Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 149 / FEBRUARY 1993 / PAGE 40

The ultimate Windows machine. (includes related articles) (Buyers Guide)
by Dan Gookin

It goes without saying that you need a bold, powerful computer to run Windows at its best. The folks at Microsoft have endeavored to make Windows hospitable to nearly all PC hardware, and there are tricks and techniques to make it run better on any machine, but the only way to make Windows really shine is with the latest CPU, a quick hard drive with lost of free space, megabytes of RAM, and a speedy yet colorful video system. This leaves you not only wanting more but also faced with dozens of options and choices for upgrading your current PC, as well as any future PC you plan to purchase.

Configuring an ideal PC for Windows wouldn't be such a great problem if it weren't for two things. First, never and better hardware appears daily. Subtle improvements are made in microprocessor and video technology, most of which are directly beneficial to Windows.

This means you have more and more choices every day, and some of yesterday's best picks are rapidly becoming obsolete.

The second problem is money. Fancy new hardware is expensive. In a few years it will come down in price, but by then newer and better hardware will be available--and even more expensive. So while you can make the choice quite easily, the options you prefer may not be in your budget. And even if they are, is it wise to spend that much money on something when the price will eventually drop and other better and more expensive items will eventually appear?

Welcome to the buyer's dilemma. If money were no object, then creating the ultimate Windows machine would be a snap: Jog down to your local computer store and purchase the most expensive model. It's a no-sweat, no-brainer purchase. Yet, while this will get you a hot Windows PC, it's not a very smart way to spend your money. For example, you may be spending too much money on a fancy video system when that money would be better spent on a larger hard drive or more RAM. As with all computer purchases, how you spend your money depends on how you're going to use your Windows computer.

Four Basic Parts

Windows eats hardware for breakfast, and its four major food groups must be supplied in proportion to its appetite. Up front, there's the microprocessor, or CPU (which also includes the math coprocessor). Windows' basic lust for speed is satiated only by a fast CPU. Second, there's RAM, or memory. Windows devours RAM, gulping it down in megabyte-sized chunks. Third is the hard drive, which must be fast and contain plenty of room for Windows and its massive programs. Finally, there's the video system, where Windows shows its stuff. Since Windows is a visual environment, a PC's video system can make or break Windows, no matter how good the other three items are.

Together, the CPU, RAM, hard drive, and video system are the four pillars upon which you can build the supreme Windows computer. (Actually, these are the four major elements of any computer, so you could say that the ultimate Windows PC is also the ultimate PC. However, souping up a computer in this manner to run only WordPerfect, 1-2-3, or an order-entry system would be an extreme waste of money.) Other items are important, such as a mouse, sound card, modem, and so forth, but they aren't as crucial as the basic four.

CPU and Math Coprocessor

The heart of any computer is the CPU, or microprocessor. Windows requires an 80386-family CPU in order to run in the enhanced mode, Windows' top operating mode. Windows can run on an 80286-equipped PC, but then it's restricted to operating in the limited standard mode, where fancy features such as multitasking DOS programs isn't an available option. Fortunately, the 80386 family of CPUs is extensive and contains many brothers, sisters, and cousins bound to fill the role of Windows CPU.

The accompanying chart, "CPUs Capable of Handling Windows," lists CPUs capable of meeting Windows' demands. Topping the list is the current generation of PC microprocessors, the 80486 family. That's followed by the 80386 family and then the 80286. Quite frankly, you don't want an 80286 to run Windows. The 80486, at the top of the scale, is your ideal Windows microprocessor.

CPUs are judged by two factors: computing power and chip speed. These attributes apply to all the CPUs in the chart. Computing power is measured by a microprocessor's bit width. That indicates the size of the numbers and the amount of memory the CPU can play with. The larger the bit width, the better the CPU. Early CPUs had a bit width of 8. Today's 80486 desk burners churn out numbers 32-bits wide. When Windows sees 32 bits, it gets very happy. Anything less, and you're making Windows tighten its belt, cramping its style.

One important aspect about a CPU's bit width is that there are both internal and external values. The internal value refers to the way the microprocessor handles values inside--the way it thinks in its "head." For example, just about any 80386 or 80486 CPU can juggle 32-bit numbers internally with one hand tied behind its back. The SX-suffixed CPUs, on the other hand, have a 16-bit width externally. This means that although they can handle the 32-bit numbers internally, they must slice them in half to slide them out the door. This slows the chip's performance, but it gives us the advantage of a less expensive chip.

The second factor used in judging a CPU is its chip speed. This is raw horsepower. Microprocessors calculate many thousands of times per second--sometimes millions of times per second. That speed is measured in millions of cycles per second, a value scientists have described as megahertz (MHz). This value is straightforward: The more MHz, the faster the CPU. The typical speed of a PC's microprocessor is about 33 MHz. Older computers may sport slower speeds, sometimes 20 or 25 MHz, which was as far as the technology could push things a few years back. Today's CPUs can run at 33, 40, 50, 66 MHz--and faster. Obviously, the faster speed is better, but there are two warnings attached to this. The first concerns comparisons between the MHz values of 80386 and 80486 microprocessors. The 80486 is a later-generation chip and runs faster than a comparable 80386 chip. For example, an 80486 running at 33 MHz runs much faster than an 80386 also running at 33 MHz. In fact, an 80486 running at 25 MHz may be faster than an 80386 running at 33 MHz. While the 80386 may be less expensive, the 80486's advances in technology make it a faster chip.

The second warning concerns the 80486 clock-doubling chips. These chips will end with the number 2 or sometimes 12. By using special technology, the doubling chip sometimes--and only internally--can achieve speeds double its rating. For example, an 80486DX2 may claim a speed of 66 MHz--which would make it one screaming chip! However, the 2 indicates that this is a clock-doubling chip; the actual speed of the chip is really just 33 MHz. The advantage here, of course, is that an 80486DX2 that can sometimes run at 66 MHz would be much less expensive than a 66-MHz 80486DX. However, the 80486DX would be much faster, since it would always run at full speed.

Finally, there is a technical issue of the CPU's internal cache. This differs from a disk cache, which is a special area of your computer's memory set aside to improve disk operations. A microprocessor's cache is a special area on the chip that improves the speed of the microprocessor. (It works like a disk cache, but it does not require any of your PC's memory. The cache is stored on the chip or on a special companion chip.) Some CPUs will have no internal cache. Others may have a 1 K, 8K, 64K, or larger cache. The larger the cache, the more performance you'll see from the chip. In some cases you may be able to upgrade the cache yourself; other times, the cache is an internal part of the microprocessor and cannot be changed. (Internal is better, by the way.)

This aspect of the CPU is something you may have little control over. Usually, only the big boys offer the high-speed microprocessors with beefy caches, and they do so for a premium price. Overall, the best CPU to get for Windows is the fastest available 80486DX chip. As this issue goes to press, that's the 80486DX running at 50 MHz. (A 66-MHz model is rumored to be in the works, and the next-generation CPU, the Pentium, is also just around the corner.) The second-best CPU would be the clock-doubling 80486DX2 running at 66 MHz. It's a better choice than the 33-MHz 80486DX, which doesn't have the higher speed as an option.

On the economical front, the best chip worth having is the 80386DX. I recommend this above the 80486SX, which is essentially a slow 80486 without a math coprocessor, While the 80386DX also lacks a math coprocessor, its optional coprocessor chip (the 80387) is less expensive than the comparable chip for the 80486SX (the 80487). (Refer to "The Math Coprocessor Equation," elsewhere in this article.)

Laptop owners may be stuck with the 80386SX, primarily because of its low power consumption. For a desktop computer, however, I don't recommend the 80386SX at all; consider the 80386DX or save up some cash and go for the fastest 80486 chip you can afford.

The CPU Tally

Best Windows CPU: 80486DX at 50 MHz or 80486DX2 at 66 MHz Very good: 80486DX at 33 MHz or 80486DX2 at 50 MHz Economical: 80386DX at 33, 25, or 20 MHz Unsatisfactory: 80486SX, 80286


An 80386 or 80486 CPU can rule over four gigabytes of memory. That's 4096 megabytes, which is about 4092MB more than the typical PC contains. Even so, most PCs only have room for 8MB of RAM on the motherboard, sometimes 16MB or 32MB, given various expansion options. With all that memory, Windows claims it only needs 2MB to start in the enhanced mode. Of course, if you believe that, then there are some real deals on swampland in Florida if you're interested ...

No matter how fast your microprocessor or how much hard drive space you have, Windows needs acres and acres of free memory to frolic and dance. Without it, the program is as cramped as an airline passenger in the middle seat in coach trying to slice up and eat a steak while maintaining a civil composure.

Realistically speaking, you need at least 4MB of memory to properly run Windows. However, Windows runs even better with 8MB. And 16MB? If your computer has room for that much RAM and you can afford to put it in, then why not? In fact, I'll make a blunt, flat rule about Windows memory consumption needs and how to fill them: Buy as much memory as you can afford for your PC or as much as will fully populate the motherboard. For example, the typical 80486 desktop-model PC may have room for 8MB of RAM. Buy it. Install it. Use it. If you have room for more RAM, buy it. Overall, memory is the least expensive thing you can add to your PC, and Windows will love it.

Another important point to consider is the type of memory you add. Specifically, Windows needs extended memory. This is the native memory you add to your 80386 or 80486 PC. Do not run any software drivers or special programs that convert the extended memory into expanded memory--no, no, no! Windows needs only extended memory; expanded memory is wasted when you run Windows.

As far as technical specifics go, make sure you buy memory of the proper speed and type for your PC. For example, if the manufacturer suggests buying 80-ns RAM chips, buy 80-ns chips. Don't save money by getting less expensive chips. The reason is that one slow chip in your PC will cause every other RAM chip to slow down to that speed. This isn't how you make Windows run fast on your PC. Other technical information about the chips is of a more specific nature; make sure you always have what the manufacturer suggests and nothing less.

Economically speaking, 2MB is the least amount of memory you need to run Windows in the enhanced mode. But why suffer? At present prices, another 2MB of memory is cheap (especially if you buy it by mail order from a memory chip specialty house). However, I recommend at least 8MB of memory for Windows. With 16MB, you'll be going first class.

The Memory Tally

Best memory for Windows: 16MB or more--as much as your motherboard will hold/you can afford. Very good: 8MB Economical: 4MB Unsatisfactory: Anything less

Hard Drive Size, Speed, and Type

Windows and its applications have a rapacious appetite for hard drive storage. By itself, Windows occupies some 10 or 12 megabytes of disk space. Add a single Windows application, and you lose another 10 or 12 megabytes. This all but rules out running Windows on a hard drive with only a 20MB capacity. Even a 40MB or 60MB hard drive gets cramped quickly with Windows.

The obvious solution to the hard drive storage dilemma is to buy the largest hard drive you can afford. I recommend anything over 200MB. If you need a formula, figure on a basic 40MB, plus 15MB for each of your applications (either Windows or DOS based). Double that figure and buy a hard drive of that capacity--or larger. Suppose you use Windows, Excel, WordPerfect for Windows, ProComm, plus a few utilities. That's 40MB + (4 x 15MB), which equals 100MB. Double that, and you get 200MB. Better still, since most people have more than four applications, consider a 320MB drive as the bare minimum for the ultimate Windows PC.

Capacity shouldn't be the only factor in selecting the ultimate Windows machine's hard drive. There are two other gauges you can use to measure a hard drive's willingness to behave with Windows: speed and interface. A hard drive's speed is judged by its average access time, measured in milliseconds (ms). This is the average time it takes the hard drive mechanism to reach out and fetch some data on the disk. The smaller the value, the faster the hard drive. Values of 20 ms or less indicate a fast, zippy, perfectly-suited-for-Windows hard drive. Anything less than 40 ms is OK, but avoid greater values.

The final factor used in selecting a hard drive is its interface, or the mechanism that controls the hard drive, sometimes called the hard drive controller. The best controller to get for Windows is the SCSI (pronounced "scuzzy," Small Computer System Interface) controller--but only if you select a top-quality SCSI interface card, preferably one with an on-board microprocessor or large cache. And if you get the 32-bit EISA SCSI, then you're going just about as fast as you can go (refer to "Expansion Slots," elsewhere in this article).

Some may disagree with my selection of SCSI as part of the ultimate Windows machine's hard drive interface. However, any quick look at the top-of-the-line hard drives will prove my point: The hottest, fastest, and largest-capacity drives are all SCSI. Another advantage to SCSI is that you can connect up to seven hard drives to a single controller. Other controllers limit you to one or two drives. And if you don't need seven hard drives, then consider connecting a CD-ROM, a scanner, or another device to the flexible SCSI interface.

After SCSI, the two next-best options are the IDE and ESDI interfaces. Both of these types of hard drives are smart, having the electronics that control the hard disk on the drive unit itself. Some older workhorse PCs probably use the ESDI interface; modern PCs and nearly all laptops sport IDE drives. The problem with both of these is a lack of availability of drives at the higher capacities. But if SCSI is too eccentric for you, IDE drives in particular are a good second choice.

At the bottom of the heap are the older PC drives, identified as RLL, MFM, or some other interesting acronym. These drives have been supplanted by the newer standards mentioned above, and you should avoid using them. If your goal is to upgrade your PC to the ultimate Windows machine, then a new SCSI or IDE hard drive and controller is a good place to start spending your upgrade cash.

If you're trying to save money--and you're a cost-conscious buyer--then note that though large capacity drives are more expensive, the cost per megabyte is much less than with lower-capacity drives. And if there's one thing you can never overestimate, it's the amount of disk storage you'll need, especially under Windows.

The Hard Drive Tally

Best hard drive size for Windows: 320MB Very good: 200MB Economical: 80MB Unsatisfactory: 40MB or less

Best hard drive speed: 20 ms or faster Very good: Anything faster than 40 ms Unsatisfactory: 40 ms or slower Values of 20 ms or less indicate a fast, zippy, perfectly-suited-for-Windows hard drive. Anything less than 40 ms is OK, but avoid greater values.

Best type of hard drive: EISA SCSI Very good: IDE, ESDI Unsatisfactory: Anything else

Video Card and Monitor

One area of tremendous improvement over the past several years is in PC graphics. Gone are the days of ugly fuzzy text and primitive two-color graphics screens. Today's Super VGA offers colors, resolution, and splash to dazzle the most discerning graphics artist's eye. Not only that, but a technology called local bus (or direct bus) is enabling PC makers to directly connect the PC's eye (the video system) to the PC's brain (the microprocessor) for the absolutely fastest and best video system possible.

A PC's video system really consists of two elements: the video adapter card, which is an expansion card that plugs into one of your computer's expansion slots, and the monitor. Of the two, the adapter card is more important, since it sets the resolution and number of colors and determines what type of monitor you connect to the PC. Once you select the adapter card, you can find a suitable monitor, though some people will erroneously pick out specialty monitors and then hunt for video adapters to drive them.

There are many high-end video standards for the PC, so it's quite possible to spend a great deal of money to get the highest possible resolution with the most colors. Though they sound like part of the ultimate solution, adapter cards such as the XGA or the old PGA are really best suited for graphic artists with deep pockets (a rare combination) or CAD engineers who use a specific application that pushes the high-end video card to its limits. For everyone else, the Super VGA standard will suffice.

Super VGA is an extension of IBM's VGA video standard included with most PS/2 computers. It's called super because of its extra colors, resolutions, and graphics modes that the standard VGA graphics adapter lacks. Better SVGA cards offer 1MB or more of video memory. A resolution of at least 1024 x 768 pixels with 256 colors is considered good; 1280 x 1024 resolution is tops (anything higher, and you're starting to wander into graphicartist land).

The best SVGA standard is the local bus or VESA standard. This is a video system that's integrated with your computer's microprocessor. The local bus is actually a direct line of communications to the computer's brain, allowing for the fastest possible video. (Other local bus items, such as hard drives, will probably be available in the near future.) Keep in mind that a VESA, local, or direct bus video system should still be SVGA compatible.

Selecting the ultimate Windows machine's video monitor isn't that hard once you've chosen a graphics adapter card. The typical monitor has a tube that measures 14 inches diagonally, with 15-inch and larger monitors available. The advantage of the larger monitor is that you can see more information on the screen--especially with the higher graphics resolutions possible on SVGA systems.

Monitors have several technical descriptions attached to them. The most important of these for shopping purposes is whether the monitor is interlaced or noninterlaced. Many users claim that noninterlaced monitors offer a clearer image without flicker. If you have a choice, noninterlaced is the better option; however, I've seen many interlaced monitors that don't seem to flicker much.

Most of the other descriptions of a monitor are technical and serve only to boggle the mind. I prefer to see a monitor in person before buying it, since the dot pitch, refresh rate, and other technical descriptions don't really describe the image you see.

Specialty monitors for Windows include larger 19-inch and portrait and landscape models. The huge monitors are usually selected for use in presentations. While it would be impressive to view Windows on a 19-inch screen, you'd probably have to wear lead-shielded eye shades and sunblock with an SPF of 15 if you sat too close to it!

The portrait monitors are nice because they display approximately one page of information, typically 9 inches wide by 15 inches tall. This is ideal for desktop publishing where viewing a page's "real size" is especially important.

The landscape monitor is a portrait monitor lying on its side (some even rotate between landscape and portrait positions). Landscape monitors are best for showing horizontal information, such as long spreadsheets or some types of graphics.

Picking a specialty monitor for Windows may involve buying a custom interface card; it definitely will require a special type of video driver. In fact, Windows is extremely flexible when it comes to weird monitors and video drivers. Some setups, such as the Colorgraphic Super Dual VGA cord, allow you to run several SVGA adapters and several monitors on a single Windows machine. While this may qualify as the ultimate Windows machine, sticking with SVGA and a good 15-inch monitor will suffice for most of us.

The Video Tally

Best video for Windows: Local bus SVGA, 1MB or more video memory Very good: SVGA, 1MB or more video memory Economical: SVGA or VGA Unsatisfactory: EGA, CGA, Hercules, oddball standards

Luxury Items Worthy of Consideration

Why limit yourself only to a fast CPU, a large hard drive, mountains of memory, and vivacious video when creating the ultimate Windows machine? Many would argue that the ultimate Windows machine must also be a multimedia computer. They may even stretch it to include some type of desktop TV or video editing. Others may claim you need a fax/modem or a tape backup system to round out the ultimate PC. While all of these items contribute to an ultimate Windows machine, they're not as central as the basic four. In fact, few of the high-end systems from the national mail-order vendors (see "Mail-Order Machines to Fit the Bill," elsewhere in this article) include or even offer such options, so they remain luxury extras.

The first and most obvious addition to any Windows PC is multimedia. That's a buzzword for expanding a computer by use of sound, music, a CD-ROM drive, and sometimes desktop video. While the concept may remain fuzzy, Windows is capable of supporting sound and MIDI, the Musical instrument Digital Interface, right out of the box. So the software is there. Additional multimedia software usually comes with the multimedia PC or a multimedia upgrade kit, which can be purchased separately.

The typical multimedia upgrade kit includes a sound card, speakers, a CD-ROM drive and its interface (usually SCSI), and software. (The MIDI kit, plus any MIDI-compatible electronic musical instruments, are usually extra.) The price of these kits varies from about $400 to over $1,000 for sophisticated 16-bit setups. If you buy all of the parts separately, the cost will be more.

A modem or fax/modem card is another option worth considering for the ultimate Windows machine. Modems allow you to hook up your PC to the phone line and access online services, national databases, or remote computers such as the office computer, your home computer, a laptop, and so on. The topflight modems run at the blazing speed of 14,400 bits per second (bps), with lesser models flying by at 9600 bps. Entry-level models buzz by relatively slowly at speeds of 2400 bps and 1200 bps. Modems come in both internal and external models.

Better than stand-alone modems are fax/modem cards. These plug into your computer and give you both computer communications as well as standard level III fax capabilities. Using your computer and a phone line, you can both send and receive faxes while in Windows. Higher-end models come with on-board microprocessors that allow you to send and receive faxes without impeding the PC's overall performance, Special software that runs under Windows allows you to send a fax in the same way you send a document to your printer.

A tape backup system is a boon to any PC. Rather than mess with a stack of floppy disks, you can use the tape backup to archive your entire hard drive onto a single inexpensive data cartridge. Special software that runs under Windows makes this painless and much more convenient than backing up with floppies alone.

Finally, you should consider some type of surge protection--especially in areas of unreliable power or where lightning strikes are common. Varying degrees of power protection can help insulate the valuable components inside your PC against electronic havoc. On the high end of the scale, adding an uninterruptible power supply is considered a must for any PC whose contents you value.

Ultimate Standards

Other items in the ultimate Windows machine are more or less accepted features on any PC: a floppy drive, either 3 1/2- or 5 1/4-inch or both; a serial and a parallel (printer) port, or maybe two of each; a mouse and a mouse port--which are required for Windows even though the box says they're only recommended.

Creating the supreme machine for Windows can be challenging and fun. Paying for it is more challenging but less fun. Leading-edge technology--what Windows requires to run at its best--is something you can never really have; as technology advances, the power of your machine begins to slip through your fingers. So while planning and building are fun, the ultimate Windows machine you create winds up being for today and not quite for tomorrow.

In the end, the real question is how to spend your money. Do you really need the latest screamer with tons of power to run Windows? Not really. While the fastest CPU, gobs of memory, a large and speedy hard drive, and decent video are important, you don't need everything and the kitchen sink to create a worthy, powerful Windows PC. By spending your money wisely and applying it in the proper amounts toward the proper areas of your PC, you can create a robust, muscle-laden Windows machine without going bankrupt or losing any sleep over creeping technology.

CPUs Capable of Handling Windows

Be aware that dealers will always advertise the higher speed.

80486DX A "pure" 80486 chip. This CPU computes using 32 bits internally and externally. The chip's speed (measured in MHz) is the actual speed of the chip.

80486DX2 This CPU computes at 32 bits internally and externally, just like the DX. The difference is the 2, which means this chip uses special tricks to run at twice its normal speed. For example, a 33-/66-MHz 80486DX2 runs at 66 MHz internally and 33 MHz externally. This chip is more economical than an 80486DX running at 66 MHz (which is a faster chip).

80486SX This CPU computes internally at 32 bits but at only 16 bits externally. This means its performance will be somewhat less than the full 80486DX or DX2 chip. Also, the 80486SX lacks an internal math coprocessor, which must be purchased at an extra cost. While the 80486SX is initially a less expensive CPU, the added cost of the 80487 math coprocessor chip to make it compatible with the full 80486DX makes this chip a poor choice.

80386DX This is the fastest 80386-family chip available. Like the 80486, it runs at 32 bits internally and externally. This chip is also a bit slower than an 80486 chip running at the same speed, and it requires a math coprocessor (80387) chip to be fully software compatible with the 80486DX.

80386SX This CPU runs at 32 bits internally but at only 16 bits externally. This makes it the least powerful CPU recommended for running Windows in the enhanced mode. On the upside, this is also the least expensive chip of the lot and the only CPU you're likely to find in most laptops (thanks to this chip's low power consumption).

80286 The 80286 CPU sits on the bottom rung of Windows power requirements. Windows runs on computers with this microprocessor, but not very well. In fact, with an 80286 chip installed, you're limited to running Windows in the standard mode.

Buying a Windows Laptop

Windows on a laptop is no longer such a curious thing. On my last visit to the computer store (hunting for a laptop, incidentally), I was greeted with two dozen laptop computers, each of which was running Windows--some of them in color. Flash aside, the four basic hardware groups are also important when considering the ultimate Windows laptop, but to a lesser degree. For example, you may only get a 25-MHz 80386SX or SL in your laptop. The reason is power consumption. Higher-power CPUs draw a lot more battery power than the low-power 80386 models.

If possible, look for Intel's SL chips or similar microprocessors from other manufacturers, which are designed to have a special power-down mode that conserves juice when the laptop is inactive. If possible, make sure the laptop conforms to the Advanced Power Management (APM) specification.

RAM and hard drive capacity are limited on a laptop to available storage space. Most laptops can be upgraded to 4MB of RAM. Laptop hard drives are typically puny, though you may find the occasional 80MB or larger model. (And with programs like Stacker, you can convert that 80MB into a potential 160MB of storage.)

Finally, for video, most laptops come with built-in VGA or Super VGA, though they display the image on a less-than-perfect LCD screen. If you want to bite the bullet and go into debt, then you can opt for a color LCD screen. Some of them do show color comparable to many desktop systems, but they are still very, very expensive. If you decide to go monochrome, take a good look at the laptop's rendition of Windows. Are there smears on the screen? Do colors bleed up and down or left and right? Do some colors cause flicker?

Another laptop item you need is a mouse. Some of the newer laptops have built-in thumbball mice. If the laptop lacks a companion mouse, then you can purchase one of the special clip-on trackball mice, such as Logitech's Trackman Portable or the Microsoft BallPoint mouse. These add width to the laptop, but not as much as a full-size mouse and mouse pad would.

Finally, don't neglect Windows' special options for laptop computers, such as color schemes or the mouse tails, which let you find the mouse more quickly. If you have plenty of money, then you can purchase the ultimate Windows laptop and really make fellow plane passengers jealous. But if I were you, I'd spend the cash on making my desktop model Windows happy and keep the Windows laptop just one notch above tolerable.

Cost-Effective Upgrades

Where do you start if your goal is to upgrade to the ultimate Windows machine? Right away, I can tel you that upgrading a PC a piece at a time is much more expensive than buying a new model--just like buying a car a piece at a time cost two times the sticker price (which is the theory behind chop shops operate). And chase away those thoughts of selling your PC used; there's no value in it! Consider donating the old clunker to a school or nonprofit organ instead. However, if you want to upgrade, here are the items I suggest purchasing, in the order they'd be most effective.

More memory. This helps, even on an 80286 system. Pack that Motherboard full of

A larger, faster hard drive and controller. If that's out of your reach, consider adding a second drive.

A video system upgrade. I list this third because the improvements more memory and a better hard drive have to offer will be immediately noticeable, whereas newer graphics hardware just makes poky old Windows look better.

A CPU upgrade. This isn't an option for most of us. Newer computers have CPU upgrade paths; older systems are stuck in the mud. Some 80286-to-80386SX options exist, such as the SotaPop or Cumulus 80386SX upgrade kit. A better solution might be a motherboard swap, which also updates the support circuitry the microprocessor relies upon.

Other items, peripherals, sound cards, CD-ROM, and so on. Save these upgrades for last; spend your money on the items above, in order, before you consider the fun stuff.

As far as spending money is concerned, consider what it is you do under Windows. If you notice your software going out to disk a lot and you subsequently wait for the disk drive to catch up, put more money into a faster disk drive and less into RAM. If the disk drive is fine, then shift more funds into RAM or a fancy video system. In the end, you may not have the ultimate Windows machine, but you'll definitely end up closer to it than when you started.

Mail-Order Machines to Fit the Bill

The ultimate Windows machine is ... just about anyone's guess. Truthfully, just about any manufacture can configure the ultimate Windows machine. You need to know the contents of the box and the phone number of your favorite dealer (the cash comes later). All told, the following system or one very similar qualifies as the ultimate Windows machine. CPU: 50-MHz 80486DX Memory: 16MB Hard drive: 320MB, 20 ms, EISA SCSI Video: Local bus SVGA, 1MB video memory, 15-inch monitor Other stuff: Both 3 1/2- and 5 1/4-inch drives, mouse, DOS 5.0, Windows 3.1

This is the base system. Anything extra--CD-ROM, sound card, printer, scanner, and software--must be added as an extra; the idea here is to buy the basic powerhouse. To meet these requirements, I called several top mail-order vendors to see what they had available and for how much. Please note that the prices listed here are as of October 1992; current prices and configurations will doubtless be different.

Dell Computers (800-426-5150)

Dell's ultimate Windows graphics workhorse is the 450DE-2, DGX. It's powered by a 486DX chip running at 50 MHz, and it contains Dell's own DGX direct video. The 450DE-2 is an EISA machine, complete with the required 16MB of RAM and a 330MB SCSI card. The monitor is a 15-inch flat screen, noninterlaced model. Dell also tosses in a Microsoft mouse, DOS, Windows, and one year of onsite service. The price for the complete package: $5,489 plus local tax and shipping.

The Dell salesperson suggested that we might want to go with the ATI Ultra card in place of the direct video. He explained that the DGX system is really designed for high-end CAD operations, though it will certainly smoke on any Windows application. If we elected to use the ATI Ultra card, the unit's price would drop to $4,689.

Gateway 2000 (800-523-2000)

The Gateway 2000 66-MHz 80486DX2 EISA machine easily qualifies as an ultimate Windows machine. The system to fit our bill comes with a 66-MHz 486DX2, EISA bus, local bus VESA video (the Ultra Store 24X), local bus SCSI hard drive at 500MB, and 16MB of RAM. A 15-inch CrystalScan 1572FS flat screen monitor, mouse, DOS, Windows, and your selection of Windows or DOS application software finishes the picture. All of that lists for $4,240, plus a shipping and handling charge of $95.

CompuAdd (800-925-7811)

CompuAdd doesn't have an EISA machine, nor does it offer SCSI hard drives. But the rest of the system does stack up rather nicely: an 80486DX2 running at 50 MHz, 16MB of RAM, two 200MB IDE hard drives for a total of 400MB disk space, local bus video, and a 15-inch monitor for $2,925. There is no tax charge, and shipping is UPS ground rate.

Extra goodies offered by CompuAdd are abundant. The salesperson suggested a tape backup unit, surge protection or uninterruptible power supply, plus an optional fax/modem card. The fax/modem deal was particularly sweet: only $109 for the Intel SatisFAXtion card, which includes preinstalled software.

ISM Direct (800-426-2968)

IBM Direct doesn't sell all of IBM's machines. Specifically, the high-end 80486 and MCA systems aren't available, which somewhat limits your selection of an ultimate Windows machine.

The beefiest system IBM Direct has available is the PS/2 model 35. That's an ISA PS/2 with a 20-MHz 80386 microprocessor, 2MB of RAM, and a 40MB hard drive. VGA is built into the PS/2 system. The entire price is $1,495, which also includes DOS. A mouse is $80 extra.

Needless to say, this system barely qualifies as anyone's ultimate machine, but it's what IBM Direct offers. Upgrade options are available, including CPU upgrades. The salesperson also reminded me that IBM offers a one-year warranty with 24-hour support and on-site service. If it's your dream to have the letters IBM on your desktop, this is your mail-order Windows system. However, for only a few hundred dollars more, much more capable machines are available. (And you can always check out the local IBM dealership for its 80486 line.)

Swan (800-446-2498)

Swan offers both EISA and ISA machines, but when I requested EISA, the salesperson recommended I get the ISA machine instead. The ISA machine is the only model equipped with local bus video, which Swan calls direct bus. The EISA model would have to be equipped with a 1MB video card, which Swan admits would be much slower--and less desirable for Windows--than the local bus option on the ISA machine.

The ultimate Swan Windows machine is the model 66DB. That's a 66-MHz 80486DX2 with 16MB of RAM, a 310MB SCSI hard drive, a 15-inch noninterlaced monitor, a mouse, and Windows. The system comes in at $5,625, which includes shipping (add tax only if you live in Pennsylvania). Swan also offers a gracious two-year warranty and onsite service.