Good, cheap PCs aren't hard to find

November 29, 1999|By Mike Himowitz

For some reason, buying a computer generates more hand-wringing than any other transaction I've witnessed. People who think nothing of kicking a few tires and plunking down $20,000 for a car in a single morning will agonize for months over a $1,000 PC.

This angst morphs into mass hysteria during the holiday shopping season, when millions of buyers stare glassy-eyed at advertisements full of indecipherable jargon and shelves crowded with beige boxes and screens that all look suspiciously alike.

If you're in the market this year, relax. As I noted in last week's column, it's hard to find a bad PC. The goal is finding the one that's right for you at a price you can afford. To do that, you have to learn a bit about the components that make up a computer, just as you have to know basic facts about the components that make up a car (four-cylinder engine or V-6, automatic or manual, etc.).

With that in mind, here's a checklist of things to look for in a new PC. In each category, I'll recommend components for a good, basic PC and explain what more money will buy.

Processor: Also known as the CPU, this is the heart of your computer, the part that does the computing. The speed of a processor is measured in megahertz (MHz), or millions of cycles per second. A PC with a fast, powerful processor will run better than a slower, less capable machine, but it's silly to pay a premium for power you'll never use.

At the lower end of the scale are computers with Intel's Celeron and AMD's K6-2 processors. These PCs are fine for regular chores, such as word processing, Web browsing, financial recordkeeping and educational software. They're also adequate for casual game playing, although you may not be able to use the highest detail settings with shoot-'em-ups and jet fighter simulations. Stay away from the lowest-speed chips in this group -- look for CPUs that run at 400 to 500 MHz.

If you're willing to pay a premium of several hundred dollars, you'll find computers with Intel's Pentium III or AMD's new Athlon processor. These industrial-strength CPUs are worth the money if you're interested in heavy-duty gaming, serious digital photography, desktop publishing, graphics design, or calculating the trajectory of a rocket to Venus. They're overkill for Web browsing, e-mail and word processing.

Unless you're compelled to buy the hottest and fastest everything, you'll save money without giving up noticeable performance if you stick to P-III or Athlon processors that are a notch or two below the fastest models (look for 450 to 550 MHz chips).

Memory: Also known as Random Access Memory, or RAM, these chips store programs and data when your computer is turned on. The more RAM you have, the faster and better your PC will run, particularly if you use more than one program at a time. RAM is measured in megabytes (millions of bytes) and the minimum you'll need is 64 megs. A computer with 96 or 128 megs is even better.

If you have a choice between a slightly faster CPU and an extra helping of memory, go for the RAM -- many retailers will install the chips while you wait.

Hard disk: This is where your computer stores programs and data permanently, and its capacity is measured in gigabytes (billions of bytes). Hard drives have become incredibly large and cheap over the past two years, but digital photography, music files and multimedia programs have done their best to keep filling them up. Look for at least 6 gigabytes of storage -- 10 or more if you can afford it.

Your computer also uses its hard drive as a substitute for RAM when its memory fills up, and many programs constantly read from and write to the hard drive in normal operation. As a result, a faster drive will increase your PC's performance. If you want a real hot dog, look at PCs with drives that turn at 7,200 revolutions per minute, instead of the normal 5,400.

CD/DVD/CD-RW drives: Every computer comes with a drive that can read compact discs, which are used to distribute software and store the huge data files used by games, encyclopedias and graphics programs.

The basic version is the CD-ROM, which is standard on most PCs. CD-ROM drives can play music CDs as well as discs that contain computer programs. Their speed is measured in multiples of the original, primordial CD-ROM -- at the minimum, look for a 24X drive, which is 24 times as fast as the earliest models.

For another hundred dollars or so, you can equip a computer with a DVD-ROM drive, which is a CD-ROM on steroids. Although DVDs (an acronym for Digital Versatile Discs) look like regular compact discs, they can store 4.7 gigabytes of data, about seven times as much as a standard CD. A DVD drive can handle both media.

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