect to pay. Would you recommend that we buy before or after Christmas. Thanks, F. John

Rob Pegoraro: Arlington, the good news is you're not going to need that much computer. Every single machine we looked at in today's paper will fit the bill; you could certainly do a lot worse than the $800 Compaq bundle we looked at. One caveat: Since this is a first home computer, I'd put some serious emphasis on both simplicity and tech support. The Gateway Astro would be a good choice; so would the base-model iMac ($999) or one of the older versions of the iMac, which you should be able to find on sale for $900 or $800.

I don't think you're likely to save much money by buying after Christmas; there's no major new processor releases coming out in the next month or two that are likely to push prices much lower than they already are.

Good luck!

San Francisco, CA: I am buying my second computer. My first in overseas. I also thought that it might be wise to pick a company that can give me help and assistance when my computer acts up as they do from time to time.

I thought that either Dell or Gateway might suffice until a friend said that I'd be disappointed because the help departments at these two companys have people who don't know much and mostly quote you from something that they have to pick up and read and....further than this I would be on my own. Is it true that the help departments aren't too knowledgeable at these two companys?

Rob Pegoraro: Our experience with tech support at Gateway and Dell has actually been pretty good overall--both have significantly less restrictive policies than many of their competitors. Our reviewers this time around certainly didn't have any complaints.

Herndon, VA: Today's Post rates the Compaq Presario 5440 highest. What would adding a CD-RW drive and CD burner cost, if it is possible to add. Athough not stated does it include Windows 98?

Rob Pegoraro: 1) Yes, you could plug a CD-burner drive into one of the USB ports.

2) Yup, it comes with Win 98, as do all the computers we reviewed.

Washington DC: I wish to purchase a home computer to use Word and the internet. What do you recommend? Is it better to get the internet through the cable or stick with AOL?

Rob Pegoraro: Well, D.C., the answer depends, first of all, on your computing background, and what your stance is on Mac vs. Windows. For what you're talking about doing, either a basic iMac or any entry-level PC will do fine; the difference in price is only going to be $100 or so.

But as far as Internet goes: If you live in D.C., forget about cable-modem access unless you're in one of the buildings Starpower has wired with its own cable service. AOL's an option, but--gratuitous self-promotion coming--you should also check out our guide to Internet providers.

Clayton, Georgia: eMachines' "eMonster 500" seems to be something that is "too good to be true" in the fact that everything looks top-grade, but the price makes you wonder. Is this computer a "top-of-the-line" system which can be compared by quality, reliability, and speed to its competition's equivalents -Dell, Compaq, etc-?

Rob Pegoraro: We didn't much like the eMachines model we reviewed in today's issue; the first review unit they shipped out had a defective power supply, and the company has one of the worst tech-support policies around (you only get 15 days of getting-started support, then it's pay-per-incident). My own advice: Shop elsewhere.

Any eMachines owners care to chime in on this?

Arlington, Virginia: I'm a die-hard Mac person, and would love to buy myself a Mac, but right now can't afford it. The Compaq Presario you mentioned in today's article sounds good, but I'm trying to buy a computer that will really hold me for a couple of years, during which time I may be doing some graphic design work from home. Should I suck it up and drop the cash on the Mac setup, or take the cheap road and buy a PC?

Rob Pegoraro: Don't forget that you'll have to spend a fair amount of money and time converting your applications and data to the PC. Then there's the question of your own enjoyment: Speaking as a Mac user at home and a Windows user at work, I tend to find using Windows something of a grating experience.

Have you looked at the prices on discontinued iMacs and G3 desktops? You can easily save a few hundred bucks that way.

Good luck...

Columbia, MD: How important is it to have a CD write installed? HOw can you duplicate musice CD's
with it?

Rob Pegoraro: Hi, Columbia; the three big uses of a CD-RW drive are 1) burning your own CDs, 2) archiving data, 3) regular backups onto rewritable discs. (Actually, there's a fourth big use--software piracy!)

The backup angle is probably the most useful on a day-to-day basis, or would be if most CD-rewriting software wasn't such a pain to use. In the meantime, the music-CD capabilities are the big draw--put the source disc in the drive, use a program like EasyCDCreator or Toast to copy the songs over, arrange them as you see fit, then put the blank disc in and wait from 12 to 24 minutes for the computer to burn the disc.

San Francisco, CA: For my 2nd computer I still need the following features: Microsoft Word and Excel. I use Eudora Pro for my e-mail. What is the best buy today for me.

Rob Pegoraro: Promise me you'll change channels when the next Intel commercial airs on TV, OK? Any computer sold today will whip through those tasks without a hitch, whether it's a PC or a Mac. Buy whatever platform you're already using, and whatever you do, don't spend over $1,000.

Danbury, CT: Hello
I have seen a infomercial about a company called NORTHGATE on the Shop at Home Network.
Can you tell me anything about this company?? i am looking a for a 2nd computer.
Thank You

Rob Pegoraro: Can't say I've heard anything about these folks. Anybody here who's bought their stuff?

Bryan, TX: Why not a MAC that does everything including Windows when needed? That would be the perfect machine!

Rob Pegoraro: Easily done: Get a reasonably fast Mac and install Connectix's Virtual PC. That should run most business apps at a tolerable pace; for playing games, you're better off buying a PlayStation.

Houston, TX: We have a 5 year old Compaq 486 which we want to replace. Should we wait until after the first of the year to do so? We are undecided just what to buy, another Compaq or perhaps a Dell. We want a good medium priced machine for our home use. maryl-hal-pc.org

Rob Pegoraro: No need to wait until after 1/1, although it never hurts to hold off until your credit card is in the next billing period. Either Compaq or Dell would do fine (we are supporting Texas-based manufacturers, yes? :); Compaq's computers have more consumer-level features and are a little more stylish, while Dell's forte is what I'd call "boring competency." No dud parts, usually quality service, but nothing flashy either. They're the Toyota Camry of computers.

Phoenix, MD: I have a 1994 vintage PC that is slow by today's standards, but everything else- printer, monitor, keyboard- works fine. Is it possible to just buy a new tower unit by itself? Everything you see for sale seems to come as a package these days.

Rob Pegoraro: Probably, but not definitely, Phoenix. Most systems are advertised as packages, but you could go to a custom-build shop and order just the basic box.

The monitor might act weird with a new system if it's not Plug-and-Play compliant, and you should make sure the printer has Win 95/98 drivers available. The keyboard and mouse you can definitely reuse, but OTOH it might be easier to sell them with the old machine.

Pittsburgh, PA: I was looking at deals where if you sign up for Internet service the PC is greatly reduced in price or in some cases for free. Is this too good to be true or am I missing something?

Rob Pegoraro: See my column today for details on that--we crunched the numbers on the rebates that Prodigy and CompuServe offer. Bottom line: It's not that good of a deal, and you can probably save as much money by doing a little extra shopping around for your Internet access.

Carlsbad, CA: Which is #1, hands down, the best value for the least money? Can it be modified to be the all around best, such as DVD, memory, CD Burner, etc.?

Rob Pegoraro: Of the machines we reviewed, that Compaq is an exceptional deal. But the monitor is overpriced for a 15-incher; you might as well eyeball one of the eMachines monitors and, if it suits your retinas, buy that instead. It's reasonably expandable, between the internal slots and the USB ports; I wouldn't buy it if I were looking to play Quake III full-time, but for general-purpose computing it'll do alright.

Columbia, MO: OK, so I bought an iMac a few weeks ago. And this is after putting up with all sorts of weirdness from Apple over the years -I've owned one Mac or another since 1988-. I'm even waiting through a backorder to get it. Even in 1999, after everything that's changed, I don't want to work with another operating system. I can't wait for it to come -although I have to.- Is this nuts, or am I OK?

Rob Pegoraro: At the risk of sounding like Stewart Smalley, "doggone it, you've got the right to choose what you want to compute on." There are very valid reasons to buy a Mac instead of a PC--ease of use, style, elegance, etc.--this isn't a popularity contest, and most sites on the Web don't care what computer you're using. No, you're not nuts, Columbia.

Crown Point, IN: How do I tell what is the correct group of components to get maximum performance and life at the best price>? Should I wait for the coppermine or should I prchase the AMd that is available now. Thanks

Rob Pegoraro: What're you gonna use the computer for, Indiana? I mean, when you get to that end of the performance scale, it's basically a question of how many times you want to bounce the rubble. My advice: Buy the slowest Athlon sold now. Put the savings into the stock market, or buy yourself a nice dinner out somewhere. Whether you buy the Athlon or a Coppermine Pentium III, it's *still* going to be obsolete in six months.

Laurel, MD: Is it worth it in the long run to go with the less expensive Compaq over a Dell an HP? Which one out of the three rates the best for value, quality and reliability, etc.

Rob Pegoraro: OK, Laurel, that's actually multiple questions, but here goes:

1) Compaq offers the best value right now; H-P is close behind, but Dell is, IMHO, a bit overpriced at those specs.

2) Dell has an excellent reputation for quality; H-P hasn't been building home computers for as long, but has done well in all of our reviews. Compaq also does good work, but I wouldn't rate them quite as high as Dell. Ditto for reliability.

There's another thing you left out, though: tech support. H-P and Compaq make you call long-distance, which I consider a pretty chintzy move on their part. Dell offers toll-free support.

Arlington, VA: Hi Rob,

I've got a PowerMac 8100-80AV at home, and was wondering about the possibility of upgrading the processor speed. It is my understanding that I can't upgrade to the G3, but is it possible to upgrade to a 603 or 604 processor?

Rob Pegoraro: Wrong! You can, in fact, upgrade that 8100 to a G3 processor. See http://www.xlr8yourmac.com to evaluate your options. But bear in mind that you'll still have a slow hard drive and CD-ROM drive, so you might be better off buying a new computer anyway.

Pittsburg, CA: I am ready to buy my first laptop. I am small and would like a lightweight unit that has plenty of room for sophisticated graphic programs and loaded Powerpoint presentations. I need to interface with other computers, so compatibility options are important as well. What brands, models, and price ranges should I be looking at? Also, I am primarily a PC user. Should I consider switching to Mac?

Rob Pegoraro: Have you looked at any of the "superslim" laptops, like the Sony Vaio? They've definitely got the specs to do the job, and they all weigh under four pounds--some more like three. Unfortunately, they're all in the $2,000-and-change price bracket. I like Sony's products here, not least because this is a company that actually has some sense of aesthetics and design, unlike most of the rest of the industry. But see what IBM, Toshiba, Sharp, et al. have to offer.

If you're used to working with PCs and will need to network with PCs, you should probably stick with Windows.

Arlington, VA: Have you heard of a company called PeoplePC? They advertise a top line computer for three years and internet access for $25-month at the end of the three years, you own the computer. It sounds almost too good to be true.

Rob Pegoraro: Yup. The offer sounds quite good, and the business model doesn't seem to be "logic-free," to use my colleague's Leslie Walker's terminology. You're not going to get a particularly fancy machine--just a basic Compaq or Toshiba desktop.

The big question here, though, isn't the hardware but the company itself. What will customer service will be like in the post-holiday rush? Can this company make it? Good question, although they seem to be off to a good start.

Bethesda, MD: I have a Compaq with Windows 95 at home. It is used for e-mail, kids games, and quicken. I logged onto the microsoft home page to see about making my computer y2k compliant. It was very confusing. How do you suggest a novice go about this task?

Rob Pegoraro: Your machine is probably OK, although you might need to reset the date "by hand" after New Year's. See http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/tech/septpullout/clue.htm - our article on Y2K preparedness, which ran last year. (That, in retrospect, was probably jumping the gun, and we're likely to revisit this issue in the next few weeks.)

Fort Washington, MD: Why buy a new computer? I just keep upgrading my motherboard for $100-$150 each time I want a new computer. I currently have a 300Mhz computer. It'll work until the 500Mhz boards come down in my price range --- 2 or 3 years from now maybe.

Rob Pegoraro: I'm with you, Fort Washington. My computer at home will celebrate its fourth birthday this February; it's on its second hard drive, second CD-ROM drive and third processor (I went from a PowerPC 601/120 to a 604/150 to a G3/266, clocked up to 299). I've saved some money and learned valuable skills, and I now have an impressive collection of old computer parts to decorate the bookshelves with.

On the other hand, I'm a bit of a geek.

Emphata, MD: Could you comment a bit more on these "consumer appliances to perform PC functions, particularly sending and receiving e-mail and view Web pages" cited in today's Business section." Do they work as well as a PC? When will they come onto the market in good numbers? Can you print from these machines and save web pages onto a hard drive?

Rob Pegoraro: Emphata (heck of a name there!): These things won't be substitutes for a PC; they're going to be closer to the WebTV model, in which the hardware has a few basic functions wired into it, but it's not set up to have lots of additional programs wired into it. The target market isn't the existing PC owners, but folks who have stayed on the fence on cost and complexity grounds.

I'm sure you'll be able to print and save files, but don't expect this thing to run your PowerPoint presentations, in other words.

Alexandria, VA: I have an old 486 that I use for word processing and spreadsheets, as well as software that my wife uses for keeping track of recipes. Do I need to be concerned about Y2K issues?

Rob Pegoraro: Um, probably. You should definitely check with the spreadsheet developer--anything math-intensive is liable to have glitches, especially if it's old enough to run on a 486. Your wife's recipes are most likely safe, however.

Silver Spring, MD: Rob,

Isn't the PC enough of a commodity item that it doesn't really matter who you buy from if the combination of price and quality are there, along with some tech support?

Also, Northgate used to be a standalone computer company advertising heavily in PC Magazine in the 1980's; they were bought out by someone, but talking about the 1980's in computer time is like talking about the Model T days in the auto industry.

Rob Pegoraro: 1) I know what you mean--in the PC business, so many design decisions are pre-ordained by motherboard manufacturers (you *will* include these obsolete ISA slots and you will only offer two USB ports) and Microsoft (you *will* include the Network Neighborhood icon, whether or not the machine can be connected to a LAN). But on the other hand, service, support and bundled software can vary a lot, and we are seeing a little more design creativity this season.

2) Thanks for the Northgate info!

Washington DC:
Hello Rob:

I read your column today. I really wish you went into more detail on the Peoplepc option. My friends say do not do it. For $25 per month, you get unlimited internet access and a 333mhz Toshiba with a celeron processor. I would like to run one pretty complicated spreadsheet that would import stock quotes from online. What do you think? After three years , you own it. Is it possible to upgrade something like that with a pentium 3.

Rob Pegoraro: That low-end Toshiba should run the spreadsheet app just fine, but I don't think PeoplePC is out to get the high-end user. Their marketing is aimed at a first-time buyer who's a little intimidated by the startup costs involved. If you want a Pentium III setup, this isn't the company for you.

Springfield, VA: Rob,
I bought an IBM 1451 laptop a year ago and have nothing but good things to say about it. Customer support? Who needs it -- this machine is wonderful.

Rob Pegoraro: Glad you're happy with the purchase. But most people do need customer support--not so much because of the hardware they're buying, but because the operating systems they use are too hard to use and require the user to be a car mechanic instead of a car driver.

Middletown, MD: Buying our fourth computer -2 PCs, one Power Mac- with a wife who is a graphic designer working in Quark and Photoshop. We want a high end computer but the one I priced from Dell on-line configured with a Pentium 700 and 19" monitor came to $2,600. Seems like too much to spend when low-end machines are $800. Is there a happy medium?

Rob Pegoraro: Yeah, $2,600 is kinda steep. Is this machine used for business often enough to take a tax deduction on it? Time is definitely money in Photoshop.

Otherwise, I'd say you should drop the processor speed a few notches, maybe as "slow" as 500 MHx. Profit margins always max out at the upper end; why transfer extra money to Intel? Also, see if you can't strip out options like fancy speaker setups you don't need for graphics work.

Orange, Va.: I'm buying a laptop for my college student daughter. She wants it for e-mail and word processing. Nothing else. No games, no spread sheets, no nothin'. Any ideas on a good buy?

Rob Pegoraro: For our reader in the wine country of Virginia...

* Get a laptop with a passive-matrix, aka high-performance addressing, screen. It looks a little muddier and duller than active-matrix, but costs much less.

* Make sure this laptop has some kind of security slot so you can lock the thing to something that won't move.

* Make sure the laptop has either an Ethernet PC card or Ethernet built-in; the campus network will probably require that.

We've liked laptops from IBM, Compaq and Apple in the past; does she have any preferences there?

Arlington, VA: On average, how much will a CD burner add to the price of a desktop -PC-. Do you recommend any brands in particular?

Rob Pegoraro: (Running a few minutes over here, so I'll take another couple of questions and then I've got to roll...)

If you buy it as part of a custom-build system, not much at all, maybe $100. Internal add-on units can also be as low as $100 or $150 with the right rebate deal; external CD burners are more like $250-$300.

Alexandria VA: Your column today is incorrect in stating that the total cost of the three years of internet service is charged to your credit card at the time of the computer purchase. Instead, you merely contract to have your credit card billed monthly for three years. This makes the package a better deal than you concluded under your misimpression. See fine print in ads from Office Depot and Circuit City in today's paper, for example.

Rob Pegoraro: [consulting said fine print]

Indeed, you can, in fact, have the charge billed month by month. It seems that I may have been w... wr...


wrong (OK, got that out) in that paragraph. Will look into this further. But the math still stands: You're not saving the promised $400, and there are better ways to economize your computer/Internet-access purchase.

Washington, DC: Do you have any recommendations regarding notebook computers - buy nor or wait? I like
the pointer stick on the IBM Thinkpads.

Do you have any idea when "blue tooth" -entirely wireless_ sytems will really be available?

Rob Pegoraro: Last question of today... I hate that pointing-stick thing myself, but it's a personal-taste issue. This is probably as good/bad a time as any to buy; they keep saying active-matrix-screen prices will drop, but they said that last summer too.

Bluetooth? Good question. We're all a little fatigued from hearing about this wonderful technology that will solve all of our networking problems, except, oops, no products supporting it exist. I'm sure it will happen, but slower and with more bugs than people plan for.

And that's all for today--thanks for showing up. Enjoy the holiday, and we should be back for another one of these get-togethers on Friday, Dec. 3. Take care, y'all.

- Rob

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