$350 400 MHz Computers
I have had very good luck buying off-brand computers. The only problems I've encountered buying computers at auction have required shipping the computer back to the company. However, in the two cases where I had to do that, the companies fixed them and they worked fine after that. Syscon has been in business for several years, and may be expected to stand behind their products. I don't think it has made much, if any, difference in the sale price when it came time to sell them. I'm sure that a Dell or a Gateway would have cost twice what these generic computers cost, and would have depreciated mightily. In addition, some companies, like Compaq and Hewlett Packard, have proprietary boards and cases, so that you have to buy memory and upgrades from them. Two sources of purchasing advice might be Computer Shopper and www.800.com.
One company, Syscon Technology, USA offers a 400 MHz Celeron processor, 32 MB of 100 MHz SDRAM, a 6.4 GB hard drive,
a 44X CD, and a 56k fax/modem for $299, plus ~$50 shipping. This price does not include Windows 98, which costs $95 extra. Another 32 MB of RAM may be acquired for an additional $48. I have purchased one of these and can recommend the company. (One of the great advantages to buying a bottom-of-the-line computer like this is that one can usually sell it in a year and buy a newer one with little or no depreciation.)
Another promising source might be MSC Computers. And still another would be e-Machines. e-Machines doesn't sell directly to the public and unfortunately, inflated prices are the rule with commercial vendors. Still, the advertised prices are probably available somewhere. The only computer auction site I've found that is price-competitive with the above companies is Online Auction (Egghead).
Jonathon Koves has added a recommended source for low-cost computers: www.pricewatch.com. Thanks, Jonathon.
Timetable for Your Computer Upgrades
At the moment, the computers ar the top of the food chain are the 1 GHz Pentium III's and the 1 GHz K7's. Right now, you can buy a 600-MHz Pentium III or K7 with 64 MB of SDRAM and a 6.4 GB hard drive for $600-$700. This summer, Intel will officially introduce its Itanium processor, although this will be priced for highly-expensive servers. By December, 2000, Intel has promised to market its next-generation desktop chip, the 1.5 GHz Willamette. In the meantime, Advanced Micro-Devices (AMD) may counter with its "Sledgehammer". In any case, by year's end, top-of-the-line computers will be running at 1.5 Ghz, and by next year at this time, you'll probably be able to buy a 1-1.2 GHz desktop computer for $600-$700. Right now, mid-scale computers are shipping with DVD's in place of CD-ROM's, and 128 MB of SDRAM, while top-of-the-line machines sport 256 MB. You can always add RAM to your computer but it's wasteful to jettison your CD-ROM in order to install a DVD. I would advise paying a little extra upfront for a DVD. Their prices are dropping below $100, and they will be replacing CD-ROMs over the coming year. Since they can play existing CD's, you'll get the best of both worlds. NIC's (Network Interface Cards) are also desirable, since you'll need one for any kind of high-speed Internet service. They cost the vendor less than $10, so they shouldn't add much to your price. (Of course, you can always add them later.)
Next year (2001) at this time, you can probably expect to find 128 MB of RAM, an 8-10 MB hard drive, and a DVD player in your 1 GHz K7. One of the complications with DVD's is that they're going to go through the same kind of horsepower race that characterized CD-ROMs. They have gone rapidly from their introductory 1X speed to 6X, 8X, and 10X currently. Most DVD's still afford a 4.3 GB capacity, but the High Definition TV DVD recorders that will debut in 2002 will require 25 GB capacities. Of course, they'll hit the market at scandalous prices, and it will be 2003 or 2004 before their prices will reach reasonable levels.
The following year, in 2002, you can expect to see flagship computer speeds in excess of 2 GHz. You may also see by that time lower-priced Itanium computers for the desktop (although they will probably be rather expensive). Your $600-$700 computer will probably run at 1.2 to 1.5 GHz. You may still be comfortable with 128 MB of RAM although 256 MB will not be uncommon. With a wideband connection, you might back up your files at a central site. The futures of floppies, Zip disks, super-floppies, and CD-rewritables are difficult for me to project. DVD-rewriteables may be a hot item, but their rapidly escalating speeds and capacities might lock you into last year's technology.
In 2003, look for a 1.8-to-2 GHz Itanium or Sledgehammer in your $600-$700 computer, and a 3-3.25 GHz processor in the corporate machines. You'll probably want 256 MB of RAM, while they'll be flaunting 512 MB. You'll be employing a 13-to-20 GB hard drive, while they'll be boasting at least 75 MB of rotating storage. You might be given the option of selecting a cable modem or an ADSL modem in lieu of the 56K modems that are being shipped today.
In 2004, you can expect a 2.5-to-3 GHz microprocessor. You might be including a rewritable DVD in your package.
In 2005, you can expect a 3.5-to-4.5 GHz chip. You'll probably still be using 256 MB of RAM, with a 75 GB hard drive to hold all those high definition pictures and video clips you'll be downloading over your wideband connection.
One important consideration here that is boosting computer requirements are the declining prices of computer monitors. Flat-panel monitors have dropped as low as $500, and a good 1,600 X 1,200 19" monitor now runs between $350 and $400. KDS has a 21" monitor advertised at 1,920 X 1,400 for $600. Other 21" monitors are available with resolutions as high as 2,000 X 1,500 for about $1,000. As prices continue to fall, and monitor sizes continue to grow, the dimensions of browser windows and web graphics images will grow apace. And this will up demands for ever-larger hard drives. However, the major driver for hard drive capacities may reside in video. A 160 X 120 video clip requires 30 kilobytes per second, or 1.8 MB per minute, or 108 MB per hour.
For projections beyond 2005, please check back with me in five years.