The annual exercise in mass hysteria known as buying a PC for the holidays has returned. Given the number of calls and messages I get at this time of year -- asking "What should I buy?" -- it's time for the annual guide to purchasing a PC.
As usual, there's no machine that's perfect for everyone -- the important thing is to figure out what you want your PC to do and to find a computer that matches. If all you want is a simple computer for word processing, e-mail and Web browsing, you can find a good one for $1,000 or less. On the other hand, if you dabble in digital video or have a teen-ager who wants to play "Quake" over the Internet, you'll need some real horsepower and $1,500 to $2,000 in the bank.
Just remember that, like a stereo set, a computer is made of components that you can mix and match. You can't always see them because they're inside the case. But, with smart shopping, it's possible to find -- or have someone assemble -- a PC that fits.
Most components are listed in computer ads or on the retailer's shelf next to each machine. If you're buying from a direct seller such as Dell or Gateway, you can specify each piece you want. With that in mind, here's an item-by-item breakdown (yes, you can clip this and take it to the store):
Microprocessor: Also known as the central processing unit, this chip is the heart of your computer -- the part that does the actual computing. Within any brand and model, the faster the processor, the better your computer will run.
If your needs are simple, you can get buy without the digital equivalent of a turbocharged V-8 engine. On the other hand, if you're a dedicated gamer, or you're serious about digital photography, video or music, a fast processor will do the job better.
CPU speed is measured in cycles per second. For many years, it was enough to use millions of cycles per second (abbreviated as megahertz, or MHz). But the newest chips are capable of running at well over 1 billion cycles per second, or gigahertz (GHz).
At the low end, you'll find machines running Intel's Celeron or AMD's Duron processor at 600 to 700 MHz. These are more than adequate for basic computing tasks. Another hundred dollars or so will get you into Intel's Pentium III or AMD's Athlon chips, which run between 700 MHz and 1 GHz. They're better for graphics-intensive programs and multimedia titles.
Just before Thanksgiving, Intel launched its new Pentium 4, which runs as fast as 1.5 GHz. Like most new chips, it's outrageously expensive, and this one doesn't always outperform older models.
The "sweet spot" in the market -- where you get the most bang for your buck -- is a Pentium III or Athlon in the 800 to 900 MHz range. Whichever brand you choose, don't buy the fastest processor in the line -- you'll pay a premium of $200 or more for a marginal increase in performance.
Memory: Memory chips, also known as RAM, store programs and information temporarily while the computer is running. Memory is measured in millions of bytes, or megabytes (MB). With operating systems such as Windows or the Mac OS, memory is just as important as processor speed. In fact, given a choice between more memory and a slightly faster processor, buy the memory.
You should have a minimum of 128 MB of RAM. Lower-end systems come with only 64 MB standard: Add another 64 MBs before you walk out the door and you'll have a faster, more reliable computer. If you're not comfortable opening a PC, many retailers will install memory on the spot.
Hard disk storage: Often confused with memory, your hard disk is where your computer stores programs and data permanently. The operating system also uses the hard drive as an overflow area when regular memory fills up. Hard drive space is measured in billions of bytes, or gigabytes (GB).
Even common programs can eat up 100 to 300 megabytes of hard drive space, while digital photos and music can swallow gigs of space before you know it. But hard drives are now so large and so cheap that it doesn't matter. For a basic system, 10 GB is the minimum, but for any kind of multimedia work, 20 or 30 GB is better. If you're contemplating digital video, buy as much as you can afford.
A fast hard drive can also speed up your system considerably. Inexpensive computers come with drives that turn at 5,400 RPM, but you'll get better performance with a 7,200 RPM disk.
Video: The video adapter produces the image that's displayed on your monitor. Virtually all PCs come with a 3-D video adapter that can handle word processing, Web browsing and simple games. But heavy-duty entertainment titles need special circuitry to render complex, moving images in real time, along with dedicated memory to hold the information for all those pixels. If you're serious about multimedia, look for a system with at least 16 megabytes of video memory from companies such as nVidia, ATI, 3dfx, Creative Technologies or Matrox.
Monitor: This may be the most important part of the system, because it's the component you'll be staring at for hours at a time. It's hard to recommend one, because your eyes and mine see things so differently. So, preview as many monitors as you can before you choose one.
A few low-end systems still come with 15-inch monitors, but you'll be far more comfortable with a 17-inch screen. Larger, 19-inch monitors are also hot these days, and they only add $200 to $300 to the cost of a system. They're great for desktop publishing and other situations where you may want several windows open simultaneously.
Look for a monitor with a dot pitch (the distance between adjacent pixels) of .28 mm or less. Smaller dot pitches aren't always better -- some people find their sharpness produces text that's too jagged (which is why it's so hard to recommend these things). It's more important to make sure that the monitor displays lines that are straight from edge to edge and don't get fuzzy near the corners of the screen. Also make sure that the colors don't "bleed" or produce glistening artifacts.
Since monitors sometimes lose track of factory settings and video cards interact differently with different screens, make sure the monitor you buy has controls for brightness, contrast and color balance, along with the size and position of the image. Also make sure the controls can correct common image problems, such as trapezoiding, pincushioning and barrel distortion.
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Generally, you'll pay more for a "flatter" screen (although no monitors based on cathode ray tubes are really flat). This is more important for graphic designers than game players or Web surfers, but it's a matter of taste. For a truly flat screen, you'll have to buy a liquid crystal display, the standalone version of a laptop computer screen. These are expensive (about $800 for 15-inch LCD and a small fortune for larger models), but they take up only a fraction of the space of a standard monitor and produce crisp, sharp images.
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Sound: Computers produce two types of sound. The first is recorded digital audio, which ranges from the "ding" you hear when you do something wrong to complete CD tracks or digital music files. The second is synthesized music, derived from digital "samples" from various instruments that can be combined into a full orchestra. You'll generally hear synthesized music accompanying games, but it's possible to hook up an electronic keyboard or other instrument compatible with "MIDI" standards and turn your PC into a recording studio.
While it's not a necessity, a quality sound card matched with good speakers can turn your computer into an entertainment center. If you want a treat, get a PC with a Sound Blaster Live! audio card. It can play some incredible tricks with music, and matched with a four- or five-speaker surround sound system, it will add a new dimension to games by putting you in the middle of the action.
CD/DVD ROM -- All computers now come with a CD-ROM drive that's adequate for installing software and playing multimedia games or audio compact discs. Some machines have DVD drives that can store seven times as much information as CDs. But software makers haven't taken advantage of this capacity, and the main thing DVDs are good for is playing movies.
A better buy for the desktop is a CD/RW drive, which reads and writes to compact discs. These are hot items with kids, who use them to create custom audio CDs.
But they're also great for backing up critical files, particularly if you use new rewritable compact discs.
Because they're so useful, CD/RWs are bundled with many higher-end systems today. If you want to add one to a system with a regular CD, it will cost about $200 plus installation.
A CD/RW can be your only compact disc drive, but if you want to copy existing albums or create mixes of tracks, it's better to add the CD/RW as a second drive.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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