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Add-ons to consider

photo
[Times photo: Janel Schroeder]
Kelly Bell, who has never owned a computer, talks with salesman Ray Duncan about what features she wants at a Circuit City electronics store in Port Richey. Computer-buying doesn’t stop with the CPU and monitor. Computer users often want to add printers and other storage devices to their systems.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 13, 2000


You've bought your computer. Now, should you buy a CD "burner'? A scanner? A digital camera?

Once you've figured out what you're looking for in a computer, you can start fretting over the devices that get stuffed inside or plugged into it. These are known as "peripherals." Here's a guide to your options:

CD-ROM vs. DVD-ROM vs. CD-RW

Most software today comes on CD-ROMs (compact disk, read-only memory), shiny disks that hold a lot more data than old floppy disks. But consumers have a choice when it comes to how to get that software from the disk onto their hard drives, and whether they want to watch movies or make disks.

CD-ROM: These drives only read compact discs, and they will be listed in ads with a number, say, 32X. The higher the number, the faster it is and the better it will be.

DVD-ROM: It stands for digital versatile disc, read-only memory. DVD drives can read CD-ROMs, as well as DVD discs. It would be the best choice for people interested in watching movies on their computer.

CD-RW: The new kid on the block for home computers, the CD-RW can read CD-ROM disks, as well as record disks to back up software, store photos or make music CDs.

"In years past, (CD-RW) really was expensive and slow," said Alan Stafford, senior editor at PC World magazine. "But now it competes with Zip drives on speed and it's a lot more flexible."

Stafford suggests that people check the CD-RW speed on various systems. Some computermakers, he said, don't offer the fastest models in basic configurations and an upgrade probably won't add much to the system's cost.

Models can cost as little as $100, with top models running $200 to $350. Among the top models rated recently by PC World were the Plextor PlexWriter and the Sony Spressa Professional.

Printers

Computers have not yet produced the paperless society, so a printer is still a vital piece of equipment. It's not just for documents, either, as more people want to print photos that they've scanned into computers, snapped with digital cameras or captured off the Web.

The overwhelming choice for home systems is an inkjet printer. A laser printer can produce crisper text in black and white if that's all you're interested in, but color laser printers remain too expensive for most consumers.

Some computer systems come with a printer. Those generally will be lower quality and slower than others available, but they may be suitable for your needs. If not, inkjet printer prices have plummeted in recent years, with some adequate models selling for less than $100.

While choosing a printer might seem easy, consumers should look for key features.

"You definitely want one with a separate black cartridge and a separate color cartridge," said Tracey Capen, executive reviews editor at PC World.

Consumers also need to be wary of manufacturers' claims on photo-quality printers, particularly whether your favorite photos will fade over time. "The jury is still out on the durability of photo quality printing," Capen said. "I wouldn't believe anyone's claims on print durability."

PC World recently rated the Lexmark Z52 Color Jetprinter ($179) and the HP DeskJet 932C ($199) among the top models it tested.

Scanners

For those who want to bring photos and images from many sources into their computer, a scanner is a must. And it also can serve as a color copier.

Scanners, like most high-tech equipment, have gotten better and cheaper in recent years, with some models selling for less than $100 and better models in the $150-to-$300 range.

"Most scanner manufacturers have been able to consolidate parts inside the scanner," PC World's Stafford said. "They can do more with less and get better quality. They're just not made as well" as they used to be.

The key elements for consumers to consider when choosing a scanner include resolution, or dots per inch (dpi). That will show up in specifications such as 600 X 1200, which is common for mid-range scanners. The higher the number, the more dots and the better the quality. More expensive scanners will have higher resolution, but scanning an 8-by-10 photo at 1200 resolution can produce a digital image that is 300 megabytes. It won't take too many of those to fill up a hard drive.

Other items to look for are a USB (Universal Serial Bus) connection, which makes it easier to plug in and use; at least 36-bit color depth; "one-pass" scanning, which speeds the process; a CCD sensor; and a scan area larger than 8.5 by 11.7 inches if you want it to handle larger photos or documents.

Among the models getting top ratings from PC World recently: the Epson Perfection 1200S ($299), the Microtek ScanMaker V6 USL ($149) and the Umax Astra 3400 ($99).

Storage

Even though some new computers come with hard drives with a huge 40 gigabytes of space, that's not always the case.

Storage devices such as Zip drives, Jaz drives and CD-RW recorders allow people to store music, photo and data files, as well as make backups of important files in case the computer crashes.

Zip drives that use 250-megabyte disks cost about $180, with the disks about $17 each; a 100-megabyte drive goes for about $100, with disks about $10 each. The trick here is upgrading. A 250MB drive can handle both kinds of disks; a 100MB drive can handle only 100MB disks.

A Jaz drive increases the amount of storage available, as well as the cost. A Jaz disk can hold up to 2 gigabytes of data, but the drives cost more than $200 and the disks can run $100 each.

Digital cameras

You've heard so much about digital photography and, with a new computer, you're ready to click away.

Digital photography is another area where quality is up and prices down, though true aficionados won't concede that it is better than using film.

Entry-level cameras, with specifications that were top of the line a couple of years ago, start at about $300. If you're interested in basic photography and not making elaborate 8-by-10 prints, some of these models may be fine for you. There are even some less expensive models intended for children.

Getting into more serious photography means more pixels, which determine how large you can print a photo. Some top models selling in the $800-to-$1,000 range have 3-megapixel, or 3-million pixel, capabilities.

If you buy a digital camera, you'll need accessories. Digital cameras eat batteries, so buying rechargeable batteries is a good idea. You'll also need software to edit your photos, if it doesn't come with the camera.

Video

One of the big items pushed by computermakers this year is digital video editing. Take your home videos, edit them, add special effects and impress family and friends.

Computers such as the iMac by Apple and Sony's Vaio have gone after the video editing market, and Microsoft included video editing functions in its recently released Windows Me operating system.

Software is available for older computers, and people who have older camcorders may need special equipment to convert their analog tapes into a digital format.

Another world of video getting attention is Webcams. These small cameras start at about $40 and usually are easy to install. It allows you to share live video over the Internet as you work at the computer, make a Net phone call or show off the kids to relatives. The quality may be the fuzzy video equivalent of those snapshots you take in a booth at the mall, but it's still fun.

Mouse

The lowly computer mouse is getting fancy.

One is included when you buy a computer. But most of those use a rubber ball that interprets the movements of the mouse into movements of the arrow or cursor on screen.

Problems arise when the ball picks up dust and dirt, making movement jerky or impossible, and cleaning the device never seems to help.

Technology to the rescue. Many companies offer devices that work with optical sensors, moving the cursor by using light beams as the mouse glides over any surface.

The devices start at about $50, and are well worth the investment.

Etc.

The shopping cart is getting full. But let's not forget a few other things you may need to get your system up and running smoothly.

Cables: If you buy a printer, it may not include the cable you'll need to connect it to the computer. If not, buy one for about $10 (and double-check to make sure it's the right type to work with the printer).

Surge protector: It's an absolute must in Florida, where storms can wreak havoc. A surge protector will help prevent damage to sensitive parts when the power flickers, though a direct lightning hit likely will mean fried equipment. It should include protection for your phone line as well if you connect it to the computer. Price is no guarantee of quality, so check the warranty to see how much the manufacturer will pay if it doesn't do the job and your equipment is damaged.

An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) gives more security. It keeps the computer running for a few minutes after the power goes out so a user can save data and turn off the computer properly. But they cost more, with prices starting at about $60 and going up with the more time they give the user.

Disks: It may seem silly, but many people forget to buy disks for their floppy, Zip or other removable drive.

- Compiled by Times Personal Technology Editor Dave Gussow, including information from Times wires.

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