Home PCs for the holidays
November 30, 1998
by Kirk Steers and Susan Silvius
(IDG) -- What can you do with your computer at home that you can't do with your PC at work?
Anything you want. With no IS department looking over your shoulder, telling you what you can and can't have on your PC, you decide. You can load it with games, wallpaper, screen savers, shareware, applications, and whatever else tickles your fancy. No one monitors what's on your system or requires you to change your network password every month: At home, you are the administrator.
What's more, you can pick the exact PC you want--unlike at work, where woefully outdated, underspecced, one-size-fits-all systems are the norm. The home PC market is wide and varied, from bargain-basement models like IBM's Aptiva E2N with its AMD K6-266 processor, at a little over $1,000 to fully stacked powerhouses like the Micron Millennia 450 Max, with its lightning-quick Pentium II-450, powerful graphics card, and imposing $2,899 price tag. The challenge for you, the buyer, is to figure out how much PC you need.
If the PC fits...
The best computer for one home user isn't necessarily the best for another. If all you plan to do is surf the Web, create spreadsheets, and write text documents, a $3,000, 450-MHz system with 128MB of RAM is overkill. Whatever your home needs, you'll find a suitable system here: Prices of PCs reviewed for this article range from $1,048 to $2,899 for complete systems, including monitor.
With the holidays here, who has time to look for a PC with just the right price, performance, configuration, and reputation for reliability? Actually, we do.
To make it easier, we divided home computers into three categories, based on the primary use for which each is designed. And after examining 22 PCs (from 16 vendors), we picked the 13 best--5 home office, 5 family, and 3 gaming.
A good home office PC moves fast, has lots of storage space, and carries a solid features set--maybe a Zip drive, a good 17-inch monitor, and (usually) a bundled software productivity suite. Some home office systems--such as Gateway's GP6-450--include an ethernet connection to use with a cable modem or a home network. Their graphics and multimedia capabilities are more attuned to home business use than to leisure use. Systems in the home office category scored well in our 2D graphics testing of Macromedia Director with video playback in the background. Prices of the top five home office PCs start at $1,649 and top out at $2,729.
In contrast, family systems are typically entry-level PCs destined for less-demanding tasks like Web browsing, e-mail, home finance, and edutainment. Performance on 3D games is relatively poor, thanks to the older, slower graphics cards, chip sets, and CPUs employed to cut costs. Speakers, monitor and other components tend to be of lower quality, too. All our chart-making family PCs cost less that $1,550.
One family system, HP's Pavillion 6350, did not run during testing. We tried to test two identically configured PCs, but both exhibited the same problem. According to Hewlett-Packard, a bug in the keyboard's firmware causes the key to stick electronically, rendering the mouse and keyboard useless on these early production units. If you have experienced mouse and/or navigational problems with a Pavillion 6330, 6340, 6350, or 8360, phone HP at (208) 323-4663, and it will send you a new keyboard at no cost. We couldn't obtain a new keyboard in time for this story.
What makes a good gaming PC? Speed, high-quality audio and video, a top-tier graphics card for demanding 3D games, a joystick or game pad, and popular gaming titles. Performance is paramount in this group: All three chart makers carry a 450-MHz processor. In a home office, these stocked systems can create attractive presentations and store lots of data. But gaming is their top priority, and predictably they roared past all other comers in our tests of three popular 3D games--Incoming, Turok, and Redline Racer. Prices on our top three gaming systems range from $2,699 to $2,899.
To underscore the different strengths of the three groups of systems, we weighted their test results and features differently. We rewarded home office PCs for balancing price, performance and features. In assessing family systems, we focused on affordability, simple setup, ease of use, and good design, deemphasizing performance and features. And among gaming systems, we gave special weight to performance, graphics quality, and features at the expense of price and ease of setup.
Find out more about how we tested.
Check out the Test Report in this handy chart.
Kirk Steers is a contributing editor for PC World. Susan Silvius is a freelance writer based in Northern California. Cameron Heffernan is an associate editor and Mick Lockey an assistant editor for PC World. Testing was performed by Ulrike Diehlmann, Jeff Kuta, Alex Jorge, and Sean Tieu of the PC World Test Center.
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