How much computer should you buy? Bigger and faster will keep you ahead in obsolescence race

Your computer

November 03, 1996|By Michael J. Himowitz

ABOUT THIS time of year, the early Christmas shoppers inevitably stop by my desk with the same old question: What PC should I buy?

The answer, this season more than ever before, is that it doesn't matter. The important thing is how much computer you buy.

Major PC makers are flooding the market with capable machines for home and small business use, and they're all packed with useful (and not-so-useful) software for you and the kids.

While you'll find different shapes, sizes and even colors, it's pretty hard to tell one PC from another.

To help guide you through the process, here's a checklist of features to look for:

The Processor: Most IBM-compatible machines use a variant of the Intel Pentium microprocessor. This is the heart of the machine -- the part that does the real computing.

What makes one Pentium different from another is the clock speed. The faster your machine, the better it will perform and the longer it's likely to last before the latest software overwhelms it.

Speed is measured in millions of cycles per second, or megahertz (mHz). Pentiums come in 100, 120, 133, 166, 180 and 200 mHz models. The "sweet spot" in terms of price and performance today is the 166 mHz Pentium.

You'll pay a premium for a 200 mHz machine, although the gap is narrowing. You'll pay an even stiffer premium for the Pentium Pro processor, but you're not likely to see any real benefit unless you're running Microsoft Windows NT -- an advanced operating system used primarily in large office networks.

Memory: With more memory, your computer will run faster and more reliably. In fact, if you're on a tight budget and have to choose between a slightly faster processor and more memory, buy the extra memory.

Most PCs come with 16 megabytes of random access memory (RAM), but the Windows 95 operating system will suck up most of it before you get a chance to run a single program.

Get a computer with 32 megabytes of memory or have a 16-megabyte computer upgraded before you take it home.

Hard disk: This is your computer's permanent storage area, the place where you keep all your programs and data.

Better-equipped machines come with drives that can hold 2 gigabytes or more (a gigabyte is the equivalent of a billion characters of text). Don't buy a machine with less than 1 gigabyte of storage.

Multimedia: Your computer's CD-ROM drive, sound card and speakers turn a dull old business machine into an educational experience for your kids and a game-player's delight.

Most new computers are pretty well-equipped in this regard, but there are a few things to look for.

CD-ROM drives play compact disks that can store programs, graphics, video and audio. A faster drive will provide better video and audio performance.

CD speed is measured in multiples of the speed of the first generation of drives. So a "6X" drive is six times as fast as the lTC original generation. That's the minimum you should buy today.

Most computers come with adequate audio circuitry for games and educational titles. If you're interested in making serious music, make sure the computer has a 16- or (better yet) 32-bit sound card with wave-table synthesis.

Wave table synthesizers use digitized samples of real musical instruments. Cheaper FM synthesizers try to imitate instruments electronically but wind up sounding like skating rink organs.

The monitor: Your eyesight is priceless, so it's foolish to jeopardize it with a bad monitor.

Unfortunately, manufacturers and retailers often fill out a system package with a cheap, irritating video display to keep prices down.

A 15-inch monitor is the minimum (avoid bargain systems with 14-inch monitors). If you want a treat, upgrade to a 17-inch monitor, which will allow you to work comfortably with multiple windows.

A larger monitor will add about $400 to the price of your system, but it's worth the dough.

Also make sure that the "dot pitch," the distance between adjacent dots of the same color, is 0.28 mm or less. The finer the dot pitch, the sharper the image.

Check the monitor for flickering under fluorescent lights (some people are more sensitive to this than others), and make sure the image is sharp from edge to edge.

And never buy a monitor sight unseen -- your eyes are the best judge of quality.

Video board: The video circuit board drives the monitor. It determines the resolution of the image and how fast the computer redraws the screen.

You'll find a lot of variation here, but look for a computer with 2 megabytes of video RAM. This specialized type of memory will allow you to display realistic photographic images more quickly.

If you can, find a machine that has built-in MPEG circuitry, which can play video clips and other animated sequences more smoothly.

Modem: Computers designed for the home and small office usually come with a fax modem that can communicate at 28.8 kilobits per second (kbps).

Some newer machines have 33.6 kbps modems, but the difference in speed shouldn't affect your buying decision.

Modems that double as speakerphones and voice mail systems are fun to play with, but I wouldn't leave a PC running 24 hours a day to replace a $90 answering machine.

So there's your basic checklist. In the coming weeks we'll discuss these topics in depth.

Meanwhile, if there's a topic you'd like me to cover in a future column, drop me e-mail at mikelark.net.

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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