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Going For A 'Cheap' Computer

Computers are becoming essential to everyday life. And for some reluctant buyers, the last excuse of a computer's high cost is falling by the wayside. In fact, computers retailing for under $1,000 now make up the fastest growing segment of the computer market.

CBS News This Morning talks with FamilyPC magazine's Robin Raskin about the pros and cons of these "cheap" computers.

Are these cheaper computers any good?

Yes, says Raskin, because these new computers are designed to be less costly. Before, to get a cheap computer, you had to purchase a second-hand computer - one that was once expensive, but when re-sold was old or obsolete. Now, Raskin explains, manufacturers have learned to put more information on smaller and smaller chips, so you can get a pretty good computer for under $1,000.

So how are these new PCs different from more expensive computers?

Compare, for example, two PCs made by Gateway, which is a major company. Just last week, Gateway started its push into the low-end market. In one example, the more expensive Gateway PC costs about $2,300; the other costs $999. While both computers can play CD-ROM discs, access the Internet, and send email, there are differences. As Raskin explains:

  • The monitor is much larger on the more expensive computer.
  • The more expensive computer can play DVD video. And while for an extra charge you can get video for the smaller and less expensive computer, it will run a little slower.
  • While the speakers don't look very different, the speakers on the more expensive computer offer much more realistic sound.
  • The hard drives (the "brains" of the computers) are also different. On the more expensive machine, there are more slots for more features, and it is simpler to upgrade at a later time.
  • The more expensive PC comes with more software than the cheaper PC.
  • Neither PC comes with a printer, but they can both use high-grade printers. However, the printing takes a little longer with the lower-end model.
Who should consider buying the cheaper model?

Raskin says any family who has mainstream needs is a good candidate. Mainstream needs are word processing, searching the Web, using CD-ROMs or playing games. For those who want to play super computer games or need to handle large screen graphics, consider a more expensive computer. Also keep in mind that you can't always upgrade many of these lower cost computers.

Lots of kids use Apple computers in school. Does Apple have cheaper models too?

Not really, although Apple is looking to make cheaper computers. There is a new Mac on the market that retails for around $1,300 called the i-MAC. The i-MAC, Raskin says, is actually a good deal. It's really gone back to the basics by putting the hard drive, the CD-ROM, the monitor, and the speakers all in one machine. The i-MAC also comes in several bright colors, which appeals in particular to kids. The i-MAC, however, does not have a floppy drive (a place where you can insert a disc and store files). Watch out for that, Raskin warns.

How should you go about buying one of these computers?

"If you are a first-time buyer", advises Raskin, "call on a friend who is familiar with computers to accompany you to the store." If you are a more experienced computer buyer, you probably will be able to purchase it without any help, perhaps even online.

But whatever you do, says Raskin, "decide in advance what you want to use the computer for." She warns that many salespeople will try to "upsell" you. But Raskin says, if you are a mainstream user who will use about 20 features of the features 80 percent of the time, you don't need an expensive computer.

Here are some tips and minimum requirements to keep in mind:


  • Decide on how you'll use the PC

  • Gather information

  • Make a grid with specs vs. prices

  • Check service and warranty


  • Celeron or AMD K6

  • 4 G hard drive

  • 4-8MB video card

  • 56K modem

  • 1 expansion slot

  • multimedia sound and speakers

  • 15" monitor

What about leasing computers or buying used computers? Is that a good idea?

In general, Raskin says, leasing is not cost effective for the cheaper models. If you do choose to lease, be sure you get a warranty to protect yourself. Used computers, on the other hand, can be good.

Finally, there are some brands of computers that sell for around $500. Should buyers stay away from them?

These off-brands are a bit chancy for first-time buyers, Raskin says, but some of them actually aren't bad. For example, a company called Emachines sells a pretty good PC. But, frankly, it hasn't been around long enough for us to really check it out.

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