Computers: How to get the best view from your Windows: Overall PC prices have remained static, but there is still a wide range in cost. Margaret Coffey reports on the state of the market

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The Independent Online
There has been little price movement since July 1993 for most types of PC-compatible comuters. This blip in the long-term downward trend in prices is due to factors similar to those which affect the holiay market: you run into the same problem whether you are planning a fortnight in Greece or choosing a notebook computer to take with you.

It is the variables to which both are subect that cause the trouble. If you say yes to a sea view and you want to travel in daylight, you may find the price of your holiday has increased significantly. Likewise, when you decide to buy a computer, failing to check precisely what is included in the package can cost you serious money: anything from 17 per cent to 64 per cent more than you bargained for, according to the monthly price survey conducted by Highdon Publishing.

For example, in January the median price for an entry level mainstream PC, based on an 486SX processor running at 25 megahertz with four megabytes of ram (main memory) and 100-megabyte hard disk, was pounds 936 (including VAT) if you were buying it mail order from an advert in magazine. But if you increased that specification to 8 megabytes of ram and a 200-megabyte hard disk, the median price rose 21 per cent to pounds 1,133.

The gap is even greater for PCs based on more powerful processors like the 486DX2/66. Choosing the processor is the easy part. The 386SX is fast fading from the scene. Today the 486SX is the choice for most people. Context, a UK market research company, says 46 per cent of the PCs sold in October, the most recent month for which it has data, included this processor.

This is because, even vith VAT added, you can see plenty of 486SX PCs on the market for less than pounds l,000. Like buying holidays, buying computers tends to be a matter of price points. You get as much as you can for the budget you set yourself. But that pounds 1,000 figure can be more or less than it seems. The comparative shopping comes in when you start to consider the vexing questions of how much main memory you need to run the software you will be using and how much storage space it will take on your hard disk.

No matter how desultory a PC user you expect to be, these are questions which will concern you. Eighty megabytes of hard disk may sound like a lot, but it is not if you intend to use Windows and related software. Basically any application which uses the Windows graphics-based operating system uses memory in all directions. All those lovely graphics take up lots of space.

This makes something near the 170-megabyte mark the minimum for a hard disk on Windows system. Memory is a similarly tricky issue. Most Windows applications suggest that 4 megabytes of ram is the minimum with which they can be used. Minimum is the keyword here; eight is far more sensible.

But here is the catch. Few PCs are priced with anything more than 4 megabytes of ram - and hard disk sizes vary widely. So two PCs which are based on the 486SX/25 and priced at pounds 995 may actually represent radically different value for money. Walk into a computer shop and you will see some with 2 megabytes of memory and an 80-megabyte hard disk for this price, alongside others with 4 megabytes of ram and a 210-megabyte hard disk.

The only way to make sure you get the best deal is to know what you want before you buy. If you want use Windows there is no point in looking at minimum configurations. Some systems which appear to be less expensive when you judge by miniumum configurations do not compare nearly so well with the seemingly higher-priced brands when you compare like with like.

You can see this in the highly price competitive mail order sector. Over the past six months the better known name brands such as Dell and Elonex have cut their prices. The less well-known companies which tend to sell solely on price have raised prices because shortages of some components have increased their costs. Because they operate on tighter margins than their larger competitors, they respond to even small changes in supplier costs.

This is one reason why prices tend to fluctuate in the PC market. Last July the lowest price of the popular 486SX was pounds 764. In January it was pounds 759, according to Highdon. In the interim, you could have paid a higher price. In October, for example, the lowest mail order price was pounds 817.

Overall, PC prices fell at about the same rate in 1993 as they did in 1992, though some fell more rapidly than others. Prices dropped to new lows for PCs based on the 486DX/33 and 486SX notebook PCs in January. The 486DX/33 is no longer a popular processor - for a relatively small premium users can move to the far faster 486DX/2 models. Suppliers may be cutting prices to move stock.

Prices are falling on 486SX notebook PCs for the opposite reason. There are more on the market, so competition is fierce and prices are falling. With all of these price cuts, one thing stays relatively constant. The price of an entry level PC is such the same as it was this time last year - only the computer is different. You get a more powerful PC than you would have 12 months ago, but the price is much the same. This pattern is likely to continue.

PC suppliers need volume sales to be viable so even at the low end of the market where they are reluctant to cut prices any further, they will continue to offer customers incentives. These can range from rental deals such as the one now offered by Olivetti and Radio Rentals, to extras bundled into the basic computer package. The trick is to make sure what you buy is what you want.

------------------------------------------------------------------------ PC mail order prices from direct suppliers All prices in pounds ------------------------------------------------------------------------ 1994 1993 1992 Jan Oct July March Jan Jan 486DX2/66 (4 megabytes of ram, 110-megabyte hard disk, super VGA monitor) Median 1,361 1,498 Lowest 1,102 1,175 486/33 (4 megabytes ram, 110-megabyte hard disk, SVGA monitor) Median 1,196 1,168 1,327 1,428 1,453 2,272 Lowest 926 881 973 1,092 1,184 1,537 486SX/25 (4 megabytes ram, 100-megabyte hard disk, super VGA monitor) Median 936 995 1,074 1,233 1,127 Lowest 759 817 764 827 867 386SX/25 (1 megabyte ram, 40-megabyte hard disk, VGA monitor) Median 700 768 693 823 792 937 Lowest 586 690 562 645 645 699 ------------------------------------------------------------------------ Notebook PCs ------------------------------------------------------------------------ 386SX (2 megabytes ram, 60-megabyte hard disk) Median 821 911 1,348 1,174 1,228 1,627 Lowest 821 821 939 821 1,052 1,146 486SX (4 megabytes ram, 80-megabyte hard disk) Median 1,234 1,332 1,439 1,492 1,880 Lowest 939 1,079 1,174 1,169 1,291 ------------------------------------------------------------------------ Prices include operating system, monitor, keyboard and delivery and are inclusive of VAT.

------------------------------------------------------------------------ Price difference between high and low-specification PCs in January ------------------------------------------------------------------------ Low spec High spec Difference (as above) (see below) (%) 406DX2/66 Median 1,361 2,135 57 Lowest 1,102 1,804 64 486/33 Median 1,196 1,436 20 Lowest 926 1,193 29 486SX Median 936 1,133 21 Lowest 759 892 17 3863X Median 700 825 18 Lowest 586 752 28 ------------------------------------------------------------------------ High specification is 8 megabytes of ram and a 200-megabyte hard disk, except for all but the 486DX2/66 which has 16 megabytes of ram and a 300-megabyte hard disk. Prices inclusive of VAT. ------------------------------------------------------------------------

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