PC prices, performance benefit purchasers

June 02, 2005|By Mike Himowitz

COMPUTER BUYERS shopping for themselves or their graduates this years have plenty to be happy about: Prices are still shrinking, and performance is still increasing.

Last week, we talked about processors and internal memory, the two most important items on the PC sticker. Today we'll look at options that determine whether the PC you buy is the digital equivalent of a Toyota Corolla or a Dodge Viper.

Hard-drive storage: Often confused with internal memory, the hard drive is where your computer stores programs and data permanently. When it's running, your computer is constantly reading from and writing to the hard drive. So you need a drive big enough to store all your stuff and fast enough to move it around.

Hard drive capacity is measures in gigabytes (GB). A gigabyte is enough space to store the text of 1,000 average novels, about 800 typical digital photos, 300 album tracks in MP3 music format, or about an hour of recorded TV.

Even bargain-basement machines come with 80-GB drives these days, far more space than anyone needs for basic computing - even with digital photos and a music collection. However, serious video work - either creating it or recording TV programs - will eat up as much storage as you can buy. Look for a PC with 160-GB drive or better.

Multimedia drives: All computers come with some form of CD or DVD drive. They're used to install new programs, back up data, and ultimately to turn your PC into an entertainment center. Here's what the alphabet soup on the sticker means:

CD-RW. The absolute minimum you'll need. These drives can create data and audio CDs that are permanent or rewritable. They're critical for backing up important data.

DVD/CD-RW. The best value for the dollar unless you're a budding movie producer. In addition to creating CDs, these drives can play (but not record) DVD movies or video created by users with DVD burners. Only a few dollars more than pure CD-RW drives, their entertainment value is well worth the premium, particularly in a laptop.

DVD-RW/DVD+RW. These drives can create DVDs as well as CDs, and you'll need one to be a true movie impresario. DVDs also store six times as much data as regular CDs - important for backing up large hard drives.

Note the plus and minus sign at the beginning of the previous paragraph. They represent different and incompatible methods of making rewritable CDs - and an example of industry stupidity. Today, both kinds of drives will make play-only DVDs that work in most standalone players. And newer drives support minus and plus standards for rewritable DVDs. If you can't find a dual-format drive on a PC you like, go for a DVD-R (that's the minus sign). Avoid any drive that uses only the plus format.

New to the mass market this years is the dual- or double-layer DVD writer. This drive can store far more data or video on a DVD than first-generation drives - if you can find dual-layer disks and you're willing to pay a premium for them. Nice to have, but not a deal-breaker.

Audio: PCs have replaced traditional stereo systems in many college dorm rooms, largely because they can play audio CDs and store literally thousands of digital MP3 files on their hard drives. Most PCs come with built-in audio circuitry that does a creditable job of driving decent PC speakers. The quality won't satisfy audiophiles, but then, nothing does.

More advanced computer sound cards support theater-style surround sound (such as Dolby 5.1), which is important for movie and game buffs looking for a 360-degree experience. For the best sound output - with far better audio input for recording - look for a machine that has a Sound Blaster Audigy or Turtle Beach audio circuitry.

In terms of audio quality, you'll get the best bang for the buck with a good set of speakers. For music, a system with two satellite speakers and a subwoofer for bass notes will do fine. But for surround sound movies and games, you'll need a system with at least two additional speakers.

Video: Your computer's video adapter produces the image on your monitor. Most lower-end PCs have video adapters from Intel built into the motherboard - the computer's main circiut board. If you're a basic computer user, that's fine - the only downside is that these adapters often use part of the PC's main memory to store images. It's called "shared" memory and you'll see it noted on the sticker.

Shared memory slows video response and eats up RAM you might need for other programs. If you find yourself otherwise attracted to a machine that uses it, make sure the computer has at least 512 megabytes (MB) of main memory - so there's enough to share.

For gaming or video production, find a PC with a graphics adapter from nVidia, ATI or another manufacturer with at least 128 MB of dedicated memory. You might also look for one with a "TV out" port, which allows you to play video on your TV set.

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