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Personal Tech Make-Over

Buying a Faster Box Without Getting Boxed In Personal Tech

November 09, 2000|DAVE WILSON |

If you own a computer, you've probably felt the sting of technological obsolescence. Catalin Iuga is no exception. His computer, purchased nearly four years ago, has a hard time handling modern software.

So he wants to buy a speedier box.

In addition, he wants to experiment with some of the capabilities available in the latest computers. Most important, he doesn't want to pay for stuff he won't use.

"I bought the computer for $3,100, and it was the hottest thing out there," he said. "But it came with lots of features that I never use. I wish I'd gotten a computer more specialized for the stuff I need to do and not spent all that money." Iuga has the standard complaint of people who try to stretch use of a single computer out over four years: Programs can take a long time to run. But he's also frustrated because computers sold today offer nifty options that would be extremely useful to him.

Iuga is in a band called Mission One, which plays contemporary Christian music. "I want to be able to make CDs," he said. "It would be nice to be able to edit stuff on the computer and burn it onto a CD, not for commercial distribution but just to help us work on the music."

With that in mind, he'll also want a high-end speaker system. And since he's already springing for a good sound system, why not make it Surround Sound and add a DVD drive so he can watch DVDs.

As a student financial specialist at the University of Phoenix, Iuga occasionally makes presentations in PowerPoint. "I'd like to be able to add brief video clips into those presentations." So add a TV card and video editing software.

One thing to bear in mind is that Intel is going to introduce its new Pentium 4 chips this month, which means that the prices of existing chips--like the current top-of-the-line Pentium III--will come down significantly very quickly. So waiting a few weeks would be a good idea.

But we put together several boxes based on his top budget of $2,500. And we selected AMD chips over an Intel central processing unit because the price was a bit lower. Our two finalists, Gateway and Compaq, come in just about even, but Gateway gets the edge largely because it allows users to trade in a Gateway that's at least two years old and apply the trade-in price to the purchase of a new computer.

The Gateway is weak on the video card. It has a 16 MB NVIDIA TNT Vanta AGP card, compared with Compaq's 32 MB SDR GeForce2 MX. But that's probably only of interest to you if you're playing video games. Gateway will include an equivalent card for another $100.

The Gateway box also includes a TV tuner card and remote control, which isn't an option on the Compaq. Both systems include 56 Kbps modems--Iuga is surfing the Internet at 33 Kbps--and Ethernet cards in case he wants to upgrade to a service such as Digital Subscriber Lines for a faster connection.

The Compaq monitor is smaller than the Gateway monitor--17 inches compared with 19 inches. The 17-inch display uses a Sony Trinitron tube, which offers an excellent image, but with significantly less to look at. While the 19-inch Gateway monitor offers a bigger picture, it's probably not quite the same quality as the Compaq tube and will take up more space.

Iuga said he's leaning toward Gateway. "The trade-in program seems like a good idea."


Dave Wilson is The Times' personal technology columnist.


This Week's Make-Over

Current computer:

1996 Sony Vaio, Pentium II 266, 128 MB of RAM (upgraded from 32), 7 GB hard drive.

Purchase price: About $3,100

Problems: Programs run too slowly; need to make CDs; would like to work with digital imaging and video.

Recommendations (based on a budget of about $2,500):


Specifications: AMD Athlon series 950 CPU with 256 MB of RAM, 30 GB hard drive, 56 Kbps internal modem, Ethernet, Firewire, TV tuner, 16 MB NVIDIA TNT Vanta AGP graphics accelerator, DVD drive 16x/40x, CDR drive 8x/4x/32x, 19-inch monitor, SoundBlaster Live Value sound card, Boston Acoustics BA7500 Dolby Digital speaker set with subwoofer and surround sound.

Price: $2,508

Advantages: Complete with TV card. Gateway will accept this computer in trade with a purchase after two years.


Specifications: AMD Athlon series 900 CPU with 256 MB of RAM, 30 GB hard drive, Ethernet, Digital Video Center, 56 Kbps modem, 19-inch Trinitron monitor, 32 MB SDR Creative 3D Blaster GeForce2 MX with TV out video card, DVD drive 16x/40x, CDR drive 8x/4x/32x, SoundBlaster Live Value sound card, Klipsch ProMedia v.2-400 THX speakers with subwoofer and surround sound.

Price: $2,470

Advantages: Very high-end monitor and graphics card. Better speakers than what most people have in their living room.

Key factors to consider:

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