Looking for a Multimedia Computer? Consider the State-of-the-Art and Currently Available Features

Article excerpt

I was going to use the term "multimedia PC" in the title of this column, but in the end I realized that to do so would show a bias against the possible alternatives that are available--theoretically. Mac fans certainly would have raised their eyebrows, as would those who tout Network Computers (NCs), Network PCs (NPCs), WebTV, or Sun workstations. Indeed, there are premises that preclude certain alternatives, and it is impossible to recommend a "universally best" alternative. In any event, here's some guidance if you're looking or a computer that can handle your multimedia needs and desires.

First, some questions: Do you need a stand-alone computer with local storage capacity to keep your applications and files or just one that you can use to surf the Web? Do you need a desktop computer, or do you need a laptop, which costs on average 25 percent to 30 percent more for the same components? Do you want a new computer, or would you prefer upgrading your existing one, which may result in compatibility problems and a lopsided configuration? Are you a spectator or a creator of multimedia products? And finally, how much money do you have for your multimedia computer? $1,300 or $3,000?

In discussing a multimedia computer purchase here, I've chosen to address the needs of the entry-level spectator user and the creator-type power user, both of whom need a desktop computer to use mainstream productivity software (word processors, spreadsheet programs, presentation and desktop publishing software) and multimedia CD-ROM databases, and also to enjoy the multimedia offerings of the Web (streamed audio and video, Java applets, and shocked sites). A smart purchasing decision requires and understanding of the impact that the software platforms and the hardware components can have on the multimedia experience, so first I will review the current state of the art and the most important multimedia trends and innovations of 1997. In my next column, I Will justify the reasons for the best deal for an entry-level and for a power computer.

Trends and Innovations

Overall, the most important trend in 1997 has been the sharp price drop for entry-level multimedia computers. A year ago, the least expensive computer that I could recommend for multimedia applications had a price tag of $2,299. This summer you can buy an excellent entry-level multimedia computer for $1,299 and get far more powerful components than you could a year ago. I myself could not resist the Compaq Presario 2100, which packed enormous value into a lightweight box.

In the power computer category the price drop has been minimal, with prices hovering just below $3,000. But that amount of money buys you a much more powerful computer than it did a year ago. What was considered a power computer the would barely pass in 1997 as a midrange computer.

In the area of specific hardware components, the launch of the MMX-enhanced Intel processors was the most important innovation. It certainly increases the price by $120-$180 (depending on whether you buy a computer with a 166-MHz or a 200-MHz processor), but MMX definitely improves the multimedia performance craved by power users, and it offers the best price/performance index. As is always the case, the latest Pentium II models carry a hefty surcharge without proportional performance improvements at this time. The Pentium Pro models seem to be the losers in the Intel stable.

CD-ROM drives sporting labels promising transfer rates that are 12 to 20 times as fast as the first-generation CD-ROM drives are now bundled with the latest PC and Mac models, and they are selling for less than the price of last year's 6x and 8x models. As long you don't expect your CD-ROM applications to run 12 to 20 times faster, they represent a good deal, but not as good as the almost equally good 8x and 10x drives that sell well below $100 in close-out sales.

Hard drive capacities are measured now in gigabytes and are priced at the same 9 cents to 10 cents per megabyte as their sub-gigabyte brethren a year ago. …