PC buyers should know what items to look for Users' satisfaction depends on more than just a fast, up-to-date processor

Your computer

November 23, 1997|By Michael Himowitz

AS THE holidays approach and computer stores are jammed full of equipment waiting for eager buyers, I like to give prospective PC shoppers some tips for finding the right machine.

Last week, I said the "sweet spots" in the market -- where buyers get the most digital bang for their buck -- were 233 MHz Pentium MMX systems at the low end and 266 MHz Pentium II machines for folks who want heavy-duty hardware.

But there's a lot more to a computer than the processor. A computer is made up of about a half-dozen components that have to work together to make your experience a pleasure. So here are some things to look for:

Monitor: The Windows environment gives you a chance to display more than one program on the screen, but it requires a monitor large enough to make viewing comfortable. A 15-inch monitor is the minimum you'll need. If you're at the age where you worry about small print, a 17-inch screen is well worth an extra $200 to $300. Make sure the monitor's dot pitch -- the distance between the tiny dots on the screen -- is .28 mm or less.

Memory: Random access memory, also known as RAM, is the most important component of your system after the processor. Your programs live in memory when they're running, and they'll use RAM to store as much temporary data as they can. Additional memory will speed up your PC and make it less prone to crashing if you want to run a Web browser, word processor and spreadsheet at the same time.

So how much is enough? Get at least 32 megabytes of RAM, 64 megs if you can afford it. If you're buying a "bargain" computer with only 16 megs of memory, upgrade to 32 before you leave the store. It should cost no more than $50 to $80.

Cache: This critical chip contains a small amount of high speed, temporary memory that can really boost a processor's performance. You'll often see it advertised as "L2 Cache." Look for a computer with at least 256K of cache memory, although 512K is better. Because cache memory is expensive, PC makers often leave it out of low-end machines, and it hurts.

Hard Disk: This is your computer's permanent storage area, where programs and data reside when they're not being used. When your PC is running, the operating system will also use your hard disk as a substitute for real memory when RAM gets low. Multimedia games, digital photography and bloated software have created a demand for huge hard drives, and manufacturers have responded. In fact, all but the least expensive computers are well endowed with disk capacity today. Look for a drive that will hold at least 3 gigabytes of information. As usual, more is better.

Video: The video controller determines the type of graphics your computer can display and how fast it updates the screen. Video boards also contain their own memory to speed up the process. If you're interested in digital photography, sophisticated desktop publishing, games or multimedia programs, look for a PC with at least 2 megabytes of video memory (4 is better), as well as a 3D controller that accelerates the drawing of three-dimensional objects.

For full-screen playback of video clips, look for a PC that has MPEG hardware.

Sound: If all you care about is hearing "You have mail" when you sign on to AOL, any sound board and speaker will do. But a good computer sound system can enhance games and make it worthwhile to listen to music CDs while you work. If you're serious about playing or recording digital music, look for a PC with a sound board that includes a wavetable synthesizer. This gadget reproduces music by using digital samples of real instruments, while cheaper sound boards use FM synthesizers that always sound a bit like skating rink organs. Although they've improved over the years, the quality of speakers packaged with most systems ranges from adequate to terrible.

So if sound is important, listen before you leap. Audiophiles and serious gamers should consider a separate set of speakers that includes a sub-woofer to reproduce bass frequencies.

CD-ROM: A fast CD-ROM drive will provide smooth game play, seamless video and a quicker response from multimedia reference tools such as encyclopedias. Even if you don't play games, you'll need a CD-ROM to install new software because publishers have virtually given up on floppy disks. The quickness of a CD is measured in multiples of the speed of the first drives that appeared on the market. So a 12X drive is 12 times as fast as the original. Manufacturers tend to exaggerate here, but I'd look for at least an 8X or 12X drive. This shouldn't be a problem, as most machines come with even faster equipment.

Modem: Most systems come with a so-called "56K" modem, which can theoretically transfer data from a compatibly-equipped Internet service provider at a maximum speed 56,000 bits per second. Some manufacturers (the honest ones) will advertise 33.6 kbps modems, because that's the best performance most users are ever likely to get from this flaky technology. If you want to try for a 56K Internet hookup, remember that two incompatible 56K standards are competing for modem market share. They're called X2 and K56 Flex. Many Internet service providers support one or the other, but not both. So check with your service provider first and find a modem that uses the appropriate standard.

If you're not worried about 56K speed, either kind of modem is OK; they're all compatible at lower speeds.

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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