WASHINGTON -- The last time I browsed the selection of desktops in a computer store, I came down with a case of instant deja vu. Each time I'd spot a thoughtful feature on one company's PC -- say, both USB and FireWire ports on the front or a full set of memory-card slots -- I would look at the machine to its right or left and spot the exact same item.
After eyeballing 27 PCs, I could have more easily distinguished them by color than any other detail. Only a shoebox-size model from Shuttle Computer Corp. stood apart in this lineup of tower-case desktops. (This store didn't stock Apple hardware.)
Faced with this conformity, many shoppers judge PCs by their processors' clock speeds. But that no longer tells anything useful -- any new processor easily handles browsing the Web, downloading MP3s or editing digital photos. Few tasks, such as editing video, demand more power.
A computer shopping list should focus on different criteria: hard drive, memory and removable storage.
Start with the hard drive: Forty gigabytes, the usual minimum, is plenty if you won't install dozens of games or copy hundreds of CDs to the computer. But for most uses, 60 GB seems a more realistic floor. If you want to edit video, double that figure.
Extra memory boosts performance more than added processor speed -- mainly because many vendors don't include enough. With all the software active in most Mac OS X or Windows XP systems, you need 512 megabytes -- and make sure there's a memory slot open to add more later on if you need it.
The primary form of removable storage should be a CD burner; look for fast write and rewrite speeds, as indicated by the first and second figures in the industry's "48x/32x/48x" notation. DVD playback makes a nice bonus; DVD recording is essential for video editing and a convenience for backing up data.
Most non-Apple desktops and many laptops include slots for the memory cards used in digital cameras, usually in place of the long-obsolete floppy drive. (You can add an external card reader for $20 or so, and many printers include card slots.)
Past those big three factors, the other details require less thinking. Any desktop or laptop should have a modem and an Ethernet port, and any laptop should include 802.11g WiFi wireless.
The only kind of expansion port you need is USB 2.0, the more the better. FireWire ports (also called 1394 and i.Link) are required for most digital camcorders and some external drives. Some of these connectors should be accessible from the front of the machine.
Almost all desktops include internal PCI expansion slots, but the ever more standardized state of PC hardware means few machines need such aftermarket modification.
As for the monitor, a 15-inch liquid-crystal display should be the minimum on anybody's primary-use machine, desktop or laptop. Old-school CRTs cost less but weigh too much, take up too much room and use more power.
If you're a gamer, the graphics card will be critical. The consensus among my game reviewers: Get a 256-megabyte card compatible with Microsoft's "DirectX 9" software.
I've saved the two toughest choices in home computing for (almost) last: desktop or laptop? Mac or Windows?
Desktops are cheaper, more expandable and more comfortable than laptops and offer far more storage. But an increasing chunk of the market is opting to take a laptop home anyway -- often in the form of a bulky, affordable "desktop-replacement" model, too hefty for travel but luggable between rooms.
This isn't an easy call. I prefer a desktop's larger keyboard and screen -- but I use my laptop more often, just because it's parked on the coffee table instead of upstairs.
Then there's Mac versus Windows. The basic trade-off is design versus price, with Macs excelling in the former but often losing in the latter (especially when it comes to desktops).
If you're buying a computer mainly to get online, a Mac will vastly ease your experience, thanks to its lack of spyware, viruses and worms and Mac OS X's lower maintenance needs. But if you want to play computer games, you need Windows.
Windows runs far more software than Mac OS X, but Mac users can find at least one good application for almost any given task. That program may be better than what Windows users employ, as in the case of Microsoft Office 2004 for the Mac, but sometimes it's not, as Apple users of Intuit's Quicken can attest.
Those programs are the final selling points of most home computers, or would be, if software bundles weren't so mediocre.
Tech support is no longer a major distinguishing factor, now that none of the major vendors offers free help over the phone for life. After the first 90 days or one year, you're on your own -- or you can pay $20 to $40 for each new problem you call about.
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