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When Gateway and Dell began manufacturing computers to customer design and selling by direct mail more than a decade ago, it was the only way you could specify all the nifty components you wanted and have your machine virtually built to order (BTO). The upside was you could create a powerful machine with all the bells and whistles to suit your requirements without having to accept components you didn't need. On the downside, you couldn't inspect your creation until it arrived at your doorstep. Fortunately, consumers trusted these two companies to supply quality products sight unseen, helping Dell (http://www.dell.com) and Gateway (http://www.gateway.com) become the giant direct-computer businesses they are today.
These days, the trend toward custom-creating computers has caught on with almost every computer maker, and all the leading PC and portable manufacturers offer their fully loaded models in just about every configuration imaginable--and even sell them on the Web. Browsing online from the privacy of your office, without aggressive salespeople hovering nearby, is a great way to start your search for a custom computer. And with most manufacturers offering the option to order online, it can also be a convenient way to buy.
BTO has become the new buzzword when shopping for a desktop or notebook, whether you want blazing processor speed, a huge hard-drive capacity, a vast amount of RAM, several expansion bay modules, or the best and most powerful graphics capabilities.
Fully loaded computers, whether BTO or ready-made, command pretty high prices, but are generally still less than $4,000. Sure, you can buy computers these days for around $400, but for the professional whose core business depends on a PC with all the right stuff to deliver high-quality graphics, superb sales materials, fast Internet access, voice recognition and multimedia presentations, it's worth budgeting for a customizable, top-of-the-line model.
Intel, the leading manufacturer of consumer CPUs, continually upgrades its technology. Today's fully loaded computers give you the choice of a Pentium II or a Pentium III. Lower-priced models offer the choice between the Intel Celeron or Intel's new 810 chip.
With the proliferation of computer manufacturers' Web sites, buying a custom computer is as easy as filling out a form to configure and price a desktop or notebook tailor-made to suit your business needs. Among the many options now available that can be added to a new computer are a range of memory and hard-drive choices, a CD- or DVD-ROM drive, high-capacity data-storage drives, multimedia applications, extra floppy drives and expansion slots, and additional speakers.
Logging on to Apple Computer's online Macintosh store (http://www.apple.com/store), for example, is like entering a computer builder's Legoland, where you can select components and construct your computer from the foundation up, choosing from more than 10,000 BTO configurations, including DVD-RAM optical storage and 100GB hard-drive space.
Like buying a car with standard features and options, most desktops and notebooks come with a basic processor, minimum memory, various ports, speakers, slots, bays, a keyboard, a mouse, a monitor and software. Depending on your requirements, you can then specify the upgrades you want.
In addition to its internal workings, you'll also need to consider a computer's chassis when making your decision. Toshiba, for example, offers its Equium PC 7100 series as a mini-tower, a square desktop or a slimmer desktop. The smallest footprint goes to the company's Equium 100, an ultra-slim chassis with a space-saving LCD flat monitor. Toshiba's BTO services allow you to pick RAM ranging from 32MB to 512MB, a hard drive ranging from 4GB to 12GB, and software, including Windows 98 or NT Workstation 4.0. Toshiba also encourages you to build in network compatibility, allowing you to add Intel EtherExpress PRO/100B or 3Com Fast EtherLink XL10/100 network interface cards.
Hard drives with multigigabytes are common these days. Compaq's best of class Prosignia 330 desktop PC for small to midsized businesses offers a Pentium III 550 MHz processor with a whopping 25.5GB hard drive.
Micro Express' fully loaded, multimedia MicroFLEX-PIII/500 packages a Pentium III with a 500 MHz processor, a 10GB hard drive, a 32X CD-ROM drive, 128MB SDRAM, a 64-bit PCI wavetable sound card with 3-D effects, speakers, a 17-inch monitor, a 56K modem and a mouse. There's also an AGP-compatible 3-D PCI video card, and pre-installed Windows 98. Password protection, Y2K compatibility, and built-in diagnostics are also included. Custom-tailoring includes expansion up to 384MB RAM.
The top-of-the-line Sony VAIO Digital Studio Computer has four bays, four slots and 11 port connectors, plus digital audio, 128MB RAM (expandable to 256MB) and a programmable keyboard. The company's fully loaded VAIO notebook has a 15-inch screen, a 4X DVD-ROM drive with DVD movie playback capability, three programmable keys for the Internet, e-mail, built-in stereo speakers and a digital touchpad. The VAIO also has ports for connecting an external mouse, a standard monitor and a keyboard.
Apple's Power Macintosh G3 (G for generation, 3 for third), has high-end 3-D graphics capabilities for designing your company's brochures, ads or newsletters. The basic G3 comes with a 350 MHz processor, 64MB SDRAM and a 24X CD-ROM drive, while the fastest model comes equipped with a 450 MHz processor, 256MB SDRAM and a 32X CD-ROM drive.
Hewlett-Packard's OmniBook XE2 incorporates a hard drive, a floppy-disk drive and a CD-ROM drive all in one, eliminating the need to carry and swap additional components, while the notebook's built-in capabilities for showing video presentations on a separate LCD projector or monitor are great for sales presentations. External buttons let you play music CDs without powering up the computer, and pre-loaded Web site development software lets users personalize a Web page with news, stock quotes and free e-mail service.
As you can see, the possible configurations for your new BTO computer are nearly endless. Whether you're building a Taj Mahal desktop computer or a Rolls Royce notebook for the road, there's never been a greater variety of features from which to choose.
Jill Amadio is a freelance writer in Newport Beach, California, who has covered technology for nine years.