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How Low Can They Go?

Today's PCs offer all the basics for less than $1,000.

See the Buyer's Guide Table for product features and prices.

Do you need to upgrade your old 486 computer but have been trying to save at least $2,000 before buying a basic MMX system? Wait no more. Last year, several stores offered entry-level, high-performance PCs (minus the printer) for just under that price. This year, it gets even better: For less than half that amount, you can get a complete system that even includes a printer and color monitor. With some of the best computer bargains available now for less than $1,000, and a few with street prices as low as $759, you can equip your office with a powerful, high-performance, expandable PC that will take you into the next century.

These price breaks are good news if you're seeking a basic system that can expand along with your budget and company's growth. Loaded with multimedia features, powerful hard drives, speedy modems for fast downloads, spacious memories, and a variety of software, many of these low-cost, high-performance computer packages also come with speakers and the choice of desktop or minitower configurations. Additional incentives from some manufacturers mean that with your processor, you can get an internal modem, a Zip drive, a keyboard and a mouse. Many packages throw in a color inkjet printer, and some offer a rebate or discount on a monitor or printer with the purchase of the processor.

To get the best price, you may be required to mail in rebate coupons to the manufacturer after you've bought the package. Earlier this year, for example, one electronics superstore advertised a computer system that included a 3.2GB hard drive, 32MB RAM, a 24X CD-ROM drive, a 14-inch color monitor and a Lexmark color inkjet printer for $1,139. To reduce that price to $999, buyers had to send in rebates to both the printer manufacturer and the store.

"There are two factors driving the trend toward lower prices," says Jack Yovanovich, director of product marketing in the consumer division of Packard Bell NEC in Sacramento, California. "First, there have been no new killer applications [released] lately, so a basic PC can still do the job. Second, there's been a huge drop in the prices of components, such as hard drives and chips."

Yovanovich, whose company leads world sales of personal PCs, predicts low prices are here to stay. "People are buying based on affordability, as well as with a view to the future," he says. "Expansion is the key. People can add on as their needs require and their budgets allow. Packard Bell NEC systems are all upgradeable with expansion slots and bays, so you can add higher-end graphics, networking cards, Zip drives and tape backups."

The expandability element is a bonus for buyers who may not initially need intense 3-D graphics and videos or concert-hall sound. When business success demands greater capabilities, you can add and upgrade the features you need, such as a higher-quality CD-ROM drive, an amplified subwoofer speaker system, or more memory and speed--instead of buying a brand-new computer in six months or a year.

If you think low prices mean low-end features, think again. Micro Express' multimedia MicroFLEX-233/AGP minitower package has a 4GB hard drive, a high-density 3.5-inch floppy disk drive, a 32-bit wavetable sound card with 3-D effects, speakers, a 56K fax/modem and a mouse. The system also includes a high-performance accelerated graphics port (AGP), a 3-D video card, pre-installed Windows 95, built-in diagnostics and a clock/calendar. The motherboard has five bays, and the minitower has three accessible 5.25-inch drives, two accessible 3.5-inch drives and one internal 3.5-inch drive. The RAM is expandable to 768MB. Two high-speed serial ports are provided, as are an enhanced parallel port and two universal serial bus (USB) ports. A four-year warranty and a 30-day money-back guarantee complete the package. The price? $899.

At Packard Bell NEC, Windows 98 is pre-installed in its under-$1,000 computer systems that include at least three expansion slots and five device bays. Compaq, the leading worldwide supplier of PCs in 1997, has 13 Deskpro models priced below $1,000 that can be fine-tuned at a later date. And to keep costs down, Hewlett-Packard's Brio models are powered by Intel's new cacheless, Pentium-based 266 MHz Celeron processor. (A cache is an internal chip set where a computer can quickly and temporarily store programs and data without accessing the computer's slower hard drive or floppy disk drive.)

Acer's AcerPower Flex4000 is a convertible model that can switch from a network PC to a desktop PC and vice versa as you add employees and need additional low-cost computers. Acer's convertibility is achieved with an optional $249 PC bezel kit that includes a floppy and/or CD-ROM disk drive.

IBM has reduced the prices of several of its entry-level commercial desktops, including its Pentium MMX-based 200 MHz PC 300GL that's now priced at $759. This model can serve as both a network management PC with remote built-in tools and a non-network PC. One such system management tool is Wake On LAN, which turns on any computers that are on your network. Additional software allows you to manage network PCs remotely so you can post memos, charts or other information to all the PCs on the network.

Despite low prices, these PCs offer plenty of free software programs for business applications; they come either pre-loaded or provided on disks. Here's a rundown of the software programs included with the computers in our chart:

Acer: Windows 95, McAfee VirusScan, Intel LANDesk Client Manager 3.1, Lotus Organizer and Adobe Acrobat Reader.

Compaq: Microsoft Office 97 and Windows 95.

Gateway: Intel LANDesk Client Manager 3.1, Windows 95, Microsoft Office 97 SBE and Bookshelf 96.

Hewlett-Packard: Windows 95, McAfee VirusScan, pcANYWHERE and HP Brio Center.

IBM: Windows 95, Lotus SmartSuite license, IBM Home-Page Creator, Microsoft NetMeeting and IBM AntiVirus.

Micro Express: Windows 95.

Packard Bell NEC: CyberCoach Lessons, Windows 98, Microsoft Word 97, Intuit Quicken Basic 98+, Online Financial Center, SystemWizard Diagnostics and KiddoNet Child-Safe Internet Access.


Jill Amadio is a writer in Newport Beach, California

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This article was originally published in the September 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: How Low Can They Go?.

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