New standards in multimedia mean state-of-the-art soon becomes state-of-the-Ark. George Cole advises on choosing the best system
If you're about to buy a multimedia PC, beware - you could end up with the computer version of a Ford Prefect. Most multimedia PCs conform to a standard known as MPC2, which specifies a 486 processor, four megabytes (Mb) of RAM (internal memory), a 160Mb hard disk and double-speed CD-Rom drive. But a new standard, known as (you guessed it) MPC3, has just emerged, and its specifications are much higher.

The IT industry is forever moving the goalposts when it comes to standards, and state of the art soon becomes state of the ark. This poses the classic consumer dilemma - should I buy or should I wait? The answer will depend on your computing needs, your spending budget and what the PC hardware and software companies plan to do. If most decide to stick with the MPC2 standard for a while, then there's no need to rush out and buy an MPC3 machine - at least not yet. But if they press ahead with the new standard, your spanking new MPC could soon find itself running out of steam.

But who sets the MPC standard and why is it so important? In 1991, Microsoft teamed up with a group of computer and consumer electronics companies to form the Multimedia PC Marketing Council. The idea behind MPC was to have an industry-wide standard like VHS in home video. Companies could use an MPC logo to show that their hardware or software was compatible with other MPC systems. The first MPC standard specified a PC with a 386 chip and just 2Mb of RAM.

In 1993, the MPC2 standard was released. Last spring, the MPC Marketing Council became part of the Software Publishers Association (SPA), which represents more than 1,500 software companies. SPA set up the MPC Working Group whose members include Dell, Philips, Creative Labs and Gateway 2000. The MPC3 standard, released in June, specifies a PC with a Pentium (586) processor running at 75 megahertz (MHz), 8Mb of RAM, a 540Mb hard drive, quad-speed CD-Rom and an operating system that is compatible with Windows 3.11. The new standard also includes faster graphics, an upgraded sound card and the ability to play MPEG-1 digital video (as used by VideoCD discs).

MPC3 means that PCs will be able to offer VHS-quality video and CD-quality sound, which will be a boost for users of computer games and CD-Rom titles. But the new specifications are the minimum requirements and some industry observers think PC users will need much more than this: "If you can afford a faster Pentium chip, then go for it. Likewise, a one gigabyte hard disk is better. And try and buy a machine with more RAM," recommends Ian Skelton, technical marketing manager of Creative Labs.

David Miles, retail channel manager of Compaq, agrees with the need for extra RAM: "Even without the MPC3 standard, PC users are going to need at least 8Mb of RAM to cope with Windows '95. In fact, I would question whether even this was enough - in the US, 12Mb and 16Mb of RAM is fast becoming the norm." These types of MPC systems would each cost around pounds 1,750 to pounds 2,500, including VAT, but prices will fall.

"Whatever you buy, don't expect it to be leading edge in 12 months," says David Matthews, Dell UK's desktop product marketing manager. "The important thing is to go for a balanced system. For example, it's no good having a super-fast processor if your graphics card is lousy." Software companies are divided over strategy. Lotus says it has no plans to develop software solely for Pentium PCs, and will continue to offer titles for 386 and 486 machines.

Gillian Kent, consumer product marketing manager for Microsoft UK, says: "You have to look at the mass market of installed machines and try not to leave them behind. But as the technology changes, it gives us new opportunities to produce more powerful software." Kent adds that some forthcoming Microsoft titles, such as Bookshelf and the multimedia encyclopaedia Encarta 96, will run on both Windows 3.1 and Windows '95 PCs. But towards the year- end, Microsoft will launch titles that will only run with Windows '95.

So when will MPC4 appear? The answer is that it may not. Some companies, such as Gateway 2000, are enthusiastic supporters of MPC: "We'll be moving to the new standard with a vengeance," says John Shepheard, Gateway's UK and Ireland country manager. Peter Bromage, marketing director of Packard Bell, says his company will launch MPC3-compatible machines later this year, but adds: "We plan to include additional features which the new standard doesn't address."

Others argue that the standard that really matters today is Windows95 and its future versions. But whatever happens, the message is: buy the fastest PC you can, the most memory you can afford - and don't be surprised if you have to upgrade in a couple of years' time.