The “Hidden” Limitations of $500 Computers
By Peter Newell ("prnewell@prnewell.com")

Yes, you can buy a cheap “name brand” mass-market PC computer system for under $500 at a discount store. It will certainly perform better than an old Windows 95 machine, but you get what you pay for. It may not be such a bargain after all.

It will probably not have enough RAM to really run Windows XP well. You need at least 256 megabytes. You’ll have to add RAM at a cost of about $45. It may also use the older (slower) type of RAM, and generally, you can’t change types.

It may have a big hard drive, but not a fast hard drive. Windows and applications programs run off the hard drive, so access speed and data transfer rate have a significant effect on overall system performance.

You may get an antivirus program, but probably not the best one. It will likely have only a 90 day update subscription. Then you’ll pay $30 or more to renew the subscription. (I recommend and sell Norton AntiVirus, which has been consistently rated number one. The new program costs less than renewing the subscription for your old one.)

You probably will not get a proper set of system CDs. In fact, you may get no recovery CD at all. If so, you won’t be able to reload Windows or other programs except from the ‘system_save’ partition on the hard drive, and you will not be able to reload except to the original configuration. You will not be able to selectively reinstall individual programs if you have a problem.

What happens if the hard drive fails? If you want to be safe, you’ll have to create your own backup CD set, if you can.
You may get some tech support, but it will be telephone support only, and you may not even have a toll-free number to call. You certainly won’t find anyone at the store who can help you.

The warranty will be short - maybe only 90 days, or one year at most. You may be able to purchase an extended warranty from the store, but it will be expensive, maybe $100 or more.

Now here’s perhaps the biggest catch. If you have a major hardware failure or even a software problem or conflict, you will likely spend more to get the cheap name brand mass market PC computer fixed than you would with a good system that uses standard parts and configuration.

Why? Because the big mass-market name-brand computer makers design and build their own hardware to cut costs. The hardware may not conform mechanically or electrically to standard configurations.

They also install Windows and a bunch of other stuff their way. They don’t give you regular installation CDs for Windows or the applications programs you purchased from them.