You've been fighting it for weeks. You've made a few forays into computer stores, marveled at the technology, calculated the costs, and finally found the courage to ask yourself: Should I invest in a home PC?
If you already own a home PC that serves both business and family needs, your question may be: Should I upgrade my old model with a kit, or is it time to turn in my plain vanilla computer for a dazzling multimedia model?
Multimedia computers have video and sound capabilities as well as all the standard applications, all in one unit. With modems and speakerphones to send and receive data via telephone, built-in audio speakers, fax capability, voice mail, answering machines, CD-ROM drives and microphones, today's multimedia home PCs are almost as fully equipped as a complete office.
If you're thinking of modernizing your computer with an upgrade kit, it might be better to save time and money by simply buying an entirely new model. Many users find that not only is it too complicated to install kits, but they also need to replace some computer parts to accommodate newer technology.
Fortunately, you don't have to be a computer genius to set up and operate these new multimedia marvels. Many, like Acer Corp.'s Aspire series and NEC's Ready line, have different-colored cables to help you connect them to the right port; others have easy-to-follow manuals.
A business and entertainment center in one compact package, a home PC provides the means to conduct almost every aspect of your business. Besides inputting text and creating spreadsheets, you can send faxes, talk hands-free on the telephone and create professional brochures. And that's just for starters.
Today's multimedia home PCs also come bundled with lots of software so you don't have to figure out what to buy; as many as a dozen software and CD-ROM disks are included free. The software can range from pre-designed forms and tips for your taxes to games, online services and more.
Some of the giant computer manufacturers have turned their sights to the home office, recognizing the tremendous growth in the SOHO (small office/home office) market. As a result, you can now choose from a variety of multi-media systems from the best computer manufacturers in the world for under $2,000.
Jill Amadio is a writer in Newport Beach, California, and ghostwriter of Help! I've Hired a Lawyer! (Emptypockets Venture).
Assess Your Needs
Before shopping around, you'll need to determine what tasks you'll be using your home PC for. Ask yourself these questions:
- How many people use your computer? If everyone in your family needs computer time, make sure your PC is powerful enough to run all the software programs and games everyone will use.
- Will you need added accessories? Junior (or senior) may want a joystick to play games.
- What are your use patterns and schedules? If juggling each person's time is a problem, it may be better to buy a basic machine and one with all the bells and whistles. When your family needs to use the dream machine, you can still sit at your trusty plain Jane and catch up on correspondence, invoicing or proposals.
Multimedia home PCs are pretty identical in terms of basic components and features, although the housing of some computers has been redesigned from boxy shapes into sleek minitowers. In addition to the obvious monitors, mice and keyboards, most offer a CD-ROM drive, a modem, fax capability, speakerphones, audio speakers, a floppy drive and sufficient memory to handle most of your business needs. Many can be bought with Windows 95 pre-installed, and most can be expanded at a later date as your business grows. For a little extra money, you can add a few frills and install more memory, a faster modem, higher-quality speakers and various other upgrades.
Speakers: Some PCs have built-in speakers; others have stand-alone speakers. If you have plenty of space, separate speakers might be your best choice, which also gives you the option to buy more powerful speakers later. Listen to the speakers' sound in the store; quality can vary dramatically.
Microphone: If built-in, where is it located? Can it pick up your voice from your chair, or do you have to lean forward awkwardly to speak into it? If free-standing, does it have a sturdy base so it won't topple due to vibrations from your printer or other office equipment?
Modem: Do you make frequent phone calls? Look for a modem with higher speeds to connect you quickly. If you do a lot of telephoning, look for features such as speakerphone, modem, caller ID, fax on demand and remote voice-mail retrieval.
Monitors: The larger and easier they are to read, the better. Opt for a 17-inch screen if your dealer allows you to mix and match components. Some monitors also have built-in speakers and microphones.
Now that you have an idea about which features you need, here's a rundown on some of the most popular home PCs:
- Acer: One of the most user-friendly computers, Acer's Aspire line was designed for home business and family use. It is simple to set up, assisted by an eight-step instruction list and color-coded cables and ports. Aspire also includes more than 30 software titles for business, education, communication, entertainment and home use. Added bonus: The computers are available in emerald green and charcoal to better match your home decor.
- Apple: The Performa 6200 is ideal for the home office. It has a digital answering machine, modem and fax capabilities, and a 16-bit sound card. A quad-speed CD-ROM drive accesses CD-based data fast. One ex-pansion option is a VCR or camcorder connection to capture images and use them on your computer. The keyboard has an adjustable slope; the mouse is contoured to fit your palm.
- AST: The Advantage! 600 line of desktops comes pre-loaded with Windows 95, along with AST's own navigating system, AST Works II. Advantage's bundled software includes Novell's PerfectWorks-a word processor, spreadsheet and database all in one. The AST LifeLine feature allows AST technicians to remotely access, diagnose and help you repair hardware and software problems.
- Compaq: The Presario 7170 Series features multimedia capabili- ties ideal for the home professional. These powerful, affordable computers have pre-installed online services and come bundled with more than 30 software titles, including Windows 95. An innovative built-in feature is a voice recognition center that lets you retrieve phone messages off-site by voice.
- Gateway 2000: The P575, Gateway 2000's base model, offers very impressive performance. Microsoft Word, Excel and other software and CD-ROM titles are included free. Gateway 2000 is one of the few companies that still offers free software technical support. The modem allows faxing and voice mail.
- Hewlett Packard: The Pavilion line's sleek minitower has built-in speakers and ergonomic controls organized in a linear, logical sequence. Setup is easy, thanks to color-coded cables and an easy-to-follow instruction manual. All major online services come pre-installed.
- IBM: Managing your home business on IBM's Aptiva is a snap. Its Rapid Resume feature is a boon to absent-minded, busy entrepreneurs by zapping you back to the place you left off when you turned off the computer. Another feature, Wake-Up on Ring, "wakes up" the computer, even after you've turned it off, to receive a fax or phone call, then turns it off again when the call is complete.
- NEC: Called Ready, NEC's multimedia home PCs are ready to go with minimum setup. A handheld remote control operates the system's phone and audio functions. A push of the button retrieves phone messages, operates the speakerphone or lowers the volumn of your CD-ROMs. Bundled software includes Microsoft's Windows 95 and MediaWorks; you also get the Quicken household financial management package.
- Packard Bell: Not enough room for a computer? Packard Bell is way ahead of the crowd with a triangular computer that fits into a corner so work-at-home entrepreneurs can use crannies that are normally wasted space. Armchair lazies can use the Corner Computer's remote control to initiate a phone call or activate a software program from anywhere in the room.
Acer Aspire/(800) 223-7763CD-ROM, audio/Yes, with speakerphone,fax, data, voice mail/Speakers, microphone/8MB/$1,299
Apple Performa 6200/(800) 776-2333/CD-ROM, audio/Yes, with speakerphone, fax, answering system/Speakers, microphone, video/8MB/$1,999
AST Advantage! 600/(800)876-4278/CD-ROM, audio/Yes, with speakerphone, fax, data, voice mail/Two-button mouse, speakers, microphone/8MB/$1,899
Compaq Presario 7170/(800) 345-1518/CD-ROM, audio/Yes, with speakerphone, fax, voice mail/Speakers, video/8MB/$1,699
Gateway 2000 P575/(800)846-2000/CD-ROM, audio/Yes, with fax, voice mail/Speakers, 104-key keyboard/8MB/$1,899
Hewlett Packard/Pavilion 5010/(800) PCHOME1/CD-ROM, audio/Yes, with speakerphone, fax, data, voice mail/Two-button mouse, video, speakers, microphone/8MB/$1,499
IBM Aptiva/800) IBM-2YOU/CD-ROM, audio/Yes, with speakerphone, fax, voice mail, answering system/Speakers, video, wake-up on ring/8MB/$1,799
NEC Ready 7022/(800) NEC-INFO/CD-ROM, audio/Yes, with speakerphone, fax, voice mail/Speakers, microphone/8MB//$1,799
Packard Bell Corner Computer/(800) 733-5858/CD-ROM, audio/Yes, with speakerphone, fax, voice mail /Speakers, microphone, remote control/8MB/$1,899
*Manufacturers' suggested prices as of December 1995