QUICK PICKS

Best value: Compaq

Most stylish: Apple

Most basic: Gateway

Most multimedia tools: H-P

Most expansion-friendly: Dell

APPLE IMAC DV

$1,299 (15-inch monitor, 13.8 inches viewable, built-in) http://www.apple.com, 1-800-538-9696 Specifications: 400-MHz G3 processor, 512-KB L2 cache, 64 MB memory, 8 MB video memory/ATI Rage 128 AGP accelerator, 9.5-GB hard drive, 4x/24x DVD-ROM drive, 56-kbps modem, 10/100 mbps Ethernet, two free USB and two free FireWire ports. Support: One-year warranty; toll-free phone support (9 a.m.-9 p.m. every day) on hardware and bundled software for 90 days, $49 per-incident charge afterward.

The big news in this iMac is what's inside the polycarbonate plastic: no noisy cooling fan, and a sleep mode that actually works.

As a result, this thing acts more like an appliance than a computer. It's much quieter than other machines, and it only takes a touch of the power button on the front to dispatch it into a soundless sleep; a tap on the keyboard brings you back to the Mac desktop in a few seconds. (Without a fan, the top of the iMac gets toasty, but not dangerously so; I wouldn't be surprised to see a cat try to camp out there.)

The "I am not a computer!" theme continues with a first-boot sequence that hides you from the Mac OS in favor of a series of uncluttered screens that cheerily greet you and walk you through connecting to the Net: "Configuring your system. This will only take a minute." . . . "You're going online!" (It didn't, however, think to ask me to set the time zone.) Even the DVD-ROM drive thinks different, working like a car's CD player--squeeze the disc into the thin slot, and the iMac slurps it in for you.

Once you're online, though, the iMac does become, yes, a personal computer--a pretty good one at that. It comes with a decent, basic tool kit of software--last year's version of Quicken Deluxe, the AppleWorks home-productivity toolkit--and zips through most tasks without a stutter or a hitch. This year's model permits easier upgrades; an access panel on its backside hides slots for extra memory or an AirPort wireless-networking card. And tech support can be surprisingly prompt; on two of three calls, I only waited one minute on hold.

But the iMac is not immune to crashes, and the software kit offers no way to read any current Microsoft Word or Excel files. The DVD software stumbled through through the included movie disc ("A Bug's Life," appropriately enough).

Finally, there's iMovie, the slick, smart video editor included on DV ("Desktop Video") iMacs. Plug in a digital camcorder to a FireWire port, fire up iMovie, and you're slicing and dicing footage onscreen like text in a word processor. Drag in transitions, titles and sound effects, and off you go; the possibilites are eye-opening. (But the hard disk will fill up frighteningly fast this way.) Not into editing video? Get a DV-less, plain-blueberry iMac for $300 less.

-- Rob Pegoraro

COMPAQ PRESARIO 5440

$499; 15-inch MV-520 monitor, 13.7 inches viewable, $299http://athome.compaq.com, 1-800-888-0220Specifications: 450-MHz AMD K6-2 processor, 512-KB L2 cache, 56 MB memory, 8 MB video memory/ATI 3D Rage LT Pro AGP accelerator, 5.6-GB hard drive, 56-kbps modem, 32x CD-ROM drive, one free ISA, one free PCI and two combination ISA/PCI expansion slots, two free USB ports, one free serial, parallel and game port each.Support: One-year warranty on hardware (90 days on bundled software), 24-hour toll-call phone help during warranty periods ($19.95 per-incident charge afterward).

Despite ourselves, we are impressed. Compaq has finally delivered a home PC built out of industry-standard parts, with room for adding memory and other components. And it costs less than $500 (without the somewhat overpriced $299 monitor).

This tower model is powered by AMD's well-regarded K6-2 processor and runs its system bus and memory at 100 MHz, speeding up data access over last year's home machines; the hard drive and CD-ROM drive are good for the price.

Audio and video components are integrated into the motherboard in upgrade-proof fashion, but they include some fast AGP graphics circuitry. The case is remarkably difficult to crack but includes two available memory slots and four open expansion slots. It's the keyboard that suggests this machine's low-ball pricing; it feels stiff, unwelcoming and mechanical--even if it throws in more than a dozen special-purpose keys, including two just for connecting to online stores.

Compaq has long known how the setup drill should go, and the 5440 is no exception: Open the box, pull out the PC, and plug in the color-coded connectors. You'll need electrical outlets for three plugs (PC, monitor and speakers), though, and connecting the base to the monitor is cumbersome.

The machine boots up smoothly and considerably more silently than in the past, but the march of registration screens has gotten more strident. Compaq is determined to have our names and e-mail addresses on its list, to the point of being pushy. So is Network Associates; at one boot-up its McAfee VirusScan software delivered a pitch to register and upgrade--disguised as a virus warning. We were not amused.

Speaking of software, there isn't much, and what's there is lightweight all the way--Microsoft Works, the "productivity" software that will not die.

What there's lots of is help, information and support--Al the Built-In Technician, Compaq Diagnostics, the Compaq Service Connection (it checks for upgrades to the preinstalled software) and Compaq Remote Support (it allows a technician to dial into the PC to diagnose a problem). Compaq has also tuned up its phone support: The number of voice menu prompts has been cut sharply, and I was consistently able to reach a technician within a few minutes.

-- Alan S. Kay

DELL DIMENSION L500C

$1,199 (15-inch M570 Trinitron monitor, 13.8 inches viewable, $159, included)http://www.dell.com, 1-800-999-3355 Specifications: 500-MHz Intel Celeron processor, 128-KB L2 cache, 64 MB memory, 4 MB video memory/Intel 3D AGP accelerator, 6-GB hard drive, 8x DVD-ROM drive, three available PCI slots, two free USB ports, one free serial and parallel port each.Support: Three-year limited warranty on hardware and bundled software; 24-hour, toll-free hardware support.

Dell, a company that focused on power users for years, has entered the lower-priced computer arena, and some reports credit with already grabbing a larger chunk of the market than Gateway. Like Gateway, Dell will customize a computer based on your own tastes; we asked Dell to put together a typical layout running around $1,200 and got this system. Stepping up to the next-size-larger hard drive gets you another 6.7 gigabytes for $49 more, which is money well worth spending.

It took about 20 minutes to set the computer up--a little longer than usual, thanks to time needed to plug in the included Harman/Kardon speakers and their attendant pile of cables. The sound is mighty impressive but erratic; on some programs the sound came out right, but on others those speakers were loud enough to rattle the Windows.

The company will sell various entertainment or productivity software packages with new computers, but ours came with only MS Works Suite 99 (can anybody be bothered to ship current software here?). That's "dreadfully bare" or "nice and clean," depending on where you want to go today. I also installed a few resource-sucking games, such as Kingpin and Aliens Versus Predator, and they looked and played well, but I couldn't get a new title, Nocturne, to run the first time around (that's probably the game developers' fault, not Dell's).

I also ran into some mysterious freezes while playing back DVD movie. Curious to fix the problem (perhaps a driver update?) and test out Dell's built-in help, I clicked on a taskbar shortcut to "I-Learn My Dell PC." A cartoon fellow named Dudley then walked me through various basic-to-advanced topics, after which I felt as if I understood driver updates as well as the best of them. But when I tried to actually do it, the process was so complicated that I wound up punting the issue to Dell's tech-support line.

Although the company only officially supports its hardware--and not any software that comes bundled on its machines--the people I spoke with explained how to update the DVD-ROM's driver. And I never had to wait on hold very long to talk to a human being.

This is a competent computer at a reasonable price--sorry if this reads like I'm stifling a yawn. I can recommend it, but there's not much to get terribly excited about.

-- Mike Musgrove

EMACHINES ETOWER 466ID

$674, $75 mail-in rebate available; 15-inch eView 15s monitor, 13.8 inches viewable, $118http://www.e4me.com, 1-877-566-3463Specifications: 466-MHz Intel Celeron processor, 128-KB L2 cache; 64 MB memory, 4 MB video memory/ATI Rage Pro Turbo AGP accelerator, 8.4-GB hard drive, 5x DVD-ROM drive, 56-kbps modem, one open ISA and two open PCI expansion slots, two free USB ports plus one free serial, parallel and joystick port each.Support: One-year warranty on hardware; 15 days toll-call phone help (9 a.m.-1 a.m. every day) on hardware and bundled software, $20 per-incident charge afterwards.

When I lifted this new eTower from its big turquoise box, it rattled. This wasn't good, I realized, but I attempted to set up the computer anyway. The result was a 90-minute session of misfires and frustrated phone calls to eMachines' tech staff (whom I thankfully reached after only a few minutes on hold at long-distance rates).

Upon their recommendation, I removed three screws from the rear of the computer, squeezed off the cover and found the source of the clatter: A little black box containing the system's cooling fan, dangling from two wires. The tech adviser to whom I described this shipped me another computer, pronto.

It's more than a tad unnerving to find a brand-new PC DOA. (Especially given that this is the second eMachine reviewed by Fast Forward with power-supply defects.) The replacement unit, however, worked fine and allowed me to have everything set up in less than 15 minutes.

EMachines bundles just a minimum set of software on this model--Microsoft's ubiquitous Works program, plus the usual Windows freebies. Likewise, the internal hardware is bare-bones stuff--perfectly adequate for most Web use but likely to choke on the first game you try to install.

The innards are easy to get at but only offer one slot for additional memory; make that purchase of extra memory count. A better upgrade option might be signing up with eMachine's $19.95-a-month Internet-access service; after two years, you can upgrade to whatever the company is selling at your computer's original price for $99.

Assuming you get a fully assembled model, this eMachine is fast and cheap and offers what a novice computer user needs. It also slightly "out-specs" the Compaq we review alongside it. But it fails to beat it on price or quality.

-- Hope Katz Gibbs

GATEWAY ASTRO

$799 (15-inch monitor, 13.9 inches viewable, built in)http://www.gateway.com, 1-800-846-4208 Specifications: 400-MHz Intel Celeron processor, 128-KB L2 cache, 64 MB memory, Intel 3D AGP accelerator, 4-GB hard drive, 40x CD-ROM drive, 56-kbps modem, three available USB ports.Support: One-year warranty; one year of toll-free, 24-hour phone help for hardware issues, 90 days on software, $28.95 per-incident or $1.95 per-minute charges afterward.

Three years ago I opened the several boxes containing my new Gateway PC and spent an evening hooking it up--monitor, keyboard, mouse, tower, printer and speakers. A few weeks ago I opened a single box containing a review model of Gateway's new Astro computer and spent less than 10 minutes unpacking it and hooking it up.

The Astro is Gateway's response to Apple's all-in-one iMac: monitor, hard drive, speakers, CD and floppy disk drives all packed into one beige utilitarian cube, to which is attached the keyboard and mouse. In addition to the appeal of quick setup and less desktop clutter, there's the machine's attractive price of $800 and its each of use. If you'll be satisfied with a very simple, but non-customizable, Windows-based machine, then this could be the one for you.

You'll need a big, strong desk to put it on, though, because the Astro is neither small nor light. It's 17.5 inches from front to back and weighs 44 pounds. The screen measures only 13.9 viewable inches, which could pose a problem for many users, especially older, non-computer-savvy folks who might otherwise be attracted to the system. It's respectably, if not incredibly, fast, and it offers enough memory and storage for someone who just wants to do word processing, a little Net surfing and some household bookkeeping. It's loaded with (last year's version of) Microsoft Works Suite, including Microsoft Word and Microsoft Money, which is enough for most home users to get started. It's got four USB ports (one taken up by the keyboard) for accessories such as printers or scanners; customers with older parallel-port peripherals will need adapters, which Gateway doesn't see fit to offer as an option to Astro purchasers.

It's already fairly idiot-proof, but it comes with a little introductory desktop video as well as a guide, and a hard-copy users manual. Technical support is available by phone, though it can take quite a while to get through.

So, what else could you want? Well, a little less noise perhaps--the thing hums loudly at all times and grinds occasionally. The small screen can get annoying, and, though you can adjust the tilt, some users will have to put the machine on top of something to raise it to a comfortable eye level. And the computer is, there's no nice way to say it, dumpy. Most detrimental is the machine's lack of flexibility. The system cannot be customized or upgraded--no bigger screens, no adding memory, and no "candy colors," as one Gateway sales rep put it.

But if you want a computer that's easy to put together, if your eagle eyes can handle a small screen, and if you don't plan on loading more than a few games, this computer deserves a look. Sometimes basic can be a good thing.

-- Elizabeth Chang

H-P PAVILION 8550C

$1,049 (15-inch M50 monitor, 13.7 inches viewable, $249, included) http://www.hppavilion.com, 1-800-724-6631Specifications: 500-MHz Intel Celeron processor, 128-KB L2 cache, 85 MB memory, 11 MB video memory/Intel Direct AGP accelerator, 15.8-GB hard drive, 40x CD-ROM drive, 4x/2x/20x CD-RW drive, 56-kbps modem, 10/100 mbps Ethernet, one open PCI slot, two free USB ports, one free serial, parallel and game port each. Support: one-year warranty on hardware, 90 days on bundled software; 24-hour toll-call phone help, $25 per-incident charge applies afterward.

Hewlett Packard has copped a few tricks from the new Apple aesthetic, housing its Pavilion series in a two-tone, matte-gray exterior with smoky translucent panels. The other half of H-P's pitch is multimedia artistry: Polk speakers perch on the side of the monitor and both a CD-ROM drive and a CD burner come pre-installed. Why, the keyboard even includes a volume knob!

Out of the box, the whole assembly was up and running in under 15 minutes. After the Internet Connection Wizard looks for "special offers," users can be online in short order, assuming they go with AOL, AT&T, MSN or another major ISP.

The pre-installed software includes the usual vanilla applications--principally last year's versions of Microsoft Works and Quicken Basic--but a couple of goodies bring some color. RealPlayer G2 comes pre-loaded and a CD-ROM with MusicMatch JukeBox offers an alternative for music playback, downloading and recording. There's also Adaptec software to run the CD-R burner; clearly H-P is banking on the MP3 revolution.

Given those extras, the lack of Microsoft Word is a glaring omission. Let's face it: Almost no one uses Works in real life. Another odd choice is hiding the WinZip file-decompression tool way back in an obscure folder (C:\Windows\Options\Cabs).

Most of the hardware, however, is genuinely impressive, especially at this price level, but H-P could do better than the standard 15-inch monitor in such a multimedia-oriented machine. On the other hand, the company smartly placed USB and serial ports, plus a headphone jack, on the front of the box.

Getting at the guts of the machine is somewhat less convenient. The side panel slid off with a couple twists of a screwdriver (would thumbscrews be too much to ask?); then matters got murky, as the printed instructions failed to mention or depict two tiny screws securing the drive bays in place.

Luckily HP tech support (which does not provide a toll-free phone number, but does guarantee a 3-minute reply) was quick, friendly and accurate on multiple occasions.

-- Bob Massey