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good buys are out there for PC shoppers

December 02, 2004|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

IF YOU'RE READY for that holiday rite known as PC shopping, don't flinch. There are plenty of good, inexpensive computers on the market, and buying one doesn't have to be an exercise in frustration.

For as little as $600, you can get a perfectly good system to handle the basics - word processing, Web browsing, e-mail and financial record-keeping. For a few hundred dollars more, you'll get a system that's fine for digital photography, music and other forms of entertainment.

Just remember that PCs are a lot like cars - they start off with basic equipment and add options. And just like a car, a PC has a sticker - on the shelf or the side of the box - that tells you exactly what's under the hood. If you order online, you can often build your own sticker.

So let's get down to details and discuss what you'll see on that sticker - so you can decide exactly how much PC to buy.

MICROPROCESSOR: Also known as the Central Processing Unit or CPU, the microprocessor is the heart of a computer - the chip that does the computing. The faster and more sophisticated the processor, the better a PC will run - within limits.

If your PC usage is limited to the basics, the fastest processor on the market won't do it much better than the slowest. On the other hand, if you're shopping for a serious gamer or budding video producer, a fast CPU is definitely worth the expense.

Processors are labeled by manufacturer, model and speed - measured in gigahertz, or billions of cycles per second.

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

To confuse things in time for Christmas, Intel has relabeled its Pentium line with three-digit model numbers that take into account factors other than pure clock speed. These include the chip's architecture, the size of the on-board memory cache, and the speed of the front-side "bus," which carries data between the CPU and other key components.

This has made life harder for shoppers, especially when Intel's Web site says that "processor numbers are ... not a measurement of performance." Luckily, most manufacturers still mention processor speed in advertising and on stickers.

Intel's main competitors are AMD Athlon 64 and Athlon XP chips, which are roughly equivalent to higher and lower levels of the P4. Athlons are compatible with Intel chips, so it doesn't matter which manufacturer's CPU you buy if they're within the same performance range.

P4 chips run faster than Athlons, but Athlons get more work done with each clock cycle, so you can't compare that directly. Athlon uses chip numbers, which are roughly multiples of the equivalent Intel clock speed. So an Intel P4 running at 3.2 GHz and an Athlon XP 3200 will provide similar performance.

For basic PC use, even a Celeron in the 2-GHz range will do fine. If you're interested in multimedia, games, or digital video, go with a P4 in the 2.8- to 3.2-GHz range or equivalent Athlon. You'll pay a stiff premium for faster chips, so unless you're a crazed gamer or you're willing to pay for bragging rights, stay away from the fastest CPUs.

MEMORY: Often referred to collectively as RAM (random access memory), these chips 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 megabytes and 512 MB if you can afford it. Serious digital photographers and video buffs may want more.

Most computers use a type of RAM known as DDR (double data rate). More advanced machines use something called dual channel memory, known as DDR2. You might notice the difference if you're a power freak.

HARD DISK STORAGE: Often confused with RAM, your computer's hard drive stores programs and data permanently - and constantly feeds and retrieves data from the CPU when the machine is turned on. Hard drive capacity is measured in gigabytes, or billions of bytes. You want a drive that's big enough to hold all your stuff and fast enough to move around without slowing down the machine's operation.

Luckily, hard disk storage is dirt cheap. For general-purpose computing, 40 gigabytes is fine, while an 80-gig drive will store plenty of music and photos. But if you're into video, look for at least 160 gigabytes. For the best multimedia performance, look for a drive labeled Ultra-ATA 133, or even better, one that uses the new Serial ATA standard (you'll pay for it).

VIDEO: Your computer's video circuitry produces the image on the monitor. For basic computing, whatever comes with the PC is likely to be fine. Lower-end machines generally use Intel video circuitry built into the main circuit board. This setup usually "shares" part of the computer's main memory, which might degrade performance. Avoid it if you're interested in serious digital photography, video or gaming.

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