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Computing

From...

How to avoid rip-offs when shopping for a cheap PC

September 1, 1998
Web posted at: 10:50 AM EDT

by David Essex

(IDG) -- Now that Intel has announced a faster version of its low-cost Celeron chip, PCs that sell for less than $1000 look better than ever.

But are cheap PCs still too good to be true? Not if your needs are simple, and you know what to look out for. In 15 minutes of Web browsing, you can find a sub-$1000 PC with enough CPU, RAM, and video power to run today's graphics-intensive software. That $1000 might also get you a 14 or 15-inch monitor -- though it's often left out of the heavily advertised deals.

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First, look for a fast enough processor. That means avoiding systems built around Intel's first-generation 266-MHz Celeron chip. That chip lacks a secondary cache, so its performance is at least 20 percent slower than most chips running at the same clock speed. However, Intel's new 333-MHz Celeron -- announced this week -- has a 128KB cache. This low-cost chip runs at speeds comparable to a Pentium II-333 but is found in PCs that cost less than $1000. Unicent, for example, offers a $999 Celeron-333 system, the Avanta E333, for $999 with a 15-inch monitor.

You may also want to consider chips from Advanced Micro Devices, Cyrix, and IBM. Most come with a business-class 512KB L2 cache, but some offer only 256KB.

Watch out for skimpy RAM. Almost all sub-$1000 systems come with 32MB, but a few have 16MB or 24MB -- barely enough to run Windows 95 or 98 at anything but a snail's pace. Asking for a bump up to 64MB adds around $60 to the cost and gives an instant performance boost.

Some vendors cut corners on video RAM; the best buys come with 4MB or 8MB. Speakers are another oft-excluded item, but the best-equipped systems have them. And don't worry about the Xs in the CD-ROM spec; slower-than-32X drives are fine for most home uses.

Don't expect to see fast, roomy hard drives on any of these units: 3GB or less is typical; be thrilled if you find a system with more than 4GB. USB ports are rare, but not unheard of. And beware skimpy expansion room.

Finally, if you're in the market for a home PC, watch out for budget PCs configured for businesses. They usually don't have modems or sound cards.

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