December 1995


The newest Intel processor for IBM-compatible PCs is known as the Pentium Pro. How much faster is it? Well, it may actually be slower running your current Windows software.

The Pentium Pro is optimized to run 32-bit software. But Windows 3.1 and Windows for Workgroups are 16-bit programs, as are the applications which run on them. Windows 95 is a hybrid, capable of running both 16-bit and 32-bit programs. To take full advantage of the new processor, you need a 32-bit operating system like UNIX or Windows NT, neither of which can run 16-bit programs.

Currently the Pentium Pro runs at 150 MHz. Running 16-bit software, a 133 MHz Pentium is likely to be faster. Of course, faster versions of the Pentium Pro could make it worthwhile to upgrade.

Apparently Intel projected that most applications software would be 32-bit by the time the P6 (now called the Pentium Pro) was available. This hasn't happened, and it now looks like 16-bit software will be around for several more years.


IBM-compatible PCs are now available with at least five different Pentium processors (not counting the Pentium Pro). The only difference is the speed of the Pentium chip.

For example, a Zeos computer with a 528 MB hard disk, 8 MB of RAM, a 14" monitor, MS Works, and Windows 95 is advertised for $1,695. It uses a 75 MHz Pentium chip. The same computer is available with four faster processors. Here are the prices to upgrade from the 75 MHz chip to one of the faster chips:

    90 MHz      $100

   100 MHz       250

   120 MHz       450

   133 MHz       600

Not every manufacturer gives you clear-cut processor options like these. Sometimes the faster chips are only offered in models which have larger hard disks and more RAM, for example. Models may also vary in the amount of "secondary cache" (which speeds up memory access) installed on the motherboard.


Here are our suggestions for various PC features.

Processor speed: Expect 90 or 100 MHz for all but the lowest-price systems. Most users won't need to pay the price premium for even faster chips.

Hard disk: Look for a 1 gigabyte (GB) disk, which is 1,024 megabytes (MB). To get optimum disk speed, do not use disk compression software (such as Drivespace or Stacker). Expect an Enhanced IDE (EIDE) interface, which is faster than the older IDE standard. Disks with a SCSI (pronounced "scuzzy") interface are not an advantage for single-user PCs.

Random Access Memory (RAM): The contents of this memory disappear when you turn off the power. Operating systems like Windows and OS/2 use hard disk space to simulate additional RAM, but at a much slower speed. If you don't have enough RAM, programs will run very slowly. Get 16 MB of RAM, not the standard 8 MB. It is better to buy the additional 8 MB of RAM rather than a faster Pentium chip. Windows 95 needs more RAM for itself than Windows 3.1, which makes 16 MB even more valuable for fast performance.

Monitor: The standard color monitor size is now 15", which is noticeably larger than the 14" size. Although the specifications will boast a resolution of 1024x768 in a 15" monitor, we have found that the best resolution to use is still the VGA standard of 640x480. You can try the intermediate resolution of 800x600, but characters will be smaller than on the screen of a 14" monitor at standard resolution. For most people, that is too small.

To really make use of higher resolutions, you need a bigger screen. However, 17" monitors are much more expensive than 15" models, starting above $600 with some models over $1,000.

Multimedia: This category includes a CD-ROM drive, a sound card, and speakers. The standard CD-ROM drives are now quadruple speed ("4x"). These are a worthwhile improvement over double-speed drives, which should be avoided.

Sound cards vary, but the standard is a 16-bit stereo sound card which is "Sound Blaster compatible." The Creative Labs Sound Blaster 16 is an example. Wavetable synthesis makes the sound of instruments more realistic but costs a lot more.

Speakers, like stereo speakers in general, come in all possible price ranges. The ones packaged with many PCs and multimedia upgrade kits (CD-ROM, sound card, speakers) are generally poor in quality. The only way to decide on the quality level you need is to listen to the speakers.

New home PCs and multimedia kits usually include software. Consider the value, to you, of the included software.

Fax/Modem: A 14.4 Kbaud internal modem is the current standard. An upgrade to a 28.8 Kbaud modem is worthwhile for data communications, but not for fax.

An external modem requires a fast serial port on the computer, an extra cable from computer to modem, and a plug-in power supply. On the other hand, you can see the lights on the modem, so you can tell what it is doing, a desirable feature.

Tape backup: If the hard disk fails, you will need to restore your data (documents, spreadsheets, and such), pre-loaded software (such as Windows 95), and any additional software you added later.

The tape drive should have sufficient capacity to back up your largest disk drive (say, C or D) on one tape. Assume a compression ratio of 1.5 to 1, not 2 to 1 as the manufacturers claim.

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