Originally published December 09, 2002

Why the difference in cost of personal computers?

Over Thanksgiving, the predictable barrage of ads came bundled with the daily news in hopes of enticing shoppers with promises of value. Computer systems are always a hot-ticket item at Christmas, but it's important to understand what you're buying if you're purchasing one of these off-the-shelf, desktop systems. There is a reason that one computer is offered for $500 and another, seemingly similar, sells for $1,200. They are different and while both may have value, there are differences in the hardware that account for the price variations.

Like other consumer products, brand-name items will cost more. Routinely, you pay a premium for the standard bearer and that's just a matter of fact.

Skippy costs more than Lady Lee brand peanut butter and French's mustard is pricier than the Safeway Select brand. Which one is better is left to the palate, but the premium brand normally costs more. The same is true with computer systems.

When you're shopping these packaged deals, Sony and HP will usually cost more than Compaq on comparable systems. All three will be more expensive than an in-house or off-brand system. Inside the box there's a difference too that accounts for price variations. The central processing unit, CPU or chip for short, is the brain of the system and a decisive component in pricing. Intel's Pentium 4 is the benchmark to which others chips are compared. AMD manufactures a good, competitive chip called the Athlon but it's not "Intel inside," therefore systems selling with the Athlon CPU are often more affordable than those with the P4 chip installed.

Computers with the Intel Celeron chip onboard are good values and most adequate for routine tasks. Celeron is Intel's economy chip, because it lacks some of the processing power of its Pentium cousin, hence the price difference between a Celeron and Pentium system.

Be sure to note the chip speed as well when you're comparison-shopping. The faster the chip, the more the system will cost. Pentium 4 processors are now exceeding 3GHz in speed and premium Celeron chips exceed 2GHz. Realize this light-speed processing is often lost on the average user, but it accounts for cost variables.

Memory or RAM is the most important consideration next to the CPU. How fast you can perform tasks depends on the amount of RAM installed. 128MB RAM is paltry by today's standards. 256MB should be the minimum configuration and 512MB is really best for today's computing applications.

Hard disk space is also a factor when purchasing a new computer, though less so than in prior years. Low-end computers are sporting hard drives that would have been considered gargantuan just a few years ago. 40GB, 60GB, 80GB are common now with these bundled systems, but again the more disk space the higher the cost.

Let's compare two actual systems that were advertised over the Thanksgiving weekend. The first cost $399 after mail-in rebates, which are common with retail packages. The hardware included the Intel Celeron 1.7GHz processor, 128MB RAM and a 40GB hard drive. The second system, advertised at $999 after rebate, came with an Intel Pentium 4 2GHz processor, 256 MB RAM, 60GB hard drive and a printer. The CPU, RAM and hard drive on the second system were all upgrades over the first system, and a printer was included. Still, the second system is not the most powerful by today's standards.

None of the print ads I studied mentioned bundled software. Software can represent a hefty price consideration, so be sure to clarify what's included with the system. Premium software packages can add hundreds of dollars to the cost of a new computer. Other price factors will include monitors, CD or DVD drives and network cards.

Cathi Schuler is an Assistant Professor for the School of Engineering and Computer Science at the University of the Pacific. She also owns a business software training company, CeePrompt!  cschuler@uop.edu or cschuler@ceeprompt.com or by mail c/o The Record, P.O. Box 900, Stockton, CA 95201. She is on the Internet at: http://www.ceeprompt.com. Click here for past archived columns.  


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