PC shoppers almost can't go wrong

May 24, 1999|By Mike Himowitz

No matter what computer you buy today, you'll always have second thoughts about it.

"If I'd only waited a couple of months," you'll say, "I could have gotten a lot more for a lot less money."

And you'll be right -- there's always a better deal just around the corner. So, when I make my semiannual "what-PC-to-buy" recommendations as the summer and winter solstices approach, I try to balance price, performance and longevity.

The current state of affairs illustrates Moore's Law, named after Gordon Moore, a founder of the Intel Corp. Years ago he predicted that the power of microprocessors would double about every 18 months, leading to a spiral of better computers for less money.

Moore turned out to be a pessimist. Thanks to competition and manufacturing efficiencies in monitors, printers, hard drives and other components that aren't strictly chip-related, the price of computing horsepower has dropped even faster than he predicted.

For example, when I bought my current computer 18 months ago, the 300 MHz Pentium II system was close to the top of the line. Today, you can't find a machine that slow on the market -- the closest models are in the sub-$1,000 range. And you know what? My computer is still a solid workhorse -- good enough so that the hassle of setting up a new one and moving all my software and files isn't worth any gain I'd get in performance.

So, if you're buying a PC today, take heart. Sure, you're buying into obsolescence. But it costs a lot less than it did before, and if you buy wisely, your computer will last quite a while.

Now for the nitty-gritty. I've always recommended that you buy the best technology you can afford, but that doesn't mean you have to throw away perfectly good money. While you can buy a usable PC with a monitor for as little as $600 or spend $3,000 for a high-end game and graphics blaster, you can get an excellent system that will handle most household, office, entertainment and educational chores for well under $1,500.

By that I mean a PC that will handle word processing, spreadsheets, financial software and Web browsing effortlessly (none of these seriously taxes a decent machine) and leave you with enough punch for fun stuff -- games, photo editing and music. It doesn't matter which brand you buy (although you'll want at minimum a one-year warranty with service in or near your home). The important thing is to make sure the PC has the proper components. Here's a checklist:

Microprocessor: This is the heart of your computer -- the faster and more capable the processor, the better it will perform. The good news is that choosing a processor is tougher than ever. Intel markets three distinct versions of its Pentium chip -- the Pentium II, Pentium II and Celeron, while rival AMD offers three models of its K6 processor. You'll also find a variety of low-end computers using Cyrix processors.

For general home and office use, you'll find excellent buys in PCs with Intel's newer Celeron processors (400 MHz or faster). The original Celeron was a dog, but the latest designs are far more efficient and include an on-board memory cache that comes close to matching Pentium II performance. PCs using AMD's K6-2 chips with similar speed ratings offer similar speed.

Memory: If you have a choice between a slightly faster processor and more internal memory, go for the memory. It will make your machine faster -- particularly if you like to run several programs at once -- and you'll be less prone to crashes. At a minimum, get 64 megabytes of RAM; 128 megs is even better. Some otherwise excellent low-end machines ship with only 32 megs of RAM; if you buy one, have the dealer upgrade the PC to 64 megs before you leave the store -- it should add no more than $75 to the bill.

Hard drive: Games, graphics and bloated application programs chew up more hard disk space than they did a few years ago, but for once, hardware makers are ahead of the curve with massive drives at mini-prices. Look for a computer with at least 6 gigabytes of hard disk space. Any drive larger than 9 megs is overkill -- unless you're editing high-resolution photographs or want to store feature-length movies on your disk.

Video: This is another area where low-end PC makers cheap it out. Look for a video adapter with 3D hardware acceleration and at least 8 megabytes of on-board memory. If you're a serious gamer, you may want to upgrade upgrade to a video card designed specifically for game play and graphics.

Monitor: Most decent PCs are sold with 17-inch monitors today, but sub-$1,000 systems often substitute cheap 14- or 15-inch screens. Bigger monitors are much easier on the eye. If you want a real treat, try one of the new 19-inch models. One major exception: Dorm rooms are crowded and desks are often Lilliputian. If you're buying a computer for a college student, a 15-inch monitor may be more comfortable.

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