In October and November, I start getting calls and e-mail asking me what's the best computer to buy, which is natural considering that so many PCs are sold during the Christmas shopping season. But the same thing happens in May and June, and it's hard to say why.
It could be that bargain hunters are finally deciding that waiting has paid off in lower prices. It could also be the fact that so many high school graduates are suddenly confronting the reality of going to college, which means their parents are faced with a PC-buying decision.
Whatever the reason, I generally look at the PC market twice a year, and today that market is a great one for shoppers. It's hard to buy a PC that doesn't have far more horsepower than it takes for Web browsing, word processing, e-mail and financial recordkeeping. You can easily find a decent one for $1,000 or less.
If you are into specialized computing, such as high-end gaming, graphic design or digital video editing, you'll want to invest in more hardware -- but the standard package in most systems will be fine.
Just remember that like cars, computers are built from components. Just as cars come with various engine, transmission and accessory options, computers come with processor, memory and hard drive options. Like a car, every PC has a "sticker" that tells you what options come with that model. In a retail store, the sticker is usually posted on the shelf or printed on the box. If you're buying a custom-made PC from Dell, Gateway or another mail-order outfit, you create your own sticker.
That said, here are my sticker recommendations for a useful but not extravagant machine:
--Processor: Also known as the CPU, this is the chip that does the real computing. A more powerful processor can run programs faster, or run multiple programs more smoothly.
Most processors are made by Intel Corp., which offers the Pentium 4 at the high end and the Celeron at the lower end. Intel's main competitor is Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), which offers compatible high-end Athlon XP chips and lower-powered Duron processors.
Within a given model, you'll pay for speed, which is measured in gigaHertz, or billion of cycles per second. Always buy a notch or two below the top speed because the price drops drastically without a noticeable penalty in performance. For example, Intel charges manufacturers $400 for its 2.4 GHz Pentium 4, but only $241 for its 2.2 GHz model, and much less for slightly slower models. My recommendation: a 1.7 to 2 GHz Pentium 4 or comparable Athlon.
--Memory: Also known as RAM, these chips store programs and data while your computer is running. RAM is measured in megabytes, and the more you have, the better: at least 256 megabytes to run Windows XP, and preferably 512MB.
Look for a computer that uses memory labeled DDR (double data-rate) or RDRAM (Rambus technology). It's faster than a machine using older SDRAM chips.
--Hard drive: Often confused with memory, your hard disk stores programs and data permanently when your computer is turned off. It also runs constantly when your computer is on, shuffling information in and out of memory.
Hard-disk capacity is measured in gigabytes, and it's so cheap that it doesn't pay to skimp, because today's programs, digital music, photographs and video files gobble disk space. Get at least 30 GB of storage, and more if you can afford it.
--Video adapter: This is the circuitry that produces the image on your monitor. Lower-end PCs have the video adapter, often designed by Intel, built into the main circuit board. This is fine for everyday use, but if you're into gaming, video editing or similar pursuits, look for a computer that has a higher-powered, 3-D video adapter with at least 32 MB of dedicated memory from nVidia, ATI or another specialty manufacturer.
--Monitor: Most entry-level systems come with 17-inch monitors that use cathode ray tubes (CRTs), the same technology used in TV sets. All monitors are measured diagonally. For a few more dollars, many buyers opt for 19-inch models.
Your eyes should be the main decision maker here. For example, you'll pay more for a "flatter" CRT screen, but it's not worth the money if you don't notice the difference.
Liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors, which use laptop computer technology, are more expensive but increasingly popular because they take up so little front-to-back space. They're great for the tiny desks in college dorms. Some viewers prefer LCDs from a quality standpoint, although I'm more comfortable with a CRT. You'll pay a premium of $200 or so for a 15-inch LCD monitor, and $400 to $800 more for a 17-inch screen.
--Sound: The built-in sound circuits in low-end computers are fine for casual use, but if you want the best quality from CDs, digital music files and games -- as well greater recording flexibility -- get a computer with a Sound Blaster Live!, Audigy or Turtle Beach sound card.
If your PC is going to be your primary sound system, it may pay to invest an extra $100 to $300 in a good set of speakers with a subwoofer for bass tones.
--Multimedia: Computers come with a bewildering variety of CD-ROM-based drives, which are used to load software, play music CDs and increasingly to back up hard drives. At the very least, buy a machine with a rewriteable drive (CD/RW), which can create data and audio CDs.
Better but more expensive: a system with a CD/RW and a DVD drive, which can be used to play DVD movies. DVD writers are available, but they're still expensive, buggy and often incompatible with stand-alone DVD players. Stay away from them for the time being.
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