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Top 10 home PCs

August 18, 1998
Web posted at: 2:40 PM EDT

by Kirk Steers

(IDG) -- Ever agonize over buying an almost-perfect car that was the wrong color? Or didn't have a sunroof? Well, when you wander the aisles of your local electronics superstore in search of the perfect PC, odds are you won't find exactly what you want there either. Some stores carry only a limited selection of brand-name computers in fixed configurations. Finding a system with the processor, memory, hard disk space, and peripherals you need can be tough. But new ordering programs in stores can make it easier.

Until now, customizing your purchase meant buying sight unseen from a mail-order company like Gateway or Dell. Also, mail order is often cheaper than retail. But if you like to squeeze the melons before you buy them, consider this: Compaq and Hewlett-Packard have recently set up retail programs that let you configure your own machine with the features you want.

Now you can get your hands on the standard display models at your local retailer, interrogate a salesperson, and then order your custom PC at a kiosk located in the store. Compaq, for example, says it will have kiosks in 4000 locations, including Circuit City and RadioShack, by year's end. Of course, you'll have to wait one to two weeks to receive your PC. And don't expect any price breaks if you buy a machine this way -- you'll still be paying the more expensive retail prices.

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Mail-order monsters

If you want top speed at a fair price, it's no secret that mail order is still the way to go -- and a big reason why machines from Micron, Dell, and Gateway dominate our power charts. Computers from Micron and Dell are the only home systems to feature Pentium II-400 CPUs that run on the new 440BX chip set. Because the new chip set moves data between the memory and processor at 100 MHz instead of 66 MHz (the bus speed found in older Pentium IIs), you get superior performance.

Debuting as top dog is Micron's brand-new Millennia 400. With a whopping PC WorldBench 98 score of 209, it's the fastest home system we've seen. Besides being fast enough to run the apps of the future, the Millennia 400 won't need a storage upgrade anytime soon; tons of data can be socked away on the built-in Zip drive and the huge 10GB hard drive.

You get a pair of Advent AV390PL speakers, a 2X DVD-ROM drive, and a TV connector, so you can watch DVD movies on your TV screen without having to buy a stand-alone DVD player.

But is the Millennia 400 really worth $2648? If demonic speed and top-of-the-line multimedia are important to you, then, yes. And by the time you read this, the premium for technology like the 440BX chip set should already be dropping, pushing down prices on all high-end systems. If you can't afford the 400 model, consider its cheaper sibling, Micron's $2247 Millennia 350. This Pentium II-350 system comes with the same new chip set, though its performance is roughly 9 percent slower. It also has a slightly smaller 8GB hard disk and a standard 12X32X CD-ROM drive.

Dell's comparable 400-MHz machine, the $2872 Dimension XPS R400, costs $224 more and is a little bit slower than Micron's Millennia 400 -- but it's still an impressive system. There's no Zip drive, but with the R400's enormous 14GB hard drive you can download the Library of > Congress (well, almost) and still have room to spare. The included 20-inch monitor is a huge plus for anyone who has to grapple with gargantuan graphics or sprawling spreadsheets. Dell has also improved its setup instructions: First-time buyers especially will appreciate the greater detail and helpful use of color in the setup documentation.

Not always the latest and the greatest

If speed isn't everything to you, save a few bucks and get a Pentium II-333 system. They're still plenty fast -- only about 15 to 20 percent slower than the 400-MHz models -- and they cost a lot less, typically a little over $2000.

One affordable choice, in the third power spot, is Gateway's G6-333h. With its 8GB hard drive, 2X DVD-ROM drive, and 17-inch monitor, this $1999 system can handle serious number crunching and intensive games. It certainly gives similarly configured systems from Dell (Dimension XPS 333, $2149) and Micron (Millennia 333, $2098) a run for their money.

Even though Quantex is a smaller mail-order company, you'll still get more bang for your buck with its QP6/333 SM-4x SE. It offers a hardware bundle similar to the three PII-333 systems just mentioned, except that for $2249 you get a 19-inch monitor. The downside? Quantex's service and reliability scores have yet to match the lofty ratings of Dell and Micron.

Power Systems

Budget Systems

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