Holiday PC buyers need only a few guides

November 20, 2003|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

IT'S HERE AGAIN - the season when PC shoppers flock to the stores and buy a remarkably large proportion of all the computers sold during the year.

Since many of you are on your second, third or even fourth machine, the angst of PC purchase isn't as great as it was a decade ago. Still, lots of people worry about it.

As usual, this year's computers are cheaper and more powerful than ever. You can find a good basic machine for $700 or less, a decent all-around performer for $1,000 and a barnburner for $1,500.

You can tell one from the other by reading the "sticker" on the shelf next to the PC, on the box, or on the Web site you're ordering from. Like an automobile sticker, it describes the components inside - the processor, disk drives, video, memory, etc. The key is finding the right mix for the type of computing you do. So here's a piece-by-piece breakdown:

Processor: Also known as the Central Processing Unit or CPU, the processor is the heart of any computer. The faster and more sophisticated the processor, the better a PC will run - within limits. CPUs are labeled by manufacturer, model and speed, measured in gigahertz (GHz), or billions of cycles per second.

If your PC life is limited to word processing, Web browsing and e-mail, a fast processor won't do much better than a slow one. But for a serious gamer or video maker, a fast CPU is definitely worth the premium.

Intel has the lion's share of the Windows CPU market with its flagship Pentium 4 processor, but many entry-level PCs use the lower-end Celeron.

Pentium's main competitor is the AMD Athlon XP chip. They're compatible, and for home use it doesn't matter which you buy if they're within the same speed range. Look for the Intel speed rating and the Athlon's model number: An Intel P4 running at 3 GHz and an Athlon 3000 will provide much the same performance.

For basic PC use, a Celeron in the 2 GHz range will do just fine. If you're interested in multimedia, games, or digital video, go with a P4 in the 2.6 GHz range or the equivalent Athlon.

Go much beyond that and you're paying for bragging rights instead of performance.

Memory: Memory chips, referred to collectively as RAM (random access memory) store programs and data when the PC is running. Their capacity is measured in megabytes (MB), or millions of bytes. With more memory, your PC can run multiple programs with less effort and a smaller chance of crashing. Get a minimum of 256 MB - more if you can afford it.

Most PCs use chips that operate at a speed of 333 MHz, while faster machines will use 400-MHz chips. Basically, the computer's designer determines the speed of RAM - but it's a good indicator of the machine's overall performance.

Hard disk storage: Often confused with RAM, a computer's hard drive stores programs and data permanently. It also stores and retrieves information continually when the machine is running. Its capacity is measured in gigabytes (GB), or billions of bytes. You'll need a drive that's big enough to hold all your stuff and fast enough to move it without slowing the machine's operation.

Luckily, hard disk storage is cheap these days. For general-purpose computing, 30 to 40 gigabytes is plenty, but if you want to make movies and store lots of digital music or photos, find a machine with an 80 to 120-gigabyte drive. For better multimedia performance at a slightly higher cost, look for a drive labeled ATA-133 or Serial ATA, instead of the older ATA-100 standard.

Video: Your computer's video circuitry produces the image on your monitor. Lower-end machines generally use Intel-based video chips that are integrated with the main circuit board. Unfortunately, integrated video systems usually steal part of the computer's main memory to store images instead of having dedicated video RAM. This is known as "shared" memory, and it can slow a computer down. Avoid it if you're serious about digital photos, video or gaming.

For better performance, look for video circuitry from nVidia, ATI or another major manufacturer, with at least 64 megabytes of dedicated video RAM. If it's there, the sticker will say so - it's a selling point.

CD/DVD-ROM: All computers come with some variety of compact disk-based drives. They're used universally to install new software, and increasingly to back up data, and create music or video disks.

At the very least, buy a computer with a CD/RW drive, which can read data disks, play audio CDs, and create both types of media. A DVD-ROM can play CDs and commercial movie DVDs, which use much higher capacity disks. If your favorite student wants to watch movies on her PC (very big in college dorm rooms), look for a machine with both types of drives, or a combination drive known as a DVD-CD/RW, which can play DVD movies as well as read and write to CD-Rs.

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