Match computer to your needs


Nearly all are better now

a laptop will please many

December 06, 2007|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

Today's computer is a year-round home and business appliance - more like a fridge or dishwasher than a video game console. But retailers still sell a disproportionate number around the holidays.

This year, as usual, the news for buyers is good: Computers are more powerful, more useful and more fun than ever. They're cheaper, too, although margins are so tight that it's hard to see low-end PC prices going much lower than they are today.

Before we discuss the details of computer shopping, let's get one thing out of the way: It doesn't necessarily matter which brand of PC you buy. In the course of supplying the family with PCs and feeding my silicon habit for 20-plus years, I've bought or used Dells, IBMs, Compaqs, HPs, eMachines, Gateways, Toshibas, Macs and a variety of generic clones. Some were great and some were dogs.

If you believe past performance can predict the future, you'll find the best reliability ratings at PC Magazine ( and Consumer Reports (

That said, the most important buying issue is matching the PC to your needs. But even that's easy today. The power curve is so advanced that any new machine can handle the basic chores: Web browsing, e-mail, word processing, financial recordkeeping and business presentations. Ditto for playing music and videos or editing digital photos. In fact, the computer my younger son took to college in 2001 can still do all those things.

For serious digital photo or video editing, you will need a beefier machine with a faster processor, more memory, increased hard disk space and advanced video adapter. For high-end gaming, you'll need even more of all of these. Or, you might want to add a TV tuner and turn your PC into the center of a home or dormitory room theater.

With the exception of gaming, none of these activities will break the bank. If you're buying a PC for a gamer, don't sweat the details. He'll know what he wants: Just ask him how big a check to write.

For those who require less exalted equipment, capable desktop computers are available for $600 to $1,200, with a monitor. Capable laptops are a few hundred dollars more.

Which brings me to the first decision: laptop or desktop? I lean toward laptops these days for general use. Once underpowered and overpriced, with cramped keyboards and screens, laptops were the product of a dozen compromises.

Today, they're just PCs that don't occupy much real estate. Thanks to large, bright, inexpensive liquid crystal displays - which in turn permit full-size keyboards - laptops are comfortable enough for everyday use, with portability when you need it.

If you want a bigger screen and keyboard than the laptop provides, you can buy a separate keyboard and monitor, hook them up and slide the computer over to a corner of your desk. For additional hard drive storage and backup, you can add up a fast, external USB drive. In fact, the only component you might seriously want to upgrade that you can't add to a laptop machine is the video adapter. You're stuck with what you buy.

That said, desktop computers are still cheaper than laptops if you're on a budget and don't need portability. They're easier and cheaper to upgrade than laptops, and they're less likely to have problems. Nor are they as easy to steal or step on in a dorm room. Spill beer on a desktop keyboard and you're out 25 bucks. Spill beer on a laptop keyboard and you're out a computer.

Assuming that you take my advice and choose portability, there are three basic kinds of laptops.

The cheapest are general purpose machines, which typically have 15-inch diagonal screens and weigh 6 to 8 pounds. Their major drawback is often short battery life because manufacturers shave costs by using less-efficient processors, support chips and batteries.

For folks who occasionally lug a laptop from a desk at home to a desk at work, they're a good choice. In my pre-Christmas perusals, I've seen some great bargains on well-equipped machines in this category for $800 to $900.

If you or your giftee frequently travel with a computer - or lug one from class to class - consider a lightweight road warrior.

Nudging the scales at 4 to 5 pounds, with 12- or 13-inch screens and enough battery power to compute on a coast-to-coast flight, they sacrifice some comfort for portability - but not a whole lot.

Lightweight laptops are more expensive than middle-of-the-road models - particularly if they have CD or DVD drives. Figure $1,100 to $1,600 for mid-scale models - and lots more for high-end CPUs, fancy sound and other goodies.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are "desktop replacement" machines - monsters with 17-inch screens, fast processors, heavy-duty video adapters for games and multimedia titles, copious hard drives, sophisticated sound cards, built-in or add-on TV tuners, and so forth.

No one expects you to lug one of these around every day - unless you work out regularly or you're a gamer who migrates from one LAN party to another.

Because they make no attempt to compromise on performance or comfort, these giants will put a dent in your pocketbook, too. Figure $1,800 to $2,000 for starters - and the price shoots up from there.

One necessary accessory for any laptop that you plan to use on the road is an extended warranty. Laptops are more prone to breakdowns than desktop PCs, and you'll offset the cost of most three-year warranties with a single repair.

Get an accidental damage rider, too, if your manufacturer offers one.

A full extended-warranty package will add $250 to $400 to the cost of a laptop, but it's worth the investment.

Next week, we'll discuss how to pick exactly the right PC for your favorite user - component by component.

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