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What Kind of PC Can You Expect for $399?

April 12, 1999|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

When I first heard about E-Machines' $399 PC, I was a bit skeptical. It doesn't have the speed, memory or storage capacity of today's top-of-the-line Intel Pentium II- or Pentium III-based machines. But after using the etower 300K, I'm convinced that many users can get more than enough computing power for a very reasonable price.

My evaluation unit came with a 300-megahertz Advanced Micro Devices K6-2 CPU, 32 megabytes of RAM, a 2.1-gigabyte hard drive and a reasonably fast ATI Rage IIc 3-D graphics card with 4mb of RAM. There is also a 24-speed CD-ROM drive, a 56-kilobits-per-second internal modem and, of course, a keyboard, mouse and floppy disk drive. This particular model is about to be succeeded by the 333 cs that's identical in features and price except for a slightly faster 333-MHz Cyrix M-2 central processor.

As with most desktop PCs, it has two universal serial bus ports and also a serial and parallel port. The game port and one of the USB ports is in the front of the case, which makes it easier to plug in gaming devices such as joysticks. There is an audio card and a pair of small speakers.

I'm using the machine to write this column using Microsoft Word, and, for all practical purposes, I'm finding it's as fast and efficient as the far more expensive 400-MHz Pentium II machine I generally use.

I also took the machine apart to be sure that it was well-designed and has room for expansion. It is and it does. There are two PCI slots and one ISA, which should be enough for most users. Memory can be expanded up to 256mb using dual inline memory modules, or DIMM, that snap into place.

The machine also has an empty drive bay that you can use for a Zip drive, tape backup unit or a second hard drive. If it were my machine, I'd probably spend an extra $40 or so to upgrade to 64mb of memory and keep that extra drive bay available to add a second hard disk if I later needed more storage. If I needed a Zip drive, I'd probably get an external model that plugs into one of the machine's USB ports.

The machine comes with only 15 days of free telephone support (the clock starts when you make the first call), but for $59, you can purchase a three-year support contract that also extends the one-year warranty to three years and offers system replacement should anything go wrong. I called tech support on my nickel and got through to a technician in less than a minute.

Before you start salivating over a system for under $400, be sure you add in the cost of the monitor, printer and any other peripherals and software you might need. E-Machines charges $99 for a 14-inch monitor, $139 for a 15-inch and $225 for a 17-inch similar to what is bundled in most higher-cost machines. Add $150 for a printer, then the tax and/or shipping, and your $400 PC will probably cost you $800 or more. Add some software, and you could easily spend $1,000. Still, that's a good deal compared with what was available only a few months ago.

Bucking the e-commerce trend, the company sells only through retailers. A retailer can configure the machine as you want it, with more memory, additional software and other components.

At bottom, then, this is a PC that is more than adequate for most home and small-office users. If all you're doing is simple home or office tasks like spreadsheets, financial management and perhaps photo editing, then this machine will be adequate as a basic system.

The machine comes with Microsoft Works 4.5, which is really a very good package that provides a more than adequate word-processing program, spreadsheet and database management, along with a calendar to help manage your schedule. But it doesn't come with Microsoft Word, Lotus WordPro or Corel WordPerfect, as do most other machines. I installed Microsoft Office, which works fine.

But before you rush out for a $399 machine sans monitor, shop around for a complete system. You may be in for some pleasant surprises, even from the more established firms.

Gateway 2000, for example, offers a $999 system that comes with a 15-inch monitor, a 366-MHz Intel Celeron processor and twice the memory (64mb) and hard drive space (4.3 gigabytes) as the E-Machines model. Compaq Computer now offers a $599 machine with a 333-MHz Intel CPU, 4-gigabyte drive and a copy of Works Deluxe Suite and Quicken Basic. IBM's Aptiva E-Series starts at $699 and comes with a 6-gigabyte hard drive, 48mb of RAM and the Lotus SmartSuite, which consists of an industrial-strength word processor, spreadsheet, graphics editor, database manager and a personal calendar.

If any of these machines will bust your budget, you can always try to get one of the new "free" PCs. I haven't had a chance to review the machine, but Gobi ( offers a free computer if you agree to pay $25.99 a month for 36 months for Internet access and $75 in start-up fees. The machine is far from skimpy, with a 300-MHz Celeron CPU, 32mb of RAM, a 3.2-gigabyte hard drive, a 15-inch monitor and a 40-speed CD-ROM drive.

Over the three-year period, you'll pay more than $1,000. The way I figure it, cut-rate Internet service is worth about $14.95 a month, which means you're paying an extra $471 for the PC--which seems like a good deal for the consumer and a sustainable business model for the company.


Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard at 1:48 p.m. weekdays on KNX 1070. He can be reached at

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