Putting together the perfect PC

November 23, 1998|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

Let's get right down to it. The holiday shopping season has started, and for millions of families, that means time to buy a new computer.

There has never been a greater selection - from low-end systems in the $600 range to multimedia barn-burners that will set you back almost three grand.

When friends ask me for a recommendation, I generally take the middle road - a computer with enough horsepower to do your work and keep the kids entertained for a couple of years, but with a price tag that won't break the bank.

Here's a system that fits the bill, component by component. You might not find one that matches these specs exactly, but come close and you'll walk away with a solid PC for $1,400 to $1,500.

Processor: I like the Intel Pentium II 350-megahertz processor, which is two notches below the top-of-the-line, 450-MHz model. The 350 takes advantage of Intel's latest high-speed bus technology (the circuitry that connects the processor with the rest of the computer) but saves $200 to $400 over its slightly faster brethren.

You can save $100 to $200 by dropping down to Intel's 333-MHz Celeron processor, which the company developed to fight off low-priced chips from AMD and Cyrix. Early Celerons were dogs, but lab tests show the 333-MHz model is about as fast as an older 300-MHz Pentium II. That's still fast - I've been using a 300-MHz machine for a year and have no complaints. You'll get similar performance from AMD's 350-MHz K-2 processor, another popular choice in family-oriented PCs.

Memory: Your computer uses internal memory to store programs and data while it's running. More is better. Some bargain PCs come with 32 megabytes of memory, but Windows 98 needs at least 64 megs to run smoothly.

Hard drive: Today's programs are huge - I've seen games that eat up almost 300 MB of disk space. But for the first time, PC makers are ahead of the curve. Most decent computers come with at least 6 gigabytes of storage. More than that is really overkill.

Video: A good video circuit board can mean the difference between a computer that dawdles and a PC that pops when you tell it to do something. This is particularly important if you're into games - the only programs that really stress your machine. Unfortunately, this is one area where bargain PC makers cut corners.

Look for video circuitry labeled AGP with 8 MB of dedicated memory and 3D acceleration. If you're a serious gamer, consider buying a video card with dedicated 3D circuitry.

CD/DVD-ROM drives: In addition to being used for games, encyclopedias and other programs that need access to lots of data, compact discs are the medium of choice for delivering software because they hold so much (650 MB) and they're less expensive than floppy disks.

CD-ROM drives are rated in multiples of the speed of the first drives on the market, so that a "24X" CD-ROM is theoretically 24 times as fast as the original. A 24X drive is a good target to shoot for.

If you have a few extra dollars to spend, look for a computer with a new DVD-ROM drive, which uses discs that can store up to 4.7 GB of information - including full-length movies. While only a handful of DVD titles are on the market today, the supply is growing as more consumers and manufacturers make the switch.

Sound: Look for a sound card with "wave-table synthesis," a design that uses digital samples of real instruments to produce music and sound effects. If you're really into gaming, find a machine with "3D" audio components. Using two desktop speakers, it can produce sounds that appear to come from every direction, including behind you - creepy but very cool.

While all PCs produce decent audio output, sound cards vary in their ability to handle input from a microphone. This is important if you want to experiment with Internet telephony or speech-recognition software. For telephony, make sure your sound card is a "full duplex" model that can process incoming and outgoing audio simultaneously. For speech recognition, check with the publisher of your software - not all sound cards are up to the task. If you're in doubt, look for a computer with a Creative Labs Sound Blaster 64 or buy one and install it yourself - it's the closest thing to an industry standard.

Monitor: This is an intensely personal choice - a "good" monitor is one that looks good to you. Luckily, monitor prices have collapsed, and many manufacturers are offering 17-inch models as standard equipment, compared to the 14- and 15-inch models that dominated the industry for a decade. A 17-inch monitor is best if you have room for it.

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