ONLINE BUYING

For the best deals, go to the source via the Web

J.B. Miles

You don't need a Cadillac to drive to the store. A Honda, Chevy or four-cylinder pickup truck such as my '95 Mazda would do.

Similarly, most of us don't need an 800-MHz Pentium III PC with all the accessories to blaze our way through our computing tasks. That's not to say I wouldn't want to own one. I would, just as I'd like to own a Cadillac.

But most of my computing requirements are nicely met with an aging 233-MHz Pentium II machine that I've outfitted with a fairly large hard drive, a V.90 fax modem and a couple of other extras that help me manage my Web crawling.

When this oldie gives up the ghost, I'll drool over a $2,500 Pentium III with all the bells and whistles. But with my budget, I'll probably settle for a PC with a 500-MHz Celeron processor, plenty of RAM, a big hard drive, fast CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive and a 3-D graphics card with at least 8M of memory. The whole package should set me back no more than $800 to $1,000.

A Celeron, you say? Why not? Unless you're heavily into number crunching or graphics design work, a Pentium III workhorse is overkill for most users.

Admittedly, the early 266-MHz and 300-MHz Intel Celeron versions released in 1998 were sluggish because they lacked an external Level 2 cache. But the 466-MHz to 533-MHz Celeron chips in today's low-cost PCs come with 128K of Level 2 cache, which lets them run at the full speed of the CPU. And by the time you read this, Intel might have released new Celeron processors running at 566-MHz and 600-MHz. This will have the net effect of driving the prices for 533-MHz and slower Celeron PCs even lower than they are today.

If you're looking for a bargain Celeron PC, I advise shopping online directly from manufacturers' Web sites.

I checked a dozen or so manufacturer Web sites for Celeron PCs priced under $1,000. I liked what I saw.

Big surprise

I had expected big-name vendors such as Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp., Gateway Inc. and IBM Corp. to offer slightly less in bundled software and accessories than vendors such as AST Research Inc. of Irvine, Calif., CompUSA Inc. of Dallas, Micro Pro Inc. of Cleveland and Midwest Micro of Fletcher, Ohio. I was glad to find that I was wrong for the most part.

Dell's Dimension L500cx, with a 500-MHz Celeron processor, 64M of RAM, a 10G Ultra ATA hard drive, 48X CD-ROM drive, Intel 3D AGP graphics card, 56-Kbps modem, speakers and a 15-inch monitor is as good as it gets for $799.

IBM's Aptiva E Series 300, powered by a 533-MHz Celeron, is similar to the Dimension L500cx in most respects, but is configured more as a business unit with an optional network card and no monitor for $829. If you're looking for the security of buying a name brand, either of these, along with models such as Compaq's Presario 5700N, NEC's PowerMate ES SlimLine and Gateway's Astro'all priced under $1,000'would do nicely.

As for products from second-tier vendors, I liked CompUSA's highly configurable Work Series PC a lot. The unit comes with a 500-MHz Celeron processor, 96M of base RAM, a 10G hard drive, 50X CD-ROM drive, speakers and a 10/100-Mbps Ethernet card. A 17-inch monitor, Microsoft Windows 98 SE and Microsoft Works 2000 also are bundled in for $785.

Because my first PC, bought in the early 1980s, was a Kaypro portable with the CP/M operating system, a six-inch screen and two 5.25-inch floppy drives, each with a whopping 64K of capacity, I paid special attention to the Kaypro 2100 from the reorganized company, now Kaypro Technologies Inc. of City of Industry, Calif.

The unit comes with a 466-MHz Celeron processor, 64M of RAM, a 15.3G hard drive, 48X CD-ROM drive, 3Com/USR 56-Kbps modem, speakers, a 15-inch monitor and Windows 98 with Microsoft Works 2000. For an extra $69, you can add a Lexmark Z11 ink-jet printer.

The Kaypro 2100 with all the trimmings costs $726. My original Kaypro, bought in the early 1980s, cost $1,625.

If you're willing to engage in a little online shopping, bargains abound. You won't need a 1-GHz machine to find them.

J.B. Miles of Pahoa, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers.

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