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Buying a PC

Buying the fastest machine may not be what you need.


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 13, 2000

It's a buyer's market for computers. Consumers can buy anything from a home computer that costs several hundred dollars to a dream machine that carries a price tag in the thousands.

As we found last year, even the least-expensive computers are fast and powerful enough to perform more than adequately for most home computer users. People who want the latest and greatest cutting-edge technology or who need maximum speed and power will find it in machines that run incredibly fast.

The cycle used to be that increasingly fast hardware soon was followed by increasingly sophisticated software that pushed that hardware to the limit. Now, the hardware gets faster each year, but even some of the more demanding software programs used by typical home computer owners have hit a plateau, running just fine on low-end machines.

I'm not saying that there isn't a difference between the low- and high-end computers and that there's no need for the more powerful and capable machines.

But the good news is that for most home computer users running typical applications such as Microsoft Office, browsing the Internet, sending e-mail and processing digital photos, even the low-end, less expensive systems will do the job just fine.

Here are some of the options to consider at each price level.

* * *

Under $1,400: Though prices have crept up, economy systems are faster than they were last year and still a bargain.

This price range offers more possibilities than it did a year ago, mainly because the higher-end Celeron and lower-end Pentium III chips available in these machines are closer in performance.

Bear with me for the next three paragraphs while I lay out some specifications, or check the glossary if you want to translate as you go.

The central processing unit (CPU) of these least expensive PCs most likely will have a 566-megahertz (MHz) Celeron chip from Intel or the equivalent from rival AMD. Most will come with 64 megabytes (MB) of random access memory (RAM). Don't buy anything less. A PC with 32 MB of RAM will be slow regardless of how fast its processor is.

Expect to spend between $600 and $800 for a PC with a 15-inch monitor, a 4 MB or 8 MB AGP video adapter, a 7.5-gigabyte (GB) hard drive, sound card, speakers and CD-ROM drive.

A phone modem (V.90/56K) is usually standard equipment on any PC. If your Internet connection will be a faster cable modem or digital subscriber line (DSL), you may not need a 56K modem for anything other than sending faxes.

The tech jargon aside, you will find a PC in this range to be more than adequate for a variety of programs, from running Microsoft Office, browsing the Internet and processing digital photos to playing games. And although the price of the low-end PCs has crept up a little this year, they are more powerful than last year's offerings at this range and still an excellent bargain.

So do you really need to spend more money on a PC? There are reasons why you may want to move up the ladder from the base computer we've just described.

You can start by adding memory, since 64 MB is only adequate. An additional $70 to $100 for an extra 64 MB (for a total of 128 MB) will be money well spent. It's where you'll get the most bang for the buck on any investment for your PC. If you use Windows 2000 Professional rather than the Windows Me that comes standard on most PCs, I recommend 256 MB of RAM.

The 7.5GB hard drive could limit your activities, especially if you plan to do a lot of work with digital photography. Digital photos and videos take up a lot of space. An additional $75 or so should bump the hard drive up to 15GB or 20GB.

And there are many reasons for "burning," or making, your own CDs, including backing up data and making music CDs. An additional $150 should be enough to add a compact disc-rewriteable, or CD-RW, for make-your-own CDs.

With these additions, we're creeping up to the next level of PCs, and we haven't even upgraded the 15-inch monitor that comes with many lower-end PCs.

* * *

$1,400 to $2,400: Mid-range PCs are ready for digital photo processing and Web graphics.

PCs in the mid-range price, such as Gateway’s GP7-800, should have chips that run at 800MHz and faster.
In this price range, you'll find some high-end Celeron microprocessors, as well as Intel's main chip, the Pentium III in the 800MHz-to-900MHz range.

I recommend going with a Pentium III and leaving the Celeron behind. Even though the Celeron performs well and at higher speeds will be more than adequate for most software applications, at this price you need to consider the other benefits of the Pentium III, such as the extra cache (which speeds processing) and the faster system bus (which moves data to and from main memory). The Celeron system bus runs at 66MHz, while the Pentium III system bus runs at 100MHz to 133MHz. The difference this makes will vary, but at this price you want it anyway.

Random access memory (RAM) is a constant: The more the better. The same rules apply: 64 MB is bare minimum, and in this price range, you should look for a system that comes with at least 128 MB. Make sure you get a configuration that includes room to add more RAM later.

You can expect hard drives ranging from 15GB to 40GB. Systems in this range should come with the Ultra ATA-100 controller for faster disk access. And systems at the higher end of this range should come with disk drives that run at 7200 RPM (revolutions per minute); faster is better.

A CD-RW drive should be standard in this price range, or perhaps even a DVD-ROM drive (which has a higher capacity than a CD-ROM). The AGP graphics adapter should have at least 16MB to 32MB of RAM.

Upgrades are cheap. For an extra $50 you should be able to move up to a 32MB video card, which I recommend if you do advanced gaming or graphics design work. The more video RAM, the less the CPU needs to work. An extra $120 also should take you from the 17-inch monitor that usually is standard in this range to a 19-inch monitor. The bigger the monitor, the better the viewing at high resolutions. Before getting a big monitor, make sure you have room on your desk for it.

If you'll be connecting to the Internet through a cable modem or DSL hookup, an additional $50 would buy a network interface card, if it is not included. On the other hand, some cable modem providers throw in a free card as part of the installation.

The sound card should be good quality, including a subwoofer that adds deep bass sounds. If that's not included as standard, it shouldn't cost more than $50 to upgrade. It will be money well spent if audio quality means anything to you.

PCs configured this way will make easy work of advanced digital photography editing and processing, Web development and just about anything else you can throw at it.

* * *

Above $2,400: High-end systems can handle digital video and just about any other job.

PCs costing above $2,400, such as the Dell OptiPlex GX300, should come with at least 128MB of RAM.
Not too long ago, we would be talking about a bare-bones machine starting at $2,000. Now $2,000 gives you a powerhouse, a trend we hope continues. But for those seeking even more, computer companies have something to oblige.

PCs in this range should run on chips at the 1-gigahertz (GHz) level. Don't expect less than 128 megabytes of RAM, and maybe even 256MB. A 64MB video adapter with a 17-inch monitor should be standard at the bottom end of this range, as well as a 60GB-to-70GB hard drive with an ATA-100 controller and spinning at 7200 RPM.

In this price range, you may want to wait until the new Pentium 4 chip is introduced, possibly within weeks.

It promises some impressive performance improvements. Among them: a 1.4GHz processor, 144 new instructions, faster cache memory and a 400MHz system bus that will help provide enhanced performance for tasks such as real-time video encoding, 3-D visualization design and speech recognition.

On this high-end dream machine, both a CD-RW and a DVD/CD-ROM should be standard equipment. The sound card should be high-quality 32 bit, with Wave-Table synthesis, and surround sound capable. The speakers should include a powerful subwoofer. If you will be using Windows 2000, I recommend 256MB of RAM.

Also include a network interface card (about $50). Why would you buy such a fast machine only to squeeze through a slow 56K modem and a phone line? Cable modem or DSL is a much better alternative, and it requires the network card.

If you're buying a PC for video editing, make sure it has the IEEE 1394, or FireWire, connector. It's similar to the Universal Serial Bus that has become popular in the past few years, but much faster. Many digital video recorders come with an IEEE 1394 connector. While we're at it, another $150 will buy a 250MB Zip drive, which is a great alternative for backup and storage of limited amounts of data.

Still have some money left? Consider an LCD display. This will add at least $600 above what you'd pay for a traditional monitor, but the sharpness and clarity of these flat screens are stunning. Keep in mind that a 15-inch LCD flat display is equivalent to a 17-inch CRT monitor. Aside from the visual improvements, you have more options on where to put the PC because you need less space for for the LCD display.

PCs in this top range will be able to run anything out there, and with tremendous speed and response. They should stay ahead of the obsolescence curve for some time.

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