WHEN I wrote my first holiday column on buying a PC some 19 years ago, the marketplace was pretty confusing.
There were lots manufacturers and even more models - IBM-compatibles, Commodore 64s and Amigas, Apple IIs and Macs, Radio Shack TRS-80s, Timex-Sinclairs, Atari STs and plenty that I've forgotten.
They all used different operating systems, and all were incompatible with one another. So buying a PC was a bit like committing to marriage.
Today it's much simpler. There are Windows PCs and Macs, period. That should make things easier, but it hasn't. That's because there are more models than ever, with more options - particularly in the Windows PC world. That's one reason why holiday PC shopping is still a major source of angst.
Relax. There aren't many bad PCs out there - and you can't tell them from the outside, anyway. For most of us, the hardest choice is desktop PC vs. laptop, or LCD monitor vs. the tube.
Desktops offer the best price-performance ratio and greatest flexibility because they have room for additional components inside the case. If you want to add a hard drive, a DVD-burner, TV tuner card or wireless network adapter, you can do it less expensively and get better performance with internal components.
If you don't like opening the case to install these gadgets, you can always buy external drives, network adapters and so forth. But they're more expensive, clutter up your desktop and might not perform quite as well as internal components.
A handful of manufacturers are trying to get around the "bulk" problem of traditional desktops by building thinner system units with vertically mounted CD or DVD drives. The main problem with these models is reduced expandability, but in cramped quarters a few extra inches of space go a long way.
Other PC makers are getting rid of the "box" altogether by building one-piece computers that combine the system unit and a liquid crystal display monitor in one thin package, like a laptop turned inside out. The most notable is Apple's elegant new iMac - the only choice in the consumer-priced lineup for fans of the Mac operating system, but a superb piece of industrial engineering.
In the PC world, Gateway, IBM, Sony and other manufacturers make one-piece units, but they're relatively expensive and lack expandability. Unless you're really short on space, stick with a standard desktop computer. Otherwise, consider a laptop with a 15-inch (or larger) screen and take advantage of its portability when you need it.
Window-shopping in stores and online, I've been amazed at how much horsepower and how many features are packed into this new crop of desktop machines. Even PC shopping veterans might feel overwhelmed by the variety models priced within a few hundred dollars of one another. One might have a DVD burner, while another has a faster processor, a bigger hard drive, more USB ports or a media card reader.
That said, you'll find three general classes of desktops.
At the low end are basic machines in the $500 to $800 range, including a monitor. Most have Intel's Celeron or Pentium 4 processor, or AMD's Athlon XP, 256 to 512 megabytes of memory and 60- to 120-gigabyte hard drives. Even the cheapest have more than enough horsepower to deal with word processing, e-mail, Web browsing, music and handling financial records - without breaking a sweat. Most will also handle digital photography - but don't have the speed or graphics punch for serious video editing or gaming.
A step up are "multimedia" PCs, in the $800 to $1,800 range. They have faster processors, more advanced "motherboards" (the main circuit board), faster graphics adapters for gaming and watching movies, DVD burners and other goodies. Some have circuitry that can handle Dolby 5.1 surround sound.
If you're going to spend more than $1,800, you're either a hard-core gamer, professional video producer, or just someone who likes to brag about owning the latest and greatest. There's a stiff premium for cutting-edge hardware, and most big-box retailers carry very little inventory in this price range. To get a fully tricked-out gaming monster (with liquid cooling, a titanium case and a neon-lit interior) you'll have to visit high-end gaming specialists such as Falcon Northwest, Alienware or Polywell online. You can easily blow three to four grand on one of these babies.
If this isn't confusing enough, retailers are stocking more so-called "Media Center Edition" PCs. These couch-potato specials run a special version of Microsoft Windows designed for display on a television set - with a remote control to match. Most have TV tuners and software that turns the PC into a personal video recorder (a la TiVo). They'll also serve as media hubs that can play audio and video stored on other machines in a home network.