How to buy a multimedia PC. (Compute's Getting Started with Multimedia) (Buyers Guide)
by Gregg Keizer
Mix talking pictures on a screen with sound, music, and animation. What do you get? Television in your den, or a movie at the EightPlex at the mall.
Or multimedia extravaganzas right on your own desktop.
Multimedia is one of the two hottest buzz words of 1991 computing (the other is pen-based computers--slate-style, Etch-a-Sketch sized machines). It grabs interest and attention because of its possibilities. Imagine rich encyclopedic reference works that display video clips instead of static images; or engaging games that let kids explore new worlds in geography or old ones in history; or strictly-for-grins games that use sound, digitized speech, and intricate graphics in ways no disk-based game can ever hope to duplicate.
Multimedia seems ready to take off in 1992. Fueled by hardware makers and software developers anxious to snare a piece of the early action, multimedia has gamered lots of headlines. Articles in national news magazines and in computer publications bombard readers with multimedia's promises and potential. In turn, pumped up computer users are springing for multimedia technology.
If you want to play in the multimedia world, you need that technology. You may want nothing more than to to update your present PC, making it multimedia-ready. Or you may want to bring home another personal computer, one that has everything you need to move into the multimedia age.
Computer vendors usually don't make it easy to shop for a home PC. Too many options, too many add-ons. 286, 386SX, 386, 486SX, or 486? Lots of RAM, or skimp to save? How large a hard disk drive? What kind of monitor? Sound card or no sound card?
The makers of multimedia PC, on the other hand, make purchasing their products child's play. You simply look for the MPC label.
MPC, or Multimedia Personal Computer, is the creation of a computer industry consortium made up of nearly two dozen companies, some of them--such as Tandy, Microsoft, and CompuAdd--major players in the business and home computer market. At its most basic, MPC represents a seal of approval, guaranteeing buyers that any MPC-stamped software will run on a like-marked PC, and that a machine with the MPC sticker is ready to handle multimedia software.
An MPC system must meet some minimum specifications. Nothing less than an IBM PC or compatible, 386SX-based machine with at least two megabytes of RAM will do. (An earlier MPC standard specified at least a 10MHz-286 machine.) The computer must pur its pictures into a VGA monitor, access a 30-megabyte (or larger) hard disk drive, and include a mouse and a MIDI-compatible, 8-bit sound card that's capable of delivering digitized speech. An MPC machine also must include a CD-ROM drive--probably its most important peripheral--and be able to run Windows 3.0 or later versions, along with Microsoft's Windows with Multimedia.
Other than the CD-ROM drive and sound card, these demands read suspiciously like those voiced by Microsoft for Windows 3.0. That makes sense, since MPC-compatible programs must run under Windows. Look for a Windows machine, and MPC shouldn't be far behind.
Raising the Bottom
The MPC label doesn't guarantee that you'll be satisfied with the system, though, especially a year or more down the road. Simply put, the bottom line on MPC isn't nearly high enough.
The Multimedia PC Marketing Council, the arm of the Software Publishers Association dedicated to administering the MPC standard, thinks so, too. It's considering second-generation specifications that would require, among other things, faster processors, four megabytes of RAM, Super VGA, 16-bit audio (most of the current audio cards are only 8-bit), and improvements to Windows with Multimedia. Current criteria are too limiting, say critics of the present MPC specs, and scare off potential developers. You'd be simart to keep these second-level requirements in mind as you shop for a multimedia PC today.
Fortunately, hardware prices continue to slide. In large part because of stiff competition among computer makers, especially those that rely on the mail order or direct sales channels. Faster processors, Intel's 486 series in particular, have helped to shove down prices of slower chips. And RAM costs have stabilized at relatively affordable rates.
Shopping for a multimedia-ready machine doesn't have to end up in sticker shock. You just need to know what your requirements are.
Ticket to Ride
Consider a 16MHz 386SX-equipped machine as the absolute lowest common denominator in multimedia. You'll need the speed and memory management features that a 386SX provides to run Windows and multimedia effectively (and such power doesn't hurt either when you turn to other applications).
If you can afford to think long-term, step up to a 20MHz SX, or even better, a true 386 computer for your multimedia foundation. A 33MHz 386, for instance, will handle multimedia through at least the middle of the decade, and maybe even years after tha.
The inside of the 386SX or 386 box should also reflect this more-doesn't-cost-much-more philosophy. Windows may work in only two megabytes of RAM, but it can really flex its muscles when it's got more. Four megabytes is a better starting place. No matter how much memory you begin with, make sure that you can easily add RAM to the computer's motherboard. RAM stacked in SIMM chips that snap into place on the motherboard are the simplest to install. Find out if the computer you plan to buy uses them.
VGA graphics and monitors are the de factor standard for PCs, so you don't need to worry as much about the display and graphics card. For multimedia though, Super VGA, which offers a higher resolution if the software supports it, is a better pick. Pack the video card with memory, too. The more memory, the more pixels the card can process, and the faster it does it. Count 256K of video RAM as bare bones; 512K is more like it. A 14-inch monitor will do, though many consider 16-inch displays mandatory for Windows. These larger screens cost about 30 percent more, though, and are still hard to justify, even for multimedia.
The third component of your multimedia machine is an 80-megabyte (or larger) hard disk drive. Although multimedia software comes packed on shiny CD discs, it still wants room on your hard disk drive. A single reference tool such as Compton's MultiMedia Encyclopedia, for example, can copy as much as five megabytes of its files to the hard drive during installation. A dozen multimedia programs can quickly eat up 25-40 megabytes of hard disk sapce.
The Sound and the
What really makes a PC multimedia-ready is the addition of a sound board and a CD-ROM drive.
Second generation multimedia sound cards are just starting to appear. You have your choice of several MPC-compatible boards, from the Sound Blaster Pro and the Ad Lib Gold 200 to the Pro Audio Spectrum. Creative Labs' Sound Blaster Pro is a solid, dependable card that, though not always easy to install, gives you everything you need for today's multimedia. The Ad Lib Gold 2000 features nine more FM voices than the Sound Blaster Pro, connects to a CD-ROM drive via an optional SCSI interface (rather than the Sound Blaster Pro's proprietary port), and puts out true stereo on each voice.
Even more choices lie in wait when you start looking at CD-ROM drives. Sony, Chinon, and Tandy are but three of the brand names on CD drives. Minimum MPC requirements call for a 150K/second data transfer rate; nearly every drive meets that. A driv'es access time, measured in milliseconds, gives you an idea of how fast it finds data on the disk. Fast drives feature 300-350ms access times; slow drives, like Tandy's, search at speads less than half as fast.
Other CD-ROM options may play a part in your decision, too. Drives that connect to your PC via an SCSI port free up an expansion slot if your sound board supports that inferface, and provide for faster data transfer from disc to PC. And some drives, like Tandy's, do without the familiar CD-ROM caddy, or protective plastic shell, providing simplified disc swapping.
To Bundle or Build
For sheer convenience, nothing beats buying a plug-in-and-play multimedia PC. Every system with the MPC label (and some without it) take that tack.
Tandy was first out the door with MPC machines. its line starts with the $2,600 M2500 XI/2, a 16MHz 286 with two megabytes of RAM and a 40-mgegabyte hard disk drive. At the lop of the series is the $5,500 M4033, a four-megabyte 33MHz 386 with a 105-megabyte drive. All of Tandy's machines feature full MPC-1 compatibility and include the CDR-1000 CD-ROM drive, VGA graphics, and an 11-voice-per-channel audio card. (Monitors aren't included in the above prices.)
Other PC makers are adding MPC machines to their line, too. Magnavox, part of Philips (a co-creator of CD technology), introduced a 20MHz 386SX MPC computer at COMDEX last fall. Priced at $2,500, the 386SX-20 MPC features four megabytes of RAM, an 80-megabyte hard disk drive, Super VGA graphics, and a CD-ROM drive. CompuAdd, one of the founding members of the MPC Marketing Council, sells three MPC systems, including a $2,600 16MHz 386SX with a 40-megabyte hard disk drive and two megabytes of memory.
Buying an assembled multimedia machine insures that you have everything you need. You don't have to insert a sound board or a CD-ROM drive, or install Windows and its multimedia extensions; it's all been done for you. The flip side is that you don't get to pick the sound board or CD-ROM drive you want; the company's done that for you, too. And you may pay more for the convenience.
The alternative is to build your own, or at the least, have a PC dealer or manufacturer do it for you. For instance, Gateway 2000, one of the leading mail order PC makers, can put a four-megabyte 20MHz 386SX on your desk for $1,800, Super VGA monitor and 80-megabyte hard disk drive included. You have to add the CD-ROM drive and sound card yourself (figure another $600-900 for both), but you get more machine for your money.
It comes down to whether you're comfortable slipping cards in expansion slots, installing drives, and configuring Windows. If you're PC-savvy, picking and choosing your own multimedia components makes sense. But if you've got more to do than troubleshoot your home computer, you're better off buying a ready-to-run system.
Walk either road. The result is the same--a multimedia machine that will take you and your family into a decade of exploration, entertainment, and education.