How to upgrade your present PC. (includes related article) (Compute's Getting Started with Multimedia)
by Gregg Keizer
Victor Frankenstein shouted those words when his creation twitched. He cobbled together an extraordinary man, connected some wires, and pulled the switch.
The rest is horror history.
You can do the same to your PC. You can rejuvenate a comatose computer, lengthen its lifespan, and in the process make it the hub of a multimedia center.
Multimedia demands a lot from a PC. Unless you had extraordinary foresight, it's unlikely your computer is ready to run multimedia software. You could discard your current computer or relegate it for other tasks, and purchase a new, multimedia-ready system. But that route's not open to everyone.
If your budget won't let you pop for another PC, you can easily--and for less than you would think--transmute your PC into a stellar audio and video performer.
Kit or Kaboodle
You can take two upgrade paths to multimedia. The most convenient relies on purchasing an all-in-one upgrade kit. Benefits are easy to spot: You don't have to hunt down individual components, make decisions, or worry about compatibility. On the down side, you may pay more for the convenience and comfort of a kit, although the difference in many cases is quite small, and cushioned by bundled multimedia software.
Your second upgrade road puts the burden on your shoulders. You seek out the parts, make sure you've got compatible components (not a sticking point most of the time), and then master several separate installation procedures. That process may sound like much more work than it's worth, but on the plus side, it lets you pick the pieces. You decide what brand name add-ons you put in your PC.
And if you shop carefully, you should be able to beat the price of a kit by assembling your own collection of multimedia upgrade components.
Whether you're going for the kit or the kaboodle of separate parts, you'll be adding much the same thing to your computer: a CDROM drive and interface card, a sound board, and Microsoft Windows with Multimedia.
Before you send yourself into upgrade fever, you may have to spend some time and money on your computer.
Take stock of your PC. Is it a 386SX, 386, or 486 machine? Does it have at least two megabytes of RAM? Can the hard disk drive hold at least 30 megabytes? Do you have a VGA monitor and graphics card? Do you have a mouse?
Answer yes to all these questions, and your PC is ready to upgrade to multimedia. If not, you need to bring it up to those minimum specs.
It doesn't make much sense to upgrade a 286 computer; multimedia is certain to demand more than that computer's processor can give. If you have a 286 and want to bring multimedia home, think hard about buying a new 386SX or 386 PC instead (see "How to Buy a Multimedia PC").
Plug 'em In and Play
Media Vision's Multimedia PC Upgrade Kit, a $995 hardware and software collection, was the first all-in-one box on the market. Quality components and some outstanding bundled CD-ROM software make the kit a good, though expensive, upgrade choice.
Media Vision's Pro Audio Spectrum is a 22-voice (11 per channel) stereo synthesizer board that doubles as the interface for the kit's CD-ROM drive. The Pro Audio Spectrum's strengths lie in its recording and mixing abilities, crucial if you're putting together multimedia presentations yourself. The on-board SCSI interface is a big plus--you connect the kit's CD-ROM drive to the interface, so you use only one slot in your PC. And since most CD-ROM drives use the SCSI interface, you're ready if you want to upgrade the drive down the line.
Media Vision's Kit includes Sony's CDU-541 internal CD-ROM drive. One of the fastest drives available, the CDU-541 is a dependable, name-brand CD-ROM player. You also get three CD titles: Windows with MultiMedia, Compton's MultiMedia Encyclopedia, and Jones in the Fast Lane, a Sierra game. Compton's is an excellent reference work and adds some nice frosting to the kit's mix.
Another boxed set is the Creative Multimedia Upgrade Kit. At $849, it's less expensive than the Media Vision kit, comes with two more CDs (though they're of arguable worth), and features comparable components.
You get the Sound Blaster Pro, Creative Technology's second-generation sound board, with this kit. Comparable in most specs to the Pro Audio Spectrum card, Sound Blaster Pro is easy to install and, perhaps most importantly, carries a familiar name in PC audio. Like the Pro Audio Spectrum, the Sound Blaster Pro meets MPC requirements (though it, too, falls short of the expected second-level MPC guidelines). Unlike its competitor, it uses a non-SCSI interface to connect to the CD-ROM drive, so you're stuck with the drive the kit gives you.
That drive is a Panasonic-made, 390ms peripheral that comes in both internal and external models. Although the latter raises the price of the Creative Multimedia Kit to $995, it's worthwhile if your PC doesn't have an empty bay. Besides the board and drive, Creatives Kit also tosses in five CDs--Windows with Multimedia, Microsoft Bookshelf (a collection of several reference works), Jones in the Fast Lane, sound clip anthologies, and a gaggle of on-disc demos of commercial software.
Media Vision and Creative aren't the only companies with kits already available or on the way. Ad Lib, another audio card company, plans to announce a multimedia upgrade pack based on its Ad Lib Gold sound board and accompanying SCSI interface. Tandy, a company heading into multimedia hardware in a big way, offers an upgrade kit for $799 that uses the company's internal CDR-1000 CD-ROM drive and its multimedia expansion adapter, a combination sound card and CD interface.
Way to Go,
There are some price differences between the Media Vision, Creative, and Tandy kits, but the Media Vision Kit wins by a very narrow margin--in large part due to the on-board SCSI interface and the excellent Sony drive. The Cretive Kit is quite good, especially since it's based on the popular Sound Blaster Pro audio card, and its $150 savings can't be ignored. Keep an eye out for the upcoming Ad Lib multimedia upgrade, though; the board carries some impressive specs, and if the drive matches the Gold card in performance, this kit could be the one to buy.
If you like to pick and choose yourself, you may be able to save some money assembling your own kit. But you'll have to work hard--as the least, you've got to beat the mail order price of Media Vision's Upgrade Kit, which runs less than $750 when you buy by phone.
Sony's Laser Library is a good starting place. Typically discounted to around $600, the Laser Library includes an external Sony CD-ROM drive and six CD titles, including such notables as Microsoft Bookshelf and National Georgraphic's Mammals. Less expensive, but sans software, is Tandy's $399 CDR-1000 internal CD-ROM drive. Add a good sound card like the Ad Lib Gold or Sound Blaster Pro--both at $299 suggested list price, but around $200 direct--and you've got a workable multimedia (if not MPC) system for $600-$800.
Cut to the chase. What's the best way to go from simple PC to multimedia monster? For most of us, a kit is worth the extra money in time saved and fewer frustrations. For less than you'd spend on a trio of business applications, you can drop an upgrade kit into your PC.