HOME Technology 2005
PC performance at premium
Adding value to the basic box
Relatively high performing PCs are now a commodity item with entry level prices well under $1000, forcing the industry to look at new ways to add value and increase the appeal to more discerning consumers.

Dells’ introduction of the sub-$1000 PC in mid-2004 triggered the shift that soon had every other vendor following suit. By the third quarter the novelty had worn off and the market moved to notebooks which also began to plummet in price.

Research company IDC says desktop PC shipments grew from 107,802 in 2002 to 125,363 in 2004, remaining fairly stable in the first half of 2005 when notebook numbers grew significantly. However notebook computers are still perceived as ‘personal property’ while desktops maintain their appeal for home and small business users and loyal PC gamers.

Mainstream PC brands Hewlett Packard, IBM, Acer, Dell and the local clone manufacturers are looking beyond budget machines to cater to the power user and those wanting a longer term investment. Microsoft’s Media Centre software is one way to beef up the configuration and the margins. And while these boxes are typically preconfigured, they open up opportunities for additional sales and services, for example integrating 5.1 sound surround or converting and setting up digital content for users.

Most users can get away with entry level PCs for basic home and office use such as running Microsoft Office and email applications. However the reality is you won’t pay much more to future proof your investment. The cost of most components has been in decline over the past two years.

The base PC configuration remains 256Mb RAM for running Windows XP operating system, although 512Mb RAM is optimal, and even 1Gb RAM is not uncommon in higher performance machines. While many PCs are still sold with basic 40Gb hard disks, the price of disk capacity means 160Gb or even 200Gb drives are affordable, particularly if you are using your machine to host music or video files.

Most come with a CD/DVD combo writer and player. But with DVD writers you have to be clear about the media you want to use. Previously buyers had to sift through the DVD-, DVD+, DVDRW and DVD RAM format wars and know which disc goes with which writer. Sometime the media can be quite expensive, up to $5 a unit. Keep an eye out for new DVD writers which detect and write any type of DVD disk.

Also adding value through the DVD writer is Hewlett Packard’s with it new Pavilion PCs which feature double layer Lightscribe DVD recorders. Disks are now available from Imation and others at around the same cost as standard CDs and DVDs, enabling the new writers to emboss label information on the front side of the disc. The Pavilion machines, typically feature Pentium 4 processors, 512 RAM and hard drive sizes up to 160Gb.

Matching your memory, hard disk and processor speeds is a good way to ensure overall performance. "Earlier we had processors working at low speeds while the other components were higher speed and the gap got too big. Today we’re trying to bridge that by matching performance across chips, Seagate hard drives and dual channel memory," says Mark Marshall, product manager at clone maker TPG.

He’s using Intel’s latest hyper-threading technology in all TPGs new machines, which he says gives much faster response - the new chip set operate at 800MHz as opposed to the traditional 533MHz.

A typical Pentium 4 configuration would have 512 RAM, 80Gb hard drive and XP Professional or XP Home version operating system with 17 inch LCD monitor and three year on-site warranty. With network capability and dealer margin they sell for around $1900. Marshall says most businesses hang on to their PCs for four years and because of the robustness of these models and the warranty many consumers are taking them on.

Another trend keeping the PC market active is the tendency to build your own boxes, either clearly stating your needs ahead of purchase, or adding higher performance components to a robust base system as you go. This might include more capable processor, extra RAM, maxed out hard disk, top end video and audio cards and big screen LCDs. These users often want hair raising performance and are extremely precious about their machines and how quickly they’ll respond, especially in an interactive network gaming situation.

Vaughan Nankivell, Kingston Technology’s product manager for memory and storage, says nothing short of dual channel memory will do because it spreads the work load. As processors get faster, memory speed needs to increase to prevent performance lag. In the past few months modules based on Intel’s double data rate RAM (DDR2) have actually become cheaper than their DDR predecessors.

Power users may also look at turbo memory from PQI which runs faster and hotter, but has heat spreaders to disperse the temperature when a machine is in overdrive, flashing heavy graphics around. David Hurring, sales manager with Golden Leaf international says the games coming out now are at the cutting edge and require a lot more grunt to run.

Ardent PC gamers remain convinced they can have a more immersive experience with aggressive action games like Doom 3 and multiplayer sensation World of Warcraft which have stunning graphics engines and delivering nerve shattering action, particularly over a big LCD TV screen in the lounge. PQI turbo RAM might cost 10 per cent more than standard memory but boosts graphics capability by about 25 percent, says Hurring.

Meanwhile the market is rapidly migrating from the cumbersome cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors, which has dominated the desktop since year dot, to flat screen LCD technology. LCDs have long proved themselves on cell phones and notebook computers and were an obvious evolution. The price remained high during 2004 because of short supply, but early 2005 the factories geared up, making LCD more affordable.

According to IDC, 297,014 CRT monitors shipped in 2002 and 40,260 LCD monitors. The following year LCD monitor shipments more than tripled and by 2004 only 195,887 CRT monitors arrived here. LCD monitors had rocketed to 201,450 and that trend has continued throughout 2005.

The price conscious may still look to CRT - a 17 inch screen for under $200 compared to $400 for an equivalent LCD. However LCD display technology is improving all the time, its easier on the eyes, has lower power consumption and the footprint is significantly less. Initially there were some issues with clarity at certain viewing angles, some ghosting and problems with the refresh rate if you were using it for gaming for example but that refresh rate is typically down to 4-6 milliseconds.

It’s a buyers market out there, if you have cash in hand and know what you want before you step into the store, you are in a position to bargain. Don’t be intimidated, ask for more hard disk, more memory, a different screen and if you are cheeky you might even get a multi-function printer or digital camera thrown in for good measure.

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