- The Washington Times - Monday, August 16, 2004

How far should you as a computer buyer go in letting someone else “put it all together” for you? Two recent offers bring this question into sharp focus.

First, the Walt Disney Co. rolled out a $900 child-friendly PC. Last week, Sterling, Va.-based AOL said it will ship a PC to your door, with your choice of English- or Spanish-language software, for under $300, so long as you commit to a year of AOL’s Internet service. Total price for the basic AOL PC and monitor is close to $600, with Internet access part of the package.

I panned the Disney offering as way too expensive for what is delivered. The company’s outside public relations representative says a demo might change my mind, but that’s for the future. A look at the components and pricing still raise questions in my mind.

For example, at Costco stores recently, I saw an all-in-one Sony Vaio PC that is good enough for a whole family to use. The price was $999, and almost every aspect of the Sony outshined the Disney device.

My point isn’t to knock Disney but rather to suggest that diligent shopping — at the discount stores as well as at a good computer reseller such as Best Buy or CompUSA — is likely to yield more than a couple of choices that meet, or beat, the prepackaged systems.

The AOL Optimized PC might make deciding a bit more difficult. The basic model includes an Intel Celeron processor running at 2.0 GHz, 256 MB of RAM, a 56K modem, a 40GB hard drive, a 10/100MB Ethernet connector and Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition. There’s also a 52x CD-ROM drive, a 3.5-inch floppy drive, a 17-inch CRT monitor, a color inkjet printer, speakers, a keyboard and a mouse. (For an extra $100, they will upgrade the CD drive to a CD-RW and double the hard disk space; that seems a fair price.) None of this is flashy, but it’s certainly enough for most basic computing tasks, such as logging onto AOL, which of course is already loaded on the machine.

Also in place is an AOL-branded version of Sun Microsystems’ StarOffice software, which handles word processing, spreadsheets and presentation graphics. You can configure the AOL software to run in English or Spanish; the company is making an effort to reach Spanish-speaking households with the new product.

It sounds interesting, and if a family is committed to AOL, extending that commitment for 12 months (which is an ironclad requirement of the PC deal) seems like a fair request.

Again, though, if you wander into any computer store, you might find a newer, faster, better PC for about the same total price ($586.79) or less. Buying your own monitor, printer and Internet access would be extras, but you would end up with a more powerful machine and no AOL contract over your head.

These are individual choices, and that’s what must be stressed here. AOL will offer its PC through Office Depot stores, making it easy to pick up and take home. But while there, a smart consumer might do well to browse some of the other aisles, possibly walking out with an even greater value.

At the very least, AOL deserves credit for pricing its product a bit more sensibly for budget-conscious households and for including items — a printer, Internet access, basic software — to round out the package quite nicely.

Above all, however, consumers can truly help themselves by becoming aware and educated about what a computer can do and about how to buy one. Enough is available — in print and on the Internet, free, at your local library — to turn even a novice into a savvy buyer, and quickly.

E-mail MarkKel@aol.com, or visit www.kellner.us.

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