The basics to consider in buying a new PC

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Basics to consider in buying a new PC

December 08, 2005|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

If you're shopping for a computer this holiday season, it's probably not the first time. In fact, for anyone who's read this annual column as long as I've been writing it (about 20 years), this may be your fifth or sixth new PC.

Still, computers seem to generate more anxiety than any other purchase (although HDTVs are closing in). So once again I can report the good news: Computers are cheaper, more powerful and loaded with more multimedia goodies than ever.

Last week, we discussed the cream of this crop - PCs running Microsoft's Windows Media Center Edition, which turns a PC into a television-centric digital video recorder and music player. Today we'll talk about more prosaic machines, and how to shop for one.

First, think about how you want to use your PC.

For basic chores - which include Web browsing, e-mail, word processing, financial recordkeeping, playing music and possibly digital photography - almost any PC will do. That ranges from the sub-$500 bargain boxes to a $4,000 screamer with a custom candy-red case that boasts a hand-colored portrait of Darth Vader, a turbocharged processor and a liquid cooling system to keep it from setting your house on fire.

As with a car, you can tell what's under the hood of a computer by what's on the sticker outside - either on the box or a label on the store shelf. If you buy online from Dell, Gateway or another custom builder, you can create your own sticker.

This week we'll deal with the basics of sticker shopping. Next week, the goodies.

Microprocessor:

The heart of any computer is its microprocessor, also known as the CPU, or central processing unit. This chip does the real computing. Its design and speed determine how well your computer runs and what you can do with it.

Virtually all Windows computers use a variant of the Intel Pentium 4 processor, or its rival from Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), the Athlon 64.

Lower-end machines use Intel's somewhat less-powerful Celeron processor - a slower but still quite capable version of the Pentium 4.

And entry-level AMD computers are likely to have processors known as Semprons. The processor will always be noted at the top of the sticker.

Pentium 4/Celeron and Athlon/Sempron chips run the same Windows operating system and programs. AMD-equipped computers tend to be slightly less expensive than comparable Intel machines. But that said, both companies have released so many variations and models of their basic processors that it's hard to tell exactly what to buy.

If your favorite computer user wants a high-end machine that can handle multiple jobs (such as rendering video while he's surfing the Web and playing network Doom), look for an Intel Pentium D or Athlon 64 X2 chip.

These have dual cores - meaning there are actually two processors on each chip. They're great for programs that take advantage of their capability, but don't offer much improvement for basic computing. Intel's Pentium EE (Extreme Edition) is an even hotter version designed specifically for gamers. Just remember that you'll pay a real premium for these chips. If you're not into gaming or serious video editing, they're expensive overkill.

Somewhere closer to the range of normal computing, the standard Pentium 4 and Athlon 64 are good bets. These are labeled by model number and speed, measured in gigahertz (GHz), or billions of cycles per second.

Intel model numbers in the 600 range deliver somewhat better performance than 500 models of the same speed rating. That's because they support hyperthreading - another trick that allows faster execution of programs designed for it, such as Adobe Photoshop. They'll also be more expensive.

AMD processors have numbers in the 2000 to 3800 range. The higher the number, the faster the chip. It's hard to make an exact comparison of CPU speed between Athlon and Pentium 4 chips. That's because AMD's processors get the same amount of work done at lower clock speeds. But the higher the AMD number, the faster the computer.

And now the dirty little secret - CPUs have become so fast and powerful that PCs with upper-level Celeron and Sempron chips are all anyone needs for basic computing. If that's what you do, spend the extra dough on more memory or buy a 19-inch flat-panel monitor and enjoy the view.

Front side bus

Processor type and speed are only part of what determines a computer's performance. The sophistication of the supporting chip set and the PC's overall, internal communication speed can be just as important.

One measurement you'll see tossed around, particularly on Intel-based systems, is the speed of the front side bus (FSB). This is the computer's main internal data path, connecting the microprocessor, supporting chip set, memory and video circuitry.

Its speed is measured in megahertz (MHz). The fastest, most expensive machines have an 800 MHz FSB. Slower, less expensive machines may have a bus speed of 533 MHz, 400 MHz or less.

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